The Permeability of Social Cliques from Real Worlds to Virtual Worlds

The following people have granted me permission in quoting them in this paper: Clinton Oddfellow, Eco Fenstalker, Almostbutch Taurus, Grace Mortmagus


The emergence of the computer as a form of communication brought about a new era filled with diverse forms of modern technology. Weimann, in his book Communicating Unreality, describes this phenomenon as compucation; the combination of computers and communication (Weimann 325). Compucation comes in various forms such as email, AIM, networking websites, and virtual communities. This medium of technology became popular soon after the Internet was founded in the late 1960’s. In the midst of the Cold War, the government linked multiple computers to discuss strategies, which utilized the Internet Protocol Packet, or the address that connects computers to one another. Today, companies such as Linden Lab are marketing virtual worlds to individuals. Virtual communities provide lavish surroundings that often surpass the average individuals real environment through a computer screen. This gives the “illusion or presence” where the individual experiences interactivity, heightened vividness, and intelligence augmentation. Interactivity refers to the information that can be exchanged between a computer and a human. Vividness allows the individual to become immersed in the virtual word as the surroundings are of high quality and there are numerous places that individuals can visit that they normally do not have access to. Lastly, intelligence augmentation associates this form of communication with the amplification or development of cognitive processes. This can be a positive improvement, however, the responses individuals have emotionally and physiologically must be examined. Many users who “test run” virtual worlds report having an exciting experience. This is demonstrated in Table 1.0: Findings on Virtual World Experiences. This study was conducted by Heeter using 787 respondents, some of whom had explored virtual worlds, and others from Michigan State who had not. He examined how real the individuals thought these communities were. (Weimann 340-347) The respondents answered the first five questions on a 7-point scale ranging from 1= not at all to 7= very much. The left column are answers from respondents who had previously entered virtual worlds, and the right column is for those who hadn't.

Table 1.0: Findings on Virtual World Experiences 


Entered virtual world?



How real did the overall experience feel?



How real did the 3-D feel?



To what extent did you feel a physical response when your screen self touched other objects?



To what extent did you feel a emotional response when your screen self touched other objects?



The being on the screen felt like a real one



On a scale from 0 to 10 where 10 is very much, how would you rate the enjoyment of your experience?




Demonstrated by the table, it appears that many individual enjoyed virtual communities. This could be due to the fact that while in a virtual world, one has control over what others see. This sense of control gives the individual the ability to hide imperfections, or to create new personas.  Virtual worlds are a place of “experimentation and exploration,” (Weimann 335). This leads to the crucial question of why individuals choose to interact in these environments. Once they arrive in cyberspace, individuals can be whomever they want, so it brings us to the question of whether or not they will tend toward their social clique in real life.


Before examining cliques in virtual worlds, it is imperative that the social dynamics in cliques in the real world are analyzed. The Institute for Quantitative Social Science at Harvard University conducted a study entitled, Homophily, Cultural Drift, and the Co-Evolution of Cultural Groups. Homophily, by definition, is that principle that likes attract. Centola, the primary writer of this study, further defines culture as "a set of individual attributes that are subject to social influence," (Centola 907). The grouping of individuals suggests that those in the group are there because they feel justified in their opinions. Because everyone surrounding them is similar, they are more apt to be accepted. In Peer Groups, SunWolf writes how members of a group often are there because they have an an "overt consensus that members are on equal terms of ability/background, age, responsibilities, beliefs, social standing, legal status, and/or rights," (SunWolf 29). He further says that human beings "define ourselves by exclusion" (30). Members of the particular clique ensure that others that are different from them do not intrude. According to the social identity theory, cliques accomplish this type of behavior through competition with one another, prosocial behavior, constructing group boundaries, labeling others, and resorting to put downs. (SunWolf) Thus, when begining to examine how this trend of cliques in the real world may apply to virtual worlds, I stumbled upon a study on how Social Cliques Carry Over to the Internet. In this study, a computer model is used to simulate online social interaction among 40,000 virtual individuals (Thomton). Once the stimulation was performed, individuals clustered around those who were similar to themselves, demonstrating homophily. However, the groups seemed to lack the oppressiveness seen in real life.


