A SNAPSHOT OF A DEVELOPING
Copyright (c) 2001 by Michael Cohn and Christine Hoff Kraemer
May 19, 2001 – v.1.15b
ANS 324L – Cyborg Anthropology
The University of Texas at Austin
Robbie Davis-Floyd, Ph.D.
We cannot help but approach this subject as insiders. Sherry Turkle speaks of life "on the screen," but it might be more appropriate to say that we step through it -- through a modern looking-glass that delivers our reflections, warped and multiplied, to formerly distant friends. Even the casual observer, watching us over the course of a day, couldn't fail to notice our nearly umbilical connection to the Great Mother Internet from whom all information flows. When a significant part of both one's social and intellectual life takes place online, it becomes easy, even natural, to begin to apply the term 'cyborg.'
In this study of our own small but lively virtual community, we follow Howard Rheingold in attempting the ethnographer's role not by becoming insiders in an unfamiliar culture, but by imagining an outsider's perspective on a culture we hold near and dear. As David Hakken explains in Cyborgs@Cyberspace?, the non-modern ethnographer's approach is primarily experiential rather than experimental (40); rather than trying to critique and analyze our culture from a point of supposed outside objectivity, we are able to acknowledge and study our own involvement in it, to take our subjectivity into account and make it part of the picture. The fact that we are actors in this virtual community has the potential to give us the kind of intimate insight that only a participant, perhaps only a member, can have.
As amateur ethnographers, however, we have also done our best to identify our own biases, to take conflicting viewpoints into account, and to step back to look at the progress of our community from a broader perspective. In the context of this essay, we are both characters in the story and its narrators. By providing quantitative data when possible, as well as calling attention to the fact that evidence for some specific arguments will come from our own messages and conversations, we hope to give the reader as unbiased a portrait as our necessary subjectivity will allow.
A note on the text:
The interviews in this paper were conducted between March and May, 2001. Most were done in-person and recorded onto magnetic tape, which is in the process of being digitized. However, several were performed online, using real-time chat or e-mail. In spoken interviews, we have used proper spelling and typography, but in written ones we have left the text unchanged. Readers are urged to remember the informal and symbolic nature of online writing, and not to judge quotes, or the people who offered them, by the standards of published writing.
All names used in interviews are pseudonyms. Some members used their Forum handles; others invented new ones. Forum members frequently refer to each other by handle. When an interviewee uses another member's real name, we have indicated this by putting that member's name in angle brackets <>. Also note that many members do not capitalize their handles; in these cases we have retained lower-case even at the beginning of sentences.
II. A Brief History of Related Virtual Communities
A lot of people view the whole computer revolution thing as a better way to trade information, but I don't think it is. I think it's about sharing culture with people in a community, and sharing information is just part of what you do when you're sharing culture.
In The Virtual Community, Howard Rheingold traces the history of virtual communities back to the groups of researchers who, while working together in a single room, first began to pass electronic mail messages socially from terminal to terminal. Virtual communities along the model of Rheingold's WELL, however – with participants congregating not for work-related reasons, but due to common interests – began with BBS (bulletin board system) culture in the 1970's. BBSs were local servers, often run on an individual's personal computer, that could be reached through a direct telephone call. With the development of Internet in the 1980's, some of these BBSs served as gateways to the larger network. Others, however, were entirely independent, while still others linked only to other BBS servers. BBSs featured games, chat, message boards (somewhat like a public e-mail conversation), private messaging, and file distribution systems to allow the BBS's membership to exchange files. Subject matter varied wildly, with an emphasis on computers, technology, and geek subculture, but not all BBSs were iconoclastic hangouts for hackers and wannabes. Churches, community organizations, and businesses might run BBSs; some charged for membership, while others were free. Overall, BBS culture embodied a strong do-it-yourself, individualistic ethic – a natural outgrowth of a communications medium which anyone with a computer, a modem, and a little technical know-how could set up at any time. BBS culture thrived until the mid-1990's, when Internet access and browser software became more widely available and many BBSs either connected to the Internet or shut down as members left for the larger, interconnected Net.
While BBSs primarily served local groups of users, a medium for conversation that knew no national boundaries also evolved. Usenet, a communications medium that (as Rheingold puts it) "rides on the computer networks but doesn't need them" (62), was a way of managing multiple public conversations and spreading them freely over the networks. With no centralized organizing force, Usenet conversations were copied freely from server to server, reaching all those whose favorite BBS or Internet Service Provider chose to carry them. Usenet newsgroups are topic-specific, with subject matter ranging from alt.sex and rec.cars.auto, to biz.jobs and sci.astro, as well as quirkier topics like alt.swedish.chef.bork.bork.bork. Almost every topic of conversation, no matter how bizarre, arcane, or trivial, can be found on one of the many thousands of active Usenet groups.
Since the consolidation of most of the major computer networks into one vast entity we've come to call the Net, few communities that are not connected to larger networks remain, with the result that in terms of percentages, fewer maintain a localized membership. However, neither have most virtual communities followed the anarchic, totally public model of Usenet, which is notorious for its flamewars (heated online arguments) and spam (unsolicited content, often advertising, that is sent to dozens or thousands of groups). Instead, virtual community-builders have worked to create viable communities by limiting membership, moderating conversation, and fostering social conventions (once called "Netiquette") that ideally produce stable, productive, and friendly virtual environments for both work and play.
