COLLECTIVE ACTION SITUATED IN VIRTUAL WORLDS
For the first time in the history of collective action, the offline world has experienced a virtually organized and enacted union strike. While this was the first publicly noticed political action in a virtual world, others have been going on for several years now. As virtual worlds continue to grow in popularity, this type of protest of action becomes more common. The issues experienced by the different groups involved in the virtual protest actions bring to light several new questions about the increased use of technology in protest movements. In particular, what role does technology play in social protest movements in virtual environments? Although the study of protest and protest movements has a long history spanning decades of research, the virtualization of these protests creates opportunity for change in some of the fundamental aspects and assumptions of protest actions. This large question encompasses many smaller pieces including: “In what ways does technology use change many of the accepted standards for how a protest or collective action is organized?” However, it is hard to narrow the many aspects of technology use and virtual protest into only a few questions and refinement of the research questions is inevitable in the future.
The data for analyzing these questions were drawn from two cases of protest actions in virtual worlds: a labor strike within Second Life and a corruption scandal in EVE Online. These two cases exemplify the differences in technology use and virtual world interaction that are often common in virtual world protests. In order to complete this study, mixed qualitative methods were used. The purpose of mixing methods was to increase validity and to cover the many aspects of protest in a virtual world. Case studies were used to develop fully-fleshed examples of virtual world protests. Computer-mediated discourse analysis of forum threads, and blogs relating to the case studies were used both to develop commentary from actual participants and a theory of how knowledge regarding the process of a virtual world protest. Five additional of interviews were conducted with protest organizers in order to better articulate the planning and changes which virtual world protest engendered.
From the analysis of the collected data, a new framework for understanding how the process of virtualization changes protests emerged. A conceptual kit of eleven dimensions were identified as important to virtual world protests: degree of virtualization, legality, shared identity, barriers to entry, cost of information, repression response, influence, message diffusion, framing, anonymity, and organization flexibility. Each of these dimensions underwent alterations when converted to use in a virtual world, and is discussed in detail before a synthesis of all variables is achieved.
In 2007, the offline world experienced for the first time a virtually organized and virtually enacted union strike. This strike against IBM was fought in Second Life and caught the attention of not only labor activists worldwide, but also the international and business media. It was followed, only months later, by a second labor strike meant to build on the momentum of the first. While this was the first publicly noted collective action in a virtual world, other protests have happened for almost as long as virtual worlds have been in existence. Some, like the sit-in held within There.com and the two Second Life strikes, were tied to events in the offline world. Others, like the violent takeovers and protests of World of Warcraft, EVE Online, and Ultima Online, can only be explained through the context and of the worlds in which they occurred. One thing has remained consistent within every virtual world that has gained a moderate level of popularity: they experience some type of collective action.
Despite the ubiquity of these phenomena, collective action in virtual worlds has only recently begun receiving attention from both the academic sphere as well as from the mass media. Theorists have just put forward the idea of collective action online and frequently resort to using theories that were developed for offline collective action to explain uniquely online phenomena (McCaughey and Ayers 2003). It is understood that these worlds engage their users in a level of emersion that approximates the offline world in terms of complexity and interactivity. By bridging the gap between the offline and online, users can develop this connection to transfer social processes, beliefs, and habits into the virtual world where the social sphere is often lacking. This transfer brings along with it all the complications and struggles of the offline world since the social concepts are not easily divested of their usual context. When many actors within the virtual world are struggling with the process of building an online sphere, using their own interpretation of what it means to be social in a virtual space, contention and collective action becomes inevitable. Only through understanding the nature of collective action in virtual worlds can new theories and possibilities for the study of virtual worlds be expanded for future researchers.
In order to address this need, this study asked the question, “How does the virtualization of collective action repertoires change how collective action is organized and enacted?” Due to the general nature of this question there are several sub-questions which seek to break down this larger problem into its constituent parts in order to better grapple with the complexity of the context. In particular, these sub-questions focus on how do the technological affordances of a virtual world change actions and reactions and how does the media play a role in the perception and credibility of the protest? The goal of examining this question was to engage with two cases of virtual world protest and conduct interviews with the participants of both protests so that these cases may highlight the differences that exist between the developed theoretical framework and existing theories of offline collective action. Both these questions, and the goals behind them, aim to address not only the current state of virtual world protest, but to also develop a theoretical framework from which future research may proceed.
Virtual worlds epitomize a new realm of self-representation. These worlds have taken the advances of technology within highly developed societies and applied them to the realm of entertainment through video games but with an added form of social interaction. The size and social complexity of virtual worlds allows their users to develop new identities that are difficult to experience in the offline world (Turkle 1997). The power and availability of common computers and high speed internet, along with the cheap overall cost of virtual world software, make it possible to access these technologies in many different places and times. For example, Second Life can be run off of a USB drive and runs well, as long as there is a high-speed internet connection. This combination allows the virtual world to run almost anywhere the user could find a computer: at home, in a public library, at work, or school.
