Scitech | Online communities: orcs to hand-knit scarves

National Science Foundation gives grant to study creativity on the Internet

The Internet is home to all kinds of creative communities. Two researchers at Indiana University have recently been given a $686,000 grant from the US based National Science Foundation to map and model aspects of two major online communities – the craft-selling website Etsy, and the massive multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) World of Warcraft. Jeffery Bardzell, assistant professor of Human Computer Interaction and design, and Shaowen Bardzell, assistant professor of informatics, will look at how these sites have been successful in creating productive communities among their millions of users.

Their study will attempt to understand the organizational structures and communication frameworks needed to support these two massive creative collaborations. It may have applications in creating better design software, for the sciences and other areas of study.

Etsy offers a platform for its 650,000 artists to set up and maintain online stores, where they can sell their homemade crafts, art pieces, and clothing. Anyone can set up an account with the site to buy or sell crafts and vintage items.

“There’s a lot of variety,” said a U2 Arts student and Etsy user who goes by the username “biancawarhol”. “It’s different because you can talk directly to a
particular seller. I like it better than buying something from a huge store and having to
deal with an automated 1-800 number.”

Bardzell and Bardzell plan to analyze the site in order to see how ideas of creativity and social understanding have developed in a predominately female community.

World of Warcraft will provide a different lens with which to view online creativity. With over 11.5 million users, World of Warcraft is one of the largest, and most popular, MMORPGs online. World Of Warcraft, know in the community simply as “WoW,” allows users to create online avatars who can complete quests and battle other creatures to gain experience and “level up”. Players can also join guilds to interact with their peers. Guilds organize a large number of users so that they can plan strategies, and a host of other in-game activities.

The researchers aim to analyze a specific subset of the World of Warcraft
experience – a type of user-created movie called “machinima,” which uses gameplay
footage to tell a story. These videos are usually created by a handful of users and then
uploaded to Youtube or other video sharing sites. Some of the more popular series have
100,000 or more hits each. The researchers will analyze these videos in order to get a better understanding of the form and it’s history.

“The people who make movies are a small group as far as I know,” said U1 Michael Fu,
who was an active member of the World of Warcraft community up until a couple
months ago. “They are similar to short films shot with real cameras, some of them are
done using non-standard servers to be able to achieve camera angles not possible in-game. Some of them were quite creative.”

Nick Mudrick, a U1 Arts student, also recognized the creativity in the World of Warcraft
community. “There are a lot of outlets with which to showcase a sense of creativity.

You’re required to manage your character in such a way as to be a member of a functional team,” he explained, “it’s a lot harder to do than you’d think. It requires a lot of time and strategizing, communication and cooperation.”

It’s exactly that kind of communication and cooperation that Bardzell and Bardzell are interested in examining throughout the course of the study. The researchers hope the information will produce a better understanding of how the productivity of small-scale teams can be applied to large-scale models.