III. What, Who, How
So <Kali> wanted to have this web forum thing, and some other people wanted that too. She talked to <cyb>, and <cyb> talked to me, and we talked, and there was talking, and we decided that it should be hosted on my computer. And we set it up, and there was some party, and a bunch of people got invited onto it and we got everybody set up and then people started talking. And then people joined and people left, and people joined and people left. And there was much conversation.
When you get a bunch of people that all feel like something important's going to happen and they're going to make it happen, that's it. That's all you need, right there.
The Forum is heir to both the BBS and the Usenet traditions. The software currently being used (WWWThreads) was originally touted as a 'web BBS.' As with BBSs, users log in to use functions that include private inter-forum mail, discussion boards, and a somewhat unreliable chat function (added experimentally by our own local coders). The discussion boards are structured much like Usenet newsgroups. Divided into five categories and twenty-two subjects, each with its own "message sub", discussions are topically oriented and open to all Forum users. Each sub can have an unlimited number of "threads," conversations in which individual messages are represented visually in tiers so as to make their relationship clear. Replies are indented and placed directly below the post they respond to. When a discussion is particularly lively, just the headers of a single thread may fill several screens. Messages can be in plain text, or can contain the standard web array of formatting, graphics, and links. In contrast to Usenet, where the regulars on any individual Usenet newsgroup often constitute a community in and of themselves, many of the most active members of the Forum read all twenty-two message subs. Because the Forum features many of the same posters on a wide variety of topics, the majority of Forum users locate community at the level of the Forum as a whole, not at the level of individual message subs.
The sense of whole-Forum community is reinforced by the fact that the majority of Forum users are also part of the same local, in-person social group. Even if two members do not often read the same messages, frequent parties, meetings at coffee houses, and attendance at each other's school- and work-related events will provide opportunities for them to interact. Forum members use handles when posting messages, but with a few notable exceptions that will be discussed later in the paper, all users know the RL identities of their fellow users, and have met the overwhelming majority of them.
At any given time, the Forum maintains about twenty active users (active being defined for this paper as having posted once within the past three months, and having made at least ten posts total), although usage levels vary from the most active (checking the Forum multiple times a day) to occasional (checking once a week or less, or participating heavily for a few days, then disappearing for months). On the fringes of this group are an unknown number of lurkers (users who read but never post), as well as a small number of formerly active users who have since moved on to other things. Members are free to invite anyone they choose, although they are required to announce the invitee's name to the group in advance. It has been formally agreed that no one will be denied membership unless an existing member states that they have a pre-existing personal relationship that would make them literally unable to be part of the same community. Many members feel this would never apply to them, and some have agreed not to read invitation announcements to preserve the anonymity of new posters (on which more later).
The group is demographically rather homogenous, with only one non-white member (though several with close ethnic ties to Mexico). Forum users tend to be college educated, with 67% of active users holding college degrees and 25% currently pursuing them. Accordingly, Forum users have ranged in age from 19-26, and the majority come from middle class backgrounds. 87% of active users currently live in the Austin area; 96% have lived in the Austin area during the existence of the Forum, as have 88% of users who have ever been active. 67% of current users are male, up from 59% of users who have ever been active.
Despite this narrowness, many of the Forum users we interviewed reported feeling that the group was satisfyingly diverse, at least for a group of its size. This perception seems to reflect the wide variety of scholarly, artistic, and popular interests of Forum users. Though a disproportionate number of Forum users are programmers, Forum users hold degrees in government, English, psychology, computer science, mathematics, genetics, radio-television-film, and illustration. With 42% of active users either holding or pursuing a degree under the interdisciplinary Plan II Honors program at the University of Texas at Austin, this emphasis on intellectual if not demographic diversity is hardly surprising.
The ways in which members use the Forum are varied. Originally pitched to the first invitees as a web-based discussion forum that "we hope . . . will encourage social interaction as well as provide a space to discuss the members' ideas and creative work," users ascribe these functions and more to the Forum. We interviewed twenty-two users – eighteen active Forum users, three who are no longer active, and one lurker (nine women, thirteen men) – extensively on their Forum use. Users described the Forum and the ways that it functions in their lives variously.
