CS 6470: Design of Online Communities
Final Exam 2005

This is an open book and open notes exam. You are not allowed to use a computer. Please answer three of four questions. You have three hours.

1. Peter Anders and Marcos Novak take quite different approaches to the study of virtual architecture.
    a. Compare and contrast their approaches
    b. If Anders and Novak were designing avatars for a 3D virtual world, how might they be different?
    example answer

2. In what ways is Second Life like and unlike Oldenburg’s description of a third place? Where you find differences, discuss their significance.
    example answer

3. In what ways do online communities raise unique, new issues for ethical human subjects research? Identify three issues and explain each one in detail.
    example answer

4. Pick an assigned surfing site from this semester that encourages members to be creative. In what ways could you consider that site to be a constructionists learning environment? Discuss in detail how the design of the site supports and encourages user creativity, and in what ways not.
    example answer




1. Peter Anders and Marcos Novak take quite different approaches to the study of virtual architecture.
    a. Compare and contrast their approaches
    b. If Anders and Novak were designing avatars for a 3D virtual world, how might they be different?

Example answer by Karyn Lu, used with permission:

The differences between Anders and Novak's approaches to studying virtual architecture can be framed within Vitruvius' three principles of architecture:

  1. Firmness (it does not fall down)
  2. Commodity (utility, serving a function)
  3. Delight (aesthetics)

Within this framework, Peter Anders focuses primarily on the principle of commodity, while Marcos Novak focuses purely on delight.

To Anders, architecture is symbolic. He is concerned with the convergence of physical and cyber spaces - "both perceived and cognitive spaces are mental constructs that model the world around us." These constructs, which he calls "cybrids," straddle the physical and virtual modes of existence. Anders approaches the discussion of cybrids from a cognitive and economic view. For example, cybrids are cost-effective, globally accessible, have less strain on a building's infrastructure, and are flexible and easily expandable. On the downside, cybrids can reduce jobs and alienate employees from the management.

According to Anders, cyberspace should not merely mimick the spaces that might have been built physically, but "designers should aim for an emulation in which the space provides these orientational benefits of physical space - yet surpasses it in amenity and flexibility cyberspace offers freedoms and benefits not found in the physical world."

Whereas Anders is concerned with a practical user and commodity driven approach to virtual architecture, Novak is concerned purely with delight and aesthetics. In fact, there are no people in any of his spaces and designs. To Novak, architecture is symbolic, not metaphorical. He imagines a form of liquid architecture - a fluid imaginary landscape that exists only in the digital domain, whereas Anders argues for a combination of the virtual and physical. In fact, Novak noted in 1990 that he made a conscious decision to suspend his involvement with physical architecture in favor of liquid architecture. The types of landscape that attract him are surreal and abstract, made up of points and lines, and focused on producing visceral sensation. This stands in contrast to Anders' examples of MediaMOO, for example, which represents a physical space but build upon it in the virtual domain.

Novak goes on to imagine that in the future, architects will not design forms directly but rather purely design the conditions and rules by which forms and behaviors emerge.

It is difficult to imagine how Novak might go about designing avatars for a 3D virtual world, since none of his art has been focused on the human element thus far. I imagine that in order to integrate a system of avatars into Novak's framework, they would be abstract (figures and shapes, even dots) that are easily integrated into the liquid architecture, aesthetically pleasing, and most importantly, easily metamorphosized and transformed in reaction to (or perhaps in a dance with) its environment. It would be alive, responding to the environment, and literally evolve and learn and change within these surreal environments envisioned by Novak. Perhaps biofeedback mechanisms would be integrated.

Anders, by contrast, would most likely design his avatars to fit the commodity model - that is, what is its utility and how best would it serve its function within the cybrid? If he were to design a 3D virtual world of MediaMOO, for example, he would consider the functionality of the space and most likely would enable the users to design avatars that represented themselves in some fashion. These avatars would be able to gather, chat, network, and share resources within the representation and mental extensions of the space afforded by MediaMOO. However, the design of avatars would be practically suited to the purposes of the space, rather than focused on aesthetics, abstraction, and transformation in artistic reaction to the liquid architecture of a space, as Novak would imagine it.


