Avatars, Anonymity and Social Connection: Implications for Health Games and Health Communication

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Avatars, Anonymity and Social Connection: Implications for Health Games and Health Communication

James Watt

Professor Emeritus, Communication Sciences

University of Connecticut



Social Connection

  • In mediated communication, various terms are used

    • Presence
    • Copresence
    • Social copresence
  • All contain the idea of having access to the other interactant’s internal psychological state, similar to actually being present face-to-face while communicating with the individual.

Positive outcomes of on-line social connection in health communication

  • Information exchange

    • “Why don’t you check the AA site for suggestions on how family members can cope?”
  • Group identity formation and support

    • “Everyone in this discussion is a cancer patient or survivor. We’ll be here for you.”
  • Non-threatening social pressure for healthy behaviors

    • “I walked for 45 minutes today. How did you do?”

Social connection in mediated health communication

Negative outcomes of on-line social connection

  • Ridicule

    • “You mean you can’t stay with an exercise program more than 3 weeks? C’mon!”
  • Teasing and bullying

    • “If I was as fat as you, I’d have my refrigerator welded shut.”
  • Forfeiture of Privacy

    • “We’d like to hire you, but you posted a note that said you have recurrent bouts of disabling depression that cause you to miss work.”

Anonymity in on-line groups and health games

  • The solution to most of the negative outcomes is to provide anonymity of participants or game players.

    • Not a “normal” way of communicating.
    • May reduce the effectiveness of the communication process by removing important information about the communicator.
  • The central research questions

    • Can the positive outcomes can be retained if communicators are allowed anonymity to deal with the negatives?
    • Are there ways to design communication technology to make anonymous communication more effective?

Anonymity in on-line communication

  • A good summary:

      • Christopherson, K. M. (2007). The positive and negative implications of anonymity in Internet social interactions: “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog”. Computers in Human Behavior, 23(6), 3038-3056.
  • Communication effects are focused on social anonymity:

      • “…the perception of others and/or one’s self as unidentifiable because of a lack of cues to use to attribute an identity to that individual.” (Christopherson, 2007, p. 3040)
  • But removing cues may damage the communication effectiveness.

Positive communication effects of anonymity - Privacy

  • Anonymity provides privacy:

    • Ability to exert control of information about self
    • Shown to have positive effects on psychological well-being, some resulting from …
    • Catharsis of anti-normative thoughts or behaviors without negative social consequences
    • Autonomy to explore new behaviors or identities without negative consequences

Positive communication effects of anonymity – status equalization

  • “Equalization hypothesis”

      • Dubrovsky, V. J., Kiesler, B. N., & Sethna, B. N. (1991). The equalization phenomenon: status effect in computer-mediated and face-to-face decision-making groups. Human–Computer Interaction, 2(2),119–146.
    • freedom from visual cues or other identification removes status hierarchy, gender, and other social status effects.
    • Has received only very limited support, leading to …
    • The “Watt Conjecture”:
    • “On the Internet everyone knows you’re a dog.”
    • Corollary:
      • But they don’t necessarily know which dog you are.

Positive communication effects of anonymity – group identity

  • The Social Identity Model of Deindividuation Effects (SIDE)

      • (Spears, R., & Lea, M. (1992). Social influence and the influence of the ‘‘social’’ in computer-mediated communication. In M. Lea (Ed.), Contexts of computer-mediated communication (pp. 30–65). London:Harvester-Wheatsheaf.
    • Reinterpretation of Zimbardo’s Deindividuation theory in the context of computer-mediated communication.
    • SIDE theory predicts that when all members of the group are anonymous to each other, group salience will increase and members will identify more strongly with the group.
    • Important for many health communication objectives.

Negative communication effects of anonymity-flaming

  • Flaming and critical comments

    • Shown to be more prevalent in anonymous than interactant identified communication settings.
      • Reinig, B. A., & Mejias, R. J. (2004). The Effects of National Culture and Anonymity on Flaming and Criticalness in GSS-Supported Discussions Small Group Research, 35(6), 698-723.
      • Alonzo, M., & Aiken, M. (2004). Flaming in electronic communication. Decision Support Systems, 36, 205-213.
    • This likely results from the dark side of maintaining privacy:
    • Social norms are less powerful without the possibility of sanctions to the individual.
    • Also may be a possible side-effect of deindividuation.
    • Group is seen as undifferentiated whole and reified into a simple entity that has weak norm enforcement.

Negative communication effects of anonymity-reduction of social connection

  • There is some evidence that anonymous communications lead to less social “connectedness” among participants

      • Kang, S., Watt, J. H., & Ala, S. K. (2008) Social copresence in anonymous social interactions using a mobile video telephone. Proceedings of CHI 2008. New York: ACM Press.
  • The presumed cause of the reduction is removal of important communication cues like nonverbal facial expressions, body movements, etc.