--A collective knowledge base consisting of anything you and your friends and their friends have the time to enter into it. Also a general discussion of life and everything, but between everyone at once. (Lexicon)
--It's kind of an update on people's lives or [a way] into people's heads. . . . It's like a calendar, like a thought of the day -- it's like a conversation [or] a person of the day or something. (shrike)
--It's a community that pulls you up towards the intellectual rigor of its most rigorous member. (Archangel)
--It's a safe place to discuss pretty much anything. (Allea)
--[it] serves as a focus, or maybe a nexus, for a group of people who know each other in real life to share their ideas in a format where they can actually consider [them] at length . . . [it keeps them] in touch with each other during their busy weeks[.] (Kali)
--a place that I can go to see what's up in the world of people I care about. [. . .] a support group for people who want to rule the world. (cyb)
--a glue for a local community. (Doctor Pipe)
--There's an element of keeping in touch with people [. . .] in a way, it serves as kind of a journal for me[.] (Chispa)
--a medium for me to communicate and share my work . . . a place where i hang out sometimes. (pupok)
--a community of inquiry. Everyone supported each other. (jasper)
--an accepting intellectual community. (Niedrigkeit)
--an online discussion group that guards its high level of discourse jealously. (motive nuance)
--like being back in college and having all of those cool discussions you probably miss. . . . Society of intellectual-type people. (Sark)
--When I was far away, it was a way to keep an eye on certain people. [laughs] . . . it was a good way to see what they were doing. (miss bean)
--It's a good place for intellectual banter. (may queen)
--I found it an easy method of keeping up with the lives of people I knew. I also found it an efficient mode for bouncing random ideas off of other people. (lepage)
--Learning, imagination, and personal experience are important to me. [. . .] the Forum tends to offer these things, allowing me to, at the very least, peek at others' learning, find inspiration in others' creativity, and voyeuristically peer at others' doings. (purple)
--an arena for sharing all of ourselves. (wisconsin witch)
--When my life is going poorly and I'm doing a lot of work that I'm frustrated by, the Forum gives me something that I care about — a place where I go, and I feel like the things I say are actually worthwhile. . . . It's also helped to keep me connected with people[.] (enkidu)
--If there's something I want to discuss, or something pops in my mind, and it's two o'clock in the morning, I'm not going to call anyone. I can't sleep. But I can post. (Patrick)
--an attempt to recreate the BBS experience . . . an integrated blob of interactions[.] (Corwin)
--It mostly entertains me. It's also . . . whatever you normally get out of interacting with friends. (cherub)
These responses reveal an online environment that does more than simply encourage social interaction and allow its participants to share ideas. For some users, it is an emotional outlet, a way to keep in touch with distant friends, a facilitator for local relationships, a reference resource, a personal diary, a support group, or simply entertainment. As many of these comments reveal, users tend to think of the Forum both as a communications medium and as a place, recalling Gary Lee Downey's notion of "traveling inside the machine" (172). Though on the most basic level, "The Forum" is simply a piece of software that users employ for communication purposes, the sense of contact in cyberspace is so compelling that even one of our least sentimental respondents defined it primarily not as a web discussion forum, but as "a group of friends" (cherub, interview). As our essay will attempt to demonstrate, repeated contact online can act to strengthen in-person relationships, form new relationships between members who have either not met in person or who know each other only in passing, enrich participants' intellectual, emotional, and spiritual lives, and create group interactions that have significantly different characteristics from the interactions of the same group in person. We hope to show that the online format offers unique advantages in each of these areas that may outweigh its disadvantages for some (but not all) participants. Finally, we plan to offer an insider's look at the developing culture of our particular small community which, although its members routinely interact in person, conducts the majority of its interactions online.
IV. Patterns and content of communication
So it's anarchy, but we kinda agree not to step on anyone's toes.
Many forces work on Forum discourse in order to structure and direct conversation. Although it is tempting to think that the unique interactions of the users are the fundamental defining factor for patterns of discourse on the Forum, both the software and changes in the offline world have a major impact on the way in which conversations develop and their content.
Forum usage patterns are perhaps the most obvious example of how the outside world affects Forum discourse. Since the majority of Forum users either are or were recently in college or graduate school, Forum users perceive usage tending to follow a semester-long cycle: traffic tends to be lowest when mid-terms or finals are in session. This general pattern, however, is contradicted by the usage patterns of some users, who develop a tendency to obsessively check the Forum while using computers to work on projects or final papers. Users fondly remember pupok's posting blitz of Spring 1999, where she shared pieces of her animated work-in-progress in between semi-panicked updates on her rapidly approaching deadlines.
Users also point to technology jobs, specifically those that involve sitting in front of a computer for most of the day, as being primary factors in increasing their Forum usage. cherub says of his former job:
I was bored, so I posted a lot. I pestered other people into posting so I would have something to read. I may be guilty of starting arguments so that I would have something to read. (interview)
Similarly, Niedrigkeit adds that he expects to post more after he gets a job (presumably involving computers) again; Patrick mentions that "if I'm at work and I'm bored," he goes straight to the Forum (interviews). For these and other users, the availability of the computer is key to increasing usage. Though two of the users quoted above point to boredom as their reason for Forum use at work, the following snippet from Chispa's interview (as well as the anecdote regarding pupok, above) suggests that extreme activity, paired with computer availability, also encourages Forum use for some members:
Chispa: I'm so busy lately [. . .] but it's kind of a relaxing sort of thing, for me. To have more personal interaction, even though it's online.
Hoff: Does the ability to just grab five minutes here and there help with that?
Chispa: Yeah – if I have time before my nine o'clock class or during breaks, that kind of thing.
The more wired users are in school and in work, the more likely they are to regularly turn to the Forum for a break, some entertainment, or some quick social interaction. But as Niedrigkeit's comment points out, Forum use is not necessarily self-sustaining – once the ready availability of the computer (and the boredom of the job) are removed, usage rates often drop. Graduation and entry into the regular, non-technological work force also tends to reduce Forum use as time spent using computers for schoolwork drops.
