Note: See Project Updates Jun-Jul-Aug for background on this work, and see posts under the category ‘deafness and accessibility’ for discussion of related topics.
Exclusion as an aspect of communities in Second Life
Martin Oliver, November 2007.
The previous elements of the project have identified that a number of skills and actions can be seen as markers of expertise when using an immersive virtual world. Proficiency in these markers tends to be associated with successful participation in communities within the environment. However, this suggests an inclusive and egalitarian community structure; this is not always the case.
Communities may well be diverse rather than homogeneous, and may be characterised by hostility, “conflict and misery” (Wenger, 1998: 77). They may also establish their coherence through the exclusion of others (Wenger, 1998: 120). Furthermore, for a community to maintain its coherence, its members must engage in what Wenger calls a “regime of mutual accountability”:
“These relations of accountability include what matters and what does not, what is important and why it is important, what to do and not to do, what to pay attention to and what to ignore, what to talk about and what to leave unsaid, what to justify and what to take for granted, what to display and what to withhold, when actions and artefacts are good enough and when they need improvement or refinement.” (Wenger, 1998: 81)
This process of holding people to account requires judgement. Although he does not develop the idea at this point in the text, such judgements have consequences: someone whose actions (or creations) are consistently judged as unacceptable by members of the community may well be excluded from future activities.
It is important to identify such negative aspects for two reasons. The first is pragmatic. Given the interest in using immersive virtual worlds for learning and teaching, such practices need to be recognised so as to develop a realistic expectation of the experiences learners may have when engaging with and learning from communities in immersive virtual worlds. The second is sociological. The notion of a community of practice presupposes that community members are mutually accountable – they hold each other to account for the things that they do. The kinds of values expressed through hostility illustrate what people may be held to account for. They also demonstrate a way of ensuring the consistency of the community by ostracising those who do not fit. Understanding and negotiating such negative reactions is part of the process of learning to become a member of a community. It is this aspect of learning in a social context that will be explored in this study.
The context for the study
This element of the project involved a study of postings on a Second Life forum. This provided a clear example of users of an immersive virtual world attempting to position themselves and others as being part of or excluded from various groups. The forum topic concern the introduction of voice as a feature of Second Life; this particular thread focused on the experiences of hearing impaired users, and how these should be taken into account (if at all). This context was chosen because it has long been recognised (e.g. Lea et al, 1992) that the lack of interpersonal awareness in forum discussions often leads to argument, hostility and ‘flaming’. This, then, seemed an ideal location in which to look for evidence of exclusive or negative community work taking place.
The focus for this study is on the self-management of a group of users (understood as consisting of members of overlapping communities of users). It is therefore focused on the process of discussion, and in particular, on the way in which posters construct their own (and others’) authorial position. It is not primarily concerned with the topic under discussion – the construction of deafness within these communities. Some aspects of this will, however, be noted amongst the secondary issues raised by the analysis.
Referring back to Wenger’s concepts, in this case, claims that this analysis concerns a community are based on the assertions that:
• there is a joint enterprise of discussing features of Second Life;
• there is mutual engagement, as post authors respond to each other; and
• there is a shared repertoire, in this case of discourses about Second Life and other related topics.
The analysis will focus on identifying the shared repertoire in this forum (the discourses that authors use and readers find meaningful)
In line with the ethical issues raised in an earlier phase of the work, this study focuses on the rhetoric of postings; no claims are made about the people who created these postings. No mapping was done to see whether the posters were or were not part of some specific participating community, as it seemed unlikely that there would be any clear relationship between posting on this forum and membership of a specific Second Life group. To clarify: the purpose of this exercise was not to map whether certain people were or were not part of specific communities, but instead was to establish how people included or excluded themselves and others.
