millay Freschi: studying our relationship with our digital selves

millay Freschi – studying the relationship between our physical and avatar selves

At the end of September, Gentle Heron sent me a note card concerning a study being carried out by millay Freschi focused on our relationships with our avatar, other SL users, the group we belong to, and so on. The survey is still open, and millay is still seeking people willing to participate (a link to the survey is at the end of this article). Also included in the note card was feedback from millay on her initial findings from the survey, which also offered me the chance to chat in more detail with millay about her work and plans for the study.

In the physical world, millay is Amy E. Cross, a PhD candidate in an Interdisciplinary Programme at the University of Maine, and the study forms a core part of her dissertation. “I’m compiling information and research on the components of the avatar and how they affect our lives,” she told me earlier in November. “Specifically, I’m looking at social movements as that’s been my experience in SL; but the avatar components are the brunt of the research.

“I believe that I had 500 or so respondents when I talked about my initial findings in September. That number has now risen to over 900, and my dream is to have 3,000 respondents by the time I close the survey. I would like to get an honest look at how we view ourselves, our interactions and the place itself. As a part of this, I’m also conducting interviews with people willing to talk about themselves.”

Amy E. Cross, millay’s alter ego

millay’s research is being overseen by Dr. Kristina Nielson of the University of Maine, and those participating in the study must be at least 18 years of age, and able to answer 47 questions on a range of subjects relation to their physical and digital selves. It should take around 30 minutes to complete.

“It really is an exploratory study,” millay says of it. “I want to use the information to provide a solid foundation – a baseline of experiences and responses – for researchers Second Life, so I tried to  create a survey that would convey a lot of information without overwhelming the respondents. I’ll be expanding on it through the interviews I mentioned, together with observations and my own experience within SL.”

And millay does have considerable Second Life experience herself. “I didn’t actually just come here as a researcher,” she says. “I first arrived in 2007 as a physics major with an eye on maybe becoming an astronaut, drawn to Second Life simply out of curiosity, but once in-world, I was hooked!

“In 2008, I started the Four Bridges Project after working with Amnesty USA, which convinced me that peace and reconciliation studies were more in line with what I want to do.” She chuckles and adds, “I realised as well that my chances of becoming an astronaut were pretty slim!”

She continues, “As I was deciding on my graduate studies focus, I thought about who we are in this community and how what we do here, in Second Life, matter out there. So my Masters focused on virtual technology in education with a slant towards civic engagement and peace studies. My dissertation focuses on how our avatar components might play a role in virtual social activism.”

Turning to her preliminary findings, millay said, “Even in September the results were interesting, and educational for me! For example, most of the respondents at that time said they came to Second Life out of curiosity; I actually wish I had worded that response differently, as I’d like to know what gave rise to that curiosity. I’ll be so much better at the next survey! Of the 500+ responses I’d had at that time, 25% said that they came in to meet people, and 70% said they had met an SL contact in the physical world.”

Given the number of avatar profiles which carry statements like “SL is SL and RL is RL, I don’t mix the two”, this latter statistic might seem surprising; but it also might indicate an interesting bias in the nature of those taking the survey. While entirely anonymous, the questions do delve into our physical world lives; this could make it more appealing to those willing to be more open about their off-line selves than those who see a clear demarcation between “real life” and Second Life. By extension, those completing the survey may be far more comfortable with physical world meetings than might otherwise be the case.

It is because of the risk of bias within the results that millay would like to a broader cross-section of Second Life residents participate in her research. “For example,” She says, “Around 80% of the respondents up to the end of September 2017, have been in-world for six years or longer, with 40% over 10 years. While I know this is meaningful because it gives the survey a picture of a history in a way,  I would dearly like to see more people who have been in-world for less than five years take the survey.”

She adds, “One of the more surprising results for me was on the subject of alts. I have several alts, probably seven or eight, which I use for money management, privacy, inventory management, and so on. But 44% of those responding up to the end of September say only have ONE avatar, I can’t even imagine! In fact, 88% are between 1 and 3. Of those with alts, 95% have a “main” avatar, and 55%, use their alt for privacy.

The survey is yielding a lot of information about people’s on-line and off-line selves and how they may (or may not) mutually inform one another, that it could lead to several additional investigations. “For example,” millay notes. “75% of respondents said that their avatars are helpful to others. That number went down to 60% with regard to their off-line personalities. I wonder why that is, and if this shouldn’t be examined more closely – The peaceful warrior in me says ‘yes!'”

Once she has completed her dissertation, millay plans to publicly share it and her findings. All things being equal I’ll be discussing her findings in a lot more details once she has published, and also exploring more about the Four Bridges Project in more detail.

Four Bridges Logo

“In short, Four Bridges is a virtual sustainable global community model founded on the four principles of respect for nature, universal human rights, economic and social justice, and a culture of peace,” millay told me as we briefly discussed the project. “Members, who include fifteen organisations from sectors such as education and non-profits as well as individuals, share resources: space, venues, media, technology, as well as knowledge and skills.

“We had two regions in-world, but I actually closed them so that I could focus on my dissertation,” millay notes. “But we’ll be reopening in 2018, probably February.”

millay is looking to close her survey on or around December 15th, although it will remain available through until the end of the year. So, I’d encourage anyone interested in helping millay in her research to hop over to the Four Bridges website sooner rather than later. There is a comprehensive lead-in providing additional information, together with a link to the survey itself – and remember, it is completely anonymous.

 

With thanks to millay Freschi for her time, and Gentle Heron for the heads-up, and apologies to both for the delay in getting this article to print.

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