Similarly, usage tends to vary with the distance of the user from the community. Niedrigkeit's highest period of usage by far occurred during his three-month internship overseas, where he worked a technology job; pupok's usage peaked during a time when she lived approximately 30 minutes away from other users and lacked a car; lepage's usage went from near-nonexistent to weekly or more often after her move to another state. Conversely, miss bean's frequency of usage dropped dramatically after her move to Austin, where she was able to interact with her fellow Forum members on a more regular basis. In general, becoming more physically distant from the Forum social group (which restricts in-person interaction with other users) increases Forum usage.
In terms of content, the Forum collects message subs into five categories (General Discussion, Art, Thought, Experience, and Science), each of which has a number of more specific subdivisions. This helps direct users toward discussions they are interested in and helps them differentiate discussions on different topics. Surprisingly, however, this categorization system does not seem to heavily restrict discussion to certain topics. When a topic that lacks an appropriate sub is repeatedly breached, users sometimes co-opt a low-traffic sub in order to accommodate it. Thus, Earth now contains posts about health and biology as well as environmentalism and geology.
In addition to being flexible, this division of Forum posts into subs offers only a partial categorization along a single axis. Posts on all subs range from the serious (some users post their academic papers) to the lighthearted (jokes, friendly banter, etc.). An idea-oriented conversation can begin any time a user posts his or her thoughts. Possible topics are limited only by the members' interests; past conversations have looked at conflict-resolution techniques, natural selection analogies, and the effect of postmodernism on psychology. Some discussions start with a simple request for information, such as "Was it really necessary for America to drop the bomb on Hiroshima?" or "psychology people, explain to me the electra complex."
On the other end of the spectrum are entirely informal and social posts, where members share observations from daily life, personal concerns, and rants (the sometimes debatable boundary between a "rant" and an "essay" should emphasize the fuzzy nature of this classification system). There is a wide middle ground, where people complain about current events, explore their experiences, or deal with the personal significance of intellectual topics. The Forum's longest-lived discussion (spanning several threads) began when lepage posted that "I just don't get it [spirituality]", and included posts ranging from idle philosophical speculation and personal confession to book research on psychological studies and the politics of modern Christianity. There is also a common and somewhat infamous tendency for threads to contain long strings of back-and-forth puns, jokes, and flirtations, but as we will discuss below this does not rule out the possibility for serious discussion to resume.
In terms of topical content, the subs that receive the most traffic on the Forum are also the most personal: Game of Questions (at ~2100 posts – especially significant since it was added a few months into the Forum's life) and Life, the Universe, and Everything (~2200). Game of Questions is also notable for involving the most posters on single threads, as well as for its long average length of threads (GoQ has ~150 total threads at an average of 14 posts per thread, compared to Life's ~400 threads at an average of 5.5 posts per thread, although the two subs have similar numbers of posts overall). These two subs are rivaled by Machine (at ~1600 posts – unsurprising considering the technological orientation of the Forum participants) and Politics (~1400), both of which have a tendency to bleed into each other on the subject of intellectual property, a recurring hot topic for Forum users. Subs on the various arts varied from 500-600 posts, while more specific subs such as Future Studies and Dreams contained about 400 each. Event Announcements was also somewhat voluminous at about 1100 posts, demonstrating the extent to which users use the Forum to organize RL gatherings and spread news about upcoming activities. These statistics may be misleading, however. Posts on both GoQ and Life tend to be short, while subs such as Philosophy and Religion (~800 posts) tend towards lengthy manifestos and detailed ensuing discussions. Unfortunately, due to the poor design of the software, we were unable to get quantitative data on the total number of words posted in each of these subs at this time.
With regards to why users respond to some threads and not to others, the most common answer given was, paraphrased, "I post when I know I have something unique to contribute." Beyond that, answers varied. Some were moved to post primarily when they saw something they violently disagreed with, or saw an angle or point of view that wasn't being presented (our token lurker agreed that only thing that would probably cause him to de-lurk was "A post that caused me to feel an outrage not yet voiced by anyone else. [. . .] a post that touches something within and compels me to act" [interview]). Others added that they enjoyed responding when there were requests for information (Archangel), requests for personal opinions (Allea), good setups for funny comments (Sark), opportunities to nudge people away from useless argument (enkidu), or posts that were fun and featured less heavy discussion (miss bean). Multiple users also expressed appreciation for personal posts and enjoyed responding to them. Extremely long posts tended to intimidate those who were in a hurry or who weren't very familiar with the topic. Several users also remarked that especially long threads seemed to drive some people off, due to the increased time it took for the web browser to display them.
Both the structure of the specific software and the RL lives and interests of Forum members have a significant impact on how the Forum is used and for what. It is unfortunate, however, that the limitations of the software restrict discourse and occasionally prematurely kill off discussions that are running long. In his interview, Doctor Pipe expresses his unhappiness that these "big behemoth threads" are often abandoned partially out of their inconvenience, and observes that some of the same topics come up again and again in different threads, with seemingly inexhaustible opportunities for discussion. Interestingly, he envisions the possibility of a kind of Forum index with which recurring topics could be easily listed and cross-referenced, as well as a system that would allow threads to more freely intertwine "like tangled trees" (for example, implementing cross-posting to two or more subs at once). Freeing the Forum of the restrictions of its own software may be on the horizon with the upcoming implementation of new forum software, personally written by one of the Forum's own members. The opportunity for the community to personalize its environment in response to specific needs holds exciting possibilities for future interaction.
