Doctoral research

July 15, 2008

My research blog is here.

My research is undergoing a major transformation and is no longer looking at the research question below. To find out what my question now is, visit this page on my new research blog


Position: PhD Student Publications: see Lee’s publication list below
Division/Portfolio:
Division of Education, Arts and Social Sciences
School/Unit:
School of Communication
Campus: Magill Campus
Telephone: +61 410 642 052 Fax: +61 8 8388 5171
Email: Lee.Hopkins@unisa.edu.au

Lee Hopkins Lee Laperriere I am currently reading and researching for a Doctorate in Communications, focusing on 3D virtual world Second Life and how SMEs (Small to Medium-sized Enterprises) can take advantage of them.

I come to my research degree with over 20 years of experience in the field of Business Communication, both here and in the UK. I have been extremely active as an online communicator for the last 12 years and am recognised world-wide as one of Australia’s leading thinkers in online communication strategy in a business context.

My research: “Finding the key: helping SMEs find real business value in 3D collaborative virtual environments”

One of the key theorists underpinning my research is the late great Henri Lefebvre. Henri was a French sociologist and philosopher who understood that ‘spaces’ were not holes in buildings, but actually built environments in their own regard.

Now, before you think that I’m rapidly disappearing up my own virtual sphincter, let me explain how a 20th century sociologist who philosophized about the Marxist use of space and a 21st century business communicator can be aligned when I am neither a philosopher nor a Marxist.

Lefebvre believed that space was not just emptiness, but that it comprised three essential elements: physical, mental and cultural. So for Second Life that would equate to physical being the actual space — a piazza, a lobby, a park, a mezzanine.

Second, the mental could be how we perceive that space for ourselves — what that space means to us as an individual. For example, is it a waste of space? Is it dead space? Is it somewhere we can create something? Is it somewhere we can admire something?

Thirdly, the cultural element of Lefebvre’s ‘space’ is what part it plays in the social milieu around it — does it allow, for example, others to share the space and co-create, or co-admire each other’s creations? Does it allow for community co-operation? Does it signify a power hegemony?

This third point starts to meander into my research, so I will stay with it a little while longer.

In asking if the space signifies a power hegemony, let us ask ourselves what use does a corporate built environment have for the community? If we accept that space — be it an empty mezzanine floor with walls of artwork, or a town square with a fountain and park benches — is not created ab nihilo (out of nothing) but is created for a specific purpose or practice, then what are the spaces that corporations build used for? Do they benefit the local community or do they merely exist to serve as a symbol for the power of the corporation? This latter question might be an example of what might be called ‘willie waving’, wherein I am a large powerful corporation with tons of money, therefore I can afford to buy a HUGE island and build elaborate offices with spaces around and within them.

I sidestep the answer — only because I don’t have one — to consider what the word ‘community’ means. Does it mean a singular community, such as the entire SL population? Is it a plurality, such as nearby islands and cultural groups? Or is it merely the corporation’s own hegemonic-friendly tribe?

This may all sound EXCEEDINGLY like I am crawling up my own virtual sphincter, but they are important issues to consider.

My research is rapidly finding its own pathway, and I am in the process of renaming my research proposition to this: “Finding the key: unlocking the door that bars SMEs from entering virtual worlds.”

My reasoning for this is thus: We have bus loads of corporates rushing into SL, seemingly for the purpose of establishing a branding beachhead amongst the next wave of digiliterati. They have the luxury of having pots of money to splash about on not only buying an island, but also paying the monthly island rental fee AND pay some expensive developers oodles of dosh to build them something ‘special’.

The individual SOHO operator can create whatever digital items they like and sell them to the various publics within SL. They don’t need to buy their own island if they don’t want to, their shop rental costs can be quite low if they look hard enough, and their only real costs are traditional marketing and advertising ones: running ads in the classifieds, running ads in the various SL media, growing and maintaining their contact lists. In this regard SL is no different from ‘real life’ direct marketing — the power is all in the list. The bigger the list, the bigger the dollars if you do things correctly.

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Another way of looking at this is thus:

Currently the ‘business’ approach to 3D virtual worlds like Second Life has been hesitant; there have been a number of corporations entering Second Life, seemingly for the purpose of establishing a branding beachhead amongst the next wave of digiliterati. Corporations have the luxury of having considerable amounts of money to splash about on not only ‘buying an island’ – the first step in establishing a permanent Second Life presence – but also paying the monthly island rental fee, as well as paying 3d graphics developers considerable sums to ‘build’ them something ‘special’. They can put money aside for these ‘research’ projects and run a team of employees to create and manage their ‘in-world’ presence. IBM, for example, has reportedly spent over US$10M in creating a vast Second Life presence, most of which is out of bounds and hidden to non-IBM staff.