Originally marketed as video games, virtual worlds have seen increasing popularity and acceptance in the wider technological and social communities. Strategy Analytics predicts that the global population of virtual world users will grow from 186 million in 2009 to 640 million in 2015 (Engage 2009). While 67% of American households play some form of computer or video games, the growing market for virtual worlds is among the youngest category of users, eventually resulting not only longer and more familiar usage, but also breaking the overall industry trend of increasingly older users (Engage 2009; Association 2010).
While Gartner Vice President, Steve Prentice, sees that the role of virtual worlds in the business field is currently undefined, he states that, “Despite the concerns within companies, don’t ignore this trend. They will have a significant impact on your enterprise during the next five years” (Pettey 2007). This advice has continued for businesses into 2010, with a predicted growth of $2 billion dollars from 2009 to 2014 (Tuttle and Waite 2009). Others have echoed this sentiment stating that “By 2018, virtual worlds and serious gaming will likely be major, even dominant, platforms for business applications and opportunities” due the rapid development and increasing sophistication of the supportive technology (Ives and Junglas 2008). Already there are individuals who have made thousands of US dollars creating and selling digital goods for virtual money (Rose 2007). Companies like Electric Sheep and Millions of Us have sprung up simply to act as a mediator, meant to help corporations create a presence and events in these virtual worlds (Rose 2007). Both companies state that they’ve received many contacts from among some of the largest and most well known corporations to integrate their work into the corporate web and Internet presence, leading to potentially large investments by these firms in virtual world technology (Rose 2007).
Many events in the offline world have been translated into their digital equivalents, so that the denizens of the digital realm can experience them. In 2008, the famed tree lighting ceremony in Rockefeller Center was re-created in Second Life so that people all over the world could experience the beauty of the event without having to fly to New York City (Weber 2006). The company behind There.com was approached by the Department of Defense to create a virtual Earth that could be used to simulate warfare experiences, as well as social development of interpersonal skills and non-combat duties such as peacekeeping, reconnaissance, and social interaction with non-military personnel (Thorsen 2004). Virtual plagues erupted as an abuse of in-world mechanics which allowed the Center for Disease Control to examine the flow of plague through a population and human reactions to the outbreak (Bannerman 2007). Their research plans to help these the CDC develop effective strategies for disseminating information about mass infections as well as handling quarantine events (Science 2007). Even the US government has started using virtual worlds. They’re examining the use of these worlds by terrorists to coordinate activities as well as studying the formation and dissolution of in-game “terrorist cells” (Thier 2008). Finally, the fusion between the offline and the online has been accomplished through the hiring of a professional economist to study the complexity and development of the virtual economy in EVE Online, a world built around the idea of a truly free market experience (Games 2007).
Game-based virtual worlds are becoming more popular with both players and developers. Joystiq, a gaming news site, lists over 46 different Massively Multiplayer Online Role-playing Games (MMORPGs), like World of Warcraft or Everquest, that were slated to be released between the summer of 2006 and winter of 2009 (Lees 2006). Strategy Analytics, an independent market research firm focusing on innovative technologies, predicts the revenue from MMORPGs will account for 11% of the total revenue from games by 2011. The same group also predicts a growth of 50 million in the total subscriber base of these games by 2011 up from the 30 million subscribers recorded in 2006 (Kuchera 2007). Considering that the video game industry alone grossed almost $32 billion dollars in 2006, this is no longer a small market for study (Kuchera 2007).
The opinions of a population are expressed through collective action. As the history of the United States shows, collective action accounts for large changes to the social structure of society and the outline of governing laws and bodies. The Civil Rights, Feminist, Peace, and Life movements have all been successful in shaping society’s views about culture and self.
The increasing diversity and interconnectedness of the world has created more points of intersecting social contact, where different viewpoints and ideologies come into conflict. These crossings are ripe for the rise of contentious politics. As Tarrow (1998) describes, “Contentious politics occurs when ordinary people, often in league with more influential citizens, join forces in confrontations with elites, authorities, and opponents.” This type of politics can occur over any issue, but some of the most influential conflicts in the last century have erupted around the politics and legitimization of identity. In particular, many of the large movements in the United States since 1950 have focused on marginalized groups who had little to no power or recourse in the political systems they lived under. For many, the only way to make their voices heard was to turn to unconventional avenues of expression. These avenues run the gamut from the rallies, marches, and sit-ins used in the Civil Rights movement, to the unique forms of dress and music of the punk rockers. Since political options were few, groups gathered and used nonpolitical means of disruption to bring attention to their demands, sometimes through direct interaction with their opponents, and sometimes through interaction with the mass media.