In order to find out whether or not virtual worlds such as Second Life were as oppressive in respect to social cliques, I logged on as an avatar and listened in on conversations as well as asked questions. The responses I received as well as the amount of attention I was given indicated to me how exclusive a particular group was. I first decided to teleport to Luskwood, a popular furry hangout. Surprisingly one of the oldest hangouts in Second Life; it was created back in 2003. Previously I had had both very positive experiences and one negative experience at this location. There was one occasion where I had switched my race toLuskwood African American and I had been ignored. However this is not conclusive evidence that this particular social clique is racist; the furries may have been too busy to realize my presence at that time. On this occasion however, I was greeted warmly. I even had the courage to ask questions over the local chat to this clique and many of my questions were answered. Clinton Oddfellow, one of the furries at this location, replied, "A lot of people lump 'furries' under one subheading and 'tar us all with the same brush'" (Second Life). Consequently, he says additionally that this sort of bias is comparable to if an individual in real life were to discriminate against one race. Clearly everyone belonging to a particular race is not necessarily similar, and is very diverse. The same applies to this online community. I further questioned individuals to why they decided to join this clique in particular and what they all had in common. Contrary to SunWolf's view where a clique believes that every member is on equal standing more or less, the furries are very diverse. Eco Fenstalker, another avatar, comments, "we get all sorts through here - basically we welcome and chat to anyone as long as they're polite and observe the rules of the place," (Second Life). Some of the furries know each other in real life, and others just maintain an online friendship. When I question why Eco joined this group he mentions, "I just like not being a standard human - I like animals so it was kind of a natural progression," (Second Life). This sort of 'natural progression' demonstrates Centola's view of induced homophily; the idea that continuous interaction with a certain group makes an individual more alike with that group. Another important point to make is that not all furries practice this role-playing in real life. This diversity and inclusiveness leads me to believe that this group does not follow the traditional social clique model practiced in real life. **Notice picture above is taken at Luskwood with a group of the furries there.

To find out whether or not all furries are similar in the aspect that they are inclusive, I decided to visit an additional furry hangout. At NorthStar Mall, I soon found a group of furries conversing outside. After walking up to them I was a bit disturbed by their topic of conversation. However, reserving judgement I tried to become involved in what was going on. I was met not met with success as no one would respond to even a "hello." I related this response to Hare's Studies in Social Interaction. In this study, the amount of members present in a group is analyzed and how this particular number affects the group dynamics. The group at NorthStar was larger, thus the variation of individuals increases. However, the larger the number of members, the more pressure there is to conform. (Hare) It is conceivable that the furries at NorthStar were exclusive due to the pressures of that particular clique. In this aspect, this clique did resemble those in real life. Comparing this scenario to those in real life, it makes sense that a group of say 'jocks' at one school may be more exclusive than the 'jocks' at another school. Another essential factor in determining the exclusiveness of groups is to figure out the 'pay off' involved. For example, does one furry benefit, or get higher rankings with the other members if they act a particular way? I cannot answer this question, but it may play a role in why there was such a different interaction with this group.


