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Social Contracts, Reciprocity, and Gift Economies in Cyberspace

The network of communications that constitutes a virtual community can include the exchange of information as a kind of commodity, and the economic implications of this phenomenon are significant; the ultimate social potential of the network, however, lies not solely in its utility as an information market, but in the individual and group relationships that can happen over time. When such a group accumulates a sufficient number of friendships and rivalries, and witnesses the births, marriages, and deaths that bond any other kind of community, it takes on a definite and profound sense of place in people's minds. Virtual communities usually have a geographically local focus, and often have a connection to a much wider domain. The local focus of my virtual community, the WELL, is the San Francisco Bay Area; the wider locus consists of hundreds of thousands of other sites around the world, and millions of other communitarians, linked via exchanges of messages into a meta-community known as "the net."

The existence of computer-linked communities was predicted twenty years ago by J.C.R. Licklider and Robert Taylor, who as research directors for the Department of Defense, set in motion the research that resulted in the creation of the first such community, the ARPAnet: "What will on-line interactive communities be like?" Licklider and Taylor wrote, in 1968: "In most fields they will consist of geographically separated members, sometimes grouped in small clusters and sometimes working individually. They will be communities not of common location, but of common interest..."

My friends and I sometimes believe we are part of the future that Licklider dreamed about, and we often can attest to the truth of his prediction that "life will be happier for the on-line individual because the people with whom one interacts most strongly will be selected more by commonality of interests and goals than by accidents of proximity." I still believe that, but I also know that life also has turned out to be unhappy at times, intensely so in some circumstances, because of words on a screen. Events in cyberspace can have concrete effects in real life, of both the pleasant and less pleasant varieties. Participating in a virtual community has not solved all of life's problems for me, but it has served as an aid, a comfort and an inspiration at times; at other times, it has been like an endless, ugly, long-simmering family brawl.

I've changed my mind about a lot of aspects of the WELL over the years, but the "sense of place" is still as strong as ever. As Ray Oldenburg revealed in "The Great Good Place," there are three essential places in every person's life: the place they live, the place they work, and the place they gather for conviviality. Although the casual conversation that takes place in cafes, beauty shops, pubs, town squares is universally considered to be trivial, "idle talk," Oldenburg makes the case that such places are where communities can arise and hold together. When the automobile-centric, suburban, high-rise, fast food, shopping mall way of life eliminated many of these "third places," the social fabric of existing communities shredded. It might not be the same kind of place that Oldenburg had in mind, but so many of his descriptions of "third places" could also describe the WELL.

The feeling of logging into the WELL for just a minute or two, dozens of times a day is very similar to the feeling of peeking into the cafe, the pub, the common room, to see who's there, and whether you want to stay around for a chat. Indeed, in all the hundreds of thousands of computer systems around the world that use the UNIX operating system, as does the WELL, the most widely used command is the one that shows you who is online. Another widely used command is the one that shows you a particular user's biography.

I visit the WELL both for the sheer pleasure of communicating with my newfound friends, and for its value as a practical instrument for gathering information on subjects that are of momentary or enduring importance, from child care to neuroscience, technical questions on telecommunications to arguments on philosophical, political, or spiritual subjects. It's a bit like a neighborhood pub or coffee shop. It's a little like a salon, where I can participate in a hundred ongoing conversations with people who don't care what I look like or sound like, but who do care how I think and communicate. There are seminars and word fights in different corners. And it's all a little like a groupmind, where questions are answered, support is given, inspiration is provided, by people I may have never heard from before, and whom I may never meet face to face.

Because we cannot see one another, we are unable to form prejudices about others before we read what they have to say: Race, gender, age, national origin and physical appearance are not apparent unless a person wants to make such characteristics public. People who are thoughtful but who are not quick to formulate a reply often do better in CMC than face to face or over the telephone. People whose physical handicaps make it difficult to form new friendships find that virtual communities treat them as they always wanted to be treated -- as thinkers and transmitters of ideas and feeling beings, not carnal vessels with a certain appearance and way of walking and talking (or not walking and not talking). Don't mistake this filtration of appearances for dehumanization: Words on a screen are quite capable of moving one to laughter or tears, of evoking anger or compassion, of creating a community from a collection of strangers.

From my informal research into virtual communities around the world, I have found that enthusiastic members of virtual communities in Japan, England, and the US agree that "increasing the diversity of their circle of friends" was one of the most important advantages of computer conferencing. CMC is a way to meet people, whether or not you feel the need to affiliate with them on a community level, but the way you meet them has an interesting twist: In traditional kinds of communities, we are accustomed to meeting people, then getting to know them; in virtual communities, you can get to know people and then choose to meet them. In some cases, you can get to know people who you might never meet on the physical plane.

