Stanford University

The unbearable likeness of being digital;
The persistence of nonverbal social norms in online virtual environments

Yee, N., Bailenson, J.N., Urbanek, M., Chang, F., & Merget, D. (2007). The unbearable likeness of being digital; The persistence of nonverbal social norms in online virtual environments. Cyberpsychology and Behavior, 10, 115-121.

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Abstract

Every day, millions of users interact in real-time via avatars in online environments, such as massively-multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs). These online environments could potentially be unique research platforms for the social sciences and clinical therapy, but it is crucial to first establish that social behavior and norms in virtual environments are comparable to those in the physical world. In an observational study of Second Life, a virtual community, we collected data from avatars in order to explore whether social norms of gender, interpersonal distance (IPD), and eye gaze transfer into virtual environments even though the modality of movement is entirely different (i.e., via keyboard and mouse as opposed to eyes and legs). Our results showed that established findings of IPD and eye gaze transfer into virtual environments: (1) male-male dyads have larger IPDs than female-female dyads, (2) male-male dyads maintain less eye contact than female-female dyads, and (3) decreases in IPD are compensated with gaze avoidance as predicted by the Equilibrium Theory. We discuss implications for users of online games as well as for social scientists who seek to conduct research in virtual environments.

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