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Situated Practices of Looking:
Visual Practice in an Online World
Lilly Irani, Gillian R. Hayes, and Paul Dourish
Department of Informatics
Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences
University of California, Irvine
Irvine, CA 92697-3440, USA
{lirani, gillianrh, jpd}@ics.uci.edu
understood. Yet, while virtual worlds become
comprehensible by drawing upon metaphors from daily life
– ground, bodies, and walking, for example – they are also
engaging precisely because they do not slavishly enforce
the rules of the physical world. In virtual worlds, one can
often fly, adopt a new persona, or carry on five
conversations at once.
Graphical virtual worlds are increasingly significant sites of
collaborative interaction. Many argue that the simulation of
the everyday environment makes them particularly effective
for collaboration. Based on a study of visual practice in
Second Life, we argue: first, that the practice of looking is
more varied than it might at first seem; second, that we
need to look beyond the virtual in understanding virtual
worlds; and third, that implementations blend interactional
practice. We suggest that the value of virtual worlds as sites
of collaboration might lie more in their richness and
openness to appropriation than in their simulation of
everyday interaction.
One critical aspect of virtual worlds’ comprehensibility is
that actions become mutually comprehensible through their
performance in a common visual space. Looking and
visibility have been noted as important features of computer
mediated experiences, such as media spaces [7, 11] and
collaborative virtual environments (CVEs) [6, 16, 22].
Author Keywords
Looking, of course, is only one part of the complex set of
activities, such as gesturing and talking, interwoven into
embodied action. We focus on looking not to argue its
centrality, but instead to extend and qualify prior, fullyembodied understandings of the social life of virtual
worlds. Unpacking activity from the focal point of looking
provides a deeper understanding of activity within and
around virtual worlds.
Looking, virtual worlds, collaborative virtual environments,
situated practice
ACM Classification Keywords
H5.m. Information interfaces and presentation (e.g., HCI):
Group and Organization Interfaces: Theory; H5.m.
Information interfaces and presentation (e.g., HCI): User
Interfaces: Graphical User Interfaces; H5.m. Information
interfaces and presentation (e.g., HCI): Group and
Organization Interfaces: Synchronous Interaction
Discussions of looking, however, have typically been
focused on gaze, either among avatars or among remote
collaborators. Virtual worlds are most often discussed as a
window into a simulated geography. However, the
mundane realities of CVEs as applications, with their own
menus, bugs, and obligations to operating system
conventions, are also consequential to the practices of
looking in virtual worlds. It is this situated, holistic analysis
of looking in and around CVEs that we take up here.
A persistent theme in technology-oriented CSCW research
has been the metaphorical relationships between online and
offline interactions. Real world interactions are frequently
used as a model for interaction design [22], and face-to-face
interactions are held up as a gold standard against which to
judge new technologies [11]. Although some researchers
have questioned “the real world baseline” as an evaluative
rubric [7, 19], it remains a source of metaphors for how
collaborative environments – and actions in them – are
To understand how these issues unfold in everyday
computer-mediated communication (CMC) we studied two
communities in Second Life as interviewers and
participant-observers. Each community focused on the
experience of a particular minority culture.
Permission to make digital or hard copies of all or part of this work for
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CSCW’08, November 8–12, 2008, San Diego, California, USA.
Copyright 2008 ACM 978-1-60558-007-4/08/11…$5.00.
The title of this paper is taken from a comment of Harold
Garfinkel’s, in Studies in Ethnomethodology [10]: “When I
speak of accountable [as a property of social settings] … I
mean observable-and-reportable, i.e., available to members
as situated practices of looking and telling.” Garfinkel’s
concern is with how socially competent practice consists in
part of the ability to see the world as organized in
appropriate terms; to look at the world as a bodyguard, for
example, is to see it filled with threats and escape routes.
algorithmically. In person-to-person audio conference
mediated by avatars, avatar gaze inferred from the
conversation also has been shown to have a more positive
effect on feelings of presence than random avatar gaze [9].
This line of research, often conducted as laboratory
experiments, has focused typically on comparing the effects
of avatar behavior to that of actual people or video
representations, implicitly drawing on the “real world
baseline” in evaluating avatars.
In this paper, we are concerned specifically with the
situated practices of looking, how looking is accomplished
in a virtual world, and the associated questions of mutual
interpretability of those acts among people in that world.
We argue, first, that “looking” is a considerably more
varied practice in the virtual world than one might imagine,
manifesting itself in many different ways according to the
needs of the moment; second, that to understand visual
practice within a virtual world, we must examine it more
broadly, as an interface that appears on a computer and is
controlled with keyboard and mouse, rather than focusing
solely on the simulation of action in virtual geographies;
and, third, that if we are truly to look at these as situated
practices, then the constraints and specificities of software
implementations, such as bugs that deviate from the design,
must be considered.
To supplement short-term engagements in virtual worlds, as
studied in the lab, longer-term investigations of media
spaces and virtual worlds shed light on how new practices
can emerge around media space affordances. For example,
Dourish et al. described how people developed new
practices of gazing into media space cameras as they came
to understand how video mediated and transformed their
image to their audience [7]. Little is known, however, about
the development of embodied practices among long-term
CVE commuities, and how those practices might be
specific to interface particularities – both features and
quirks – of that CVE. Our research addresses this gap.