V. Effects of Online Format on Communication
Having to deal with somebody in more than one context affects interaction in all contexts.
The structure of individual conversations on the Forum is influenced by both the forum software and the nature of the Internet communication. Heath Michael Rezabek refers to online discussion as a self-modifying "autologue," and compares his message board experience to the "open text" of deconstructionism:
Ideas worked themselves out with a speed and fluidity restrained only by the speed of data transfer and the response time of an other. The writer of one "POST" would immediately become the reader -- and again the rewriter -- of the next.
Message boards severely compromise authorial intent and authority when an idea introduced by one speaker is only a contribution to the ongoing thread. Rezabek views this as a revolution in thought and composition, evidently neglecting the context in which it is already familiar to all of us: everyday conversation, in which each participant's remarks effortlessly collaborate to guide the dialog. Jon Camfield picks up this similarity in Talk, Text, and Type: Conversation on the internet. He argues that online discourse contains aspects of both in-person verbal interactions and written communication. The Forum uses what Camfield calls a newsgroup format. He argues that bulletin boards tend to follow an epistolary, yet interactive style that occasionally "dips into conversation" (33):
participants can speak as if these forums were merely slow chat rooms . . . These comments were posted to the newsgroup within a few days, but retain the appearance of a more rapid interchange. Other newsgroup postings can be found that are posted within thirty minutes of each other or less . . . (34)
Newsgroup-style postings maintain an appearance of direct interchange and a quasi-conversational give-and-take whether they were posted days apart or mere minutes, at which point they begin to experientially resemble a conversation as well as give the appearance of one.
Forum users also seemed sensitive to this similarity. Despite the Internet convention of referring to offline life as "Real Life" (thus implying that online life is somehow less real), the most common metaphors interviewees used to describe the Forum were physical gatherings.
. . . more like 'certain people are there' as opposed to 'there are people who talk about this certain thing.'
-miss bean (interview)
. . . a perpetually ongoing party that consists only of conversation.
. . . a bunch of people in a box. [. . .] my conversation in a box that I could, like, carry around.
In our examination of the effects that the bulletin-board format has on Forum discussion, it will be useful to keep a RL meeting in mind as a standard. It will help us recognize some of the areas where the form and content of discussion change, or unexpectedly do not change, when our box of people is moved into an online, textual format.
Camfield describes real-time internet chat as part conversation and part fugue:
[T]here is not one conversation, but instead each participant perceives a slightly different conversation, attaches a unique pattern of emphasis, and is exposed to a possibly vastly different set of other channels of information from their physical setting as well as other windows of interaction on their computer. . . . A full analysis of any one dialogue on-line would need nearly all the information of each participant's personal history, immediate surroundings, and other current interactions on-line. (102)
In this respect, too, the Forum is able to resemble a much faster-paced discussion in real time. But on the Forum, the different discussions in a thread hang together more tightly than they could in real life, because being involved in one sub-thread does not preclude listening to others. Jumping back and forth between two in-person conversations is taxing, but reading all the messages in a thread and keeping each in its own context is simple. An interchange of one-line flirtations can appear in the middle of a thread, without interrupting other replies to substantive parts of the post. See http://azrael.dyn.cheapnet.net/~mikethecrow/thread.html for an example of a thread which is both a roiling mess of digressions and a single, coherent discussion. Note the appropriateness of the thread metaphor here: even as many discussions interweave to create the fabric of the Forum, many smaller conversations can entwine within a single topic.
A thread generally lasts a week or less before people stop posting, but some have survived for many months, with periodic lulls in conversation. Some members call a response to a dormant thread "resurrecting the thread" – implying, interestingly, that an abandoned thread is "dead," and an active one "alive." Some members also refer to "killing a thread" by posting irrelevant or off-topic information or being directionlessly argumentative. The implication that an active thread is somehow alive demonstrates once again not only how participants feel themselves drawn into cyberspace, but also a sense that something vital emerges from their interactions that can be nourished or snuffed out. Rezabek completes the cycle of death and rebirth when he writes that "even then, THREADS do not die. Rather, the topic itself remains as a strange attractor for the ongoing dialectic, and eventually it will be reared again at the start of another related THREAD."
Camfield's discussion includes not only these enhancements to conversation, but other substantial differences as well. Even the most informal chat session can be logged permanently, giving participants perfect recall if they want to refer to it in the future. And because it is online, they can enhance their conversation with hyperlinks and annotations. The resultant phenomenon is something he locates between letter-writing and collaborative hypertext.