Individual entrepreneurs have entered into Second Life in far larger numbers than corporations, all of the entrepreneurs selling digital goods or services. The most profitable so far have been land speculators, but some fashion designers are now anecdotally reported to be earning a full-time living from sales of their digital creations. But their approach to Second Life is different to the approach taken by the corporations.

The individual operator can create whatever digital items they like and sell them to the various ‘publics’ within SL. They don’t need to buy their own island if they don’t want to; their ‘shop rental’ costs can be quite
low if they look hard enough, and their only real costs are traditional marketing and advertising: running ads in the online classifieds, and in the various SL media, and growing and maintaining the contact lists which they accumulate as their avatars literally strut their stuff around the more fashionable SL precincts. In this regard SL is no different from ‘real life’ direct marketing — the power is all in the list: the bigger the list, the bigger the dollars, if you do things correctly. So at each end of the business spectrum we have activity: corporations splashing dollars about in branding and experimentation exercises; individual entrepreneurs saving their dollars for traditional marketing and advertising activities and generating revenue from online sales of their digital products.

This is analogous to the beginning of the World Wide Web (WWW) around 1993-1994. Solo entrepreneurs (‘infopreneurs’) found ways to sell digital goods online (starting with eBooks and then branching out into subscription models for online courses, newsletters, webinars, inter alia). Corporations approached the WWW as something strange and new, of interest as a potential new marketing channel, and so began to experiment and ‘play’ with the medium until revenue or ROI models could be determined.

The SMEs of the day looked at the WWW and said, “So what?” They already had Yellow Pages and couldn’t see the value in spending more money, especially as the only people online at the time seemed to be ‘geeks and university students’ .

Moving back to 2007, the typical SME still isn’t interested in investing hard-earned capital in something that may or may not give them a return on that investment. They can’t afford to buy expensive islands, stock them with expensive buildings and pay the monthly rental fees. They can’t afford to have full-time members of staff spending all their time ‘playing’ in this new online ‘game’. Nor can they design and build digital items for sale. In some cases this is because they can’t afford the loss of productivity in their existing business while someone spends time learning how to create digital objects, researches what the company should make, then sets up a shop stall to sell them. In other instances the chances are high that any digital goods the company might consider making are totally foreign to its existing ‘real world’ brand and product mix.

Conversations I have had with SMEs in Australia are similar to my experiences over a decade before – only now SMEs typically say, “So what? Why should I invest in Second Life? I already have a website.”

Eventually SMEs learned to understand and navigate new tools like the WWW to their benefit. So too will SMEs learn to navigate the 3D virtual environments that will proliferate around them. But like the WWW before, they will need to discover new ways of conducting business, and jettison old habits that no longer fit the new online communication environment.

My research will look at these ‘new rules’ of business communication for SMEs within 3D virtual environments. It will consider ‘why’ these new rules exist, what rules they replace, and what differences there are between conducting business in the traditional, ‘real’ world, online via the web, and in the new ‘hypereality’ (Baudrillard 1983; Eco 1990; Landow 1992; Landow & Landow 1997) of the 3D participatory virtual world (Castronova 2002, 2005).

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So at each end of the business spectrum we have activity — corporates splashing dollars about in branding and experimentation exercises; individual entrepreneurs saving their dollars for traditional marketing and advertising activities.

But what of the largest group of business, the Small-to-Medium Enterprise, (aka SME)? They can’t afford to buy expensive islands, stock them with expensive buildings and pay the monthly rental fees. They can’t afford to have full-time members of staff spending all their time ‘playing’ in this new online ‘game’. Nor can they design and build digital items for sale, either because they can’t afford the loss of productivity in their business while someone spends time learning how to create digital objects, researches what the company should make, then sets up a shop stall to sell them; or the chances are high that any digital goods the company might consider making are totally foreign to its existing ‘real world’ brand and product mix.

So what use are virtual worlds to SMEs? Plenty, I would argue, because the 3D virtual world is what the internet experience will rapidly become — they just need to have the technology and bandwidth issues sorted out for them.

All of which circles back nicely to my research and a dead French Marxist.