To achieve this end, a conventional approach to Discourse Analysis (Potter & Wetherell, 1987) was adopted and modified. This process normally takes a single text and analyses it by identifying the subjects named, listing the claims made about them, proposing potential rejoinders to these claims, aggregating and naming similar kinds of claims (as named discourses), and then revisiting examples to examine the effect of using these discourses in specific cases.
This process was simply too laborious to perform on the whole forum. Instead, the first 100 messages were taken and analysed iteratively. First, individual messages were taken and analysed, following the process outlined above. The first posting was selected, as were postings that generated multiple responses, because these seemed key to the discussion. The discourses that had been identified were reviewed after each case, to see whether these needed to be added to or revised. After thirteen examples had been completed, the remaining messages were reviewed (rather than analysed from scratch) to see whether the existing discourses were sufficient to explain what was achieved, rhetorically. Where the existing set failed, the message was reviewed to identify the additional discourses required. This led to the production of a set of discourses, outlined below.
Once this process was complete, messages were selected that illustrated the process of inclusion and exclusion, and these are presented here as examples.
Discourse moves in the discussion
In this section, ways of talking about different groups are presented to illustrate the kinds of rhetorical strategies that were used in the discussion. Following the central theme of this activity, these are organised as ways of positioning people as part of or excluded from communities. A third grouping draws together other kinds of discourse that featured in the debate that may be of interest.
Note that in this section, the presentation of these discourse moves is decontextualised. These lists describe the repertoire of approaches used in the discussion. The rhetorical effect – e.g. whether another author was positioned as excluded or included – will be illustrated through examples in the section that follows.
Ways of claiming membership
People positioned themselves or others as belonging to something (either a specific group, or else to the general community of Second Lifers) in a number of ways, such as:
• Declaring group membership, either for oneself, or for others (e.g. by saying they are a deaf user, that they are a coder, by using phrases such as “one of us”, that they are an insensitive jerk, that they are a user who won’t use voice chat, by talking of “our” friends, by positioning a specific user as a “great guy with a strong stance and opinion”, by claiming they are “a guy with cool opinions”, by asserting that someone is a pole dancer, by saying that they have joined the Text Nation group in Second Life)
• Links to a group (e.g. by saying they are sympathetic to a group, or have a friend who is a member)
• Contentment (e.g. being “happy” in a group)
• Friendship (e.g. asserting that friends would swap voice for chat if you asked them to)
• Positioning themselves as an invitee (suggesting recognition of similarity and belonging by others)
• Technical proficiency (e.g. being a user of multiple virtual worlds, as being a user of skype or teamspeak if they want to chat)
Ways of excluding
People described their own experiences of being excluded, or else sought to marginalise others, in ways such as:
• Declaring exclusion (e.g. talking about the “ongoing problem” of being ignored, that the deafness will require non-use of voice to be explained over and over again, claiming that Linden Labs should have consulted with hearing impaired users but did not, talking about “your kind” or “your friends”, by claiming that people who only speak “obscure” languages are unable to participate in many discussions)
• Expressing discomfort (e.g. someone who had identified themselves as hearing impaired declaring that deaf mute status was “embarrassing and humiliating”, by suggesting that alternative reasons such as technical problems should be given for opting out of voice instead of admitting a hearing impairment)
• Claiming a lack of understanding (e.g. suggesting that users should have their access to sound cut off in order to see how this affects them, suggesting that as they do not have that experience they cannot imagine it)
• Dismissing experiences (e.g. by saying that the original poster’s hearing impairment is irrelevant, by using quote marks to talk about someone’s “friends” in order to imply that their claimed relationship is false, by saying that positions are not sincere but are just because users were bothered that “someone bothered to speak out against them”, suggested that the hearing impaired get by fine at movies and in the rest of their life so should just get on with things here, that deaf people probably didn’t like it when sound was added to movies)
• Contrasting personal preferences with those of others (e.g. claiming that the majority of users voted by majority not to integrate voice and thus the pro-voice lobby are in a minority, claiming that the majority of second life users were “too lazy” to type for hearing impaired users, that minors will use voice to scream obscenities, or by claiming that users are shallow, banal or griefers)