Luckily, a furry at Luskwood allowed me to interview her and ask about her opinions regarding virtual worlds. This was fascinating as it was from the perspective of a furry. Yavannah, who did do reveal her real life name, did reveal however that she was from Germany, and was a forty-five year old mother of three. She orginally joined Second Life to create Apollo Lost Gardensa combination of her hobbies and what she is talented at. Currently, she works in the German welcome center helping people cope with IT technology. In response to whether or not individuals join Second Life to escape the harshness of social cliques, she responded that, "So; say, many come to Second Life for here they can have better .. access? to their hobbies," (Halostar). So from her perspective, individuals join for their own reasons such a neat learning experience or an environment that can utilize their skills. Besides assisting individuals with IT problems, Yavannah also enjoys exotic dancing; a hobby that is not readily accessible in her immediate area. One of the most fascinating things that was mentioned was, "Most often boys just approached me because they new I didn't mock them," (Yavannah). Weimann, in Communicating Unreality, mentions that he fears that virtual worlds will lead to a mockery of everything that makes humans, humans. Interestingly enough, it is this mockery that caused Yavannah to feel more comfortable in Virtual Worlds. Possibly mockery is commonplace in cliques, which illustrates how virtual worlds can create a a greater sense of comfort for individuals. From her perspective, she doesn't witness many exclusive cliques, but just like anywhere, people will have their likes and dislikes. **Notice picture above is taken at the Apollo Lost Gardens with Yavanahh


The next group experiences radical changes from real world to virtual world. The homosexual population is often frowned upon in real life which negatively affects their being. A study performed by Jonathan Cabiria examined the positive effects virtual worlds have on homosexuals which leads the general consensus to be that these cyber worlds are less clique-like. In real worlds, Cabiria explains that homosexuals are often isolated which leads to higher suicide rates and a lack of self-esteem. Happiness though, is crucial to an individuals well-being. It has been proven that a sense of community combined with close friends leads to happier lives. "[Cabiria] anticipated that virtual world communities could serve as safe harbors for identity exploration and that likely positive benefits derived from virtual world experiences could be transferred to real world situations," (Cabiria 4). And indeed, when the study was performed he proudly claims that homosexual individuals experienced "belongingness, improved well-being, higher self-esteem, sense of authenticity, and evidence of transferable positive benefits," (8). In order to personally come to my own conclusions, I decided to visit a place in Second Life that was dedicated to homosexual individuals. The first location I teleported to was deserted so I wound up going to a location entitled, "Greek Gold Lesbian Resort." Here, I interacted with a few avatars who shared their opinions regarding the discrimination that they face. One avatar mentions that one of the major differences in a virtual world is that she is able to marry another woman as well as adopt a child. Almostbutch Taurus also comments that the threats she faces in a virtual world are nothing in comparison to the real world. For example, if someone is bothering her in virtual world she can just mute them. If she were to get cornered in the real world, she would be in much more danger. These communities that support those who are homosexual also promote events. This further increases the self-esteem of those stuggling to 'come out of the closet.' Examples of events include Second Pride where there is music, dancing, and numerous activities (Socyberty). Following this encounter I teleported to the "Lesbian Teahouse" and conversed with an avatar named Grace Mortmagus. From her experience there wasn't too much discrimination directed towards homosexuals, but she had witnessed discrimination towards other cliques. **Notice the below pictures: On the left is a photo of my avatar at Greek Gold Lesbian Resort and on the right is a photo of Grace & I


Greek Gold Lesbian Resort  Lesbian Teahouse


The main group that she knew of that had been discriminated against were the furries. A mostly inclusive group, it was surprising to find out the extent to which they had been harassed. Before divulging the information, she let me in on a few virtual world terms such as Neko. Apparently this term refers to any human avatar that is dressed like an animal. Jumping to conclusions, I thought this term was degregatory. However, it is a mere description of an avatar and has no negative connotations attached to it. Grace had previously dated a furry named Edward, so she was familiar with the response he received when walking into certain areas. She remarks, "after Edwards experience at Bogarts, they now have a big sign up with red letters that says something like Human Form Only Please," (Second Life). This illustrates the unfriendliness some avatars can be met with. Due to this repulsive response, I decided to teleport to Bogarts to see what it was like. Upon arriving, they ask that a certain attire be worn, and the sign says "Bogarts, an exclusive club." I wonder if furries dressed in Victorian style if they then would be welcome. Again, the sign does say the club is exclusive which implies that only some avatars are let in. Whether or not this system is fair or not is a whole separate issue. On another note, an article was written about discrimination against furries in the Metaverse Journal. This article claims that furries themselves are often the griefers. Due to their sexuality they often get jealous and grief those they are angry towards. This article by no means says all griefers are furries, but brings up an important point that just because they are discriminated against doesn't mean they don't discriminate against each other. (Metaverse Journal)


