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Jarmon and Sanchez 2009: The Educators Coop: A Model for Collaboration and LSI Communication Research in the Virtual World
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The Electronic Journal of Communication / La Revue Electronique de Communication

Volume 19 Numbers 1 & 2, 2009

The Educators Coop:
A Model for Collaboration and LSI Communication Research in the Virtual World

Leslie Jarmon
University of Texas at Austin

Joe Sanchez
University of Texas at Austin

Abstract: Three-dimensional virtual worlds will be a widely used knowledge-and-social-interaction tool and will become another part of the socio-technical system that many people use for communication, whether for work or play, in the foreseeable future. This paper presents an approach that LSI researchers and educators (and other communication scholars) can take for their entry into this new 3-D virtual public and private sphere of interaction. We discuss LSI scholars as users of the technology, specifically Second Life®, to enhance collaboration with colleagues and to enable scholars to extend some very practical research and educational operations into virtual spaces. Secondarily, we briefly discuss some possible foci for LSI research, including some emerging communication practices. The paper concludes with a brief look at current challenges for LSI researchers with 3-D virtual world technologies.


Three-dimensional virtual worlds will be a widely used knowledge-and-social-interaction tool and will become another part of the socio-technical system that many people use for communication, whether for work or play, in the foreseeable future. This paper presents an approach that LSI researchers and educators (and other communication scholars) can take for their entry into 3-D virtual world technology and environments. Since LSI scholars not only conduct research, but also teach and present their research results, we discuss ways that, as users of the technology, they can enhance collaboration with colleagues and extend some very practical research and educational operations into virtual spaces. Specifically, the Educators Coop in Second Life will be discussed as an emerging model for collaboration among researchers and educators (Figure 1). Secondarily, we briefly discuss some possible foci for LSI research, including some emerging commun ication practices. LSI research could contribute to our understanding of human forays into this new virtual public and private sphere of interaction, notwithstanding some interesting challenges. The paper concludes with a look at current challenges for LSI scholars using 3-D virtual world technologies.

Figure 1. The Educators Coop in Second Life - at night.


Second Life (SL) as a Technology and a Site of Human Interaction

New technologies that allow us to extend ourselves into 3-D virtual world environments such as Second Life® (SL) are developing rapidly. Gartner, Inc. (2007) estimates that by 2011, 80 percent of active Internet users, including Fortune 500 enterprises, will have a “second life” in some form of 3-D virtual world environment. It seems clear, however, that the virtual world, in whatever forms it may evolve, will be a widely used knowledge-and-social-interaction tool. Like the Internet, virtual world environments such as Second Life (SL) are already being used for numerous kinds of human activity, and they provide both synchronous and asynchronous capabilities for everyday interaction. However, in contrast with text-based online learning settings and web-based computer-supported collaboration (CSC) tools, 3-D virtual world environments create a sense of physical place and presence through the visual projection of oneself and other individuals in the form of avatars interacting within three-dimensional physical spaces such as, for example, a neighborhood, a classroom, a corporate headquarters, or a focus group. Figure 2 shows 11 residents who live in different locations participating together in a virtual focus group in real time in SL. The interactants in the virtual world are the avatars, and behind every avatar is a real person at a computer. [1]

Figure 2. Virtual Focus Group, Educators Coop in Second Life.


Second Life (SL) was first made publicly available in 2003 by Linden Lab®, and with a rapidly growing population from 100 countries around the world, SL represents the robust nature of virtual worlds and human-centered computing (Linden Lab, 2007). Open virtual world platforms such as SL (open in the sense that they are not structured games, although games may be played within them), are still in their infancy, and extensive research, development, and investment are on-going as critical challenges continue to emerge. In December 2007, SL reported 11,396,586 total residents, with a resident defined as “a uniquely named avatar with the right to log into Second Life, trade Linden Dollars and visit the Community pages” (Linden Lab, 2007). SL’s economy runs on a currency called the Linden dollar ($L), and this economy is tied to the value of the U.S. dollar with exchange rates fluctuating between $250-300 L per $1 U.S.

Figure 3. Map view of small part of Second Life (dots represent islands, 16 virtual land acres).

Second Life’s virtual world exists on a scalable server grid running Linux, and each server can sustain two continuous simulations, or islands (Figure 3). An island is a simulation approximating 16 acres of virtual land and it can be designed and configured in almost any manner that a user envisions. Ondrejka (2007) states that over 10,000 islands have been constructed, and each island can support the activities of approximately 60 logged-in avatars, actual users at their keyboards. Further, SL supports over 35 terabytes of user-created data. In this endlessly expandable virtual space, the SL technology provides a platform for users that is massively distributed and that has pervasive connectivity; that is, one can communicate with or travel to almost any place within SL.

