This post was originally published on socialsim

OK, based on discussions I’ve been having offline with folks about the subject of a recent post, it’s experiment time. Below is a section from the introduction of Study 3 of my PhD, on the implications of Voice for the Second Life community. Please comment – I really welcome your feedback. But note – I’m not interested in raising the old debates that were well-discussed on the Official Linden Lab forums/blogs back in 2007. I’m interested in knowing whether you feel I have captured the concerns of the detractors and the support of the people who looked forward to the service adequately and completely.

Thanks for any and all feedback!

1.1. Voice in Second Life
The behavioural innovation considered in this study was a new communication option made available to the Residents of the virtual world. This section offers an overview of Voice and considers the social and behavioural implications of this service to the online community.

1.1.1. Overview

The Vivox Voice service launched in Second Life in August 2007. It is an audio speech service that offers Second Life account holders the opportunity to speak with one another account holder in real-time via the internet, as when using a telephone or another Voice over Internet Protocol service like Skype. It did not replace text-based communication, but was an addition to the existing interaction facilities offered by Linden Lab, the creators of the virtual world.

Voice is an integrated facility that can only be used by Residents whilst logged into the application. To use it, participants are required to open an account with Vivox using their Second Life avatar name via a sign-up process that takes place in the virtual world. They are also required to purchase a headset with a microphone attachment. Other Residents are alerted that an avatar had installed voice and that the feature is activated by the presence of a white dot above the voice users’ head (see Fig *). When an avatar is engaged in public voice chat, the white dot icon is replaced by an animation of a green sound wave, alerting others that s/he is speaking (see Fig. *). Account holders’ voices are not altered in any way.

Voice communication was not available in every area in Second Life at launch. Linden Lab rolled out the facility over six weeks to ensure that the service did not affect the stability of their virtual world application. Additionally, account holders who had purchased virtual land were able to choose whether they activated the voice service on their region. Voice-activated areas were identified at the top of the viewer screen with the icon displayed in Fig. *.

The voice service functions in the same way as text-based communication: account holders are able to interact with other voice users in public in groups, in private with groups, or in private on a one-to-one basis.

1.1.2. Community reaction

From the initial announcement alerting Second Life Residents that Voice was being integrated, this was a controversial innovation that inspired substantial debate on official and unofficial community discussion sites. Residents who supported the feature argued that voice would make the virtual world platform more user-friendly and accessible to people who did not wish to text-type all communication. Business and education users in particular were encouraged by the facility.

Media Richness Theory (Nass & Gong, 2000; Reeves & Nass, 1996; Nass & Lee (2000); Jensen, Farnham, Drucker & Kollock, 2000) proposes that voice communication in online environments makes interaction less ‘lean’ and encourages the development of psychological trust and credibility because participants are better able to identify speakers (Utz, 2000; Williams, Kaplan, Xiong, 2007). Other benefits include the speed of interaction, more accurate transmission of meanings, increased bridging and bonding social capital through the extension of social interaction, improved sociability and the ability to engage in more complex collaborative tasks (Williams et al, 2007).

However, detractors identified several problems with the service. First, they were concerned that the new technology would disrupt the stability of the online platform, resulting in service losses and performance slow-down (‘lag’). Their concerns were founded in the erratic performance of the Second Life client as the population swelled in 2006, causing some participants to suggest that Linden Lab’s technology was unable to support any additional load. In fact, these concerns were unfounded; voice communication sat in a separate server system run by the third party solution provider Vivox, and weighted no more load on the community technology.

Second, critics of the service were concerned that the feature would create a tiered system based on offline physical ability. Several people noted that they were unable to hear or speak, and that their interaction would remain limited to the keyboard. They were apprehensive that they would be excluded from they social communication they had enjoyed when text-based discussion was universal. Indeed, the research supporting the use of the internet for deaf or partially-deaf participants suggests that the text-context promotes participation and encourages an offline sense of social self-efficacy (Houlihan, Drainoni, Warner, Nesathurai, Wierbicky & Williams, 2003; Krotoski, 2004; Bowker & Tuffin, 2002). Although this research admittedly problematises the social ability of these users in line with the Social Model of Disability (Finklestein, 1980; Watson, 2002) and stigmatises these populations (Freund, 2001; Pinder, 1995; Reeve, 2002; Swain & French, 2000), the voice service did not have a voice-to-text feature built in that would facilitate the needs of people who could not communicate via voice.

Third, the most vocal protests were raised by people who were anxious about the effect a new voice channel would have on their online identities. By including voice in the service, Linden Lab was establishing a richer connection between the online and offline self, and the absence of voice modification software meant that information about Residents’ real-life genders, ages, nationalities and other demographic features would be automatically divulged to other voice users. Those participants who were particularly protective of the boundary between online and off (e.g., people who used Second Life for role play, account holders who used avatars of the opposite gender) argued against this implementation.
New communication channels have caused rifts in online communities previously observed by ethnographers, anthropologists and sociologists, and argue that these threaten the stability of the communities. The added richness impacts users’ anonymity (Walther, 1992;Walther, 1996; Walter & Parks, 2002; Williams et al, 2007) and although there is evidence that voice communication helps to establish stronger bonds, this has been found in goal-oriented communities like online games, where collaboration is important. It has been observed that in situations where users wish to separate their online and offline selves, a new communication channel can transform online interpersonal relationships.

1.1.3. Summary
Adopting the voice innovation in this online community is an exercise in balancing the intentions of the offline virtual world consumer with his/her online social identity needs. In the context of the theoretical diffusion processes described above, voice use at any point in time in Second Life is hypothesised to be influenced by several factors:
• Resident use of Second Life community
• Attitudes to the innovation
• Social characteristics of the innovation, including how it is used, who it is used by and their position in the network
• Intentions to use the innovation
• Exposure to the innovation, with consideration of who the source is, the psychological closeness between them, their relative embeddedness in the network to one another and their demographic similarity
• Personal innovativeness