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2. In what ways is Second Life like and unlike Oldenburg’s description of a third place? Where you find differences, discuss their significance.

Example answer by Madhur Khandelwal, used with permission:

Ray Oldenburg, in his book "The Great Good Place" gives a very detailed account of what a third place should be like, "third places exist on neutral ground an serve to level their guest to a condition of social equality."

Neutral Ground and Social Equality
As I log on to Second Life (SL) and start looking around, it occurs to me that the foremost line of Oldenburg's third place somewhat rings true here. We get to choose our personas, dress them up the way we like, and move around in places where everybody has seemingly equal rights and powers. A few more hours in the place and I realize how wrong I was - I was mistaking physical and political equality with the "social" one. Cory Ondrejka, VP of product development of Linden Labs, and the nominal "owner" of the place himself states that:

" Once you're in the world, you see all these racetracks and stores and balloons and brilliant stuff, and you say: Gosh, how do I do that? And the answer is: buy the land that it's on."

That is precisely what crossed my mind after some hours of exploring my "Second Life": social equality exists only among the beginners here; after that it's much more like the real life. The land itself does not support leveling of the social status; leave alone the cultural and social baggage that we bring along with ourselves. As Sherry Turkle suggests in "Aspects of the Self", in the end those are real people and "we as humans tend to carry our social and cultural baggage" wherever we go. As one of the design factors built into SL, trade, commerce and economics will never let the virtual world of SL to a state of social equilibrium.

Rheingold suggests that because we are allowed to choose everything about ourselves and the direct consequences of our actions effects us, our social status in an online community will be what we make it to be. "[B]ecause we cannot see [the real selves of] one another in cyberspace, gender, age, national origin and physical appearance are not apparent unless a person wants to make such characteristics available. People whose physical handicaps make it difficult to form new friendships find virtual communities treat them as they always wanted to be treated - as thinkers and transmitters of ideas and feeling beings, not carnal vessels with a certain appearance and way of walking and talking". This aspect of social equality has, in fact, been inherited by SL from virtual communities in general. The design factors of SL hence do not go beyond the ordinary to ensure social equality and provide leveling grounds, although it might be argued that it still requires creativity and effort to build one’s social status in the community of SL.

Conversation as the Primary Activity
"Within these places, conversation is the primary activity and major vehicle for the display and appreciation of human personality and individuality" (Oldenburg)

Although SL supports conversation as one of the major activities, many veteran players would argue that it's not the primary one. One does not have to depend on language anymore for displaying his/her personality and individuality for others to appreciate. SL rather emphasizes on aesthetic means for these kinds of communications. Most commonly, this is manifested in the myriad ways people build their avatars or their architectural spaces.

Richard Bartle would argue that this kind of behavior cannot be generalized, but is specific to ‘achievers’. “Achievers are interested in doing things to the game, i.e. in ACTING on the world”, while it would be socializers who would have "conversation as their primary activity". Apparently, the achievers in SL are one of the most dominant player-types, at least the most visible one. Conversation and socializing takes place only as long as it plays means to an end.

Low-profile character of a Third Place
"Third places are taken for granted, and most have a low profile The character of a third place is determined most of all by it's regular clientele and is marked by a playful mood, which contrasts with people's more serious involvement in other spheres" (Oldenburg)

Though it's true that many log-on to SL to relax, its name correctly reflects that it usually becomes a place more than just that. The question of social status and reputation quickly becomes that of how much time and effort is put into it's building in SL, and the place no longer has a low profile character anymore.

The fundamental aspect of building the landscape collaboratively and using it to express creativity misaligns with the idea of the place remaining low-profile. But it's true that the members enjoy the construction of artifacts, and use it to express themselves in SL. This aligns with the Seymour Papert’s idea of constructionism , through "engaging [people] in constructing personally meaningful projects" (Bruckman). But in SL, this activity can be taken to the extreme, and addiction could follow. Rheingold would agree "if a person has a compelling- even unhealthily compelling - need for a certain kind of attention", their activity may be termed addictive.