In a Literature discussion last year, Kali quoted a haiku she liked. Sometime the next day, miss bean tried to guess Kali's favorite poem, and the day after that Kali posted a copy of Roethke's "The Waking." Sark noticed that the poem was structured as a villanelle, and two hours later he returned with a villanelle he had been working on. While the conversation about poetry could have easily taken place at a party or a clubhouse, the references and archives that the participants used would not have been available. Kali was able to go to her bookshelf and type in a poem; Sark was able to access his own work, likely kept on his hard drive. These resources would have been available in an epistolary conversation, but the conversation's spontaneity, as well as the involvement of all the other posters and lurkers, would have been lost. Though far from a sexy high-tech duel in a psychedelic Gibsonian cyberspace, this simple interchange was dependent on the technology of the Forum.
Similar effects can be seen in factual discussions. Many interviewees appreciated the ability to check sources and find confirmation for their ideas; Corwin said that the Forum "allows me to be more successfully erudite" (interview), and Doctor Pipe that "I don't argue differently [on the Forum] than I would like to in real life" (interview). On the lighter side, compare cherub's comment that "cherub is a slightly more daring smartass [than I am]. I will frequently not say something rude because I haven't had time to think about whether I'm really justified in saying it, whereas cherub always has time to think about it" (interview).
Of course, the Internet is multimedia, and digital resources are not limited to texts. The Forum's web interface allows its artists to easily post scans of their work for appreciation and friendly critiques from other readers. Although art generally does not spark long discussions, many interviewees specifically mentioned the Visual Arts message sub and found the sharing of creative work in general to be a valuable part of the Forum. As they do in intellectual discussion, members use the Forum to bring together resources they would otherwise have to abandon the conversation to retrieve.
The asynchronous nature of posting means that Forum conversations can span time as well as place. Patrick noted that he values the Forum because "If there's something I want to discuss, or something pops in my mind, [and] it's two o'clock in the morning, I'm not going to call anyone. I can't sleep. I can post" (interview). Many others reported using the Forum when they were working at a computer and needed a break, but didn't have the time to seek out another person. They can read things people posted hours ago and respond with their own thoughts, assured that they will eventually become part of the conversation.
Some posts take specific advantage of the knowledge that anyone reading the Forum is connected to the Internet. In face-to-face conversation, it is rare to start a conversation by handing another person a book, and sitting quietly for fifteen minutes while they catch up on the background. But on the Forum, time is more malleable; when motive nuance wrote about alternative voting systems, he included a link to an online primer on the subject, and other users read the material before responding. Similarly, when pupok posted "how's this for fucked up?" and a link to a macabre news article, discussion ensued quite naturally.
As we naturally hold impossible discussions, the cyborgification of Forum users becomes clear. In Downey's terms, the users' agency -- their basic abilities and spontaneous desires -- have adapted to the new environment. As a human, Kali can only refer to a poem, excluding people who haven't read it. As an online entity, she can quote it verbatim without interrupting discussion, wasting excessive time, or running out of breath. Patrick can go from being a lonely insomniac to a connected community member, and nuance and pupok can get right to their own thoughts without having to start with a lengthy summary of what they've read. The Forum ably relieves any concern that Rezabeck's autologue is a debasing of text; instead, it shows it to be a vigorous hybrid, one which blends the collaborative, postmodern twists of talk with the well-researched, considered dignity of writing.
It would be foolish, however, to look only for cyborg additions. Is there anything that the machine takes away, anything that Forum users have to leave at the door? Elaborate tales of gender bending through anonymity and the strangeness of netsex make one answer clear: the body.
The Internet's famous array of emoticons (;->), text styling ("*hello!*"), and abbreviations ("LOL," "<g>") represents a collective attempt to make up for the loss of body language. The Forum is not exempt from the problem. Niedrigkeit, a long-time user who praised the aspects of text discussed above, complained that "I feel like I don't really express emotion or sarcasm and irony very well online, so I usually stay away from that. [I see a post] as just a bunch of words they type, can't tell if they really enjoyed typing it" (interview). Most other interviewees noted the lack of body language in some way, and Kali speculated that it might explain why the Forum is predominantly male: "Women tend to be a little bit more dependent on[, and] feel that body language, and intonation, and just physically being in the same room as the person when you're trying to talk to them about important stuff is more important[. . . .] I think maybe they get more information out of it than most men do" (interview).
Members partially ameliorate this problem when they meet each other at periodic parties, in classes, or through real-life friendships. They learn each other's personal styles, and can carry this knowledge with them into the disembodied world of text.
. . . like <Kali>, she comes across very differently online when you know what she really talks like, like she could seem like a little old grey-haired lady [. . .] but no, she's really quirky and bizarre and awesome. So knowing how to apply that to her actual persona helps.
- jasper (interview)
if i didn't know the people individually i'd find them more directly insensitive, arrogant, etc. but, as I know them i accept it simply as a style.
- lepage (interview)
Thus, a text-based, highly rational discussion can also partake of the benefits of voice and tone. Although Rezabek wrote about online discussions that do not necessarily include this real-life component, the similarity to his hybrid text-conversations is compelling.
The lack of bodily presence online also creates a host of identity issues. Even in the Forum's small community, it is not always obvious what "real" person goes with a handle. Although there was some variation in very early posts, users now consistently refer to themselves and one another by handles, even when relating events that took place in-person. As a result, it is not uncommon for members who are not fully integrated with the real-life group to go for weeks or months without knowing to whom a handle belongs, sometimes even making assumptions that later prove incorrect.