After a brief review of related work, we discuss data from
our ongoing study in Second Life. We discuss these results
in terms of studies of the socially situated nature of visual
practice and conclude by exploring the consequences of this
analysis for the study of virtual environments.
Research has also tended to focus on the virtual world as
the interaction of avatars within a virtual geography. We
have less knowledge about how the experience of a virtual
world space is shaped by traditional aspects of an
application, such as windowing mechanisms and menus,
and how the application interacts with other applications.
When Hindmarsh, for example, proposed making virtual
world looking accountable by highlighting target objects in
the space, targets such as profiles, menus, and maps were
implicitly excluded [16]. More recent analyses have
mentioned non-simulation aspects of the interface.
Hindmarsh noted that users’ physical monitor size has
important consequences for mutual visibility in CVEs [1].
Brown’s analysis of There [6] and Moore et al.’s analyses
of World of Warcraft and There [22] also note
implementation artifacts on CVE experience. While these
projects mention non-simulation aspects of the interface as
exceptions to the simulation experience, our holistic
analysis takes simulation and non-simulation aspects of the
experience as first-order phenomena of interest.
Our research builds on, extends, and qualifies previous
work on looking and vision, both in the physical world and
online in collaborative virtual environments (CVEs) and
media spaces. In this section, we focus on the related work
in CVEs and media spaces, including studies of long-term
use of these mediated spaces.
Much work on looking in mediated spaces investigates the
role of looking and gaze in achieving social order and
communication. Much research has explored gaze and
looking as social ordering resources in CVEs [2, 6, 14-16].
Communication in CVEs face several challenges related to
looking and gaze: distorted or unavailable visual cues
disrupt turn-taking and speaker influence [14], reduced field
of vision makes visual access to collaborators more difficult
[15], reduced gaze and pointing cues make it difficult to
assess what others in the virtual world are looking at [15],
and automatically generated gaze often generates
misunderstandings [2, 22]. Most of these works propose
that CVEs can improve by working towards better
supporting the sorts of gaze and gesture cues available in
the real or physical world.
The research reported in this paper grew out of a continuing
interest in how sharing, trust, intimacy, and community
emerge out of everyday social activity in online
communities. We have been investigating these issues in
the online world Second Life (SL). Launched in 2003,
Second Life (www.secondlife.com) is an open-ended, 3D
collaborative virtual environment. Like World of Warcraft
(WoW), Active Worlds, and There [6], SL users move
through a persistent world using a customizable avatar that
allows them to interact with in-world objects. Objects and
actions in the world are available not only through the user
interface, but also through an API that allows them to create
Another line of research on looking investigates affective
properties of virtual gaze, drawing from social
psychological perspectives. First, there is evidence that the
effects of gaze on the proxemics of avatars echoes how
people might space themselves in the physical world.
Further, these similarities are strengthened if a user believes
the avatar is controlled by a person [3] rather than
objects with custom behaviors and provides access to world
states not otherwise available through the user interface. SL
differs from massively multiplayer online roleplaying
games, such as WoW, in that it has neither predetermined
narratives nor game objectives. Similar to There, SL
includes a two-dimensional (2D) web information space
containing maps of the virtual world, calendars of events,
and the ability to launch SL locations from the Web
Browser. SL hosts several long-standing communities that
provide support, information, and advocacy for people with
disabilities and medical conditions.
Understanding these complexities and the practices that
develop around them in real world CVEs can deepen our
understanding of the potentials and design challenges
involved in creating these environments.
Understanding practices of looking in SL requires a detailed
understanding of the user interfaces through which people
connect to and navigate in SL, including the
interdependencies between apparent gaze and the world, as
it is visible to the end user. Affordances of looking – both
the capabilities of looking and the visibility of those
practices to others – depend not only on the design and the
user’s interpretation of the CVE, but also the idiosyncratic,
unpredictable quirks and bugs that emerge when designs
meet unexpected deployment conditions. These affordances
become resources and constraints for SL residents’
awareness of their environment – an awareness grounded in
learned practices of seeing and specific to local needs and
concerns. This awareness is the foundation of managing
one’s audience, shaping one’s presentation of self in
everyday Second Life. In this section, we consider the
implementation and technical possibilities of looking, being
seen to look, and being the subject of “looking” in SL.
In SL, we studied two communities: a disability activist
community and an informal genderqueer1 social group.
These groups were of particular interest for four reasons.
First, community members participate in SL for support,
information, and sociality, rather than technological
enthusiasm. Second, the first group is a long-standing
community (it has existed for a decade through IRC and the
web and three years in SL). As such, it has evolved
relatively stable community practices. The other group
provided a case study at the other edge, as a relatively
informal and new community. Third, as marginalized
populations, members of these communities may be
particularly conscious of and attentive to issues surrounding
privacy and intimacy [8]. Fourth, disability and minority
activism can often be crucially concerned with identity
politics and self-presentation [12]. In addition to these
communities, our study also included interactions and
conversations with a broader set of users encountered
through snowball sampling and virtual world proximity.
