📙 The Virtual Community
Author: Howard Rheingold
Full Title: The Virtual Community
That was the fall of 1985. By the fall of 1986, the WELL was a part of my life I wasn't willing to do without. My wife was concerned, then jealous, then angry. The night we had the climactic argument, she said, referring to the small, peculiar, liberal arts college where we first met: "This is just like Reed. A bunch of intelligent misfits have found each other, and now you're having a high old time." The shock of recognition that came with that statement seemed to resolve the matter between us.
The inexpensive public online service was launched because two comrades from a previous cultural revolution noticed that the technology of computer conferencing had potential far beyond its origins in military, scientific, and government communications.
One of the advantages of computer conferencing is the community memory that preserves key moments in the history of the community. Sure enough, although I had not looked at it in years, the online oral history was still around, in the archives conference. The responses were dated October 1986.
To reach a critical mass, they knew they would need to start with interesting peoplehaving conversations at a somewhat more elevated level than the usual BBS stuff. In Matthew's words, "We needed a collection of shills who could draw the suckers into the tents." So they invited a lot of different people, gave them free accounts, called them "hosts," and encouraged them to re-create the atmosphere of a Paris salon-a bunch of salons. Brand, a biologist, insisted on letting the business grow instead of artificially stimulating it. Instead of spending money on glossy advertising, they gave free accounts to journalists.
People who were looking for a grand collective project in cyberspace flocked to the WELL. The inmates took over the asylum, and the asylum profited from it. "What it is is up to us" became the motto of the nascent WELL community.
"The personal computer revolutionaries were the counterculture," Brand reminded me when I asked him about the WELL'S early cultural amalgam.
They were five to ten years younger than the hippies, but they came out of the zeitgeist of the 1960s, and embraced many of the ideas of personal liberation and iconoclasm championed by their slightly older brothers and sisters.
Personal computers and the PC industry were created by young iconoclasts who had seen the LSD revolution fizzle, the political revolution fail. Computers for the people was the latest battle in the same campaign.
Programmers are trying to design better and better software agents that can seek and sift, filter and find, and save us from the awful feeling one gets when it turns out that the specific knowledge one needs is buried in fifteen thousand pages of related information. The first softwareagents are now becoming available (e.g., Archie, Gopher, Knowbots, WAIS, and Rosebud are the names for different programs that search through the vast digital libraries of Internet and the real-time feed from the news services and retrieve items of interest), but we already have far more sophisticated, if informal, social contracts among groups of people that allow us to act as software agents for one another.
In the virtual community I know best, elegantly presented knowledge is a valuable currency. Wit and use of language are rewarded in this medium, which is biased toward those who learn how to manipulate attention and emotion with the written word.
The fact that we need computer networks to recapture the sense of cooperative spirit that so many people seemed to lose when we gained all this technology is a painful irony.
If I want to contribute to a discussion of the risks of using computers, I compose a message, address it to the "comp.risks" newsgroup, and use the "postnews" software that comes with Usenet to put it in the mail queue. The next time my host computer communicates with another computer via UUCP, that message goes out as electronic mail.When the next computer in the network gets the message, it checks to see which newsgroups it carries, copies all those messages for its resident newsgroups, and then passes it along to the next site. Each message has a unique identifying number, so each site can discard messages it has received before.
Masks and self-disclosures are part of the Grammar of cyberspace, the way quick cuts and intense images are part of the Grammar of television. The Grammar of CMC media involves a syntax of identity play: new identities, false identities, multiple identities, exploratory identities, are available in different manifestations of the medium.
These are very enticing places for a segment of the community. And it's not like the kinds of addictions that we've dealt with as a society in the past. If they're out of control, I think that's a problem. But if someone is spending a large portion of their time being social with people who live thousands of miles away, you can't say that they've turned inward. They aren't shunning society. They're actively seeking it. They're probably doing it more actively than anyone around them. It's a whole new ballgame. That's what I'm saying about virtual societies.
One of Bruckman's mentors, MIT professor Dr. Sherry Turkle, wrote something about the behavior of young, compulsive computer programmers that seems to offer a key to understanding MUDding's addictive potential. Turkle focused on the notion of mastery as a crucial missing element in the lives of some of these young people:
But for some the issues that arise during adolescence are so threatening that the safe place is never abandoned. Sexuality is too threatening to be embraced. Intimacy with other people is unpredictable to the point of being intolerable. As we grow up, we forge our identities by building on the last place in psychological development where we felt safe. As a result, many people come to define themselves in terms of competence, in terms of what they can control.
The roots of MUDs are deep in that part of human nature that delights in storytelling and playing "let's pretend." Brenda Laurel, in Computers As Theater, claims that the strong identification players feel with artificial characters in a computer database is an example of the same human capacity for mimesis to which Aristotle attributed the soul-changing (and, thus, society-changing) power of drama.
One honest answer to the question "Don't these people have lives?" is that most people don't have a terribly glamorous life. They work, theysubsist, they are lonely or afraid or shy or unattractive or feel that they are unattractive. Or they are simply different. The phenomenon of fandom is evidence that not everyone can have a life as "having a life" is defined by the mainstream, and some people just go out and try to build an alternate life.
Whenever people find something in a new communication medium so attractive that it becomes the focus of obsessive behavior, several questions arise: What is it about the way people are today, and the way we interact, that leaves so many people vulnerable to communication Addiction?
IRC has enabled a global subculture to construct itself from three fundamental elements: artificial but stable identities, quick wit, and the use of words to construct an imagined shared context for conversation.
For a student of virtual communities, IRC is an opportunity to observe a critical experiment-in-progress: What are the minimum elements of communication necessary for a group of people to cocreate a sense of community?
What kinds of cultures emerge when you remove from human discourse all cultural artifacts except written words?
IRC is Internet's pioneering multi-user chat system. IRC is the corner pub, the caf,, the common room-the "great good place" of the Net.
In computer technology, Playgrounds often are where real innovations emerge.
If industrial civilization has a taboo so engrained in the culture that few even recognize it as a taboo, play may be it.