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A Cybernaut's Eye View

The most important clues to the shape of the future at this point might not be found in looking more closely at the properties of silicon, but in paying attention to the ways people need to, fail to, and try to communicate with one another. Right now, some people are convinced that spending hours a day in front of a screen, typing on a keyboard, fulfills in some way our need for a community of peers. Whether we have discovered something wonderful or stumbled into something insidiously unwonderful, or both, the fact that people want to use CMC to meet other people and experiment with identity are valuable signposts to possible futures. Human behavior in cyberspace, as we can observe it today on the nets and in the BBSs, gives rise to important questions about the effects of communication technology on human values. What kinds of humans are we becoming in an increasingly computer-mediated world, and do we have any control over that transformation? How have our definitions of "human" and "community" been under pressure to change to fit the specifications of a technology-guided civilization?

Fortunately, questions about the nature of virtual communities are not purely theoretical, for there is a readily accessible example of the phenomenon at hand to study. Millions of people now inhabit the social spaces that have grown up on the world's computer networks, and this previously invisible global subculture has been growing at a monstrous rate recently (e.g., the Internet growing by 25% per month).

I've lived here myself for seven years; the WELL and the net have been a regular part of my routine, like gardening on Sunday, for one sixth of my life thus far. My wife and daughter long ago grew accustomed to the fact that I sit in front of my computer early in the morning and late at night, chuckling and cursing, sometimes crying, about something I am reading on the computer screen. The questions I raise here are not those of a scientist, or of a polemicist who has found an answer to something, but as a user -- a nearly obsessive user -- of CMC and a deep mucker-about in virtual communities. What kind of people are my friends and I becoming? What does that portend for others?

If CMC has a potential, it is in the way people in so many parts of the net fiercely defend the use of the term "community" to describe the relationships we have built online. But fierceness of belief is not sufficient evidence that the belief is sound. Is the aura of community an illusion? The question has not been answered, and is worth asking. I've seen people hurt by interactions in virtual communities. Is telecommunication culture capable of becoming something more than what Scott Peck calls a "pseudo-community," where people lack the genuine personal commitments to one another that form the bedrock of genuine community? Or is our notion of "genuine" changing in an age where more people every day live their lives in increasingly artificial environments? New technologies tend to change old ways of doing things. Is the human need for community going to be the next technology commodity?

I can attest that I and thousands of other cybernauts know that what we are looking for, and finding in some surprising ways, is not just information, but instant access to ongoing relationships with a large number of other people. Individuals find friends and groups find shared identities online, through the aggregated networks of relationships and commitments that make any community possible. But are relationships and commitments as we know them even possible in a place where identities are fluid? The physical world, known variously as "IRL" ("In Real Life"), or "offline," is a place where the identity and position of the people you communicate with are well known, fixed, and highly visual. In cyberspace, everybody is in the dark. We can only exchange words with each other -- no glances or shrugs or ironic smiles. Even the nuances of voice and intonation are stripped away. On top of the technology-imposed constraints, we who populate cyberspace deliberately experiment with fracturing traditional notions of identity by living as multiple simultaneous personae in different virtual neighborhoods.

We reduce and encode our identities as words on a screen, decode and unpack the identities of others. The way we use these words, the stories (true and false) we tell about ourselves (or about the identity we want people to believe us to be) is what determines our identities in cyberspace. The aggregation of personae, interacting with each other, determines the nature of the collective culture. Our personae, constructed from our stories of who we are, use the overt topics of discussion in a BBS or network for a more fundamental purpose, as means of interacting with each other. And all this takes place on both public and private levels, in many-to-many open discussions and one-to-one private electronic mail, front stage role-playing and backstage behavior.