The regulars in SL have built up a status symbol by owning vast stretches of land and/or building landmarks, although the activity of most regulars may be seen under the terms of addiction as described by Rheingold (see above). SL does have a playful mood, which can be attributed to its fact of being virtual. The screen-buttons and interface provide a sub-conscious feeling of remoteness and unrealism no matter how compelling and serious the environment seems to be. All this in essence provides a feeling of playfulness in SL.

Visiting the Third Place
"Since the formal institutions of society make stronger claims on the individual, third places normally open in the off-hours, as well as other times. Though a radically different kind of setting from the home, the third place is remarkably similar to a good home in the psychological comfort and the support that it extends" (Oldenburg)

As is the case of most of the virtual communities and its third places, there are no restrictions of time, space or location when entering the world of SL. This third place does provide a respite from real-world actions, but serious involvement requires almost as much effort as the first or second place (viz. home or office).

SL facilitates interaction between personas, but at the same time does not impose it. Hence, all "Achievers", "Explorers" and "Socializers" can have their utopian world inside SL. For "Killers", in fact, there are zones marked where they can practice their favorite pastime of real-time action!


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3. In what ways do online communities raise unique, new issues for ethical human subjects research? Identify three issues and explain each one in detail.

Example answer by Andrea Forte, used with permission:

Throughout the class, we discussed the many ways that online communities challenge and extend traditional notions of space, identity, gender, sex and government… important facets of life in the real world. Under many circumstances, the new different possibilities online represent opportunities for play and exploration. When we want to study what individuals do online, it is important to take these new places very seriously and articulate the ways that traditional protection of human subjects breaks down.

Three characteristics of online communities that raise new issues in research ethics are:
1. The status of intellectual property online
2. The persistent nature of public discourse
3. The unknown (changing) expectations of people who inhabit online places w/ respect to privacy and accountability.

(1) Because the online world is one that is actively being constructed by its inhabitants, intellectual property is an issue. For example, on a creative writing blog, contributors may feel that they have a right to take credit for their fiction. It’s perfectly reasonable; however, it complicates the traditional notion that research participants’ identities ought to be protected. Bruckman suggests treating individuals on the Internet as amateur artists rather than as “human subjects.” This shift in perspective encourages a greater respect for the contributions of community members to the online worlds that they inhabit and create. This perspective is highly compatible with the phenomenological research methods described by Siedman. He notes than in interviewing, researchers yield much of the meaning-making to participants. Certainly there are times when the benefits of credit for contributing ones own work outweigh the potential risk of revealing identity. (see Belmont report for more on risk VS benefit.)

(2) Of course, there are times when anonymity is preferable because participants could be harmed by the information they reveal. For example, many individuals go online to discuss personal issues ranging from physical and mental illness, to addiction, to marital infidelity, to just plain ranting about their jobs. Whereas many interesting research questions could be investigated by studying these kinds of interactions and many people would likely agree to be studied, the risk associated with exposure is high. Anonymity is crucial. In fact, even in arguably private places, the story of ones struggle with heroin addiction may be archived, indexed and searchable. That means that using the story verbatim in a research report about recovery in online communities would render disguises in the report useless. To find out who said it, a curious individual could search for the quote. Unlike observations in real life support groups where utterances as ephemeral, discussions online are persistent and demand careful and critical protection.

(3) Privacy is a big, thorny issue online, but as researchers we have to wade through it. Craner et al describe the variation in people’s attitudes toward privacy and conclude that any single approach to privacy is unlikely to work in all online contexts. As Bruckman points out, the Internet is not one place; it makes sense that people’s expectations will vary from place to place. Bruckman also warns that, in research, erring on the side of caution is wise. The metaphor of the front porch is a useful one when we consider online privacy expectations. A chat room or a discussion forum is not exactly private – it isn’t my living room; nor is it exactly public – it isn’t Starbucks. It exists someplace between private and public, like a front porch over which I have some control, but that remains fairly visible to the world. Of course this helps both in framing expectations among Internet users and guiding their behavior, and in guiding research practices. What precautions are appropriate when researching behavior on front porches? The answer to this question will likely leave some room for the possibility that a passerby is able to identify a research participant, but shields participants from having front porch antics amplified and projected for all the world to see.


