My fundamental research interest is to understand human activities in the new social spaces created by the Internet and new communication technologies. Specifically, I study virtual communities that are created for information sharing, collaborative production, and entertainment. Methodologically, I use quantitative as well as social network analytic techniques. I have done research on the collaboration structure of Open Source software developer community, the evolution of online communities, and the social dynamics of virtual worlds. 


The Patterns, Effects and Evolution of Player Social Networks in Online Gaming Communities (Download)

This dissertation presents a critical examination of the social interactions among MMOG participants by focusing on network patterns, effects and evolution. It is situated in a popular MMOG, EverQuest II (EQII), drawing on a combination of unobtrusively collected behavioral server logs and a comprehensive survey conducted with the players directly through the game engine.

An exploratory analysis of network patterns revealed that the social architecture of the world was quite effective in shaping the structure of interaction, as the involvement in various social networks was influenced by class choice and character level. However, sociability among players was quite diffuse, with a sizable number of players opting to play solo despite the built-in mechanisms that encourage collaborative play. Second, drawing on the theory of social capital, this study tested the effects of different structural properties of player social networks. Players who bridged diverse, otherwise unconnected partners were rewarded with better task performance in EQII. But contrary to expectation, players located in dense and closed cliques did not show higher level of trust towards guildmates or sense of community. Lastly, a longitudinal analysis of tie persistence and decay demonstrated the transient nature of social relationships in EQII, but these ties became considerably more durable over time. Also, character level similarity, shared guild membership and geographic proximity were powerful mechanisms in preserving social relationships.

Online Collaboration
  • Collaboration Asymmetry in Open Source Software Communities: Strategic Selection and Homophily as Network Attachment Logics (with Peter Monge)
Although it is often perceived as an egalitarian and fully-participatory innovation community, the Open Source Software (OSS) community is highly stratified in terms of collaborative dynamics. In order to explain this contradiction, the present research theorized the OSS community as network organizations that utilize two mechanisms of network formation: strategic selection and homophily. A complete developer network from the data archive was extracted and analyzed using Exponential Random Graph Models. Results showed that reputable developers with good performance tended to have more collaborative connections. Homophily also receives support as developers tended to connect with people with similar levels of performance and experience.

Online Communities
  • Ecological Dynamics of Online Communities: Density Dependence and Resource Partitioning Processes (with Janet Fulk and Peter Monge)

    Despite their explosive growth, online communities experience tumult in relation to technological shifts, competition for resources and imitation by new entrants. Treating them as individual and isolated entities, the extant literature tends to focus on micro-processes within specific communities, without considering the larger ecological context. In this paper, we develop an ecological framework to understand the dynamics of online communities. A population of online communities is defined as a set of online communities that share similar features and are dependent on the same resources: content generated by participants and attention of viewers. Based on density dependence and resource partitioning theories, we propose that founding rate within a population of online communities is dependent on the level of legitimation and competition in its resource space. Online communities also adopt different strategies in the ecological process as concentration intensifies, resulting in a few communities that appeal to general audiences and multiple communities that thrive on small but targeted groups.

Video Games

  • Multimodality and Interactivity: Connecting Properties of Serious Games with Educational Outcomes (with Ute Ritterfeld, Hua Wang, Luciano Nocera and Wee Ling Wong)
Serious games have become an important genre of digital media and are often acclaimed for their potential to enhance learning. Yet, their educational impact remains largely an untested assumption. This study aimed to connect two specific properties of serious games with their educational outcomes. In particular, this study examined the impact of multimodality and interactivity on multidimensional measures of educational outcomes through a partial 2 (interactive, non-interactive) x 3 (high, moderate, and low in multimodality) factorial between-subjects follow-up experiment. Results showed that both multimodality and interactivity contribute to educational outcomes individually. Implications and future research directions are also discussed.

Virtual Worlds
  • Internet use and psychosocial well-being: Results from a large virtual world (with Dmitri Williams)

    This study addresses the ongoing debate about the extent to which Internet use affects people’s psychosocial well-being. Past research has produced conflicting findings, which could be partially attributed to the fact that Internet use was often treated as a homogenous activity, with either social or asocial consequences. Our study takes a differentiated approach to unpack Internet use and to connect different online activities with social resources and psychological well-being. It also combines self-reported survey data with unobtrusive behavioral data from server logs of a large virtual world, Everquest 2. Over 7000 survey respondents were asked about how they use the Internet, their specific activities in the virtual world, and their psychosocial well-being. The complete communication and activity networks of players in this virtual world are also constructed and analyzed in relation to survey responses. Preliminary findings were presented at the 2009 Sunbelt social network conference.
  • The Role of Proximity and Homophily in Virtual World Networks (with Yun Huang, Noshir Contractor and Dmitri Williams)

    Enabled by advanced graphic and networking technologies, massively multi-player online role-playing games (MMORPGs) provide three-dimensional playgrounds for people to interact with one another. Although the virtual space potentially conceals people’s physical identities such as gender and age and eliminates the constraints of physical distances in communicating and interacting, previous research on virtual teams suggests that players’ physical characteristics may still influence their online behavior. In this study, we analyze activities in an MMORPG, EverQuest II, and examine whether their geographic distance offline and their demographic similarity (or homophily) influence the likelihood of four online interactions: partnering, instant messaging, trading, and mailing. The results show that geographical proximity of distance and temporal proximity of time zones as well as homophily in age and game experience have a strong impact on players’ online behavior in creating relations.
  • Schmoozing and Smiting: Trust and Communication Patterns in an MMOG (with Rabindra Ratan, Jae Eun Chung, Dmitri Williams and Marshall Scott Poole)

    The present study examines how trust is related to online social institutions, self-disclosure, mode of communication, and message privacy in a popular MMOG, Everquest 2.  The findings, which are based on survey and behavioral data from over 3,500 players, provide insights into the potential for MMOGs to act as social institutions that support trust-development.  Trust was higher within closer social circles: trust in teammates was found to be higher than trust of others in the game more generally, which was found to be higher than trust of others online. Self-disclosure was positively related to trust of others in the game and on players’ teams, but voice chat was not related to trust of others in the game, nor were public messages sent to the whole team related to trust in the team. Overall, this research indicates that social structures and communication processes contribute to trust development in MMOGs, supporting the claim that these online spaces provide a new layer of ontological security for otherwise disconnected individuals.