Social interaction in virtual environments.
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The rapid growth of the internet over the past decade has provided increasing opportunities for individuals to engage in computer-mediated social interaction in virtual environments. Despite this rapid growth there has been limited research into the way people use the Internet, and the effect Internet use has on their lives (Kraut, 1996). The overall aim in the research presented in this thesis was to explore how characteristics of the individual interact with characteristics of computer-mediated communication to enable socio-emotional communication and behaviour in social text-based virtual environments. Three studies are presented. Studies One and Two are qualitative studies of social interaction in two text-based, synchronous ('real time') virtual environments: MOOs (Multi User Dimensions, Object Oriented) and Internet Relay' Chat (IRC). Grounded Theory (Glaser & Strauss, 1967) methodology was used to develop formal theories of social interaction within these environments. Stage models of virtual environment use were developed that described changes in social interaction over time. In MOOs, changes in social interaction over time reflected the process of coming to terms with what was initially viewed by users as an alternative reality. In IRC the central feature of social interaction that emerged was the perceived ease of communication. This was attributed to the effortlessness of meeting a wide range of potential communication partners in a social context where the communication itself was simplified to text only communication. The hypotheses developed from the qualitative research in Studies One and Two were tested in Study Three. This was a longitudinal study of new Internet users that examined the bi-directional effects of personality characteristics and computer-mediated communication on behaviour. Personality measures were poor predictors of time spent in both specific types of virtual environments and on-line in general. Based on the usage patterns across the three studies a decision pathway for the use of virtual environments was developed. A key finding across the studies was the potential for virtual environments to enhance psychological well-being for individuals who experience social discomfort in off-line settings. Limitations of the research were discussed and suggestions made for future research.
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