Layered Infrastructures of Looking
Second Life defaults to third-person point of view. This
perspectival strategy provides users with views of the world
with their avatars in it, as well as a wider field of vision
than allowed by first-person point of view [15]. Each user
sees through an implied camera placed at some radius from
the avatar body. By zooming in and out, the radius of the
camera around the avatar increases, providing broader or
narrower vistas onto the virtual world. Using the arrow
keys, users can move the camera along a sphere defined by
the sweeping radial camera distance from the avatar,
allowing them to view the world around them without
reorienting their avatar bodies.
The challenges of articulating practices of looking and
visibility naturally drew us to a more observation-focused
inquiry. Our approach draws from virtual ethnography [18],
which provides a method for analyzing digital
communicative artifacts, and multi-sited – across SL, web
forums, and the “real world” – ethnography [21]. We
completed 60 hours of in-world participant-observation and
18 hours of semi-structured interviews with 8 users.
Interviews ranged from 30 minutes to 3 hours. We also
analyzed four blogs and two web forums associated with
the formal activist community.
A first-person perspective, called “mouselook,” provides a
view on the world as though through the eyes of the avatar,
such that the avatar body is no longer visible. This view is
analogous to the physical world perspective of unmediated
looking. In this perspective, users must actually turn and
reorient themselves to see the environment behind or to the
sides of them. The major difference in capabilities between
this view and the “real world” physical viewing capabilities
of human beings is mouselook’s lack of peripheral vision as
compared to “real world” vision.
Past research has often focused on avatar embodiments and
virtual objects in a digital representation of threedimensional (3D) space in their analyses of CVE.
Supplementing this understanding, our observations
indicate that SL has developed a much more complex world
of alternate information displays, profile pages for avatars,
and application programmer interfaces (APIs) that allow
end users to create custom objects that can sense and act.
Beyond the potential for looking enabled by the camera, the
SL screen, like those of many virtual worlds, layers
additional visual information in a heads up display (HUD)
(See Figure 1). A miniature map shows a topological
overview of one’s currently occupied region with green
dots representing locations of other residents. Person-toperson instant messaging (IM) and chat text from nearby
residents visually appear overlaid on the user’s view of the
world. Because the visual interface in Second Life includes
Genderqueer is an identity category that is inclusive of all
who do not identity with traditional male and female gender
“hearing” utterances, people often mix vocabulary of seeing
and hearing or looking and listening in SL. For example,
one informant described speaking privately in SL: “If I’m
discussing [something] very personal, I always do so in IM
so that no-one else can see” (emphasis ours). Thus, in our
analysis of looking in SL, we consider verbal, written
expressions, as well as abstracted and supplementary
information layers, alongside the more commonly
considered views of the 3D world.
the user interface. Avatars of users looking at profiles
merely appear idle. It is therefore some of the means of
obtaining the profile, rather than the looking itself, that are
rendered visible, thus making some profile viewings
accountable passively or automatically.
Another example of accountable looking is taking a screen
capture of the virtual world scene using the “Take
Snapshot” command. When this command is executed, the
avatar raises an iconic camera to its face and a shutter
makes a sound. Reinforcing visual and audio signals make
the moment of capture explicit. To those who may be
captured or “photographed” in this manner, the behavior of
the avatar provides a lightweight account of the recording
as a resource for understanding and negotiating these
A third way to look is to utilize the “Alt”+click tool for
looking at specific objects. “Alt” + click effectively trains
the looking avatar’s gaze at the “looked-at,” centering the
view on that individual and directing the looking avatar’s
head to the looked-at. However, moving the mouse
disengages the gazing, directed head, moving the head
again to follow the mouse.
Although these means of looking are accountable, they are
often only discernible with difficulty, even for experienced
participants. After someone had just taught the maneuver to
one of us, we tried it a few minutes later to see if he
Figure 1: Third-person perspective, overlaid with camera
controls and a mini-map. Menus are along the top and bottom
of the screen.
Looking Beyond the Simulation
Taking this notion of layered infrastructure a little further,
looking in virtual worlds extends beyond the 3D simulation.
While discussions of interaction in a virtual environment
such as SL inevitably focus on the simulated world as both
the site and the form of interaction, SL is simultaneously a
graphical user interface and potentially just one of many
active applications. Thus, interaction with, through, and
around that application interface is also relevant to any
account of looking and examining the world.
“I just tried the
alt+click to look at you”
“did you notice? :-D”
Dwayne : “:) probably not. at
least consciously”
Although there are too little data to understand completely
the effectiveness of accountable gazing, some challenges
are already clear. The mouse moves the avatar head,
redirecting the apparent gaze, but the mouse may move for
many reasons having nothing to do with looking. For
example, the user may be mousing between Second Life
and another application, such as a web browser. The user
may be using the commands at the bottom of the screen.
Noisy head movements threaten to render even the most
explicit, intentional gaze unintelligible.
Beyond the simple forms of virtual looking described in the
previous section, the most common and easily executed act
of looking is t …
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