Consumer InternetSecond LifeVirtual Worlds

Emotional contagion in social networks

By October 23, 2007 2 Comments

In the 1960s William Condon extensively researched the non-verbal interaction which surrounds speech. Beyond the obvious body language of looking into people’s eyes and hand movements it turns out there is a world of tiny interactions that happen at incredibly high speed. He wrote:

Your body’s locked precisely with your speech. You can’t break out of this no matter what you do. Your eyes even blink in synchrony with your speech.” Movements appear to begin, change, or end on the same film frame that a new vowel or consonant begins – within about four-hundreths of a second in the new sound. “The synchrony of the listener with the speaker is just as good as my own synchrony with myself.” An auditory-motor reflex in the central nervous system might allow, even force, a listener’s movements to synchronize with a speaker’s voice far faster than any conscious reaction time. “We’re almost in auditory touch. When I speak to you, my thoughts are translated into muscle movements an and then into airways that hit your ear, and your eardrum starts to oscillate in absolute synchrony with my voice. In essence there’s no vacuum between us – it takes only a few milliseconds for a sound to register in the brain stem, 14 milliseconds for it to reach the left hemisphere.

This goes a long way to explaining the power of face to face meetings compared with phone calls and online interaction. I found my way to it through Gladwell’s Tipping Point.
It also highlights the importance of building conduits for expressing and sharing emotions into social networks.

For those that can be bothered to get over the hump of learning to use it properly SL does this really well – and the power of the emotions that people feel through their avatars is pretty well documented now – remember the avatars rioting over copybot? This is possible because there is a large range of tools available for people to signal emotions to one another in Second Life – including expressions (XYZ smiles, or blushes, or shrugs etc. etc.), the way someone dresses, the use of IM rather instead of public speech, giving of gifts, dancing, all the way to user programmed interactions.

Facebook also does this well, albeit at a much lower level of intensity suitable for a less immersive social experience. The tools there include pokes, writing on walls, status updates, private messages and virtual gifts. Thanks to JP for this insight.

In a related point, World of Warcraft is powerful because of the emotions evoked when teams pull together to do missions. It is incredible hearing people talk about the way they go about this, and how exciting it is. The exhilaration of a team victory is familiar to most of us and the widespread use of Skype for real time chat as teams undertake missions is important for getting the emotions across.
Regular readers of this blog know of my enthusiasm for virtual worlds and social media. What is dawning on me is the importance of thinking explicitly about the emotional aspects of any given service. In particular what the emotions will be and how they will be communicated.

This point is clearly not relevant for all internet services (e.g. delicious) but there are elements of it in most of the successful ones. It is particularly true in any 3D/virtual worlds play – where the whole point of being 3D is that it makes the experience imersive and more conducive to the transfer of emotions.