When the virtual and the real converge…

Two separate articles found their way into my RSS reader.

The first told a story of 26-year-old Fouad Mortada of Morocco, who was sentenced to three years in prison and $1300 US fine for creating a FB profile in the name of King Mohammed’s brother. As absurd as it sounds, something that can be considered a harmless joke in the virtual space, has very tangible repercussions for a real person (and i am not talking about the King’s brother here who, as i understand, was actually presented in a very favorable light in that FB profile). That may be an extreme example, but there are many other stories when online activity, particularly on FB, cost people careers or other tangible expenses. It appears that developments in the virtual world are deeper and deeper weaved into our real lives bringing in not just intended, but also unintended consequences.

The second story is about a US government project called “Reynard”, which is aimed at monitoring WoW in order to detect suspicious behavior and identify potential terrorists. Of course it will be based on data mining and will look at behavioral patterns (thus raising the obvious privacy questions. ) Yet, while the idea of an Elf and an Orc planning the next 9/11 while fighting giant spiders or collecting magical blueberries is somewhat surrealistic, it is another mind stretching example of how converged the virtual and the real are becoming now days.

One thing i completely disagree with in the latter article is that: “the cultural and behavioral norms of virtual worlds and gaming are generally unstudied”. Just last October i was at the AoIR conference, a significant portion of which was explicitly dedicated to this. But that highlights a totally different issue. My guess is that the primarily qualitative research presented at AoIR considered to be of limited use by data-mining quantitative people of “Reynard”. Well, one can only hope that at the end people will benefit from combining the strengths of different approaches to research.

To summarize this rumbling on virtual and real, i would like to bring it back to the idea of perception of media and information technology and its role in constituting social fabric. Apparently the view of Moroccan authorities of FB activity is different than that of people actually using the platform and who are immersed into this culture. If WoW is used for conspiring terrorist activities, it is again another example of different perceptions of the platform and what it could/should be used for. Similarly, if there is nothing of this kind is going on in WoW, than the entire “Reynard” project is fueled solely by perceptions of what WoW could be. I find it really interesting, because these supposedly abstract perceptions have very tangible impacts on the very real societies and individuals.

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