• Judging claims or motives as morally unacceptable (e.g. the selfishness of deaf users who want people who like voice chat to give it up, that people are seeking attention by acting as martyrs or “playing the disability card”, claiming that those who defend the position of hearing impaired users are trying “to earn brownie points”, dismissing positions as political correctness, by claiming a posting is hypocritical, by claiming that something is un-American, by asserting that no-one voted to give a poster the right to speak for them)
• Judging claims as rhetorically unacceptable (e.g. by saying that a particular poster’s judgement can’t be trusted, or that they are “talking BS”, suggesting they are too stupid to have understood another post and thus their response should be ignored, proposing that a poster is so lemming-like they’d throw themselves of a real bridge if enough other people did, by arguing that “using big words” is a ploy to seem more credible, or by suggesting that a particular poster will just attribute something to paranoia as a way of ignoring it)
• Technical exclusion (e.g. that there is snobbery about bandwidth and operating system)
Other kinds of claims made
A number of other claims were made that were relevant to the debate, and important as ways of shoring up arguments for or against the inclusion of particular people or groups. These included:
• Claims about the nature of Second Life itself (e.g. that it aims to be versatile, that it was envisioned as “a world we built from our own ideals rather than the crap that limits the real world”, that it is a channel for business communication, that the islands aren’t working properly anyway, that it should be fun and enjoyable for those who play it, that historically it was a text-based environment, that its visual nature excludes the visually impaired)
• Claims about technology (e.g. that they can’t stand hearing people with shoddy microphones trying to have a conversation, that they don’t have the necessary hardware such as a microphone, that other Second Life features such as textures require external applications so there is no need for voice to be any different)
• Claims about deafness (e.g. that it can be classified as hearing impairment or as deafness, that there are degrees such as needing to lip read but not having to learn to sign, that it is a disability, that it can be part of being a deaf mute, that it leads to social exclusion, that the social consequences can be humiliating and embarrassing, that deaf mutes are able to communicate with more people in Second Life than people who only speak Swedish or other “obscure languages”, that it does not affect people in the rest of their lives, that it is irrelevant to Second Life, that hearing impaired users have a choice about whether to use voice chat or not, that deaf users need not declare their deafness when choosing not to use voice but could lie and claim that they lack the necessary hardware, that one day technology will be able to make deaf people hear)
• Claims about voice chat (e.g. that it is inevitable, that it something only some users will want, is integral to virtual meetings, is something best suited to one-to-one communication, that it will be welcomed by live music performers, will be used for education, would make clubs chaotic, would destroy the feel of roleplaying environments, that shy people won’t want it, that it causes disruptions, that special software can change voices to make them sound like a different gender’s, that it will encourage people to talk just because they can rather than because they have something to say, that it is something intended to make money for Linden Labs, that people will change their opinion of it once they have actually experienced it)
• Claims about text chat (e.g. that they like being able to review discussions to see what they have missed, that it is faster, that it is more easily captured, that it does not interfere with listening to music, that it can contain links, that it is a problem for those who find it difficult to type or read)
• Claims about choice (e.g. that choice is something people like, that people who don’t like voice chat should go to an environment that doesn’t use it, that people who don’t like voice chat can choose not to use it, that other people choosing to use voice can become an imposition on you, that the majority use of voice dictates the communication media available to all, that the people promoting voice have chosen to join and stay in a text-based environment)
• Claims about rights (e.g. that people have them and should choose for themselves whether to exercise them, that people who don’t like something have the right to choose not to use it, that they allow people to express offensive beliefs, that they are granted by Linden Labs – “I exercise my right to my allotted options”, and that Linden Labs has decided that these rights can be changed even if this affects the enjoyment of some members)
• Claims about authenticity and verification (e.g. that voice chat will expose “dudes” who are “in female avatars”, or reveal the age of a user, but that the only convincing form of verification would be a physical inspection from a representative of Linden Labs and then having them stay with the user to ensure that no-one else logged in using their ID)
Examples of inclusion and exclusion
The previous section has outlined the kinds of ways in which messages worked to position people as part of or excluded from groups. In this section, examples will be given that illustrate how this management of community membership was achieved.
