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  Aleks Krotoski’s Social Space-Exploration  
Posted 2005-07-06 by Tony Walsh
Aleks Krotoski’s Social Space-Exploration
A couple of years ago, Aleks Krotoski trekked across Scotland's West Highland Way, a 95-mile route from Glasgow to Fort William. "While I was there I met up with people who were also doing this ridiculous thing for their own unique reasons," she recalls. "Some were preparing to go up Kilimanjaro, some just liked to walk, some came to find themselves, some came to celebrate, and some came to escape."

Krotoski is no stranger to escapism. The American-born UK resident was so enamoured with the pixelated world of Super Mario that she nearly flunked high-school. Ironically, her fascination with games proved to be a winning strategy in the long term. Krotoski scored a Psychology degree from Oberlin College in Ohio, USA, barely survived a stint as co-host and "strat head" of Britain's Channel 4 video game show "Bits," and ended up studying MMOGs for her Master of Science Degree in Social Psychology (with Distinction, no less) from the University of Surrey in the UK. She currently blogs game culture at the Guardian Unlimited Gamesblog, but isn't finished with academia just yet.

Her latest adventure in higher learning is, naturally, earning her PhD--and, just as naturally, involves a game-like environment. She's plunged herself into the complex multi-user world of Second Life to study the ebb and flow of its complex social networks. Operating through her angel-winged avatar "Mynci Gorky," Krotoski intends to map the way that information is diffused. "I chose Second Life because, thus far, I see it as an exciting virtual space which more resembles social software than a game," she told me during an in-world interview. Krotoski believes that web-based social systems such as Orkut or Friendster aren't nearly as compelling as Second Life. "The 3D visualization elements have certain effects on influence. Also, there's a hell of a lot more to do here."

Prior to embarking on her Second Life studies, Krotoski consulted with the ethics department of her university and even had to sign a researcher's agreement with Linden Lab (Second Life's operators). Academics and professionals have long been part of Second Life's resident community, but their presence has not always been announced. In September 2004, Linden Lab opened up its "Campus Second Life" program, inviting select groups of students and their professors to undertake study within the virtual world. The program was slightly marred in late 2004 and early 2005 when some students overstepped their bounds, leading to distress among residents and concern that Second Life members were being used as test subjects. Meetings between residents, the classes, and their professors helped to alleviate the worst of the damage. Since that time, Linden Lab has established a set of academic guidelines (although these have themselves been the object of controversy, as covered at Clickable Culture and The Second Life Herald).

While Krotoski wasn't briefed about past controversies, she is keen on learning about past mistakes in order to avoid them. She stressed that her work will be conducted openly, and with the utmost respect for the privacy of residents--ensuring anonymity in any published results. "I will be getting the permission of participants in events, groups, and places I will be observing," she said, mentioning that her focus will be on topic-related or creation-related events rather than game events such as Tringo. "I'm interested in who turns up, how often, who speaks with whom, and how close their relationships are." Krotoski's main data source will be chat logs of consenting residents, but she won't be prying into the content of the conversations. Instead, links between people will be used to form an "objective" social network map. "There is evidence to indicate a difference between objective and subjective social networks," she explained. Objective data will be compared to a "subjective" map generated from in-game sociometric data collected via such queries as "who do you know?" and "how close are you to this person?" Krotoski will be looking at what people find influential, the role of visual and conceptual status, and how information dissipates through the social network. Her study promises to give insight into how virtual-reality-style social interactions differ from web-based online social systems, how information might be cultivated and delivered in any internet social network and how virtual experiences affect real life. While Krotoski will be involved with the virtual-world community for the next few years, she's hoping to gain a well-rounded perspective, and will neither be "on call" nor "on the record" at all times during her visits.

A gamer at heart, Aleks Krotoski is enthusiastic about Second Life culture and impressed with its diversity. Looking back on her journey through the Scottish highlands, she recalled that her fellow travelers "all got something out of it that they didn't expect." Krotoski bears similar respect for her virtual-world neighbours. "I want to learn from the collection of people who've gathered in Second Life, all of whom have come here for their own reasons. Everyone has something to offer. I like that."

Aleks Krotoski encourages interested Second Life residents to visit her academic website, located at
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