While most actions people take in the flesh are ephemeral – performed fleetingly, and unmarked – MMOGs and virtual environments keep that data as a rule, usually most or all of it.
Three social researchers from the University of Michigan obtained data from Linden Lab about the possession and acquisition of 'gestures' (preprogrammed sequences of text, avatar animations and/or audio) and data about account creation dates and friends-lists, and studied how gestures passed from user to user.
The data provided by Linden Lab did not contain any specific identifying information about individual accounts, but the set of information and interactions is quite detailed.
The resulting paper, Social Influence and the Diffusion of User-Created Content (PDF), provides a fascinating look into human trend and fad behavior. Information for this sort of analysis has rarely been available in the past, and even then usually only under some quite unnatural conditions.
The data itself yields functional models of adoption which appear to be far more detailed than the generally flawed notions of 'viral' spread. It will be interesting to see if more researchers avail themselves of the opportunity to analyze this data as virtual environments continue to be more broadly used.
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