For ethical reasons, the posts are not reproduced here. Although these are being treated as texts, not claims about human subjects, it would still be possible to identify avatar names from postings, which would have implications for Second Life users. Consequently, the postings are summarised in text boxes, before an analysis of the posting is provided.
The original posting
The posting asserted that the writer was a user of multiple social worlds, who was “begged” to join Second Life and who has been happy there. It characterised deaf people as being in a minority, and described the experience of exclusion arising from being a deaf mute user as being embarrassing and humiliating.
The exclusion of deaf people was claimed to be an ongoing problem, especially as the majority of users were too lazy to type for the minority who needed this. The message ended with the assertion that “someone” (from Linden Labs) should have consulted with people with hearing impairments before taking this decision.
The message positioned the author as being a member of a community of deaf people (by declaring this) and of the community of Second Life users (by declaration and an expression of comfort). It positioned deaf people as excluded from the activities of the majority (by declaration and expression of discomfort), and specifically, from the majority of the Second Life community (by contrasting personal experiences of willingness to type) and from the decision-making processes of Linden Labs.
An generally inclusive posting
This message began with claims that the poster was not hearing impaired, but was sympathetic and had friends who were. They described Second Life as a platform that sought to be versatile, and which was used by companies to hold web conferences. They claimed that voice functionality was integral to being able to host a virtual meeting, but qualified this by saying that it was something only some Second Life users would want. They suggested that friends would type instead of talk if a hearing impaired user asked them to. They finished with a series of assertions about the effects of voice – that it would mainly be used in one-to-one chat, that it will mainly be used in business and educational environments, that it would make clubs chaotic, and that it would destroy the feel of role playing environments.
The message was use to establish author’s links to the community of hearing impaired users (claiming friendship and other links). Claims about Second Life were used to suggest that adding features (i.e. voice) would broaden its appeal – in other words, that more people would be happy to involve themselves. Specifically, claiming that voice functionality was necessary for meetings rationalises adding this feature as a way of including commercial users. (It is worth noting that claiming that commercial users would need to use voice excluded hearing impaired users from the commercial community; the similar implicit exclusion arose in messages about education, too.)
The claims about friends being willing to type were used to counter previous claims about hearing impaired users feeling excluded (because of the “lazy majority” who would not type); again, this worked to position the minority group as included in the environment. (It should be noted that the implication was that ‘friends’ were hearing people, but not specifying this established a deaf/‘normal’ dichotomy.) The list of qualified pros and cons of voice acted as hedging, so that it was harder to take a firm position that voice was unequivocally a good or bad thing.
An inclusive but negative posting
The post opened with a claim that the writer would be making “insensitive jerk” comments. Phrases such as “one of us” were used. The original poster’s hearing impairment was dismissed as irrelevant, and it was suggested that the poster could (should) go to a different environment that didn’t use voice. The original poster was described as being someone who wanted other people to give up what they could not have. Voice was described as being optional, it was suggested that many sim owners would choose not to use it, and so this was all a situation that “is really easily fixed”.
The opening comment was used to excuse the offensive tone of the message. The original poster’s experiences of exclusion were dismissed and experiencing voice was positioned as a choice. This served to re-position the original poster as just another member of the community, and so having no special claim to attention. They were then positioned as an incompetent member of the community through describing their posting as morally unjustified (selfish) and rhetorically suspect (hypocritical).
