Redefining the sacred in 3D virtual worlds: exploratory analysis of knowledge production and innovation through religious expression

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Atwaters, Sybrina Yvonne
Pearson, Willie
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This dissertation contributes to conversations regarding the impact of open user centered innovation on cultural production by focusing on the construction and production of religious products within one large-scale open user-centered technological environment, 3D virtual worlds. Particularly, this study examines how virtual world users construct (non-gaming) religious communities and practices and how the technology impacts the forms of religious expression these users create. Due to its existing religious sector and affordances for user-created content, Second Life (SL) was chosen as the context of study for this dissertation project. Building upon Von-Hippel's (2005) user-centered innovation theory, construction and production within three different user-centered religious communities in SL were explored. Using a comparative ethnographic approach over a 14-month period, involving participant observations, interviews and hyper-media techniques, the social construction of customized religious products amidst technical, social, and economic virtual/non-virtual structures were analyzed. Exploratory findings demonstrate that the democratizing of cultural innovation, that is the construction of heterogeneous cultural religious products by the everyday user, is a matter of patterned relational pathways. The greater possible patterned pathways the higher potential for democratized cultural innovation, an increasing number of users developing new ways of doing religion. The fewer patterned pathways the less the potential for democratize cultural innovation and the greater potential for reproducing within the virtual realm the same cultural frames that define the current social order in the non-virtual realm.
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