Collective Action Situated in Virtual Worlds

Open Access
Blodgett, Bridget Marie
Graduate Program:
Information Sciences and Technology
Doctor of Philosophy
Document Type:
Date of Defense:
March 01, 2011
Committee Members:
  • Andrea H Tapia, Dissertation Advisor
  • Andrea H Tapia, Committee Chair
  • Mary Beth Rosson, Committee Chair
  • Angsana Techatassanasoontorn, Committee Member
  • John David Mccarthy, Committee Member
  • Protest
  • Virtual Worlds
  • IBM
  • Second Life
  • EVE Online
For the first time in the history of collective action, the offline world has experienced a virtually organized and enacted union strike. While this was the first publicly noticed political action in a virtual world, others have been going on for several years now. As virtual worlds continue to grow in popularity, this type of protest of action becomes more common. The issues experienced by the different groups involved in the virtual protest actions bring to light several new questions about the increased use of technology in protest movements. In particular, what role does technology play in social protest movements in virtual environments? Although the study of protest and protest movements has a long history spanning decades of research, the virtualization of these protests creates opportunity for change in some of the fundamental aspects and assumptions of protest actions. This large question encompasses many smaller pieces including: “In what ways does technology use change many of the accepted standards for how a protest or collective action is organized?” However, it is hard to narrow the many aspects of technology use and virtual protest into only a few questions and refinement of the research questions is inevitable in the future. The data for analyzing these questions were drawn from two cases of protest actions in virtual worlds: a labor strike within Second Life and a corruption scandal in EVE Online. These two cases exemplify the differences in technology use and virtual world interaction that are often common in virtual world protests. In order to complete this study, mixed qualitative methods were used. The purpose of mixing methods was to increase validity and to cover the many aspects of protest in a virtual world. Case studies were used to develop fully-fleshed examples of virtual world protests. Computer-mediated discourse analysis of forum threads, and blogs relating to the case studies were used both to develop commentary from actual participants and a theory of how knowledge regarding the process of a virtual world protest. Five additional of interviews were conducted with protest organizers in order to better articulate the planning and changes which virtual world protest engendered. From the analysis of the collected data, a new framework for understanding how the process of virtualization changes protests emerged. A conceptual kit of eleven dimensions were identified as important to virtual world protests: degree of virtualization, legality, shared identity, barriers to entry, cost of information, repression response, influence, message diffusion, framing, anonymity, and organization flexibility. Each of these dimensions underwent alterations when converted to use in a virtual world, and is discussed in detail before a synthesis of all variables is achieved.