Binary Lives: Digital Citizenship and Disability Participation in a User Content Created Virtual World
Vizenor, Katie Virginia
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Digital Citizenship is a concept typically used in discussions of how technology impacts our relationships with others and our physical world communities. It is also used to describe ways that we can leverage our technology use and skill to make our communities and nations better and stronger. Educators are now teaching "good digital citizenship" as part of a larger civics curriculum. But, there is a second, emerging concept that I refer to as platform specific digital citizenship. I define this platform specific citizenship as the deep and abiding commitment and sense of responsibility that people develop in relation to a particular technology, such as software or technology brand. It may also refer to the ideas that people express in regard to how technology should ideally be used and what rights and responsibilities it requires of its adherents. Massively Multiplayer Online Worlds (MMOWs) are one place researchers are finding this deep, platform specific digital citizenship emerging. These are persistent digital universes where people from all over the world develop online personas, leadership structures, discussion forums, and business and non-profit entities. The ability and extent to which this online organization is possible is largely due to the underlying structure, rules and allowances of the world of which people choose to be a part. One online world, Second Life, has a large, active and vocal disabled population. They have committed to this environment because of the unique opportunities and freedoms that it provides. As a user content created environment, residents, as Second Life participants are referred to, are given an unprecedented amount of freedom to create the kind of experience they want. This may involve developing relationships and projects with other disabled residents. It can also involve exploring other aspects of themselves and their interests that are often neglected in their real lives due to social exclusion, and/or lack of financial and physical access. Most of the research and popular media examinations of disability in Second Life centers on participation in disability specific communities or the benefits of identity exploration through avatar design. But, the reasons disabled people stay here is much broader and varied than what this limited discussion suggests. Commitment to Second Life is strong precisely because disability community commitment and disability expression are not the only options but exist among a wide range of choices. Moreover, the expression of disability and use of such mediated environments is constantly debated in both word and deed. This dissertation explores the concept of digital citizenship and why people that identify as disabled in real life are attracted to committed participation in virtual worlds, in particular, Second Life. What opportunities and rights are disabled people afforded here through the technology structure? What are the avenues of entry into the Second Life community, and what does the variety of these entry points and special interest sub-communities tell us about what is important to them? How is commitment debated and deepened through the use of public spaces and forums? And, what can researchers, public health and information professionals learn from these features that can improve their own outreach?