Sherry Turkle writes optimistically about the potential (if not always the reality) of online anonymity -- it allows people to "expand their sense of identity by assuming roles where the boundary between self and role becomes increasingly permeable" (209). But Forum members almost unanimously denied adopting alter egos, or even different mannerisms, online. Though Niedrigkeit reported that he frequently used wild humor in real life and had to censor himself extensively online, he specified that he didn't feel he was adopting an artificial persona. This is an aspect of most online communities that is made irrelevant by the Forum's in-person component. Turkle compares the anonymity of life onscreen to Erickson's construct of the psychosocial moratorium, a period of time or mode of experience that confers freedom from many kinds of responsibility and continuity of identity. This safe environment gives one room to play with new roles, and eventually incorporate them into a newly mature personality (203). But when the Forum is a continuing part of members' lives, and most other members know who they are, uncharacteristic behavior online will not be overlooked.
The Forum's history does have one notable exception to this weakened form of anonymity: In April 1999, early in the life of the Forum, posts began appearing from someone named "jasper." Conversations among members revealed that no one had previously heard of either jasper or "Jeremy Pearl," the name listed in his profile, but jasper was accepted into the community and rarely had his anonymity questioned. The mystery deepened again in July when Niedrigkeit, who was working in Germany at the time, wrote, "I just realized who jasper is. It had been kind of bugging me for awhile, but right now I'm seriously freaked out. I'm almost shaking. But whatever...mindfucks come with the territory (and they're pretty fun from an abstracted point of view ;-)." Some posters began asking for jasper's identity again, but true to form the thread soon turned to a discussion of Thomas Jefferson's statement that "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants," and speculation about jasper returned to the background.
That fall, jasper walked into a Forum party. Niedrigkeit's shock became understandable: jasper was his girlfriend. At the time, she was also living in the same house as two other longtime Forum members, and was friends with still others. In her interview, jasper explained her masquerade:
I didn't want to go on and start posting, and find that everybody goes "Who are you? You're stupid." So instead I went on without saying so to anyone, and in case that did happen I could just disappear and never bother with it again. I got a kind of anonymity, so I could just post things and see how people would react to me in the situation, without it actually being tied to who I was in real life.
This is precisely what Turkle describes as a moratorium "not on significant experiences, but on their consequences." Dave Healy, a virtual community skeptic, sees the moratorium as a destructive force, lamenting that the Internet encourages a low level of user commitment: "If one doesn't like the way a conversation is developing, a thousand alternatives are just a keystroke away" (62). This was not the case with jasper, however, whose initial anonymity smoothed her movement into the community and resulted in an integration more successful than that of many of Turkle's subjects. jasper commented, "It gave me a different perspective on a lot of people who had been kind of scary. Not really scary in a bad way, but people I never figured I would hang out with, because they were really intimidating and venerable."
Sark, too, made a semi-anonymous entry to the Forum. But unlike jasper's, this identity game seems to have been played more for fun and self-exploration than out of a sense of testing the waters. Sark toyed with the requests for him to reveal his identity, dropping hints until alert users were able to search on the Internet for his home page using key words. He himself notes, "Every time I create a new identity online, I try to give it its own little set of personality traits that are a subset of my own, but eventually they all come back to being just me" (interview). jasper indulged in a bit of this fun as well, recalling that after a while "it got to a point where it was okay. It would be okay for people to know who I was. It was pretty clear. Then it got to be fun to play with it" (interview).
The Forum has been lucky, in that its users have only gained from its suspension of personal responsibility. The dark side of a disinhibitory moratorium is that it can encourage frankly vulgar behavior, and the bright side of scrutiny is that it can restrain it. The Internet is well-known for ad hominem attacks, fights based on mutual ignorance, and multi-person, verbally-abusive "flamewars." But the Forum has rarely erupted into open hostility. Almost all interviewees considered flaming to be deterred by the real-life sanctions that would result, and the potential flamer's ability to imagine a face behind the words. As Sark posted, "What makes us different is we were all invited in, and we all pretty much know each other. When was the last time you had intelligent friends over and got into an angry shouting match?"
Some interviewees noted that they considered the Forum not just flame-retardant, but more civil than comparable groups in real-life.
[I]f anything, I'm more conscientious because it's permanent.
In RL conversations, there's a give and take that has to be maintained. . . . I think everyone ends up talking at times when they don't really know what they want to say, or they think they need to keep an active defense of their point of view[. . .]. And so they can end up saying things they don't really mean.
In general, however, most interviewees discounted the importance of on-line communication and attributed the Forum's civility to real-life interaction and individual members' good behavior. It is true that Forum members are not known for squabbling in person. However, the possibility remains that online discussions allow civility when discussing topics that would not remain civil, or not be introduced at all, when talking face-to-face.
Fascinatingly, it was Allea, who repeatedly emphasized her difficulties with the lack of body language and vocal tone in the online format, who claimed that the Forum provides a uniquely constructive environment for emotional discussions. Her experience in this arena was extremely personal – as her first post, upset and on impulse, she responded to a discussion of women's issues with a long description of her own traumatic experience.
