Normative Behaviors in Virtual Worlds?

News has recently come to light that the US Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) plans to monitor virtual environments to identify potential terrorist communication, networking and recruitment activity that may be emerging along these new digital frontiers. In short, the project, cleverly codenamed Reynard (no doubt after the medieval French folk character of the same name, a mischievous fox), aims to first establish a baseline of normative behaviors in online multiuser environments via observational research, then scan for patterns of variation from these norms to identify those who may be fomenting terror. The plan springs from the ODNI's belief that these environments must be one of the next places terrorists move their operations, as terror groups already make extensive use of other digital communications environments to connect, communicate and plan their activities.

While the initiative does sound somewhat disturbing on its face, it also raises a big question: "What constitutes 'normative' behavior in online social environments?" The activities that go on in virtual worlds are as varied as the themes, functions and contexts of the many massively multiplayer online (MMO) games that have sprung up in the past decade. From simple chat, game play, and avatar development to product launches, press conferences, protests, funerals, ethnicity- or nationality-based "violence" and old school scamming, behavior in MMOs runs the gamut. As anyone who has spent a few minutes in an MMO knows, social conventions are often quite minimal if not suspended wholesale, a factor that attracts many players to these environments. From outlandish dress to unorthodox social association, it's all in there. And as for group planning of violence, I have three words: World of Warcraft. So, it will be interesting to say the least to see (if we ever see) what norms are identified and established by the ODNI team.

Ethnographies of online communities already exist, as do probably hundreds if not thousands of hours of observational research into these environments and their inhabitants. Academics, commercial researchers, marketeers and others are already camping out under digital trees and hanging out in public and private arenas to better understand how we get on when we are online. ODNI's research joins this horde of watchers as we all seek to understand better what the impacts of MMOs and other online activities will be on the way we live and interact.