When I'm online, I cruise through my conferences, reading and replying in topics that I've been following, starting my own topics when the inspiration or need strikes me. Every few minutes, I get a notice on my screen that I have incoming mail. I might decide to wait to read the mail until I'm finished doing something else, or drop from the conference into the mailer, to see who it is from. At the same time that I am participating in open discussion in conferences and private discourse in electronic mail, people I know well use "sends" -- a means of sending one or two quick sentences to my screen without the intervention of an electronic mail message. This can be irritating before you get used to it, since you are either reading or writing something else when it happens, but eventually it becomes a kind of rhythm: different degrees of thoughtfulness and formality happen simultaneously, along with the simultaneous multiple personae. Then there are public and private conferences that have partially overlapping memberships. CMC offers tools for facilitating all the various ways people have discovered to divide and communicate, group and subgroup and regroup, include and exclude, select and elect.

When a group of people remain in communication with one another for extended periods of time, the question of whether it is a community arises. Virtual communities might be real communities, they might be pseudocommunities, or they might be something entirely new in the realm of social contracts, but I believe they are in part a response to the hunger for community that has followed the disintegration of traditional communities around the world.

Social norms and shared mental models have not emerged yet, so everyone's sense of what kind of place cyberspace is can vary widely, which makes it hard to tell whether the person you are communicating with shares the same model of the system within which you are communicating. Indeed, the online acronym YMMV ("Your Mileage May Vary") has become shorthand for this kind of indeterminacy of shared context. For example, I know people who use vicious online verbal combat as a way of blowing off steam from the pressures of their real life -- "sport hassling" -- and others who use it voyeuristically, as a text-based form of real-life soap-opera. To some people, it's a game. And I know people who feel as passionately committed to our virtual community and the people in it (or at least some of the people in it) as our nation, occupation, or neighborhood. Whether we like it or not, the communitarians and the venters, the builders and the vandals, the egalitarians and the passive-aggressives, are all in this place together. The diversity of the communicating population is one of the defining characteristics of the new medium, one of its chief attractions, the source of many of its most vexing problems.

Is the prospect of moving en-masse into cyberspace in the near future, when the world's communication network undergoes explosive expansion of bandwidth, a beneficial thing for entire populations to do? In which ways might the growth of virtual communities promote alienation? How might virtual communities facilitate conviviality? Which social structures will dissolve, which political forces will arise, and which will lose power? These are questions worth asking now, while there is still time to shape the future of the medium. In the sense that we are traveling blind into a technology-shaped future that might be very different from today's culture, direct reports from life in different corners of the world's online cultures today might furnish valuable signposts to the territory ahead.

Since the summer of 1985, I've spent an average of two hours a day, seven days a week, often when I travel, plugged into the WELL (Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link) via a computer and a telephone line, exchanging information and playing with attention, becoming entangled In Real Life, with a growing network of similarly wired-in strangers I met in cyberspace. I remember the first time I walked into a room full of people (IRL) whose faces were completely unknown to me, but who knew many intimate details of my history, and whose own stories I knew very well. I had contended with these people, shot the breeze around the electronic water cooler, shared alliances and formed bonds, fallen off my chair laughing with them, become livid with anger at these people, but I had not before seen their faces.

I found this digital watering hole for information-age hunters and gatherers the same way most people find such places -- I was lonely, hungry for intellectual and emotional companionship, although I didn't know it. While many commuters dream of working at home, telecommuting, I happen to know what it's like to work that way. I never could stand to commute or even get out of my pajamas if I didn't want to, so I've always worked at home. It has its advantages and its disadvantages. Others like myself also have been drawn into the online world because they shared with me the occupational hazard of the self-employed, home-based symbolic analyst of the 1990s -- isolation. The kind of people that Robert Reich calls "symbolic analysts" are natural matches for online communities: programmers, writers, freelance artists and designers, independent radio and television producers, editors, researchers, librarians. People who know what to do with symbols, abstractions, and representations, but who sometimes find themselves spending more time with keyboards and screens than human companions.

I've learned that virtual communities are very much like other communities in some ways, deceptively so to those who assume that people who communicate via words on a screen are in some way aberrant in their communication skills and human needs. And I've learned that virtual communities are very much not like communities in some other ways, deceptively so to those who assume that people who communicate via words on a screen necessarily share the same level of commitment to each other in real life as more traditional communities. Communities can emerge from and exist within computer-linked groups, but that technical linkage of electronic personae is not sufficient to create a community.

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