Virtual activity in SL includes major corporations, sports, politics, commerce, real estate, building design and construction, services, religion, culture, art, music, entertainment, museums, libraries, government, environmental studies, non-profit activity, international development, research and education. An estimated 300 universities and colleges have some degree of active virtual presence in SL. Users participate in multiple activities and form relationships through interaction. Work by Pena and Hancock (2006) suggests that a significant part of text-based conversations held in game-based MMORPGs (Massively Multi-User Online Role-Playing Games) are socio-emotional in nature rather than task-based. An example of a socio-emotional text utterance is “good fight” or “that was fun LOL” compared to task-based text utterances such as “how do you do a triple-combo” or “shortcut for Force push?&rdqu o; Pena and Hancock also found that players produced significantly more socio-emotional text utterances than task-based text utterances, and this finding held even though their study was conducted with users of Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast, a MMORPG with a heavy combat element. Participants spent more time talking to each other about the game rather than communicating during action sequences in game play. Similarly, since there is no structured “game” in SL, unless users choose to play a game, the participants engage in all kinds of human interaction, from teaching classes to learning to dance the tango to buying and selling real estate.  

IBM, Linden Lab, and major leaders from the international information technology sector have formed an industry wide consortium to establish the global standards for 3-D virtual world environments (IBM and Linden Lab, 2007). The work of this consortium is analogous to the early 1990s when the establishment of global standards was a prerequisite for the massive expansion of the World Wide Web and when the agreements on URL address standards were forged so that web pages could link to one another. Similarly, the new agreements and the drafting of virtual world global standards are predicted to rapidly increase the spread of virtual worlds for social interaction. Given the new functional utility of virtual worlds, LSI researchers and educators will undoubtedly be among the users of these emerging virtual spaces and may be poised to contribute to our understanding of virtual social interaction as well.

Three Ways Second Life Can Be Used By LSI Scholars

This section examines three ways that LSI scholars may consider using SL as a research and educational technology:  (1) for collaboration, (2) for education, and (3) as an interesting site to conduct LSI research on new forms of computer-mediated social interaction. Concrete examples from our on-going research project with the Educators Coop in SL will be provided throughout the discussion. 


For LSI scholars, virtual collaboration can include such practical and diverse everyday activities as LSI data sessions, workshops, conferences, virtual “water-cooler” communication spaces, and other research activities. Our IRB-approved research in SL focuses on collaboration and interactions in virtual worlds, specifically among the members of the Educators Coop, and we believe that it can serve as a preliminary model for LSI scholars interested in working in virtual worlds. The Educators Coop (signifying both co-op and a space of close proximity) is a three dimensional virtual world residential community of university faculty, librarians, and K-12 teachers actively teaching or conducting research in SL. Participants are from 32 different educational institutions and the large majority first met one another and have only known one another virtually. They meet regularly in SL to share virtual world teaching strategies, to design virtual wor ld and real world research projects, to collaborate on interdisciplinary conference sessions, and most importantly, to create a support system for geospatially separated academic practitioners interested in teaching and conducting research in virtual worlds (Jarmon & Sanchez, 2008a; 2008b). Preliminary results indicate that these researchers and educators are using the virtual world in very practical and concrete ways to carry out research projects. 

Collaboration can occur because SL virtual technology provides conditions for an experiential, embodied, and social reality, and this social reality provides a virtual “new space” wherein existing communication practices and social networking tools are converging. For example, residents in the Educators Coop include a growing network of connected “real life” (RL) individuals and groups collaborating virtually, in real time, in global educational, research, work, and play activities. Figure 4 is a snapshot taken in SL of a monthly virtual meeting of the residents of the Educators Coop. Typical neighborhood association issues are discussed as well as issues pertaining more specifically to living and working in SL, such as using new virtual tools.

Figure 4. Residents Virtual Meeting at the Educators Coop in SL.

In today's world, communication research as well as planning in organizations is often conducted in interdisciplinary and/or global contexts, and research teams may include members from several different industries, disciplines, countries and cultures (Miller & Mansilla, 2004). In SL, one’s research and teaching colleagues may include avatars representing real persons who are widely distributed geographically. For example, as shown in Figure 5, the representatives of approximately 50 non-profit organizations from around the world have formed a virtual community in SL called the Non-Profit Commons whose members hold weekly virtual meetings, help one another create their virtual spaces, convene conferences, hold fundraisers, and raise awareness about their causes.  

Figure 5. The Non-Profit Commons virtual weekly meeting in SL.

Another example of collaboration of interest to LSI researchers is the Second Life Conference on Learning Foreign Languages held in June 2007 for foreign language teachers and students. In SL, researchers and students have the opportunity to work collaboratively with other students, teachers and scientists at multiple locations throughout the world and to be introduced to subject matter experts outside their fields of study. These virtual capabilities can provide LSI researchers with useful tools to collaborate with colleagues, where possible, without the expense of travel. Combinations of technology can also be useful, as in the example shown in Figure 6, where a public academic workshop was held on Second Life that used SL’s voice and chat functionality in real time to connect the people in the auditorium in open Q&A with experts from different disciplines around the world. LSI master classes with academic leaders in the field could b e managed in similar ways.

Figure 6. Public Workshop on SL connecting participants in RL with global avatar experts.