How does anybody find friends? In the traditional community, we search through our pool of neighbors and professional colleagues, of acquaintances and acquaintances of acquaintances, in order to find people who share our values and interests. We then exchange information about one another, disclose and discuss our mutual interests, and sometimes we become friends. In a virtual community we can go directly to the place where our favorite subjects are being discussed, then get acquainted with those who share our passions, or who use words in a way we find attractive. In this sense, the topic is the address: You can't simply pick up a phone and ask to be connected with someone who wants to talk about Islamic art or California wine, or someone with a three year old daughter or a 30 year old Hudson; you can, however, join a computer conference on any of those topics, then open a public or private correspondence with the previously-unknown people you find in that conference. You will find that your chances of making friends are magnified by orders of magnitude over the old methods of finding a peer group.

You can be fooled about people in cyberspace, behind the cloak of words. But that can be said about telephones or face to face communications, as well; computer-mediated communications provide new ways to fool people, and the most obvious identity-swindles will die out only when enough people learn to use the medium critically. Sara Kiesler noted that the word "phony" is an artifact of the early years of the telephone, when media-naive people were conned by slick talkers in ways that wouldn't deceive an eight-year old with a cellular phone today.

There is both an intellectual and an emotional component to CMC. Since so many members of virtual communities are the kind of knowledge-based professionals whose professional standing can be enhanced by what they know, virtual communities can be practical, cold-blooded instruments. Virtual communities can help their members cope with information overload. The problem with the information age, especially for students and knowledge workers who spend their time immersed in the info-flow, is that there is too much information available and no effective filters for sifting the key data that are useful and interesting to us as individuals. 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 15,000 pages of related information.

The first software agents are now becoming available (e.g., WAIS, Rosebud), 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. If, in my wanderings through information space, I come across items that don't interest me but which I know one of my worldwide loose-knit affinity group of online friends would appreciate, I send the appropriate friend a pointer, or simply forward the entire text (one of the new powers of CMC is the ability to publish and converse with the same medium). In some cases, I can put the information in exactly the right place for 10,000 people I don't know, but who are intensely interested in that specific topic, to find it when they need it. And sometimes, 10,000 people I don't know do the same thing for me.

This unwritten, unspoken social contract, a blend of strong-tie and weak-tie relationships among people who have a mixture of motives, requires one to give something, and enables one to receive something. I have to keep my friends in mind and send them pointers instead of throwing my informational discards into the virtual scrap-heap. It doesn't take a great deal of energy to do that, since I have to sift that information anyway in order to find the knowledge I seek for my own purposes; it takes two keystrokes to delete the information, three keystrokes to forward it to someone else. And with scores of other people who have an eye out for my interests while they explore sectors of the information space that I normally wouldn't frequent, I find that the help I receive far outweighs the energy I expend helping others: A marriage of altruism and self-interest.

The first time I learned about that particular cyberspace power was early in the history of the WELL, when I was invited to join a panel of experts who advise the U.S. Congress Office of Technology Assessment (OTA). The subject of the assessment was "Communication Systems for an Information Age." I'm not an expert in telecommunication technology or policy, but I do know where to find a group of such experts, and how to get them to tell me what they know. Before I went to Washington for my first panel meeting, I opened a conference in the WELL and invited assorted information-freaks, technophiles, and communication experts to help me come up with something to say. An amazing collection of minds flocked to that topic, and some of them created whole new communities when they collided.

By the time I sat down with the captains of industry, government advisers, and academic experts at the panel table, I had over 200 pages of expert advice from my own panel. I wouldn't have been able to integrate that much knowledge of my subject in an entire academic or industrial career, and it only took me (and my virtual community) a few minutes a day for six weeks. I have found the WELL to be an outright magical resource, professionally. An editor or producer or client can call and ask me if I know much about the Constitution, or fiber optics, or intellectual property. "Let me get back to you in twenty minutes," I say, reaching for the modem. In terms of the way I learned to use the WELL to get the right piece of information at the right time, I'd say that the hours I've spent putting information into the WELL turned out to be the most lucrative professional investments I've ever made.

