Peace Dot Partner IMVU – Creating Empathetic Connections on the Net

On their website, IMVU explains that they are a “social network and 3D virtual world where millions of people meet, chat and have fun in animated 3D scenes.” The site is a place for people from all over the world to

interact in a more realistically human way than simply by text through email or chat and photos on Facebook by using the 3D Avatars that imitate human behavior. As a participant in our lab’s Peace Dot project, they created a Peace Dot page for IMVU where they display the number of hugs and the number of gifts given in the last 24 hours, as well as a set of images that members of the community created to represent how they see peace. The images range from two hippies with peace signs wearing tie-dye to a woman with her child. Within the network, members can design their own world. They can create their own stuff or buy other people’s designs. It is an entire separate community that exchanges ideas and goods across cultures.

Beyond just looking at the page that IMVU decided to display for how they see their site as creating peace, we decided to look at empathy as an aspect of creating peace and how it is increased or diminished by the Internet.

One of the big ways that the Peace Innovation Lab has tried to look at tackling the often daunting concept of “peace” is through “antecedents to peace,” (http://margaritaquihuis.posterous.com/antecedents-to-peace-mind-map) or things that contribute to peace but are more concrete and directly achievable. In the case of IMVU, it falls under the peace antecedent of individual development. Within individual development it mainly develops emotional intelligence. One of the most important aspects of emotional intelligence is empathy. It is a major contributor to peace and compassion across all cultures.

In the case of the Internet, there seem to be arguments both for and against whether the Internet increases empathy. In trying to increase empathy within the  IMVU community, the company has researched many different aspects of human interaction. They have looked at how to make the users have real visceral reactions when observing the avatar interactions. Examples of this include looking at amounts of eye contact and avatar appearance. IMVU has developed avatars to use the right amount of eye contact to keep people feeling comfortable and has found that the avatars have to look unrealistic enough that people are not distracted by the realism of the avatar and can just experience the interactions. This has been successful because people using the program have had such visceral reactions as cringing, smiling, laughing and feeling uplifted based on interacting over the avatar platform.

When discussing the idea of empathy and the Internet with an IMVU employee, he discussed an idea that seems to agree with concepts our lab has already developed. He said he feels like the Internet increases empathy in breadth but not depth. It is possible with the Internet to know and empathize with more things across the entire web, but possibly not to the same depth that real interactions produce. Part of this could be a result of the fact that too much information can be overwhelming and actually make it harder to go deeper.

IMVU may not be as good as reality, but it is close and does count for some value and connection. For some people, a community like IMVU may be a step in the wrong direction socially, as it is may take away from real human interactions. However, for others it could be an important transitional step to more human interactions and emotional development. Thus, the Internet is a double-edged sword with regards to empathy and social interactions.

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