While our research on virtual collaboration has not yet moved into typical LSI methods of analysis and has focused on a more ethnographic collection of data during a 17-month period in SL, it is worthwhile to briefly describe our methods. We conducted three online surveys, held two virtual focus group sessions, and conducted 46 in-depth virtual interviews in SL with members of the Educators Coop. The interviewees ranged in length of residency in SL from one month to one year at the time of the interviews. The 45-90 minute virtual interviews were conducted through the chat client within SL and each interview consisted of five questions. For example, one question was: “How have you used the Educators Coop? Please describe in detail.” The interviews were intended to uncover the self-reported perceptions and experiences of members in the Educators Coop, an objective that is consistent with Mertens’ (1998) framework for qualitati ve research: “Within this realm, the scientist’s job is to discover the world as it is experienced by the individual” (169). Later in the paper, excerpts from some of these data will be presented as concrete illustrations of our findings (List 4.2, 3.0, and 9.0). When conducting an interview in SL, six different communication resources could be used at any one time. For example, Figure 7 depicts an on-going interview where 6 tools are visible on the screen: public chat, instant-message, note card, camera controls, mini-map, and a HUD sensor reading (HUD signifies heads up display; see next section for further discussion).

Figure 7. Virtual Interview showing six communication resources in operation.

The transcripts of the virtual interviews were analyzed using inductive content analysis of the discourse used by the members themselves. It is important to note for LSI scholars that researchers using the chat function can collect automatic transcripts of the virtual interviews. Furthermore, in addition to a snapshot utility, if use of the voice function or if a video of the interaction is warranted, the SL technology also provides built-in recording and movie capabilities.

Enabling collaboration-at-a-distance is another example of how LSI researchers might use the SL technology. For example, the authors are currently conducting an interdisciplinary research project in SL that includes scholars from the School of Information, Organizational Communication, Interaction Analysis, Interpersonal Communication. This research team meets and works in both SL and in real life, and the actual experiment (on priming and stereotyping effects) is being conducted in SL with avatars. It is probable that we would not be collaborating on this research were it not for the affordances of SL as a collaborative research space.

Within the Educators Coop in SL, collaboration among researchers has been occurring with increasing regularity. A detailed illustration of collaboration here may be helpful for LSI researchers to imagine themselves similarly engaged. This example draws on the experiences of two actual faculty members and researchers in the Educators Coop whose avatar names are Polgara and Chade. Although they live in cities that are geographically distant from one another and had never met in real life, the virtual relationship between Polgara and Chade originally formed through a mentorship at the Educators Coop. Chade was an experienced SL user and Polgara was fairly new to SL when their virtual collaboration began. Chade helped Polgara build her first house in SL and the two developed a friendship from their interactions. Over time, Polgara, a special education professor, began to interact with a community of participants in SL who have real life disabilities. She became a manager o f a social club in SL for people with disabilities called “Wheelies,” and the club quickly became the social hub for many SL users with disabilities. Once Polgara started managing the club she noticed many of the “dance” animations and “sit” animations were not designed for people in SL using virtual wheel chairs. Her research interest became focused on accessibility issues for users of SL. Polgara and Chade started working together and designing virtual furniture, ramps, and other items that would make SL more accessible to users with disabilities.

Eventually, the virtual collaboration between Polgara and Chade led to a real world collaboration when they co-presented at the 23rd Annual International Conference on Technology and Persons with Disabilities of 2008 in Los Angeles (Mandlebaum & Lowell, 2008). At the conference, they presented a session that connected their social and academic interests:  using SL to combat social isolation among people with disabilities. Their real life collaboration grew from a virtual world partnership and serves as an example of the types of interactions that can occur within a virtual world among researchers. When they became members of the Educators Coop, neither of their original research statements had anything to do with combating social isolation; but through their regular and frequent virtual interactions, this research area co-evolved alongside their virtual relationship as Polgara became more integrated into the larger S L community.

Turning to a very important activity for LSI scholars, for conducting virtual data sessions in SL, LSI researchers can utilize a model for virtual collaboration established by the DeLange Conference on Emerging Libraries (Rice University). As shown in Figure 8, the live video from the conference was streamed into SL in real time so that avatar librarians and educators from around the world could participate, ask questions of the speakers, and interact with one another. It is important to emphasize that questions posed by the avatars in SL were responded to in real time, live, at the conference held in Houston, Texas.

Figure 8. Interactive DeLange Conference on Emerging Libraries streamed live into SL.

For LSI data sessions, the “host location” could stream the video or audio data segments into a shared SL Data Session virtual location. Prepared note cards with the transcripts would be distributed in SL to all attendees. Using voice chat or text chat, a standard LSI data session would take place. For LSI researchers who may often feel that they are located in somewhat academically isolated departments, data sessions hosted in SL could provide a useful way to meet and collaborate with LSI colleagues from distant educational institutions.

LSI researchers can also draw on the multiple communication tools within SL to initiate or extend collaboration with new colleagues. Our research with the Educators Coop has helped to identify an initial typology of text and voice communication practices in SL (see Table 1). There are multiple modalities for interaction to occur, and several different communication tools may be in use at the same time; that is, participating in more than one interaction at a time is possible. Discursive communication in SL can occur in text chat and through voice chat using a headset. Chat can also be through an open public channel, a private instant messaging channel, or through a group-messaging channel. During events such as data sessions, meetings, or conferences, communication may occur through streaming media into SL from a real life (RL) place. Thus, a group interaction in SL may involve a variety of public text chat mixed with private instant messaging, vo ice, and announcements sent and received through group chat. Table 1 identifies ways in which text and voice communication may occur among two or more interactants in SL, groups of interacting avatars, or among virtually co-present SL users and RL face-to-face interactants.

