Referring to the Standford conference descriptions of Lanier, Rosedale, Wladavsky-Berger etc. pontificating on how virtual worlds make people more civil, they wax lovingly and think prophetically, but there is no new news there. Let's recapitulate on some topics of behavioral psychology and simulation practicum.
The theory is the onset cues in the simulation stimulate the behaviors in the human brain (any mammal brain really).
1. The cues of 3D systems are stronger than in flatter communications media such as chat or text only. How strong is what one would study and measure.
2. List behaviors tend to coalesce around the behaviors of the dominant personalities on the lists. It is feedback mediated behavior. Monkey see Monkey Do. Monkey outdo.
There is a lot of wishful thinking in that conference conversation. Lanier is pleased that some are finding a use for VR and he may not have to pay out the prize money. Rosedale wants to continue the hype stimulation of his business and I wish him well. Wladavsky-Berger as a retired IBMer wants to see Palimpsano's money well spent and WB bet it on Second Life. All in all, it is a local consensus of personalities that VR is good business in search of a motivation for a self-fulfilling prophecy.
But Rosedale is right that these are early days, the second emergence of 3D on the web. We know quite a bit based on the first emergence in VRML worlds such as Cybertown where the real pioneering work was done. People ARE polite if the majority and the dominant personalities are polite. If a flame war breaks out and any of the dominant players join, their posts will make or break the wave (remember: feedback mediated). The style or purpose of the world (JOI is adult; behaviors tend to reinforce adult conversations about adult topics) drives the topics and the topics act as the stimuli (think S/R paradigm) so the reinforced responses are quite predictable.
IOW, yes, 3D does add to the stimulus repetoire and if modulated correctly, there is an increase in civil behavior. How strong a reinforcer it is is unknown and unmeasured critically. Someone at IBM will get around to that soon I suspect.
And we wait to see those results.