I believe that there are new and valuable lessons for SMEs to learn and progress through in order to deal effectively with and within the 3D virtual world. I just don’t know what they are yet — no one does. Which is why I am not alone in exploring from an academic perspective the 3D virtual environment, of which SL is currently the flavour of the month.

But if a dead French Marxist can alert the world to the until-then overlooked fact that empty spaces in built environments are not just holes but actually have semiotic meaning, then looking at how SOHO digitally creative entrepreneurs generate and use space, and how corporates use and create space, might just open a door to how SMEs can use the 3D virtual space to further their business objectives.

After all, in the mid 1990s we all learnt that carrying the print mentality across to the then-new world wide web didn’t ‘work’, so we had to learn what the new ‘rules of engagement’ were. So too with 3D virtual worlds, and if we are still figuring out the rules for blogging and ‘Social Media/Web2.0′ then we are surely still a little way off from figuring out what works and what doesn’t when the populations of 3D virtual worlds reach critical mass.

N’est pas?

My research will look at these still-unwritten ‘new rules’ of business communication for SMEs within 3D virtual environments.

It will consider ‘why’ these new rules exist, what rules they replace, and what differences there are between conducting business in the traditional, ‘real’ world, online via the web, and in the new ‘hypereality’ (Baudrillard 1983; Eco 1990; Landow 1992; Landow & Landow 1997) of the 3D participatory virtual world (Castronova 2002, 2005).

It will seek to map out, via action research in an auto-ethnographic mode, the new ‘virtual’ culture that SMEs must understand if they wish to successfully engage with the various ‘in world’ communities. It will seek to understand the new 3D virtual world business culture from various perspectives, taking into account Rheingold’s (1994) conception of virtual communitarian reality , Castell’s (2000b, 2003a, b, 2004; 2006) vision of a networked world , LeFebvre’s use of space as a social construction (Lefebvre 1991; 1996) , Kotler’s views on marketing (Kotler & Keller 2006a; Kotler & Pfoertsch 2006), and Bormann’s Symbolic Convergence Theory (Bormann 1972; Bormann, Cragan & Shields 1994; Cragan & Shields 1995; Bormann, Cragan & Shields 2003).

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References

Baudrillard, J 1983, Simulations, Semiotext(e), New York.

Bormann, EG 1972, ‘Fantasy and rhetorical vision: The rhetorical criticism of social reality’, Quarterly Journal of Speech, vol. 58, p. 12.

Bormann, EG, Cragan, JF & Shields, DC 1994, ‘In defense of symbolic convergence theory: A look at the theory and its criticisms after two decades’, Communication Theory, vol. 4, p. 6.

Bormann, EG, Cragan, JF & Shields, DC 2003, ‘Defending symbolic convergence
theory from an imaginary Gunn’, Quarterly Journal of Speech, vol. 89, p. 7.

Castells, M 2000a, End of millennium, 2nd edn, Blackwell Publishers, Oxford.

Castells, M 2000b, The rise of the network society, 2nd edn, Blackwell Publishers, Malden, MA.

Castells, M 2003a, The Internet Galaxy: Reflections on the Internet, Business, and Society, Oxford University Press, New York.

Castells, M 2003b, The power of identity, 2nd edn, Malden, Mass. ; Oxford Blackwell,.

Castells, M 2004, The network society : a cross-cultural perspective, Edward Elgar, Cheltenham.

Castells, M, Cardoso, G & Johns Hopkins University. Center for Transatlantic Relations. 2006, The network society: from knowledge to policy, Center for Transatlantic Relations Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies Johns Hopkins University, Washington, DC.

Castronova, E 2002, On Virtual Economies, Center for Economic Studies and Ifo Institute for Economic Research, viewed 19 March 2007, .

Castronova, E 2005, Synthetic worlds : the business and culture of online games, University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Cragan, JF & Shields, DC 1995, Symbolic theories in applied communication research: Bormann, Burke, and Fisher, Hampton, New Jersey.

Eco, U 1990, Travels in hyper reality : essays, 1st Harvest/HBJ edn, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, San Diego.

Landow, GP 1992, Hypertext : the convergence of contemporary critical theory and technology, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore.

Landow, GP & Landow, GP 1997, Hypertext 2.0, Rev., amplified edn, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore.

Lefebvre, H 1991, The production of space, Basil Blackwell, Oxford.

Lefebvre, H, Kofman, E & Lebas, E 1996, Writings on cities, Blackwell, Oxford England ; Cambridge, Mass.