Media richness and social presence

  • Media richness historically referred to the amount of information (incorrectly termed “bandwidth”) provided by the mediating channel, e.g. text vs. video.

      • Daft, R. L. & Lengel, R. H. (1984). Information Richness: A new approach to managerial behavior and organization design. Research in Organizational Behavior, 6.
    • Only mixed support for hypothesis that richer media produce more social presence.
    • E.g. Walther’s Hyperpersonal Communication theory
      • Walther, J. B. (1996). Computer-mediated communication: Impersonal, interpersonal, and hyperpersonal interaction. Communication Research, 23(1), 3–43.
      • Found more perceived psychological closeness for text than video in some communication circumstances.
      • Occurred primarily when participants were expecting future interaction.
  • Reinterpretation of media richness:

    • Focuses on “cues” provided by communicators rather than technological affordance provided by the channel.
    • Rich cues improve social presence.

Anonymity and Avatars

  • Full visual anonymity removes cues that might be important to effective communication.

    • Nonverbal visual channel cues are particularly important to accurate exchanges.
  • CMC solution to provide anonymity while still retaining some visual cues is to provide an avatar.

  • An avatar can be any symbol that represents the communicator.

    • E.g. text screen name; abstract non-human object; cartoon; photograph; full motion video, etc.

Avatar Realism

Impact of avatar realism

  • More realistic avatars generally thought to improve communication outcomes.

      • Garau, M., Slater, M., Vinayagamoorthy, V., Brogni, A., Steed, A., & Sasse, M. A. (2003). The impact of avatar realism and eye gaze control on perceived quality of communication in a shared immersive virtual environment. In Proceedings of the SIGCHI conference on Human factors in computing systems (pp. 529-536). New York: ACM.Some exceptions
    • With exceptions
    • Hyperpersonal communication
    • Also, the “uncanny valley”

The “Uncanny Valley”

  • From human-robot interaction research

      • Mori, M. (1970). Bukimi no tani [The uncanny valley]. Energy,7(4), 33–35.
    • Human feelings of comfort with technology decrease when robot realism is high (close to a human) but not perfect.
    • Applies to avatars, too, but only if unusual features are included (i.e. lower anthropomorphism) or if visual and behavioral realism are inconsistent.
      • See: Seyama, J. i., & Nagayama, R. S. (2007). The Uncanny Valley: Effect of Realism on the Impression of Artificial Human Faces. Presence, 16(4), 337–351
  • May decrease the effectiveness of avatars in improving anonymous communication outcomes.

Two Studies of Avatars and Anonymous Communication

  • Study 1

    • Effects of different types and levels of avatar realism and anonymity on social copresence.
  • Study 2

    • Effects of different levels of visual anonymity on interactants’ self-disclosure of emotionally-loaded information.

Study 1 Setting

  • Conducted in the Social and Behavioral Research Laboratory at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

  • Research team director, James Watt

    • Primary researcher: Sinhwa Kang (Ph.D. candidate)
    • Technical support: Sasi Kanth Ala (Graduate student)

Pretest of processed video in providing anonymity

Study 1 Research Design

Experimental Groups

Mobil device software mockup

Medium fidelity, anthropomorphic, kinetically realistic avatar

Low fidelity, low anthropomorphic, kinetically realistic avatar

Anonymized video (medium fidelity, anthropomorphic, high behavioral realism)

Experimental Procedure

  • Subjects non-systematically assigned to gender pair, gender pair randomly assigned to experimental condition.

  • Given a role playing task (“See if this person might be compatible as an apartment-mate”).

    • Requires self-disclosure from both participants.
    • Encourages exploratory, non-task communication.
  • Conversation continues for 10-15 minutes.

  • Post-task social copresence questionnaire.

Characteristics of Social Copresence Measures

  • Dependent Measures

    • Copresence incorporated more emotional communication items and fewer task-oriented items than past research.
    • Important for social media success.
    • Social Richness of Medium focused on appropriate use perceptions.
    • Important for fostering adoption of medium.
    • Interactant Satisfaction is a summative measure of perceived success of the interactions.
    • Important for continued use of medium.

Sample social copresence self-report items

Some Results-Avatar Behavioral Realism

  • Effects of higher behavioral realism

    • Higher evaluation of Social Richness of Medium.
    • A higher behavioral realism medium is seen as more suitable for social interaction.
    • No effect on Copresence or Interactant Satisfaction.
    • Perceptions of psychological access to other communicator or satisfaction with the interaction are not affected by dynamic visual cues.

Some Results-Avatar Visual Realism

  • Effects of higher fidelity and anthropomorphism

    • Higher Copresence
    • Higher evaluation of Social Richness of Medium
    • No impact on Interactant Satisfaction
  • Visual quality and human appearance of the avatar affect the perception of psychological access and assessment of the medium, but not the results of the communication.