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4. Pick an assigned surfing site from this semester that encourages members to be creative. In what ways could you consider that site to be a constructionists learning environment? Discuss in detail how the design of the site supports and encourages user creativity, and in what ways not.

Example answer by Aaron Levisohn, used with permission:

Wikipedia presents an interesting example of a site that uses Constructionist principles in its design, while simultaneously contradicting some of those principles in the implementation of certain features on the site. The Wikipedia is Constructionist in that it is designed to enable multiple users to write, edit, and share content online. By attributing each entry, or revision, to a particular user, Wikipedia's design allows individuals to create a reputation for their work. This in turn creates incentive for further work. Papert describes Constructionism as having two essential qualities: first, it approaches learning as an active process; second, it motivates people by engaging them in personally meaningful products. The Wikipedia meets both these requirements. By allowing users to create, edit and revise content, Wikipedia encourage learning as an activity. Through the process of sharing knowledge, users simultaneously reinforce and augment their own knowledge on a subject. Additionally, since the content will be visible to the community as a whole, people are driven by a desire to impress— their name will be associated with their content and will be viewed with a critical eye by other members of the community. The desire for respect within the community keeps people motivated. In her article on the MediaMOO Project, Amy Bruckman notes that the MediaMOO site offered four things to the user: motivation for learning, emotional support, technical support, and an appreciative audience. The desire for respect and status within the community provides motivation for Wikipedia members just as it did for the kids on Moose Crossing. Bruckman notes an instance of this phenomenon on Moose Crossing:

"Other children are heard to comment that they wish they could type as fast as Rachel It is evident that many of them want to be like Rachel in a variety of ways."

Rachel's desire for status motivated her, which in turn motivated others to be like her. This same principle is at work on Wikipedia.

Wikipedia also provides an appreciative audience. This audience exists on two levels: first, the members of the community who contribute directly by creating and commenting on postings. Additionally, Wikipedia is appreciated by non-contributors, people seeking information who visit the site. By commenting on posts and helping to clarify articles, each contributor provides emotional support for the others. This, however, can be both a good and a bad thing. Since only one version of a particular article can exist, Wikipedia contributors are not sharing artifacts like on Moose Crossing, but are manipulating a single article. This creates more negative competition and can actually lead to emotional distress. Due to the strong bonds within the community of contributors, there is hopefully some form of emotional support available in such situations. Conflicts can also be alleviated by members of the community through support for a person’s contributions. Unfortunately, it is still difficult to keep people from deleting content, but there is a formal complaint service, which has the power to suspend or terminate accounts in serious cases. This is effective because people use their pseudonyms as a means of gaining status and do not want to change them.

One of the big problems with the Wikipedia from a Constructionist perspective is its focus on objective information. While fundamentally, the creation of content is a creative act, the site contributors have a difficult time agreeing on what is or isn't appropriate. This means that certain types of articles, those about travel destinations for instance, are often not included on the site — they provide too much room for subjective points of views. By limiting the subjectivity on the site, many potential contributors lose interest. It also creates a "right" and "wrong" dilemma. For Constructionism to work well, contributors must be encouraged to try new things. Wikipedia makes entry into the community of contributors difficult for this reason. This does, however, work as a filtering tool, and helps motivate users to write about what they know well and care about. For this reason many contributors post articles pertaining to their hobbies. This is an important part of Constructionism - working on projects that are personally meaningful.

The Wikipedia is an interesting example of a Constructionist website since it satisfies the primary goals of Constructionism - that people be involved in the creation of new artifacts that are personally meaningful— while simultaneously violating other Constructionist principles. By allowing only a single artifact to exist, Wikipedia creates a great deal of competition. This competition, of course, can function positively or negatively, and may actually create cooperation. The site also provides a useful service with a large appreciative audience. Additionally, the site design, by attributing authorship, creates motivation, and by allowing comments to be added by users helps build bonds, emotional ties, and community.

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