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Wednesday, July 06, 2005

INTO THE ARMS OF AMERICA

Getting a little more love from the world after being in an online world...

How to staunch the rise of worldwide anti-Americanism which has grown so pervasive, China now ranks higher in general global esteem than the United States? One of the more popular solutions ("Elect John Kerry") is off the table, and most of the current Administration's alternatives (i.e., "airdrop Condi into Europe") don't seem to be getting much traction.

There may be another solution worth trying out: put Americans and non-Americans together in the same online world, let them get to know each other there as avatars, let them collaborate creatively and enjoy events together, and hope for the best.

That's my suggestion, at least, after looking over the results of a poll I launched last week in the New World Notes Residents-only forum. With a subscriber demographic that's now just under 25% non-American, I was curious to know if the in-world experience of our international users in a place that's still predominantly American was having any discernable impact on their perception of Americans as a group. (Indeed, some have described the world itself as distinctly American in character. "[In] the clothes... and the type of objects you script (SUVs/jeeps)," a Portuguese ethnographer studying Second Life told me last year, SL was "American to the root!")

But if Second Life is still largely an American experience, in the vehicles that are built and the group projects that are undertaken and the games that are played and the money that is made and so on, what do non-Americans make of it? And what did they make of all the Americans they met inside?

So I created a poll, and put the question this way: "After spending so much time with Americans in Second Life, my general opinion of Americans...", with options ranging from "Has become much more favorable" to "Has become much more negative." I took this screenshot after 110 replies, which may not seem like a lot, but in a population over 32,000 where about 8,000 are non-American, it's a pretty decent sample. (By contrast, in that international poll which determined China was more popular than the US, 17,000 people are considered an accurate representation of several billion world citizens.)

The (admittedly) unscientific results were pretty striking, to me at least: while 63% of those polled said Second Life hadn't changed their opinion of Americans much either way, 18% said their opinion had become somewhat more favorable, and 7% chose "much more favorable". This versus 12% who said their opinion of Americans was now somewhat or much more negative. So in aggregate, about a 12.5% overall change for the positive. Not a massive shift, but still a very significant one, seems to me.

Hard to tell what the results might mean, though it’s certainly fun to speculate. To the extent that SL Residents have a political outlook, they tend to lean either left-liberal or socially liberal, libertarian- conservative. Does that ideological skew encourage many international Residents to reconsider preconceptions they might have had, of Americans as intolerant Bible-thumpers? Does all the ambition and hard work put into group projects and entrepreneurial activity, most of them led by Americans, leave a positive impression, as an immersive demonstration of Yankee can-do spirit? On the other side of the ledger, what to make of the smaller-but-still-significant rise in negative opinion? What examples of ugly Americanism did these people see or experience, to make them think less of an entire people? And is it the immersive experience of being in a virtual world— of being in the same space with other people, but still feeling safe under the anonymity of the avatar, and the distance of the medium— that's the key to this shift?

Questions I’ll be looking to answer in coming months—though I sure hope others start looking for their own answers, too.

Update, October 16: Cory Linden just pointed me to this article, which mentions a similar boost of international opinion for Americans after playing another online world, so I wanted to check back on the poll of non-Americans I made, for this entry. Voting has continued since that July post, and now stands at more than double the original sample of (presumably) international Residents. With 222 votes, 27.48% of those voting said their opinion of Americans is now better after interacting with them so much in SL, while 12.16% say it's worse. So a larger sample yields a slightly larger increase for the positive.

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Comments

Personally Hamlet, I was actually offended when I first found that poll. I appreciate the spirit of why you presented it, but it was a bit of a suprise to me and several others when we first read it today. It makes more sense after reading this entry, but it just seemed quickly posted for no reason. I'm glad to see a more sutable reason for it though, and hope you continued luck in your search for knowledge.

Posted by: Samuel Frost at Jul 6, 2005 5:38:38 PM

Nice take, Hamlet - here's my 2c:

* You'd need about 1 000 people to get a 95% chance of being within 3% of the correct value in a population of 8 000.

* You'd have to make some adjustments to accomodate for the difference between the view of the Americans (that is, the view of individual Americans, even when in a group) and the perception of America (as a state, a system and a set of cultural values)

* I think most non-americans that enter SL has some kind of idea that it'll be America-dominated, so we're cool with 'americans' to begin with.

Posted by: Stefan Nilsson at Jul 6, 2005 11:54:48 PM

Hate bush and his Cronies YES, Americans NO!

Posted by: Richie Waves at Jul 7, 2005 4:19:10 AM

This has already been pointed out, but when people talk about disliking America, they're not talking about Americans as people. They're talking about the current government.

Hanging out in Second Life isn't going to change that perception.

Posted by: Graham at Jul 9, 2005 6:49:30 AM

I think this is very interesting study, and I'm all out for promoting mutual understanding thru international exchange (be it via official cultural programs or via the Internet).

However I think the premise "How to staunch the rise of anti-Americanism?" is a bit wrong. Anti-americanism is just the thermomether; you shouldn't try to change the reading, and even lowering the fever isn't good enough: you have to cure the disease.

It IS pretty hard to separate between disliking "Bush and his cronies" and disliking "the American people and values" considering at least 50% of said American people gave a positive nod to everything Bush represents in Nov. 2004.

Basically, the problem must be solved within before looking without. I have a good deal of American friends, but I can hardly like what U.S.A. as a nation is doing to the world. Anti-americanism is the lightest of the consecuences of your governments' doing.

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