It seems like ages since I first started brainstorming about my dissertation topic, but I’m still a couple of semesters away from officially beginning it. I’m at the point now in my coursework, though, that my term papers should start pointing in that direction. In other words, if I gear the subject matter toward my topic, then that will be beneficial to my future research.
One of the classes I’m taking this semester is an Information Technology class (more about managing IT from a practitioner’s perspective than the nitty-gritty of programming, etc.), and our term paper is supposed to be a research proposal for a technology issue. Perfect! I thought this would be a great opportunity to test the waters with the case study that I started outlining last year.
A case study is just that: a study of a particular case, not a broad overview of an entire subject. Because of my familiarity with the virtual world of Second Life and the interesting (to me, at least) effort by the American Cancer Society to hold a virtual Relay for Life within Second Life, I thought that would make a great case study on how philanthropy is adapting to emerging technologies.
This subject matter is so new, so unique that there is very little (actually, I’ve found nothing, but that doesn’t mean that I’ve exhausted the entire body of work available in the world) on the topic of philanthropy via virtual currency. There are a few articles on virtual currency, in general, but I wanted to explore how this case with the ACS has potential to break the mold of traditional fundraising, while at the same time, cracking open the door for my future research on policy issues concerning virtual currencies. (There are some discussions about whether “virtual” transactions should be taxable events, even if they occur solely inworld, like a value-added tax, so to speak. This raises the issue that if you can tax it, you ought to be able to deduct it. In other words, charitable contributions made in a virtual economy should be deductible, if commercial transactions become taxable.)
If I haven’t put you to sleep yet, here’s what has ruffled my feathers. I asked a techie friend (not a classmate) to read my research proposal for a second set of eyes before I turned it in for a grade, and before he even read the paper, he made the off-handed remark, “I know you’re a big fan of Second Life, but you might also consider …” and then went on to make a couple of perfectly legit suggestions about other research angles. I guess it rankled me because it seemed like he didn’t take me seriously, as if I’m just goofing off researching about games (speaking of which, there is a slew of research on social, psychological and even economic influences of games, not to mention game theory applied to other subjects). But, that’s beside the point. I responded to my friend, “I’m not like a ‘rah-rah’ fan, but I think it has fascinating research potential.”
And, it does! The last thing we need is for policymakers to try to figure this out on their own; after all, they have a tendency to wield an axe in order to carve a toothpick. We need to explore the ins and outs of what it means to make transactions in a virtual economy and how that translates into the so-called “real” world. It’s not about one particular virtual environment; it has broadly sweeping impact on everything from Facebook credits to XBox Live Points to, yes, even Linden dollars (L$) in Second Life. Imagine if you had to start paying taxes on “income” from app games. Sounds outlandish? Perhaps not.
Even for such a new subject, the topic is too broad to say that I’m researching virtual currencies. What about currencies? What type of currencies? What country’s policies, for that matter? I have to drill down and focus on some micro-issues, rather than the big macro subject. To me, it’s like being a scientist who studies a particular aspect of the ester bonds of DNA polymers and someone says, “I know you like ester bonds, but you should not overlook nucleobases.” (<<Yeah, I totally pulled that from Wikipedia; I’m not a geneticist in my spare time.)
I guess the point is that I have to narrow my focus, and right now, I’m looking at one particular issue concerning virtual currencies in one particular venue. That’s what’s so neat about research … there are so many more issues to delve into over time!