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Someone did a PhD in Second Life

By Jeremy Wilson

Meet Aleksandra Krotoski. Krotoski holds a PhD in “the social psychology of relationships in online communities” from the University of Surrey. She is something of a professional contrarian, writing columns and presenting television programmes that extol virtues of technology where others see vices.

The Daily Telegraph once cruelly referred to Krotoski as an “obviously fictitious writer”, suggesting that claims such as “there is no evidence that simple exposure to the vast database of online fetishes has sexualised our society any more or less than previous media have” and observations that social media were “solidifying” family life were clearly part of an elaborate hoax by The Guardian.

But we believe Ms Krotoski’s body of work deserves more serious attention.

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Krotoski’s avatar in Second Life. She appears outside the Guardian newspaper’s virtual “research area”.

Judicious choices

We were intrigued by the full title of Ms Krotoski’s 2009 PhD thesis, “Social Influence in Second Life: Social Network and Social Psychological Processes in the Diffusion of Belief and Behaviour on the Web”. So we set about tracking down a copy.

It was surprisingly difficult. The links on Krotoski’s own website are all dead any other sites at which the paper used to be hosted are now defunct. Fortunately, the University itself was more helpful. So here’s what landed in our inbox this week.

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Jeremy Wilson dives into the first half of Krotoski’s 107,180-word thesis

At least, this is half of it. The thesis is 359 pages long. And if you’re wondering what exactly about an also-ran online social network could fill that much space, well… after reading the whole thing, so are we.

To start us off, this is how, in her own inimitably sharp prose, Krotoski explains the purpose of the project:

“The Internet has challenged social psychological theories of influence that have focussed on interpersonal perceptions of trustworthiness, expertise and similarity, and normative attributions of social identity. As knowledge is increasingly decentralised and user-generated, new questions arise about how online participants identify which information to adopt or reject.”

Oy. And it gets worse – a lot worse. In a nutshell, this is your typical techno-utopian boilerplate: relationships online are just as valid as, and don’t detract from, real ones… you know the sort of thing.

But even by academic standards this is a bafflingly and incomprehensibly unreadable piece of work, chock-full of needless abstraction and obfuscation. And, of course, the absurdly trivial nature of the subject makes the entire thing read like a bit of a practical joke.

“Social Network Analysis has been one effective strategy for articulating interpersonal connectivity, by describing the topographical map of social systems,” Krotoski writes. “It has been used to identify clusters and holes in the pathways of diffusion, describing the processes involved in social change using structural explanations for attitude and behaviour similarity. As Internet technologies have emerged, analysts have begun to examine the virtual social structures of influence.”

Klout didn’t return a request for comment when we asked if this is where they got the idea from.

“Influence between online friends is, at least, mediated by the features of the lean communication medium,” she goes on. “Arguably, attributions of trustworthiness, credibility, social comparison and prototypicality in environments where users are encouraged to create new virtual identities separate from their offline selves are associated with performances of behaviours in that context.

“These may be based on the capability of people to deliver resources in a way that meets the expectations and needs of recipients (Hemetsberger, 2002), the amount of content shared and the perceived accuracy and honesty of the information exchanged (Feng, Lazar, & Preece,, 2004), common linguistic patterns (Paolillo, 1999), characterisations (Lyman, Scott, & Harre, 2009), or other public displays of contextually appropriate group normative behaviours (Lam & Schaubroeck, 2000; Hogg & Hains, 1996).”

Delving deeper

The sections it’s possible to parse are stunningly banal once unpacked: “It appeared that the degree to which an online participant disclosed content about details of his/her offline identity to other community members described the degree to which the Friend received attributions of trust, credibility, prototypicality and social comparison.”

But entire chapters are simply incomprehensible: “Although, YUM & Hara (2005) found that this destabilised some views of partner-credibility because too much information that undermined assumptions of expertise was disclosed too soon, the development of generalised credibility based on the establishment of trust through online self-disclosure, attributions of similarity, or behavioural attributions based on experiences of consistency and fairness were expected to result from partnership assignments.”

And so it goes on. And on, and on – presumably at taxpayers’ expense, and over the course of years. Literature fans will know that Jack Kerouac’s On The Road was written in just three weeks, but even that famously structureless beatnik Bible makes more sense than the endless torture of reading armchair observations about a grim online sex dungeon.

Let’s be clear: our problem isn’t that Second Life isn’t interesting. It’s that despite all the attention lavished on it by this paper, the social network is not remotely illuminated beyond the obvious or the ideologically-motivated.

Anyway. Given that 105,000 of the 107,000 words in this tract are recycled academic filler, we felt there was only one way to pay fitting tribute to this bilge. Social Influence in Second Life – coming to a pulping centre near you.

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