Tuesday, February 26, 2013

An Academic Study of Online Poker Forums

This morning I found myself trying to read a kind of thumbnail history of poker forums written by Wendeen Eolis for Poker Player Newspaper. I say “trying” because like other pieces by Eolis, her less-than-clear writing style can make reading her a bit of a challenge, I’m afraid. Indeed, the title of this one -- “Online Poker Forums: Winding Through The Maze” -- has kind of a double application, referring both to the complex world of the forums and to the piece itself.

The article is actually the first of two parts, and despite the unclear organization and occasional Faulkernesque unwillingness to end a sentence, the article does manage to remind us that poker forums have been around for a long time -- more than two decades, in fact, with the once-prominent rec.gambling.poker (RGP) site among the pioneers.

I only bring up Eolis’s piece, actually, because it made me think of another article by Killian O’Leary and Conor Carroll published late last year in the Journal of Gambling Studies called “The Online Poker Subculture: Dialogues, Interactions, and Networks.” I had meant to write something about this study some time ago, and so am glad to have an excuse today to share it.

The study does a good job of explaining not just how online poker has evolved into an important “eco-system” over the last 15 years, but also how poker forums have come to affect and shape the functioning of what the authors refer to as the Online Poker Subculture (OPS).

As the authors point out, poker forums constitute one category or “platform” for interaction within the world of online poker, along with news sites (PokerNews, BLUFF, etc.), reporting/tracking sites (PokerTableRatings, etc.), and the online poker sites themselves. The forums are their focus, however, and they end up uncovering some interesting findings as they develop their ideas regarding how people tend to interact within these forums and how those interactions follow certain expectations regarding subcultures, generally speaking.

The methodology employed by the researchers was to follow procedures of “netnography” which if I understand it applies techniques used by anthropologists or ethnographers when analyzing a web-based group or subculture. In other words, they were essentially “lurkers” looking in on the forums of Deuces Cracked, High Stakes Database, and most primarily 2+2 in order to learn more about them.

They share a lot of interesting ideas and ways of describing how, say, a site like 2+2 functions and the influence the forums have over the OPS and even the poker world at large. As a way to make my own post more readable and also avoid going through the entire study point by point, let me just list a few of the findings presented in the article and comment briefly on each.

Collaboration and Competition

It is common to hear poker forums characterized as an antagonistic, combative environments, but what the authors of this study have found is something different, namely, “an ethos of collaboration/co-operation” within the forums that involves “conforming to the norms of OPS etiquette.” In other words, people often genuinely communicate and work together on the forums, as evidenced by the individuals sharing information in order to uncover insider cheating scandals as well as small groups discussing how best to play a particular hand.

That said, there also exists “a competitive hierarchy of status” in the forums. “The more one engages and participates in online forums the higher [one is] elevated within the subculture[’]s hierarchy,” they observe, noting for example how things like join dates and post counts greatly affect one’s influence when it comes to posting. There’s also a pressure to “enact and adhere to the ideals and ethos of the OPS” since “members are and have been in the past ostracized for non-conformity.”

Thus, the forums in particular show how the online poker subculture “distinctively enacts a contradiction, in that within a context of individually driven selfish motives (i.e., everyone playing to win), collaboration and cooperation comes to the fore within the OPS.”

Identity Creation

The authors have much to say about how in the process of participating in the forums, individuals create identities that extend beyond the forums and into the OPS at large, or even beyond. “Online poker forums allow players to develop their own online persona,” explain the authors, “through interaction, participation and engagement with the subculture, thus reaffirming their reputation amongst their poker peers.”

They go on to address how “online poker celebrities” sometimes emerge from the poker forums. In fact, they point out how within the OPS it is often the case that “to become a highly successful online poker player and to receive accreditation, monetary results are not solely sufficient,” but some sort of meaningful, “intense interaction” on the forums is needed as well.

A Game-Changer

The authors also come away from their study concluding that their influence upon the way poker is played -- not just online, but live as well -- “has revolutionized the game.”

They go into some detail explaining in what strikes me as a knowledgeable way how forums have affected strategy, introduced new terminology, and sometimes even the behaviors exhibited in live poker (e.g., “the lack [of] social interaction/dialogue during physical game play”).

Two Plus Two’s “Sacred Status”

Having explored all of these areas, the authors are prepared to refer to 2+2 in particular as enjoying a so-called “sacred status amongst this online poker subculture.”

Such talk reminds me a little of some of the fuss that arose couple of years ago when 2+2 Grand Poobah Mason Malmuth once suggested that “2+2 is where the poker community is.” But truthfully the authors are not suggesting 2+2 is “the” poker community. (Neither was Malmuth, in my opinion.) Rather are they pointing out how the site and its forums possess special, extensive influence on the online poker subculture and its functioning.

I’m reminded here that BLUFF just released its “Power 20” last week and once again neither Malmuth nor any representative of Two Plus Two were listed. (I actually was asked to vote this time, and in fact I did include both Malmuth and Kevmath in the lower half of my 20.) I believe the last time any reference to 2+2 was made on the list was 2009.

Anyhow, if you’re at all curious to read a smart, studied analysis of poker forums, go read O’Leary and Carroll’s “The Online Poker Subculture: Dialogues, Interactions, and Networks.” They absolutely prove that the “OPS” exists, in my opinion, and also do a good job explaining the role forums play within that subculture.

The writing is dense, of course, following as it does the dictates of academic discourse (with lots of citation). But the argument is clear and the style still accessible, I think, particularly to readers of this blog who presumably already have an interest in online poker and the way those of us who play it (or used to play it) tend to interact.

(EDIT [added 2/27/13]: Thanks to @PokerScout1 for pointing out to me over Twitter that O’Leary and Carroll’s introduction actually contains a few glaring mistakes regarding online poker’s historical background, most coming in a single paragraph I have to confess to have only skimmed in my haste to get to the study. Also worth noting -- as @PokerScout1 reminded me -- is the fact that in referring to tracking sites the authors failed to mention Poker Scout [!]. I do think the study is insightful and highlights a need for similar kinds of inquiry, although have to acknowledge that as was the case for me with Eolis’s article, I can see how these errors might prevent some from wanting to delve further into what the authors have to say.)

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