Monday, October 11, 2010

What Motivates Users of Second Life?

Over the weekend, I read an advanced copy of an interesting study by a group of Chinese researchers who examined the motivations of individuals who use SL. I was, frankly, quite surprised that no one had yet studied the motivations of SL users from this particular perspective, and was also surprised at the results.

The researchers applied what's termed the Uses and Gratification (U&G) theory of internet use to investigate what motivates SLer's to do the things they do in-world. In a nutshell, U&G theory says that individuals use the internet for one of three primary reasons: to perform some type of function (get information, solve a problem, etc.), to have an experience (surf the web, listen to music, etc.), or to socialize (meet new people, have an online romance, etc.).

This theory hasn't been applied to VWs before , and the results were surprising. I had expected that socializing would be, far and away, the most likely reason for people to use SL, but actually, of the group surveyed, it was nearly a three-way tie between functional, experiential, or social uses. Actually, most users surveyed said they used SL for functional reasons, which in SL equated to learning, shopping, making money, or conducting research.

The study also examined differences based on gender, age, education, and level of in-world experience across the three stated uses for VWs. They found that men and women differed in terms of their interest in making money from SL, with men more likely to view SL as a platform for doing that. Women, on the other hand, were more likely to see shopping as an important use.

Older users were more likely to seek out learning opportunities on SL, while younger users more often sought out entertainment opportunities. Not too surprisingly, more educated users tended to seek out education and research opportunities from their SL experience. More experienced SL users sought out ways to create value and exploit commercial opportunities than did inexperienced users (those with less than 6 months in world).

The authors noted several limitations of their study, including the small sample size (only 192 SL users), the use of purposive sampling that limited the sample only to current SL users, and the limitations of the U&G theory to fully account for the responses of those surveyed.

One issue not addressed in the study, and one that I've been writing about here lately, was the protection of content created by users. While some users described building as their primary reason for using SL, and the authors acknowledged that the SL platform should encourage this by providing more opportunities to build and create, they did not acknowledge the issue of intellectual property protection as a motivating or demotivating factor for creatives.

This may have been due in part to the narrow focus of the study, but it seems reasonable to consider such protections as an important factor in user's decisions to create virtual goods, potentially even more important than opportunities to learn about and actually create in-world products.

More significant, though, are the implications of the study in terms of effectively marketing VWs externally to attract new users, as well as targeting in-world advertising to increase the reach of such messages. One example provided by the authors of the study was that educational opportunities should be targeted toward older, more highly educated users by placing them on SL sims that already incorporate an educational theme.

Other examples might include placing business startup advertising on sims frequented by more experienced users, such as those that cater to builders, scripters, or similar niche groups. Likewise, entertainment venues might best target their audience by marketing at infohubs, or other welcoming areas, where less experienced, and potentially younger, users might be found.

In any event, more research is necessary to build up a clearer picture of user motivations. Nevertheless, this study is a good start. Here's the citation for the article, which should be going to press in the near future:

Zhongyun, Z., Xiao-Ling, J., Douglas V., Yulin, F., & Xiaojian, C. (In press) Individual motivations and demographic differences in social virtual world uses: An exploratory investigation in Second Life. International Journal of Information Management.

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