Table 1:
An Initial Typology of Text and Voice Communication Practices in SL
Text and Voice Communication in Second Life
Interaction in Second Life Interaction occurs among Instances
Public Chat Public Voice Two or more interactants who are virtually co-present; “overhearing” possible at 20 meters Interacting avatars chat in a public area about teaching practices in SL
Private Messaging Private Voice/Call Two interactants; may or may not be virtually co-present One participant asks another for her location in SL
Group Chat (only members of the group have access to the communication) Multiple members of the group; may or may not be virtually co-present A group member announces that an event is about to begin Members of a group discuss a guest speaker’s lecture, adding information, assessments
Group Notice Group officers to group members Group owner sends a notice of an upcoming event to its members.
Group Proposal Group officers to group members The group members are asked to vote on a resolution
Streaming Audio One (real life Broadcaster) to Many (virtually co-present recipients); typically, recipients have ability to participate in additional interaction via chat messaging or using voice The video stream from a “real life” conference is streamed into SL & recipients participate in Q&A

It has been demonstrated how SL might be used by LSI researchers to support and extend their professional collaboration and networking efforts. A second way that SL can be used by LSI scholars is as a new site for LSI educational activities.


Educational uses of SL have been the foci of much preliminary research. Three critical elements for engagement in learning in the digital age have been found to be interactivity, connectivity, and access (Dresang & McClelland, 1999), and these are the three key characteristics of SL. Of particular interest to LSI scholars, the research suggests that such a learning environment enhances student engagement through a sense of shared experiences, offers students and teachers opportunities for collaboration, and provides access to information about the virtual environment and user-created content (FitzGerald, 2007; see also Nardi, 2005). In research specifically focused on education and learning, Yee (2006) collected online survey data from 30,000 users of Massively Multi-User Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPGs) over a three year period, and the findings in dicate that users are willing to invest considerable time and emotional energy in virtual environments, that the relationships people make playing an MMORPG are real, and that users are more than willing to collaborate to accomplish a goal (see also de Bruyn, 2004).

Prensky (2003) argues that students involved in 3-D virtual worlds for extended periods of time are highly motivated because they are learning in profound ways, including decision-making, synthesis of information, and understanding complex systems. Research on pedagogical agents suggests that the presence of avatars enhances engagement and learning beyond computer-mediated communication without such agents (Atkinson, Mayer, & Merrill, 2005; Moreno, Mayer, Spires, & Lester, 2001). Two examples of classes in SL are shown in Figure 9, a Project Management class and a Genetics class. The Project Management class was conducted in a more traditional classroom setting (albeit outdoors) and involved a highly interactive text chat format. In the Genetics class, students were taken on a virtual field trip by teleporting to a science island in SL featuring intera ctive animated demonstrations of gene transfer using virtual rabbits.

Figure 9. Project Management class and Genetics class in SL.

One useful theoretical framework frequently used by LSI researchers and educators is that of improvisation (Goffman, 1956; Schechner, 1977; Goodman, 1973; Bateson, 1993; Gray & VanOosting, 1996; Jarmon, 1996a). Performative strategies for engaged learning including narrative and improvisation (Bateson, 1993; Taussig, 1993) are being widely used in SL. Role play and improvisation are used in training emergency personnel and nurses at the virtual Ann Meyers Medical Center in SL, and for interacting with reflexive architecture as well as with other avatars (Brouchoud, 2006; and see Akrich, 1992 on “technical objects”). It has also been suggested that such immersive virtual experiences can have a direct relationship to cha llenges met outside of the virtual world itself (De Castell & Jenson, 2007) including, for example, vocational learning (Hamalainen, 2008; and see “extensible self” in Adams, 2005). In addition, numerous educational simulations have been created, including Harvard University’s law course, Stanford University’s virtual operating and emergency rooms, and Britain’s National Health Service’s virtual hospital (Stein, 2007). Other examples of educational simulations in SL include the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Virginia Tech Memorial, the Van Gogh Virtual Museum, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Genome Island simulation, where a protein’s amino acid sequence has been used to generate music (Everts, 2007, 49).

LSI researchers and educators alike who share common archival data and class materials could utilize the SL “Group” tools to support one another and their students. The Group tool allows for communication between many users with similar interests; for example, the Educators Coop members use the Group tool, and another active Group is the Librarians of SL. The latter Group consists of real life librarians who collaborate in SL to provide reference services to users and to create a library community in the virtual world. Members of Librarians of SL host seminars, training sessions, classes, and events such as Banned Books Week, and they also staff a volunteer virtual reference desk at Info Island. Groups communicate with each other through Group Chats, they send announcements, vote on proposals, and can own land together. Many groups own islands in SL, and they can customize their land to limit access to members of their particular group, thereby providing an increased level of security or privacy.

Groups of avatars can also host a variety of educational activities in SL ranging from social to professional. An example of a social event is a theme event such as an 80’s prom night at a dance club. Another type of event might be an SL training session such on how to build a waterfall or Scripting 101. Aside from SL training sessions, some groups host professional development. The American Sociological Association, for example, hosted a 2007 annual convention panel session in SL about the social impacts of technology in SL. Panelists submitted papers and winning researchers presented their work on a virtual panel to a virtual audience.

