From 3D space to third place: The social life of small virtual spaces
Massively multiplayer online (MMO) environments are an emerging computer technology that makes possible new kinds of distributed communities and online sociability. What distinguishes MMOs from other Internet media is that they take face-to-face conversation as their primary metaphor for user interaction, rather than, say, the page or the bulletin board. Because they simulate 3D spaces and contain thousands of people who do not know each other, MMOs constitute public spaces, although virtual ones. As such, they can be studied in ways analogous to those of public places in the physical world. Inspired by the work of William H. Whyte and Ray Oldenburg on sociability in real-life public places, we take a similar approach toward the study of MMOs. We ask the question: what makes some virtual public spaces in MMOs successful "third places" while other similar places fail? Through our virtual ethnography of dance clubs and corner bars in three MMO environments, we find four features of virtual public spaces that appear critical for their success: accessibility, social density, activity resources, and hosts. We further argue that MMO sociability is just as authentic as that in "real-life" contexts while highlighting ways in which it is distinctly different.