Talking with Erika Thereian for "The Skin You're In"
I love it when academics take the time to generate hard data that addresses intuitions you've had for years. Specifically, a team of researchers led by Ph.D. candidate Nick Yee of Stanford, and the role of physical space and eye contact between avatars. In my own experience, online world interaction more or less follows the unwritten rules of real world eye contact and personal space (at least in the West.) But this should seem strange, from another point of view. After all, when you're in Second Life, you're just looking at computer-animated figures on a screen-- how could it possibly matter where they're sitting, or how long they're looking into each other's eyes?
In the real world, Yee notes in a Terra Nova post, "[W]ithin a social distance of about 12 feet, the closer two people are, the less likely they will maintain eye contact. This is the elevator effect. Proximity and eye gaze are both signs of intimacy. To keep things in equlibrium, eye gaze compensates for distance when we stand too close to another person. Another well-observed pattern is that men maintain less eye contact with other men than women do with each other."
Yee and his team wanted to know: would this phenomenon carry over into online worlds, "where people move with mice and keyboard instead of arms and legs, and where virtual gender need not match the real gender of a user?" To test that, they paid a staff of researchers to interact with Second Life residents, and created a script to monitor the position of their avatars, and the direction of their gaze.
Their research (full PDF paper here) are meticulous and striking, and tentatively positive:
"Our findings supported many of our hypotheses," Yee reports in the paper. "The closer that two people were, the less likely they were looking at each other." What's more, when two male avatars were talking with each other, they "were less likely to maintain mutual gaze than female-female dyads and mixed dyads."
"Finally," Yee continues, "these gender differences in mutual gaze were influenced by location. Male-male dyads are significantly less likely to look at each other in indoor locations as compared with all other gender compositions and location combinations. This interaction between gender and location makes sense, given that male-male dyads prefer less intimacy..." Amazing how the "guys sitting next to each other at a bar but staring straight ahead" phenomenon carries over into SL.
More on these findings, and a colorful Comment conversation over them, at the Terra Nova post here.