Thus, SL can be used by LSI researchers for collaboration and by LSI educators as a new site for teaching and learning activities, including sharing archiving teaching materials. A third way that LSI scholars can use SL is as an interesting site to conduct research on new forms of computer-mediated social interaction.

LSI Research in SL

Research on shared virtual environments (SVEs) and on collaborative virtual environments (CVEs) is particularly relevant to LSI concerns because this research examines participants’ sense of presence, co-presence, and place-presence. However, these same features become somewhat problematic in the case of social virtual worlds since most groups being studied were artificially created. Much of the work on SVEs has been limited to small groups of participants (Sonnenwald, 2006), timed and coordinated events (Nilsson, Heldal, Schroeder, & Axelsson, 2001), and in isolated group environments (Spante, Axelsson, & Schroeder, 2006). Nevertheless, research on SVEs and CVEs support the theoretical tenant that virtual worlds are being used as collaborative work technologies and, therefore, are already of interest to some LSI researchers who, along with colleagues in sociology and cognitive science, have formed the Embodied Research Group in SL, shown in Figure 10. One of the first difficult challenges for the Embodied Research Group has been to attempt to begin identifying the characteristics of what “embodiment” might mean when people extend their presence into an open virtual world like SL.

Figure 10. The Embodied Research Group in SL Working on Definitions.

Generally, in LSI approaches, we might ask how interaction emerges and is negotiated in virtual face-to-face interaction among avatars. That is, we might say, again speaking generally, that an interaction only exists (comes into being) when avatars are “doing” “being interactants.”  These “doings” are empirically observable behaviors and must be so because they are designed and displayed - albeit virtually - for recipients’ orientation to and uptake of them (following Sacks, 1984). Even in 3-D virtual worlds like SL, the behaviors/performances have to be visually and/or aurally available for detection by virtually co-present others (or by possible LSI analysts after-the-fact).

Hutchby and Tanna (2008) have conducted an analysis using standard CA methods (Conversation Analysis) on 2-D text-based communication and found that interactants construct their turns in sequential ways that are in some ways different and yet share some similarities with co-present verbal conversation. In SL, as we have seen, text-based chat and instant-messaging (IM) are also two of multiple forms of communicative resources available to participants.  Thus, in LSI, using recordings of naturally occurring virtual human interaction, we could also make use of empirical observation of instances of virtual face-to-face interaction, particularly of sequential behaviors, typically at a micro-scale (see Sacks, Schegloff, & Jefferson, 1974; Hopper, Koch, & Mandelbaum, 1986; Schegloff, 1995).

To explore what it might mean from an LSI perspective to be “virtually co-present” presents a number of very complex challenges, and this theme cannot be fully addressed here. However, researchers examining collaborative virtual environments are particularly interested in the relationship between co-presence, the sense of being with other people, and place-presence, the feeling that a virtual environment is a place (Steed, Slater, Sadagic, Bullock, and Tromp, 1999). To measure co-presence and place-presence experiments are conducted with small groups of participants where they are typically asked to perform a short problem-based task such as solving a puzzle (Sonnenwald, 2006; Steed et al., 1999). The act of solving a puzzle is thought to give participants a shared experience, which in turn leads them to report higher feelings of co-presence with one another.

Interestingly, Lucy Suchman’s research on human-machine communication has provided a useful framework whereby LSI researchers could explore the relationships between everyday embodied communicative practices and the design of the socio-technical systems in which they can occur (1987; 2002). The construct of embodiment may also be of interest for LSI researchers when explored through the lens of the interactions of avatars (of mixed-gender and mixed species) with virtual objects, landscapes, sounds, and spatial constructs. Furthermore, as illustrated in Figure 11, the individual SL user’s connectivity within a so-called socio-technical system includes interacting with other people via their avatars, using a computer, monitor screen, keyboard, headset, and computer mouse with hands, body, and mind. All these elements also become parts of an extended system of experience and i nteraction, and they constitute, following Lave and Wenger, what might be called a complex situated learning environment (Lave & Wenger, 1991). A complex situated learning environment, however constituted, has been a traditional focus for LSI scholars. 

Figure 11. A Socio-Technical System including virtual elements in SL.

Challenges and Future LSI Research

Communication - whether in the real world or in the 3-D virtual world - has been called, after all, the “practical discipline" (Craig, 1989). Virtual public meetings, group decision-making, and concepts of virtual collaboration and interaction provide useful tools for LSI researchers and educators, and these kinds of human activities similarly provide possible sites for extension of our knowledge about communication, methods, and theory. The intellectual traditions within which models for LSI research have evolved often invoke social constructionist frames. There is a direct link between such social constructivist traditions and communicative practice. As communication theorists, sociologists, and philosophers of language have long argued, communication “is a symbolic process whereby reality is produced, maintained, repaired, and transformed” (Carey, 1989, 23; Burke, 1935). T herefore, what kinds of questions could LSI scholars pose concerning virtual interaction and virtual collaboration that could significantly advance our understanding?