The give and take between groups that engage in contentious politics and the authorities accounts for the current shape of our government and political sphere. Both groups engage in a constant game of action and reaction, shaping their goals and activities to the latest methods employed by their opponents. These actions help to form a repertoire of contention, or the collection of all actions that are “culturally inscribed and socially communicated” that social movement groups may draw from to frame their goals, causes, and actions (Tarrow 1998). Actions within the repertoire are known by both the movement and their opponents, and have acceptable limits and structures that can be used to define the action and to oppose it. Known actors or favored groups may choose new tactics that result in a temporary power imbalance in their favor (Tarrow 1998). This power imbalance often exists only briefly, as the opponents take time to understand the new situation and adopt strategies to counter it and restore the balance of power (Tarrow 1998).
The only way social movements can gain enough followers to successfully engage in collective action is by creating a shared identity among their constituents. They must create a shared understanding of their situation, and what means are available and necessary to solve it. This process involves other groups who attempt to disseminate the identity that the group develops or who institute contradictory identities. This creation of a shared identity can make or break a social movement. Often, movements end up spending as much time building and sharing in identity as they do engaging in collective action or contentious politics.
Virtual worlds are viewed as another medium that individuals may consume. The rise of highly adaptable and reciprocal flows of information through other media forms have conditioned individuals to believe that they should be able to customize how and where they view their information. However, the nature of many virtual worlds as commercial enterprises places limitations on the ways that individuals can interact with one another or the software.
These pressures from consumers and corporations set opposing viewpoints that engage in a struggle over the power to control information presentation and flow within virtual worlds. This project aims to better understand these power struggles, and how they shape the overall social structure of both virtual and offline worlds through developing an updated framework that takes into account the nature of virtual worlds as a socio-technical artifact. The nature of virtual worlds allows the forces of repression and contention to come together in new ways which suit the unique context and goals of their situation. As the old strategies for repression and contention are reshaped, new strategies are developed by the unique structures of virtual worlds. The outcomes of these struggles shape the repertoires of repression and contention within virtual worlds, creating standardized forms of action that shape future events.
As virtual worlds continue to grow in popularity, this type of collective action becomes more common. While the smaller populations of the early virtual environments were often passionate and outspoken about their community, the scale of the world made it much easier to adjust to consumer demands or balance the needs of different stakeholder groups. Today, with populations of several hundred thousand to tens of millions, the original flexibility that allow companies to satisfy the needs of their consumer base have largely vanished underneath the need to please stakeholders and maintain financial growth. Companies that host virtual worlds need to become aware, not only of who their audience is, but also how that audience mobilizes and the likely outcomes of their mobilization. In particular, as the diversity of the audience for virtual worlds increases, there is more collective action against the worlds and the politics inherent to them.
The technical considerations of virtual worlds make them different from similar situations in the offline world. Many assumptions that are made about the protesters no longer hold true in a virtual environment. While regular protesters have outside activities that they need to engage in, online avatars have no such considerations and may remain active despite the lack of a person at the keyboard controlling them. People need to go to work, get at least a couple hours of sleep, and see their family and friends. Avatars do no need to eat or sleep and can socialize with others in a virtual world without having to move or visibly disrupt the protest through the use of private messages visible only to themselves and the player they are addressing. One of the most important differences is that there is no longer a 1:1 ratio of body to protestor. While there are some equivalent protest processes in the offline world, such as flooding the mailbox of a politician, the investment of resources in a virtual world in terms of time and money are of an entirely different scale. In the offline world, participating in collective action involves getting to the site and preparing for the action, spending time at the site during the action and then the time spent returning home after the action. People in the online world can teleport most places in an instant and return to their activities just as quickly. It is also possible for them to have many “bodies” in these virtual worlds, all of which may be involved in the collective action, increasing the apparent number of participants, or may be doing several activities at once.
The virtualization process also changes technical considerations including arrest and policing.
The digital equivalent of jail time, a temporary suspension, does not carry the same weight of punishment. While an individual in jail has few liberties, a person who has been suspended may go about their normal lives, or may even use another avatar. While violence to a person is used only as a last resort by many authorities in the offline world, the digital equivalent to this, the deletion or permanent suspension of a person’s avatar, is almost the default form for dealing with virtual collective action. However, unlike the real world, losing a digital body doesn’t mean a new one can’t be obtained.
Getting to a site for collective action may be easier for the participant but it means that it is also
easier to be tracked around the world by the authorities during and after the protest since avatars leave a digital trail and record. There is no such thing as running from the authorities, unless simply logging off and not returning is counted as running. The anonymity of a virtual world also plays to the activists’ favor, so long as they are not fighting the hosting company. There is often very little in terms of identifiable offline connections tying an individual to their avatar: names, ages, habits, and friends can often be very different. This allows activists to engage in activities that would be very dangerous for them personally in the offline world.
