Want Social Norms? 9-Steps to Building a Strong Culture (Part 2)

Jessica Outlaw
Jul 2, 2019 · 4 min read

Symbols and Artifacts: Easier than Programming AI Moderators

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Common symbols from graduations: red carpet, flags, caps & gowns. The diploma is an artifact. (Image by Chelsea Audibert on Unsplash)

This is the second in a series of blog posts about how to create and influence the culture of online platforms, specifically on social VR (for part 1, click here). No one wants their social platform to be filled with bullies or harassing behavior, yet it can be hard to know where to start and how to develop a culture that encourages and rewards good behavior.

However, platform creators have more control than they think they do. Rather than relying solely on codes of conduct to try to police behavior, understanding and harnessing culture tools can give you way more power. The first blog post in this series discussed the role of heroes, archetypes, and mascots. This second one will go over the symbols and artifacts of a culture.



Symbols are powerful tools that can indicate status, roles, mystical properties, cultural differences, belonging, and more.

Avatars are one of the most important symbols in social VR. I have an avatar that’s a 3D scan of me, and it signals me as an insider of social VR and that I belong in those worlds because I have something that’s custom to me.

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Image Credit: High Fidelity

There’s the symbolism of objects in our every day lives. For example, in this gif, I’m standing on a stage with a red circular carpet, which is evocative of the TED speaker stage.

The red rug has symbolism in internet culture due to TED, but the color red also has some inherent, human symbolism related to success (See: Red shirt colour is associated with long-term team success in English football). However, don’t feel constrained by only using existing symbols.

Platform creators can create entirely new symbols that have meaning for you and the properties you want. For example, by using a diamond symbol for moderators or administrators on a slack/discord channel– even if you don’t explicitly say what it those diamonds mean — people will learn the significance of the symbol.

Symbols can signify cultural differences. Bald eagles mean something as a symbol of the U.S. Similarly, cows in India are seen as sacred, which grants them reverence and privileges (wandering in the streets, etc.) not afforded to them in other countries. When infused with cultural meaning, symbols can be strong influencers of behavior, instilling in users with a sense of what is held sacred.

Consider what are the 3D objects that populate your social VR spaces. What are the defaults items? Their colors, textures, etc.? What are people building from scratch? What are these items signalling?

Another thing to consider is what is the process by which people will acquire a symbol. Do people pay to go to a specialty photo booth to have a custom avatar made? Or, do they learn Maya or Blender to build their own? What is the significance in your culture of undergoing each of those acts? The answers to those questions will also illuminate what is valued in your culture.


Artifacts are typically collected by users, either by doing a physical or a digital act. For example, Super Mario collects gold coins, mushrooms, flowers, and stars and he is changed by each of them. Each of them could be considered artifacts.

If Mario doesn’t play a level, he cannot access any artifacts.

You can craft experiences to that require people to do something in order to achieve the artifact unlock. Usually people have to attend a concert live in order to buy the band’s tour t-shirt.

Once users have acquired that object, they use it to signal belonging to that group. Secondly, the existence of that artifact inspires other people to undergo the same experience. Creating an initiation experience for users and not giving them an artifact at the end is a lost opportunity in my opinion.

Doing whatever act is required to achieve the artifact is a powerful behavioral indicator. Artifacts can also be used to control behavior in a very tangible way: I got a ring in High Fidelity that let me go onto a large presentation stage. In contrast, anyone who didn’t have that particular ring who tried to climb on the stage would be automatically booted from the room.

Creating desirable and/or limited edition artifacts and being selective about what users have to do to get them will change how people act in social VR.

Takeaway Questions:

List your own symbols and artifacts 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.

Series overview

1. Heroes, Archetypes and Mascots

2. Symbols and Artifacts

3. Language and Jokes

4. Stories and Myths

5. Rituals and Ceremony

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