For example, LSI researchers could examine closely the empirically observable sequential behaviors that emerged from tentatively labeled instances of particular segments of virtual interaction where “collaboration” appears to be occurring to the participants themselves. It is important to reiterate that it will be the interactants themselves who, through their behaviors, provide the substantive evidence of whether or not “collaboration” is occurring; that is, as we know, the evidence that matters in LSI arises first from the participants own communicative behaviors in regard to one another’s behaviors as captured by the recording devices, whether text transcripts or digital video recordings of the virtual interactions in SL.

While in some ways similar to real life face-to-face interaction in that virtual participants seem to be improvising on real life communicative practices (and as yet the relationship between the “real” and the “virtual” is far from being clearly understood), virtual face-to-face interaction, generally, involves an ecology of actions including chat and speech, virtual movement, virtual gaze direction, virtual touch, virtual proximity, and a whole range of multimodal communicative resources and their relationship with one another through time as they unfold in real time (for face-to-face ecology of interaction see, e.g., Goodwin, 1980; Goodwin, 1986; Goodwin & Goodwin, 1986; Jarmon, 1996b).

Of course, the questions posed by LSI can be quite fine, delicate, and complex -- yet ultimately quite orderly (Goffman, 1983; Sacks, 1984; Jefferson, 1983). For example, an LSI approach to interactions in SL might look closely not only at the language that interactants utter for important features of grammar (e.g., pronoun use:  we/us/our; they/them/their; and you/your), or syntax, or semantics that appear to be getting some interactional work done, but it might also look at the sequence of those utterances and instances of repair, alignment, preference structures, and so forth (e.g., Pomerantz, 1984; Ochs, Schegloff, & Thompson, 1996; Lerner, 1991; Hutchby & Tanna, 2008). These language features cannot, of course, be separated from their particula r in-the-moment performative features such as prosody, repetition, poetics (e.g., see Hopper & Glenn, 1994); nor can they be analyzed outside of the immediate local context of the particular interactional sequence. Some new elements to investigate in the SL virtual world might include collaborative activities like the sequential collaborative building of virtual structures, special movement elements such as flying and teleporting, and scripted gestures that include holding hands, hugging, and more intimate physical interactions.

When the LSI research topic is virtual collaboration, for example, an LSI approach might anticipate that some of the language used by interactants in a segment that appears to involve decision-making would likely exhibit indexicality of language (e.g., Silverstein, Blommaert, Caton, Koyama, & Tsitsipis, 2004). That is, particular utterances and sequences might display sequential references to something like an “objective” of the collaboration, or might invoke co-interactants’ earlier utterances regarding a position or stance regarding alternative possible “solutions.” To use Sacks’ formulation, earlier utterances can be dragged onto the conversation floor for revisiting (1992). Interestingly, in SL, the chat text can quite literally be copied and pasted (“dragged”) onto the conversational floor; for that matter, the unfolding chat text can be visually represen ted in three dimensions unfolding above the heads of the interactions as in the case of a virtual research design being conducted in SL by the MIT Media Lab on the rhetorical persuasive force of unfolding arguments in a speech. In this case, LSI approaches might be concerned with the rhetorical force of certain language (depending on how co-interactants orient to such language), or sensitivity to language that “indexes” something expected-to-be-recognized by the recipients of such an utterance.

LSI researchers might also investigate how indexicality is being used to mark membership by interactants involved in virtual collaboration segments. The communicative resources used by interactants include not only specific language, but also whatever is visually and/or aurally available to the virtual co-interactants, including virtual artifacts. Such indexical markers or symbols include, for example, virtual clothing, virtual hairstyles, even virtual look-alike avatars of cultural icons shared by the group (or not). Some elements of SL that might impact current LSI understanding of indexicality include the fact that avatars can display above their heads not only their names but their group affiliations, member-status, nicknames, and other identity markers. In addition, as we have seen, Group membership entails an array of additional communication tools and access to more levels of interaction.

Furthermore, in virtual interactions, how and when group members use communicative resources and structures like sequential deletion and the related use of resources in negotiation could be an important area for LSI researchers to explore. LSI approaches could also contribute to our existing understanding of virtual membership displays by exploring the situated embodied actions (Heath, 1984; Jarmon, 1996b) that interactants draw on to be “doing” “being a group member.” These virtual embodied displays are made visually available to other avatars and contribute to footing, alignment, proximity displays, channel-availability and access, and so forth. Although the 3-D technology has only begun to minimally mirror the fluidity of human movements, instances of observable “synchrony” would make an interesting collection to study closely, as well as instances of “asynchrony.” In the virtual world, both can be either scripted or spontaneous, adding a new dimension of complexity.

However, it is the experience of embodied social connection with others and the immediacy of social co-presence that users repeatedly reference, and these interactions suggest sites for future LSI research:

[from List 4.2]

C: I found that as Lenoi in SL, I have quickly developed a professional network of outstanding individuals and organizations...this is very exciting for me. I don't feel so isolated in my work.

