The Internet as Research Laboratory

Back in the good ole days of grad school, my nerdier colleagues and I would joke (sort of) about having a panel at the American Political Science Association on things like “Trembling-hand Perfect Equilibria in Alpha-Quadrant Negotiations between the Federation and the Dominion” or “Klingon Martial Cultures, Federation Citizen-Militias, Romulan Political Officers and Genetically Engineered Janissaries: Towards a non-Teleological Hermeneutic of Security Studies.” That was very geeky, yes.

But with the advent of the Internet and large virtual communities, scholars (and not just computer scientists) have found new laboratories among the fetishes of geeks.

Edward Castranova’s research was among the first to bring new scholarly uses of Internet communities to the attention of social scientists. (His story is fascinating.) For a long time, the dilemma of social science, in the words of the economist Edward Chamberlain, was that scholars “cannot observe the actual operation of a real model under controlled circumstances. Economics [and for that matter social science in general] is limited by the fact that resort cannot be had to the laboratory techniques of the natural sciences.”

Castranova realized that massive multiplayer online role playing games offer a way around this dilemma. For example, in the on-line world of Everquest, Star Wars Galaxies and Ultima-Online, everyone begins with the same endowments. What happens when equals interact in a dynamic environment?

And since your character can be either male or female, these virtual worlds are labs for examing how gender is valued. “The average avatar [character] price is 333 dollars; the price discount for females is 40 to 55 dollars, depending on methods.” This despite the fact that there are no differences in talent among these virtual charater-types.

Moreover, these communities could be measured in real world terms in interesting ways, usually through eBay, as in Castronova’s estimation of the economy of “‘Norrath’, populated by an exotic but industrious people. The nominal hourly wage is about USD 3.42 per hour, and the labors of the people produce a GNP per capita somewhere between that of Russia and Bulgaria.”

(Read the interview with him, here.)

Now a linguist has found an interesting use for “Hot or Not.” “Amy Perfors of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston, US, placed photos with fake names on a website called “Hot or Not”, which allows viewers to rank strangers’ photos for attractiveness. She found that men labelled with names including “front vowels,” such as the “aaa” sound in Matt were rated as more attractive by website viewers than photos labelled with “back vowel” names, such as the “aw” sound in Paul. The opposite was true for women’s names.” Check out the study, here, or just the synopsis, here.

I’m waiting for an internet as laboratory research methodology graduate class.

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