Kotler, P & Pfoertsch, P 2006, B2B brand management, Springer, Berlin. Kotler, P & Keller, KL 2006a, ‘Chapter 1: Defining marketing for the 21st century’, in Marketing management, Pearson Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River, NJ.

Rheingold, H 1994, The virtual community: homesteading on the electronic frontier, HarperPerennial, New York, NY.


My research blog

My primary blog

My article website with 200+ articles on business communication

A co-written and widely circulated White Paper on Social Media (pdf); particularly of relevance to PR and Business Communicators

My press/media pack (zip file)


topProfessional associations

International Association of Business Communicators


topQualifications

B.Sc. (Hons.) Applied Psychology & Sociology; Surrey (UK)

Post-graduate Diploma in Management Studies; Brunel (UK)


topResearch interests

  • Virtual worlds (particularly 3D, such as Second Life)
  • Business communication in online environments
  • Social Media/Web2.0

topPublications

Hopkins, L. (2008). The virtual society: collaborative, 3-dimensional and full of furry foxes. Invited presentation and paper, History and Future of Social Innovation Conference, Adelaide, 19-21 June.

Hopkins, L. (2008). Using social media to communicate with hard-to-reach groups. In Melcrum, Melcrum’s top 50 internal communication case studies. Melcrum, London, pp. 151-153.

Hopkins, L. (2008). Using social media to communicate with hard-to-reach groups. In Melcrum, How to communicate with hard-to-reach employees: How the world’s leading organizations engage their virtual and non-wired teams. Melcrum, London, pp. 26-28, 119-120.

Hopkins, L. (2008). Building relationships using the 3D web. In Melcrum, How to use social media to engage employees. Melcrum, London, p. 119.

Cook , T. and Hopkins, L. (2008). Social Media Report (3rd Ed.): How we stopped worrying and learned to love communication. Self-published pdf report – available from http://www.leehopkins.net/downloads/cook-hopkins-social-media-white-paper.pdf

Hopkins, L. (2007). How to get started with podcasting in your organization. Melcrum, London.

Hopkins, L. (2007). Enhancing Communication with Social Media. Presentation at PRIA WA State Conference, Perth, August 4.

Hopkins, L. (2007). What makes Australians click? Presentation at 8th Annual Public Affairs Convention, Sydney, May 10-11.

Cook , T. and Hopkins, L. (2007). Social Media Report/White Paper (2nd Ed.): How I stopped worrying and learned to love communication. Self-published pdf report.

Hopkins, L. (2007). Social Media and the evolution of communication. Journal of Employee Communication Management. Jan/Feb, 23-25

Hopkins, L. (2006). Communication that can lead to conflict. In Wood, Zeffane, Fromholtz & Fitzgerald, Organisational Behaviour: core concepts and applications, Wiley, Sydney, pp.462-463

Hopkins, L. (2006). Oral Vs Written Communication. Audio presentation in Buch, Elsing & Steveling, Focussing on Real Estate, Hammonia, Hamburg

Cook , T. and Hopkins, L. (2006). Social Media Report/White Paper(1st Ed.): How I stopped worrying and learned to love communication. Self-published pdf report.

Millward, L.J., & Hopkins, L.J. (1998). Organizational Commitment and the Psychological Contract. Journal of Social and Applied Psychology. 28(16) 16-31

Millward, L.J. & Hopkins, L.J. (1997). A psychological contract and identification model of risk ownership. International Journal of Project and Business Risk Management. July, 111-120

Hopkins, L.J., & Millward, L.J. (1997). Measuring Information Performance. Invited paper presented at the Maximising Information Performance (Euromapping) Conference, June 2-3rd, 1997, London

Millward, L.J., & Hopkins, L.J. (1997). Organizational Commitment and the Psychological Contract. Paper presented at the British Psychological Society Annual Conference at The Edinburgh Conference Centre, April 1997

Hopkins, L.J., & Millward, L.J. (1997). Perceptions of the employment contract: core and peripheral workers. Paper presented at the British Psychological Society Annual Conference at The Edinburgh Conference Centre, April 1997

Millward, L.J., & Hopkins, L.J. (1996) Organizational Change and the psychological contract. Interactive poster presentation at the XXVI International Congress in Psychology, Montreal, August 16-21, 1996<
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topExpertise for Media Contact

I am able to provide media comment in the following areas of expertise:

Discipline: Communication

  • Social Media/Web2.0
  • business communication in online contexts
  • Second Life – the 3D virtual environment

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