[from List 3.0]

A: …I popped into an orientation island and was immediately struck by the sheer enormity of the possibilities and, for reasons I still don't understand, I hit the MAP button, picked an out of the way SIM, and teleported. I just decided to explore. There I had the great fortune to meet an exceptional person and we became fast friends. That's when it hit me. The graphics, building, clothes and all the other cool stuff is nothing unless you have a meaningful human emotional experience to go with it. For me, that means with another person.

A user’s ability to view or observe his/her own avatar while engaged in interaction adds an additional perspective to interaction research. Recent research in neuroscience and psychology has suggested that a network of mirror neurons in the human brain constitutes an experiential “simulation” and provides the basis for empathic understanding of one another in interpersonal relationships and thus in collaboration (Gallese, Eagle & Migone, 2007; Freedberg & Gallese, 2007; Gallese & Lakoff, 2005). This research may have critical implications for some special needs populations. For example, stroke victims visiting the protected virtual area in SL for people with disabilities called SL Dreams have reported that the experience of seeing themselves walking aided in their recovery (Stein, 2007).

When regarding small groups of people who are co-present with one another in group meetings, another LSI communicative element that could warrant study is their physical (albeit virtual) face-to-face proximity to one another during, for example, a virtual interview as shown in Figure 12. We see three avatars seated at a virtual table and one’s hands indicate the avatar is typing text or chatting. Recall that in SL, regardless of the physical location of one’s own avatar, one can have one sense of “moving closer” to another avatar by zooming in with the camera control. Proximity can become, in a sense, a fluid or moving indicator, during a virtual interaction; and this phenomenon makes “proximity” problematic in interesting new ways.

Figure 12. Proximity During a Virtual Interview in SL.

In-depth LSI study and analyses would be helpful because there are other dimensions of proximity in virtual space, and numerous elements to consider from an LSI perspective include footing, F-formations, and sensory access to one another’s communication modalities wherein participants display use of these resources in the on-going interaction (see Kendon, 1982; Kendon, 1990; Birdwhistell, 1970). Within the virtual technology design of SL, text chat is “readable” out to a distance of 20 meters, and voice chat grows fainter even as one’s avatar turns and faces away from the current speaker. However, as had been shown, an entirely new visual dimension to interaction has been provided in SL through the virtual camera functions (essentially, an avatars vision). For example, an adjustment allows for one to center your “eyes and ears” on a specific speaker and hear clearly, regardless of the spatial distance of one’s own avatar from that speaker (within certain broader limits). Furthermore, one can just as easily center one’s view on an avatar or object behind one’s own avatar. So hearing and seeing are no longer necessarily tied to physical proximity.

Virtual participants can also control access and availability to their presence in SL, thereby using the physical elements of virtual face-to-face interaction themselves as resources for doing communicative work. For example, in SL, an avatar can “wear” a sensing device called a HUD (heads up display) that notifies that user whenever any avatar approaches within a set number of meters. The SL Friends List notifies users when someone on their list has logged-in to SL (indicating that they are now available for interaction) or has logged-out of SL (they are no longer available for interaction).

Similarly, visually available or other sensory input available to participants can index (rightly or wrongly) membership in various identity groups at a macro-scale, for example gender, age, height, and so forth. Ambiguity itself can and does play an important role in some kinds of virtual interactions. These communicative components can be at play at both the micro- and the macro-levels, presenting an element of inescapable-ness to the interaction (for example, potential profiling). Research on stereotyping priming effects, gender displays, identity, and even cross-species avatars is already underway. From a feminist perspective, questions have been raised concerning social interaction analysts’ almost total reliance on participants’ orientations to macro-level identity aspects like gender (Stokoe & Smithson, 2001). However, LSI approaches might argue that still, at the very least, at a more subtle but eventually e mpirically-observable level, some “noticing” or orientation to an input such as virtual gender must be displayed by co-participants in order for LSI analysts to formulate claims about gender’s function or influence in a particular virtual interactional instance (Sacks, 1984).

People are improvising from patterns of behavior newly re-interpreted in virtual social spaces filled with new tools. Interactants connect, build relationships (Nardi, 2005), pursue objectives, and act with embodied purpose; in some cases, communities of practice are forming or re-establishing themselves in virtual spaces (Wenger, 1998). These performative capabilities extended into virtual worlds include a wide range of social change activity (for example, Non-Profit Commons, Educators Coop, Health Island, Commonwealth, and and warrant further study (following Conquergood, 1991; Turner, 1982). The improvised discourse emerging from virtual social interactions in SL reflects the inventive, poetic, and pragmatic nature of people with a need to communicate an utterance such as:

[from List 9.0]

A: I'm gestating myself. I'll let you know how it goes.

Such an utterance might have at one time understandably been characterized along the lines of Chomsky’s (1957, 15) “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously” as grammatically correct but semantically nonsensical. [2] However, in this instance, the person is referring to a gestation script purchased in SL that animates one’s avatar to reproduce the virtual impression of pregnancy, with special features (“Baby-in-Tummy”). The “baby” in this case was the person’s alternate avatar form. People are improvising on prior patterns and constructs, and they are “languaging into being” new discursive expressions to articulate, sometimes in forms that are poetic, that which is experiential and virtually new (see Jefferson, 1996; Hopper & Glenn, 1994). As Suchman observed, “a frame of artful int egration emphasizes the ways in which new things are made up out of reconfigurations and extensions to familiar environments and forms of action” (2002, 144).

