Want Social Norms? 9-Steps to Building a Strong Culture (Part 1)

Jessica Outlaw
Jun 21 · 7 min read

It’s easier than programming AI moderators

Photo by Val Vesa on Unsplash

How can you influence people’s behavior in social virtual reality (VR)? I believe it’s by shaping the same elements of culture that are already present in how families, workplaces, religions, and political parties construct theirs.

The definition of culture that I’m using is “how people like us do things,” or norms. There’s still a lot work to do in setting behavioral norms for social VR, especially if the goal is to make welcoming and accessible spaces. My 2018 survey of frequent VR users found that 49% of women have experienced sexual harassment in social VR. Thirty percent of men have experienced other forms of harassment, including homophobic or racist remarks and 20% of men reported violent comments or threats.

Harassment is just one type of behavior. The usefulness of this cultural toolkit is that you can use it to reduce harassment, but also amplify any type of behavior you want, such as altruism.

Building a strong culture means valorizing the behaviors that you want more of on your platform (and denigrating the behaviors that you don’t want). The benefits of having a strong culture are that it will attract new users who understand what your platform stands for. Secondly, existing members will enforce the culture among themselves and new users. It will decrease the load for on-boarding of new members. Having a strong culture that communicates clearly what your platform is for and what type of things people can do there will also help as the community scales.

I believe that a strong culture will decrease the reliance on content moderation from humans or AI. There is a toll on humans who are in charge of policing online behaviors. And AI technology isn’t fully capable of understanding the nuance of all human interactions. I believe that if the culture makes clear the acceptable bounds of behavior, as well as transparent restorative processes for people who transgress those limits, your users will do much of the work in teaching and re-enforcing the culture’s social norms.

If you are building an online community and you don’t prospectively take steps to establish the culture, one will spring up organically. The nine elements of culture that I’m discussing in this series of blog posts will come into existence anytime a group of people come together in a community. There are different approaches to setting these nine elements. You can do work prospectively to decide on the mission and values of your app before any users see it. Or, you can wait until you have users and then crowdsource the elements from them. The best approach likely combines a strong vision from the founding team with certain pieces crowdsources, which increases user buy-in and to increase buy-in.

Social virtual worlds can be constructed outside of the constraints of physical space, existing social norms, and even physics can be left behind. It’s exciting to reimagine new online worlds and the interesting subgroups forming around diverse interests.

How do you make culture visible to people? And communicate clearly in an easy to understand way what you value and what is going to make people welcome in your platform?

Learn how by using this social science toolkit for culture creation. If an anthropologist or sociologist arrives in a new place to study a group of people, they will study what is sacred, what is funny, and how people act through the lens of these nine elements. Now, you can use this tool kit to reflect on existing social VR cultures, and consider how you will use it to construct entirely new ones.


In the first section of this blog series, I’m going to introduce three elements on who are the trendsetters in VR. By identifying who are the heroes, archetypes, and mascots in a community, you can learn who deserves respect, what behaviors get celebrated, and who the adversaries of the community might be.

Heroes are people you look up to. Heroes create language and they create stories. Through the hero’s journey, they create what the enemy is and signify what type of person is worthy of admiration and emulation. For example, in Ready Player One, Wade Watts is defined as heroic by how he acts to subvert to the enemy corporation in the story.

Heroes from across the tech industry and science fiction have been adopted in VR.

Here are a couple example of heroes in VR:

  • Neal Stephenson — sci-fi author, invented the world metaverse, futurist at Magic Leap
  • Jaron Lanier — pioneer of VR tech, scientific officer at Microsoft and self-described Renaissance man
  • Elon Musk — while I’m not aware of Elon doing any work specifically in XR, people frequently bring up his name in conversation. Name repetition indicates who are the heroes of a community are.

These heroes above who I have listed have wealth, prestige — including high-level positions at tech companies — all of which bolsters their status and lets outsiders they know that they deserve respect.

There’s nothing wrong with having these men as heroes. I’ve met at least one of them in physical reality and he seemed kind. My goal is to start a list of heroes in VR so people can be aware of who the heroes are and make choices about who to elevate up to that level next. The VR industry can choose to celebrate heroes who represent other perspectives and abilities.

Katherine Johnson, the NASA mathematician, who the movie Hidden Figures was based on, could be adopted by VR and her story could be re-told as important and worthy of respect. Heroes can come from almost anywhere.

Heroes can be fictional:

  • Wade Watts, of Ready Player One
  • Hiro Protagonist, the main character of Stephenson’s Snowcrash

Heroes don’t have to come from only VR related-novels, either.

Newt Scamander of Fantastic Beasts presents an atypical example of masculinity in the fantasy genre. He is defined by his empathy, rather than physical strength or charisma. His hero status challenges common stereotypes about men (e.g., they are motivated by money, power, prestige, etc).

Heroes can come from the userbase:

  • Different social VR platforms could select the members who are acting in positive ways and elevate and celebrate those people as heroes.
  • The community can decide who they want to celebrate and tell stories about.

Heroes have names. Archetypes, the next element of culture, are different in that they might just represent a type of person.

An archetype in this context means a very typical example of a person or thing. For example, the archetype of a social VR space would be the key personality type or set of values that in-group members are supposed to exhibit. So if the values of a certain social VR platform was “We are a place for creators,” then creator is the archetype.

You could see how archetypes emerge when people are sorted into different groups. I think back to when I was an undergraduate and each dorm at my school had an archetype, “Those people are studiers, that dorm is partiers, those ones are really artistic.”

What are the archetypes in social VR. Artists? Rebels? Outlaws? Archetypes explain the core of a place’s personality and allow people to build stories around characters.

Overlap can occur between heroes and archetypes. For example, Steve Jobs is a hero in the tech industry and he’s an archetype of what a CEO is like. However, consider what the advantages or disadvantages are of elevating Steve Jobs as the personification of CEO and how it implicitly communicates how to treat those around you.

The third element is mascots, which are embodied symbols. They have stories and myths behind them, and give people a narrative to pay attention to.

In a basketball game, mascots can get fans to focus attention and lead cheers. Community can form around the mascot and it becomes a symbol that people will rally around

Secondly, the opposing team’s fans might antagonize the mascot of your team. The mascots are the focal point of the competitive and confrontational spirit of the game. They are pitted against each other in a ritualistic performance and personification of rivalry and team loyalty. The story of these mascots extends beyond the game itself, signifying a long and deep history or qualities that groups identify with, around which community forms.

There are official mascots that could be driven by the company or unofficial ones that are community-driven. In Hubs, Mozilla’s social VR platform, there is a rubber duck that squeaks and quacks. Mascots could also be created and offered as avatars. More on avatars soon.

By thoughtfully considering who are the heroes, archetypes, and mascots of a space, platforms and community members can influence user behavior. All three of these elements of culture communicate implicitly and explicitly what behaviors are desirable and which are taboo. It’s important to select your trendsetters of behavior early. Once they are established, it becomes difficult to change them.

  • Who are the heroes where you spend time in social VR? Who is represented in them?
  • What archetypes exist in social VR? Are there community-sourced archetypes that you want to acknowledge and amplify?
  • What mascots are recognized by your users and what do they signify? What stories are they a part of?

Feel free to elevate your own favorite heroes, archetypes, and mascots in the comments below. And contact me if you are interested in an evaluation of your own culture. Sometimes these elements are difficult to see when you are awash in them.

Part 2: Symbols & Artifacts: The Art of Signalling

Jessica Outlaw

Written by

Culture, Behavior, and Virtual Reality @theextendedmind