  • No avatar (audio-only) produced lower Social Richness of Medium ratings.

Some Results-Avatar Anonymity

  • High realism avatars that provide anonymity do not differ from non-anonymous video on any measure of social copresence.

  • Low realism avatars produce less Copresence and perceptions of Social Richness of Medium.

Study 1 Conclusions

  • High realism avatars can be used to provide anonymity without deterioration of important Social Copresence variables, when compared to non-anonymous high realism avatars.

  • Lower realism anonymous avatars will impair effective social communication.

Study 1 Publications

    • Kang, S., Watt, J. H., & Ala, S.K. (2008). Communicators’ perceptions of social presence as a function of avatar realism in small display mobile communication device. In Proceedings of Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences (pp. 147-156). New York: IEEE Press.

    • Kang, S., Watt, J. H., & Ala, S. K. (2008). Social Copresence in Anonymous Social Interactions Using a Mobile Video Telephone. In Proceedings of CHI 2008 (pp. 1535-1544). New York: ACM Press.

Study 2 Setting

  • Conducted in the Institute for Creative Technology, University of Southern California

  • Research director, Jonathan Gratch

    • Primary researcher: Sinhwa Kang (Postdoctoral Researcher)
    • Research team member: James Watt

Study 2 research design

  • Three group experiment with IV being ordinal level of anonymity (none, medium, high).

  • Dependent variables

    • Amount of self-disclosure in response to questions about personal matters.
    • Copresence index from Study 1.
  • N=108, 54 male and 54 female, from general population of Los Angles, mean age = 37.5.

Experimental Manipulation

  • Three levels of avatar anonymity

Rapport Agent architecture

Examples of Rapport Agent behavior

Experimental procedure

  • Subjects randomly assigned to experimental condition.

  • Told that both participants would be represented by the same type of avatar.

  • Assigned task:

    • Find out as much as possible about the other person by asking them 10 questions.
    • Experimenter always asks same 10 questions.
    • Copresence questionnaire administered before subject asks questions.

Conversation task questions

  • Questions asked in increasing intimacy elicitation order:

    • “How old are you?”
    • “What is your hometown?”
    • “What are your favorite things to do in your free time?”
    • “What characteristics of yourself are you most proud of?”
    • “What are some of the things you hate about yourself?”
    • “What do you dislike about your physical appearance?”
    • “What has been the biggest disappointment in your life?”
    • “What have you done in your life that you feel most guilty about?”
    • “What are some of the things that really hurt your feelings?”
    • “What is your most common sexual fantasy?”

Measurement of self-disclosure

  • Transcript of responses to avatar questions prepared.

  • Two coders rate each utterance on self-disclosure as:

    • 0 = no self-disclosure
    • 1 = peripheral
    • peripheral layer is concerned with biographic data, e.g. “I am 30 years old”
    • 2 = intermediate
    • intermediate layer deals with attitudes, values, prejudices, opinions, aspirations, dreams, and desires, e.g. “I like to go shopping”
    • 3 = core
    • core layer is comprised of highly personal aspects related to basic values, beliefs, needs, fears, self-concept, emotions, feelings, and things people are ashamed of, e.g. “I’m so disappointed about my divorce.”
  • Good intercoder reliability: Krippendorff’s alpha = .84

  • Mean rating of both coders over full interaction used as subject’s self-disclosure score.

Basic Path Analysis Results

Net impact of increasing anonymity

  • Effect of increasing anonymity one standard unit

    • Direct Effect = +.27 std. unit of self-disclosure
    • Indirect Effect = -.26 * .16 = -.04 std. unit of self-disclosure
    • NET EFFECT = .27 - .04 = .23 std. unit of self-disclosure.

Study 2 conclusions

  • Although increasing anonymity decreases copresence (emotional connection) which in turn decreases self-disclosure, this effect is much smaller than the direct increase in self-disclosure that anonymity produces.

Study 2 Publication

    • Kang, S., Gratch, J., & Watt, J., (2010) Impact of Anonymity on Social Copresence and Self-Disclosure in Avatar Mediated Communication Settings. Working paper (Under Review).

Implications for design of communication systems for health communication

  • Anonymity, on balance, will improve self-disclosure in emotionally sensitive communications.

  • Avatars with high visual and behavioral realism will reduce negative effects of anonymity on social copresence and in turn, improve self-disclosure.

  • Decreases in cost of digital communication technology makes this feasible for social media for health communication including health games that include a social interaction component.

Avatars, Anonymity and Social Connection: Implications for Health Games and Health Communication

James Watt

Professor Emeritus, Communication Sciences

University of Connecticut


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