It is important to understand the nature and structure of collective action in these virtual worlds. There is currently only a small body of research that examines this area. While the importance of this nascent period of technological and social development is understood, the process of theory development still trails behind the technological and social advancement of virtual worlds. The repertoires of action for virtual worlds are not yet set and are developing as the social structures and possibilities for collective action in virtual worlds are explored. This lag needs to be addressed as the process of repertoire development is happening, so that the future virtual worlds may be more clearly understood. This research describes these new phenomena.
There are many impacts of this research. The percentage of individuals who are exposed to virtual worlds is increasing every year, and many already congregate in the popular virtual worlds that are available today. This research contributes to making a more enjoyable experience for these individuals by providing a basis for understanding how technology impacts social communication patterns. Results from this research can be used to help enable communication methods and technologies that allow for greater adaptation to social processes making for a richer and more enjoyable environment. Currently the governing structures of these virtual worlds are very limited and in many cases the citizens of the worlds have no definable or protected rights. By showing the richness of social communication and structure in virtual worlds, it is possible to create a general push or argument for a Virtual Bill of Rights or at least an extension of some rights which players have as humans.
The framework discussed in this research expands theoretical understandings of protest. Having a framework on which researchers may ground their studies and findings enables them to make a solid exploration of the area of virtual world protests. By laying this foundational piece, this research helps to open an interesting and unexplored area to future scientists. In particular, this research highlights the areas of protest that are most dramatically changed by the process of virtualization. These areas act as a starting theoretical platform, within a current void between existing theoretical areas. This platform provides a base upon which future explanations may ground themselves.
The connections drawn by this research between technological mediation and the adaptation of social processes to an online world shows how features of technology directly impact the development of a social sphere. The results of this research help to explore how technologies may be altered to better support all forms of social interaction. Players have already shown great interest in the development of complex social spaces online. However, the technological limitations have forced them to combine various ad hoc fixes to support their needs. By grounding the social needs within a technology viewpoint, this research highlights the social needs of players drawing a connection to how the two areas, technological and social, must be addressed simultaneously.
Currently, members of the virtual worlds industry handle each protest event with alarm and dismay. This research has created a model that shows how individuals within virtual worlds approach their social interactions, and how they think about concepts like protest, within it. In particular, since the focus on this research was upon the organizers of the protest, it clearly emphasizes the considerations and concerns of those individuals who step up to enact protest within virtual worlds. This information is invaluable to companies who host virtual worlds, allowing them to not only understand the motivations of their population, but to also provides them a guidebook on the facets of their world, population, and a protest to consider. This helps to create a less alarmist view, and enable authorities and protestors to work together in the future to achieve collective action that leaves all parties feeling more secure and less threatened by the outcome.
Several steps were taken during the course of this research to address the questions and issues raised above. This research project addressed these issues and built a conceptual understanding of how the synthesis of collective action and virtual worlds impacts our understanding of both areas. To clarify the process of how this was accomplished this dissertation is broken down into the following sections.
The second chapter is a literature review. It focuses on examining the history and development of
virtual worlds as both a technology and an area of research. This review covers the literature of social movements including the major theories within the area and the processes by which social movements develop, change, and die. The final section of literature is the interaction of technology with social movements. This section concludes with an examination of the gaps within the literature.
The third chapter is an overview of the kit of concepts used for this research. It outlines each of the concepts, as well as provides a background of how that concept is applied or understood in offline settings.
The fourth chapter covers the research questions of this study. The methods that were used to answer these questions are addressed as well. In particular, this section focuses upon how the methods were employed and shaped during the research process and the valuable tools they added to the research overall.
The fifth chapter contains the detailed overviews of the two cases selected for this research
project. It outlines the major events, actors and consequences of the protests. The first case is within the science-fiction based massively multiplayer online game EVE Online. The second draws from the virtual world Second Life and a virtual strike that was held against IBM. These cases frame the descriptive analysis that follows in Chapter 6.
The sixth chapter reiterates the theoretical dimensions outlined earlier. Each dimension is broken down, and examined, within both cases to better illustrate how that dimension shifted in the move from an offline to an online context. Selective quotes from text and interviews are used throughout this section to highlight a case or a dimension.
The seventh synthesizes the information found in the previous section to more comprehensively
state how the conceptual framework outlined in Chapter 3 was altered. In particular, the role of virtual worlds as socio-technical artifacts within the process of protest is examined to better understand the degree of change that each dimension underwent.
The final chapter concludes this paper by reviewing the dimensions and findings of this research through examining the contributions this study makes to theory and science. It examines the implications of this research for several areas by discussing future research and potential limitations.
COLLECTIVE ACTION SITUATED IN VIRTUAL WORLDS