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A comparison study of electronic brainstorming in two CMC environments

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Abstract: Second Life (SL) is an increasingly popular platform used by people with recreational, educational, as well as increasingly corporate interests. Both educators and employers have indicated certain characteristics of SL make it particularly conducive to brainstorming activities. A mixed-methods research design evaluated the difference between using SL and a standard instant messenger (IM) program for similar brainstorming tasks. Data from transcripts of four brainstorming sessions (two IM and two SL) was analyzed to evaluate the number of ideas discussed and the final number of proposed solutions to brainstorming tasks. In addition, open-ended survey questions provided further detail about each environment. Second Life use demonstrated slightly higher brainstorming productivity and was also determined to be a more casual environment, but with more distractions during the task.


Brainstorming was originated in 1953 by Osborn in his book Applied Imagination. Basically, it is a technology aiming to generate new ideas for a certain problem by a group activity. Osborn proposed that brainstorming could increase the quality and quantity of ideas generated by group members. The rules made this proposal possible are: (a) Criticism is ruled out, (b) Freewheeling is welcome, (c) Quantity is wanted, and (d) Combination and improvement are sought. However, many research results from lab experiment got the evidence for the opposite: group brainstorming generated fewer ideas than the sum individuals' brainstorming alone. Investigation had been carried on to find out the reasons for the productivity loss.

Literature shows that there are four phenomena happening in face-to-face brainstorming that affect the efficiency of generating ideas. The first is evaluation apprehension (Diehl & Stroebe, 1987; Gallupe, et. al. 1991). It results when group members are concerned that others in the group will be critical of their suggestions, in spite of instructions designed to minimize such concerns. The second is free riding (Diehl & Stroebe, 1987; Offner et. al. 1996). It occurs when individuals reduce their efforts when others in their group are performing at high levels. The third is production blocking (Diehl & Stroebe, 1987; Gallupe, et. al. 1991) which may inhibit the generation of ideas in various ways. Obviously, only one person at a time can talk effectively in a group. Individuals may forget ideas while waiting for others to state theirs or may decide not to state ideas similar to those of others. The last one is matching. Blocking and matching are in fact jointly responsible for the group productivity loss. Individual group members may either decrease or increase their performance to match the performance of others.

Electronic brainstorming is a group activity generating new ideas for a certain topic via computers (Dennis & Valacich, 1993; Dennis, et. al. 1996; Gallupe et al. 1992). The production loss observed in face-to-face settings is not common for electronic brainstorming in which participants face their own screen and interact with the group members on the other sides of the screen. The setup of electronic brainstorming prevents evaluation apprehension and blocking to be happening during the process since all the group members behave in a parallel pattern. Thus make it possible for participants develop their own ideas thoroughly. An additional advantage of this method is that all ideas can be archived electronically in their original form, and then retrieved later for further thought and discussion. The current project tends to compare electronic brainstorming activity in two computer-mediated-communication (CMC) environments: instant messenger (IM), like yahoo messenger, and Second Life (SL).

The communication between two or more humans who are physically apart through a modern communication medium tends to have very unique characteristics that are different from those in interpersonal communication. CMC, however, includes much wider range of human activities rather than referring to a human communication enabled through the Internet.

A great number of different definitions on CMC are possible due to the characteristic of multi-dimensional human activities with many other entities. December (1997) for example, defined the CMC as "a process of human communication via computers, involving people, situated in particular contexts, engaging in processes to shape media for a variety of purposes." In general, CMC refers to many human related activities from mere interpersonal communication to task-related one. Also CMC includes communication with mainframe computer with both synchronous and asynchronous communication (Ferris, 1997).

CMC includes many types of communications such as e-mail, video, audio or text chat (text conferencing including IM), bulletin boards, list-servs and MMOs. Researchers studied individual adoption of Instant Message finding many interesting factors (de Vos, ter Hofte, de Poot, & Instituut, 2004). Also the communication patterns with Instant Messenger among teenagers were studied (Boneva, Quinn, Kraut, Kiesler, & Shklovski, in press).

SL is a 3-D virtual world constructed entirely by its participants. Its growth in recent years has been explosive and it has been adopted in a variety of arenas including corporate, government, education, and entertainment. John Anderton, the leader of Project Fulcrum (an initiative to advance public health using new media) at the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC), commented about SL that "I came to see this neither a fad nor a game, but as a social movement and a glipse into the future of social interaction, learning and even being" (Weinreich, 2006).

The primary advantage identified by users is what is called presence. Thought other technologies facilitate a presence, or sorts, SL presence is markedly different. It is better at facilitating a sense of community where users do not feel alone (Lamb, 2006).

The nature of second life leads to a more relaxed environment for interaction, a characteristic held in high regard by corporate interests and academics alike. Students who have used SL for classes indicate that it stretches the imagination and grows creativity (Lamb, 2006), and faculty indicate that the ability to change the context of conversations can allow very casual environments when useful (e.g. having class in a virtual hot tub!).