The same strategy of nurturing and making use of loose information-sharing affiliations across the net can be applied to an infinite domain of problem areas, from literary criticism to software evaluation. It's a neat way for a sufficiently large, sufficiently diverse group of people to multiply their individual degree of expertise, and I think it could be done even if the people aren't involved in a community other than their company or their research specialty. I think it works better when the community's conceptual model of itself is more like barn-raising than horse-trading, though. Reciprocity is a key element of any market-based culture, but the arrangement I'm describing feels to me more like a kind of gift economy where people do things for one another out of a spirit of building something between them, rather than a spreadsheet-calculated quid pro quo. When that spirit exists, everybody gets a little extra something, a little sparkle, from their more practical transactions; different kinds of things become possible when this mindset pervades. Conversely, people who have valuable things to add to the mix tend to keep their heads down and their ideas to themselves when a mercenary or hostile zeitgeist dominates an online community.

I think one key difference between straightforward workaday reciprocity is that in the virtual community I know best, one valuable currency is knowledge, elegantly presented. 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. Sometimes, you give one person more information than you would give another person in response to the same query, simply because you recognize one of them to be more generous or funny or to-the-point or agreeable to your political convictions than the other one.

If you give useful information freely, without demanding tightly-coupled reciprocity, your requests for information are met more swiftly, in greater detail, than they would have been otherwise. The person you help might never be in a position to help you, but someone else might be. That's why it is hard to distinguish idle talk from serious context-setting. In a virtual community, idle talk is context-setting. Idle talk is where people learn what kind of person you are, why you should be trusted or mistrusted, what interests you. An agora is more than the site of transactions; it is also a place where people meet and size up one another.

A market depends on the quality of knowledge held by the participants, the buyers and sellers, about price and availability and a thousand other things that influence business; a market that has a forum for informal and back-channel communications is a better-informed market. The London Stock Exchange grew out of the informal transactions in a coffee-house; when it became the London International Stock Exchange a few years ago, and abolished the trading-room floor, the enterprise lost something vital in the transition from an old room where all the old boys met and cut their deals to the screens of thousands of workstations scattered around the world.

The context of the informal community of knowledge sharers grew to include years of both professional and personal relationships. It is not news that the right network of people can serve as an inquiry research system: You throw out the question, and somebody on the net knows the answer. You can make a game out of it, where you gain symbolic prestige among your virtual peers by knowing the answer. And you can make a game out of it among a group of people who have dropped out of their orthodox professional lives, where some of them sell these information services for exorbitant rates, in order to participate voluntarily in the virtual community game.

When the WELL was young and growing more slowly than it is now, such knowledge-potlatching had a kind of naively enthusiastic energy. When you extend the conversation -- several dozen different characters, well-known to one another from four or five years of virtual hanging-out, several hours a day -- it gets richer, but not necessarily "happier."

Virtual communities have several drawbacks in comparison to face-to-face communication, disadvantages that must be kept in mind if you are to make use of the power of these computer-mediated discussion groups. The filtration factor that prevents one from knowing the race or age of another participant also prevents people from communicating the facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice that constitute the inaudible but vital component of most face to face communications. Irony, sarcasm, compassion, and other subtle but all-important nuances that aren't conveyed in words alone are lost when all you can see of a person are words on a screen.

It's amazing how the ambiguity of words in the absence of body language inevitably leads to online misunderstandings. And since the physical absence of other people also seems to loosen some of the social bonds that prevent people from insulting one another in person, misunderstandings can grow into truly nasty stuff before anybody has a chance to untangle the original miscommunication. Heated diatribes and interpersonal incivility that wouldn't crop up often in face to face or even telephone discourse seem to appear with relative frequency in computer conferences. The only presently available antidote to this flaw of CMC as a human communication medium is widespread knowledge of this flaw -- aka "netiquette."

Online civility and how to deal with breaches of it is a topic unto itself, and has been much-argued on the WELL. Degrees of outright incivility constitute entire universes such as alt.flame, the Usenet newsgroup where people go specifically to spend their days hurling vile imprecations at one another. I am beginning to suspect that the most powerful and effective defense an online community has in the face of those who are bent on disruption might be norms and agreements about withdrawing attention from those who can't abide by even loose rules of verbal behavior. "If you continue doing that," I remember someone saying to a particularly persistent would-be disrupter, "we will stop paying attention to you." This is technically easy to do on Usenet, where putting the name of a person or topic header in a "kill file" (aka "bozo filter") means you will never see future contributions from that person or about that topic. You can simply choose to not see any postings from Rich Rosen, or that feature the word "abortion" in the title. A society in which people can remove one another, or even entire topics of discussion, from visibility. The WELL does not have a bozo filter, although the need for one is a topic of frequent discussion.

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