A generally excluding posting
This posting was part of a heated sequence. To open, the previous posting (referred to here as post 2) was criticised for complaining about insensitivity and then name-calling. An earlier posting (referred to here as post 1) was justified for expressing offensive opinions as part of free speech, and the right to believe and say what the author chooses. The author of Post 2 was described using phrases such as “your kind”. It was asserted that this is America, and Post 2 was characterised as un-American. The author of Post 2 was described as a pole dancer. Second Life was described as a game that should be fun for all who play it. It was claimed that the author of this message had a deaf friend. It was claimed that deaf people get by fine in life generally. The author asserted, “I exercise my right to my allotted options”, so as to justify their desire to use voice chat. The author of Post 2 was dismissed as someone trying to gain authority by pretending to be an elected advocate for the deaf.
This posting systematically positioned the author of Post 2 as being outside of the community of competent commentators on (and members of) Second Life. The author of this posting positioned themselves as part of this community by defending the right of another poster to be offensive; they also tried to establish community links by saying they had a deaf friend. The arguments of the author of Post 2 were dismissed as being suspect, rhetorically (hypocrisy) and morally (un-American, claiming the author of Post 2 was a pole dancer, acting without mandate). Phrases such as “your kind” positioned them outside of the speaker’s community. Claiming that Second Life should be fun for all positioned the author of Post 2 as someone who wanted to spoil that fun, and so not a ‘normal’ user. The author positioned themself as a ‘good’ user of Second Life by operating within the framework dictated by Linden Labs, rather than questioning it (their “allotted options”). The claim that deaf users cope with the rest of life was used to dismiss the negative experiences of deaf users, denying them any special consideration.
Learning through social participation can be a powerful experience, and there is evidence of this happening within immersive virtual worlds. However, participation can be controversial and fraught with difficulties, since communities act to regulate their membership and the actions of their members. This work has outlined examples of such regulation in action, with overlapping communities seeking to establish boundaries of acceptable use of (and opinion about) Second Life.
This has several implications for learning and teaching. For learners, it illustrates the kind of processes that participation may require. Recognising that there are negative as well as positive aspects to this process may help in establishing realistic expectations about what engaging with communities will be like. For teachers, it emphasises that risks will arise if learners are expected to engage in existing communities. These risks will relate to the learner’s ability to perform in a way that is acceptable to the community. Even in formal education, with a class conducted online, there will be processes of regulating behaviour and holding members to account – including the possibility of excluding members whose behaviour fails to conform to group expectations.
The social construction of deafness was not the primary focus for this study, but is an important issue. The rhetorical effects of talking about deaf users were complex. For example, what seemed to be well-intentioned postings managed to exclude users with hearing impairments by distinguishing them from ‘normal’ (rather than, say, ‘hearing’) users. Implicitly, hearing impaired users were also excluded from commercial and educational developments – it was assumed (and went unchallenged) that these will benefit from the inclusion of voice chat, and because hearing impaired users were positioned as being unable to make use of such features, the implication that was left implicit was that they would be unable to participate in these kinds of activity. For this project, it is particularly important to note that authors positioned hearing impaired users as excluded from educational developments.
Specifically, for learning and teaching in Second Life, this discussion raises a number of issues. Many of the expectations that were drawn upon reflect the social origins of the environment – its American context; values of democratic representation, rights and free speech; and the reoccurring references to business and commerce. These came across as norms in the discussion, even though the participants laid claim to international diversity. In the best examples, these values were used to promote tolerance and choice; however, they were also used to justify intolerance and advocacy of ghettos for minority groups. These are issues that will need to be considered against teachers’ personal and professional values when considering what kind of educational use they might make of Second Life.
Potter, J. and Wetherell, M. (1987) Discourse and Social Psychology: Beyond Attitudes and Behaviour. London: Sage.
Lea, M., O’Shea, T., Fung, P., & Spears, R. (1992) “Flaming” in computer-mediated communication: Observations, explanations and implications. In M. Lea (Ed.), Contexts of Computer-Mediated Communication, 89-112. London: Harvester-Wheatsheaf.