Users and organizations within SL also use a variety of Web 2.0 (social networking) Internet applications to support their virtual world activities, and the emerging communication practices among users, small groups, and larger organizations, including the corporations who are operating in SL, could likely become interesting sites for LSI study. For example, members of large groups in SL such as the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) in SL and the Librarians of SL use social networking tools including Google Groups, Flickr, and Wordpress blogs to communicate about and to organize their SL activities. YouTube is another technology used by many participants and groups in SL to share tutorials, communicate about virtual campuses, and to communicate using their machinima movies (SL screencast function). Other general interest SL groups use email listservs to communicate between groups and individuals; for example, the SL Education listserv (SL ED) is sponsored by Linden Lab and has approximately 3,800 members. The interactive SLED list is used to announce events, grant proposals, calls for journal submissions, and as a place to find technical or pedagogical support between users.

Communication at work and job interviews in particular have long been sites for LSI research, and these everyday human activities are becoming more pervasive in the virtual world of SL. For example, TMP, North America’s largest independent recruitment advertising agency, offers interactive corporate recruitment capabilities through their virtual presence in SL:  “TMP Island is a space where recruiters will be able to network with prospective candidates, host events, conduct employee presentations, and even build virtual replicas of their real-world offices for unprecedented interaction with job seekers” (TMP Worldwide Brings Recruitment to Second Life, 2007).  People around the world continue to build increasing amounts of interactive, user-created content in SL. Future LSI researchers will be able to conduct research on interaction, language acquisition, and language immersion with, for example, many of the a lready existing 27 language-specific virtual islands. SL has a robust language translation functionality (derived from Babbler) that warrants investigation. Finally, medical research and training is a rapidly developing sector in SL. LSI researchers working in the areas of doctor-patient, doctor-nurse, and nurse-patient interactions could already begin pilot studies on the interaction already occurring in SL, for example, at the Nursing Education Simulation NESIM training site.  

While recent research suggests that there is a sustainable trend for users to continue investing their time and capital in SL, user acceptance of 3-D virtual world environments may be one of the more critical challenges to overcome (Fetscherin & Lattemann, 2007, 20). Researchers and educators want more stability in the software platform, faster functionality, minimized or less expensive initial equipment requirements, easier-to-learn scripting and building tools, increased ability to import ready-made objects from other programs, simpler ways to stream media, and more seamless integration of most other standard-use software products into the SL virtual environment. As mentioned earlier, to begin to address such challenges, IBM, Linden Lab (the creators of Second Life), and leaders from the international information technology sector formed a consortium to establish global standards for virtual environments (IBM and Linden Lab, 2007). The existence of the consortium also indicates the robustness of the virtual world as a growing large-scale pervasive space for human interaction.


In conclusion, although many challenges exist, the 3-D virtual world technology of Second Life provides tools for LSI researchers that can support their collaboration, education, and research activities. SL can be used to enhance collaboration with colleagues and extend some very practical research and teaching operations into virtual spaces. As virtual worlds become more mainstream and as the underlying technology becomes more transparent, the allure of connecting geospatially-distant LSI researchers, teachers, students, and community members through virtual environments is expected to attract even more learning organizations across sectors including corporate, public, nonprofit, and educational institutions. LSI research may also contribute to people’s transition into virtual world environments and to our understanding of how individuals and groups improvise and negotiate their virtual communication practices.


[1] Virtual worlds are being used for therapeutic purposes, for example, for people with autistic disorders (Mangan, 2008; and see “mirrored flourishing” in Au, 2008). However, the virtual world technology of Second Life actually allows for several people to be “embodied” all into a single avatar. This is the case, for example, with the avatar known as Wilde Cunningham, and this example raises interesting questions about social interaction involving a virtual participant who is representing multiple actual persons; a new level of complexity is added to the idea of co-present participants:

Wilde Cunningham is an avatar controlled by a group of nine adults with cerebral palsy (and their nurse) at the day-care program they attend in Massachusetts. The group members are aged 30 to 70 and comprise four men and five women. Most of them are wheelchair users and rely on their caretakers for almost all aspects of their daily lives. Yet in Second Life they have built their own houses, have pets, gardens, even a baseball field. They also have many close friends and a large social network. “Second Life gives me the chance to be the person I feel I was born to be,” says John S, 32, one of the group. “Being in Second Life is how I imagine an innocent man who had been locked up wrongly feels when he is finally set free. In Second Life I get to call the shots.” For John S, the virtual world is all about being free from his disability but for Simon Stevens, who also suffers from cerebral palsy, it is equally about making disabled people visible. (Deeley, 2007).

[2] Appreciation is due to this issue’s editor, Wendy Leeds-Hurwitz, for bringing to my awareness the fact that Dell Hymes wrote a poem using Chomsky's sentence as its title. Hymes was demonstrating that context is more important than syntax. Additionally, in his collection entitled The Night Mirror (1971, 38), the poet John Hollander composed the following poem and dedicated it to Chomsky:


Coiled Alizarine
Curiously deep, the slumber of crimson thoughts
While breathless in stodgy viridian,
Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.



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