The last group that I was interested in observing were the tinies. After many attempts I finally teleported to a location that had numerous tinies at a bar. I was surprised to discover that the tinies do not talk; however, they were adorable. Tinies are smaller than average avatars that are often sold under various brand names. They are located in the Raglan Shire regime that has exponentially grown over the past four years (Second Life Wikia). I visited a few of the Raglan Shire locations, but I had difficulty locating any tinies. **Notice on the right is a photo with tinies and I at Abraminations


Overall, I discovered that virtual worlds are less oppressive in respect to social cliques then in real worlds. The groups themselves tend to include much more diversity and seem to be more accepting. It appears that it is rare to have a group discriminate towards you if you are not disturbing the peace and behaving appropriately. Those groups that do decide to act exclusively typically warn the individual before teleporting, or have signs displaying the rules. Powazek, in his book, Design for Community the Art of Connecting Real People in Virtual Places, talks about the problemRaglam Shires faced by the creators of Second Life and how to approach the issue of misuse. Because in virtual worlds the consequences for misbehaving are not severe, individuals feel it is ok to 'grief' or trash talk another individuals. A person in real life wouldn't go up to someone and yell at them, but in a virtual world, they do not have the same type of face to face contact. A solution that is proposed is to connect the virtual world more closely with the real world. He proposes having more member identification required when registering for an account. (Powazek) However, I feel that this would prohibit a lot of individuals from joining. On the contrary, Brian White in his book, "Second Life: A Guide to Your Virtual World, claims that individuals do not act any differently because their emotions are the same in virtual worlds as they are in real life (White). I do not agree with the discrimination, but I feel that it is at least better that if they do choose to go about that route, they publicize it. Every individual that I came across and interacted with, treated me well, and I would have a hard time saying the same thing in real life; thus virtual worlds are more open to the diversity an individual may bring to the community. **Notice on the left is a photo of me at the Raglan Shire Tree


Works Cited  


Cabiria, Jonathan. "Virtual World and Real World Permeability: Transference of Positive Benefits for Marginalized Gay and Lesbian Populations." Virtual Worlds Research. 1.1 (2008): 1-13. Print.


Centola, Damon. "Homophily, Cultural Drift, and the Co-Evolution of Cultural Groups." Journal of Conflict Resolution. 51.6 (2007): 905-929. Print.


"Furries, sexuality and griefing: one viewpoint." Metaverse Journal. (2008): Print.


Halostar, Yavannah. Intervew. 09 Dec 2009. Web. 09 Dec 2009. <Second Life>.


Hare, Paul A. Small Groups: Studies in Social Interaction. xvi. New York: Knopf, 1965. Print.


Powazek, Derek M. Design for Community the Art of Connecting Real People in Virtual Places. xxxvii. Indianapolis, IN: New Riders, 2002. Print.


"Have a Second Gay Life." Socyberty. 02 Mar 2008. Web. 10 Dec 2009. <>.


Sunwolf, . Peer Groups : Expanding Our Study of Small Group Communication. xvii. Los Angeles, CA: Sage, 2008. Print.


"Tinies." Second Life Wikia. 13 Mar 2009. Web. 10 Dec 2009. <>.


Thomton, Carla. "Study: Social Cliques Carry Over to the Internet." Industry Standard (2009): n. pag. Web. 29 Oct 2009.


Weimann, Gabriel. Communicating Unreality : Modern Media and the Reconstruction of Reality. xiii. Thousand Oaks : Sage Publications, 2000. Print.


White, Brian. Second Life: A Guide to Your Virtual World. Que, 2007. 94. Print.



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