Educationally, SL is increasingly popular. More than 70 universities have their own islands (Olsen, 2007). Students regularly indicate that they feel like that have gathered for an actual class. Faculties indicate that diversity increases by interacting with the different nationality, religions, and sociopolitical groups in SL (Lamb, 2006). And, collaborative 3D learning is particularly useful in teaching CAD (Keiran, 2007). Medical scenarios have been role-played in educational setting, whereby students experience the same scenes in a medical clinic from multiple perspectives (Antonacci & Modaress, 2005).

The Study

The purpose of this pilot study was to determine whether SL provided a better environment for brainstorming than standard IM software. A mixed-method design was used to examine the number of ideas discussed and the final number of proposed solutions to brainstorming tasks in SL and IM. In addition, open-ended survey questions provided further detail about each environment. Six graduate students participated in SL and IM brainstorming sessions in two groups of three; each group brainstormed once in SL and once using IM, with two tasks switched between environments, and order switched between groups (e.g. one group started with IM, the other with SL). The first task asked participants to “brainstorm the top ways ensure success as a graduate student” and the second to “brainstorm the top suggestions you have to make the SL environment better.” One researcher served as facilitator in each brainstorming session. The groups were given 20 minutes to complete each task and another 20 minutes to answer six open-ended survey questions upon completion of the two brainstorming tasks. The first group performed all activities one after the other from their respective homes during the evening. The second group performed their first task, then waited three hours before the second, and then answered the survey questions within a few hours after that. The second group was also in the same room during both brainstorming tasks.


Transcripts from the four brainstorming sessions were coded for unique ideas discussed and final proposed solutions to the brainstorming tasks. One researcher independently coded the transcripts to determine the number of ideas discussed and the proposed as answers to the task. The data from all four sessions are shown below in Table 1.

Table 1

SL versus IM Brainstorming Sessions


Group 1 – SL Task Ideas discussed 11

Solutions provided 5

Group 1 – Grad Task Ideas discussed 8

Solutions provided 5

Group 2 – SL Task Ideas discussed 14

Solutions provided 5

Group 2 – Grad Task Ideas discussed 17

Solutions provided 6

The data demonstrates that in both groups, the SL environment facilitated more ideas discussed (Group 1 11 to 8, Group 2 17 to 14). However, the number of solutions provided is nearly identical across all tasks and environments. It should also be noted that Group 2 produced more ideas than did Group 1.

In addition, survey data were analyzed for similarities across all six participants. Five indicated that SL felt more casual. Five also reported distractions in SL, with only one distraction reported for IM. Three reported that the success of the sessions was based on the task itself, not environment, and two specifically indicated IM was more successful because of the distractions in SL. Five indicated that is was easier to follow their group-mates ideas in IM (in all cases indicating that the fact the IM typing stays on the screen in an easily reviewed format was the key feature to facilitate this, whereas SL history is more difficult to work with). And, participants reported mixed feedback when asked to list difference between SL/IM and face-to-face brainstorming. SL and IM were reported as better for brainstorming because everything was recorded and archived, which enable them to concentrate better on the task than face-to-face and the propensity for face-to-face to become more social. Detrimental elements report for online brainstorming included more off-task behavior, the interference of typing, the absence of facial cues, and the difficulty in clarifying ideas as well as face-to-face.


According to our coding analysis, more ideas were generated in SL sessions. However, according to survey answers, IM session was more successful. This may highlight the difference between success (participants may have inferred this to mean “better” ideas) and statistical measures which are essentially productivity metrics (the total number of ideas considered and proposed). Another interesting disconnect is that all participants indicated that SL is more casual, but indicated IM was more successful. This directly contradicts the anecdotal evidence from SL users in corporate and educational settings that the casual environment in SL facilitates creativity. This likely has to do with our other findings that SL has multiple distractions, and that its inferior history mechanism made it less useful.

Though statistical significance cannot be determined, the trend that SL facilitates more productive (higher number of ideas) idea generation is notable and worth further research. Another interesting, but unintended, observation from the quantitative data is that the total number of ideas submitted by each group as the final answers to tasks were nearly identical (three with 5 and another with 6). This finding may indicate a cognitive capacity issue more so than environmental conditions, and would be worth comparing to the number of ideas submit in other open-ended brainstorming activities.

The current study has weaknesses that will need to be addressed in future research. First, survey results indicated that our participants were much more comfortable with IM usage. In further studies, ability or history of use statistics for both environments might be useful in mediating this confound. Also, the second group performed their task in the same room, whereas the first group was at home and in separate locations. Observationally, the first group lead a more serious discussion, and the second more casual, and susceptible to off-task behavior (e.g. laughing), though interestingly, the total quantity of ideas discussed in the second group was much higher. Finally, the topics may not have been equivalent, in that several survey results indicated a preference for one over another.


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