I cried a lot. But that was because of my particular situation, and I think that being in the Forum environment allowed me to discuss things that I couldn't discuss verbally, just simply because I couldn't talk. Words would not come out of my mouth. And it helped me deal with it a lot. I guess I didn't really have first-post intimidation, like, "Oh, these people are going to think I'm dumb," because I was upset and I didn't really care. (laughs) But I felt that people reacted and interacted all very well and very kindly, not [with] "Oh, you poor thing," but "Y'know, I understand what you're saying, but have you looked at it this way? I'm going to try to help you figure this out. Hi, I'm going to be your psychoanalyst for the day! View this thing this way. Eventually, even if you don't agree with me, you will figure out what you believe about this subject." And that was a good group experience. (interview)
Later, in conversation with Archangel, she adds,
I don't think that people treat intellectual and emotional ideas differently as far as the amount of thought they put into a response. [. . .] It's more meaningful than verbal conversations sometimes are. I think the general intellectual nature of the Forum leads to more productive emotional discussions.
Archangel: If you bring an emotional issue, problem, concern, to a friend, to people face-to-face, our society and probably our essential humanness says that the listener's job is to empathize and to make you feel better. People who try to offer constructive criticism at that point are callous, sort of self-righteous. However, if you bring that problem to the Forum people can be empathetic and offer you consolation and help—
Allea: And suggestions and ideas. [. . .] Constructive criticism.
Archangel: Exactly. And it is not offensive at all. If I present[ed] an emotional problem on the Forum and I got a "Wow, that sucks" from jasper I'd be like, thank you for the big jasperhug, but if I got a "Wow, that sucks" from enkidu I'd be like, "Fuck you, dude. Thanks for paying attention to my issue, I appreciate it!" It's almost a role reversal, than if he'd looked me in the eye and said very sincerely, "Wow. That sucks." (interview)
Although simple sympathy can be given and received on the Forum, as Archangel's comment about jasper demonstrates, both Allea and Archangel appreciate the way the Forum allows them to get helpful comments and criticism on issues that may seem too emotional or sensitive to broach in person.
In this case, both the online format and the RL community seem to contribute to the ability to discuss personally difficult issues. The emotionally distancing effect of the online format here acts to dampen the emotionality of the issue so that it can be approached with a more analytical air. At the same time, however, the discussion never becomes entirely intellectual. This seems to be connected to Allea's comment that "[The Forum is] a safe place to discuss pretty much anything" (interview). jasper comments, similarly:
I remember <cyb> posting about being really melancholy or upset, at the end of that first semester when we got started, and <enkidu> posted and were like 'come over, and we'll cook for you and tell you we love you,' and I was like, 'That's really cool,' because I didn't know you guys in that light at all. It made me realize that you guys were all people I wanted to know better. (interview)
For some members of the Forum, the online environment represents a kind of emotional haven, a place where safety is assumed and emotional as well as intellectual support is expected. A number of interviewees, including Lexicon, Chispa, cyb, enkidu, Archangel, and purple, applied the adjective "intimate" to the Forum, while Corwin stated plainly, "the size, the intimacy, the feeling of knowing everybody personally is the heart of the Forum" (interviews).
For some users, the Forum also provides unique advantages in relationships with other members in addition to simply allowing them more frequent access. For example, Sark reports using online personas as tools to deal with difficult relationships, noting, "For some people, I see them as the same person, with very little distinction if any; for some people I make a conscious effort to separate the person [from their handle]" (interview). Because he can maintain an online, intellectual relationship with a fellow member while the offline relationship with the same person is rocky, Sark is able to establish, as he puts it, "another band of interaction." Until the RL difficulties have been resolved, some connection can be maintained online by deliberately separating real life from online life.
Some users also suggested that the ease with which the Forum can be used to structure conversation also encourages users to be emotionally open. One sub under General Discussion is called "Game of Questions." Users ask questions of all kinds, ranging from the intimate ("Do you believe in Love-at-First-Sight?" and "What do you find sexy?") to the purely silly ("If you had a sentient something-that-isn't-usually-sentient protecting you, what would it be?"), as well as including more mundane opportunities for personal sharing ("What's your resolution for the New Year?"). Some users compared GoQ to party games like "I Never," where participants disclose personal information in a structured, non-judgmental format.
In a constructed environment, you can be more loose with things, because in a constructed environment the normal rules for societal politeness don't apply, because there's these other rules that supercede [them . . .] In Game of Questions, it's a game [. . .] it's not rude to ask the question [. . .] And you can answer the question or not answer the question. So there's none of this, "Oh my God, how can you ask me that, I feel invaded," or something. That's a totally inappropriate reaction to have when someone posts a question publicly.
I think people are a lot more forthcoming when they're typing into a web browser. . . . It feels like you're writing a diary or something, and you don't get the feedback from the other person making odd facial expressions. The human feedback that says, "I think this guy is nuts!"
In this case, both the structure of the game and the online format make personal disclosure easier (as Patrick notes similarly, the online format puts the poster "less emotionally at risk" [interview]). Interestingly, Game of Questions also has a significant advantage over party games in that, while one may feel pressured to participate in a party game, it is rare for even half of the users to answer a single GoQ question, thus taking the pressure off individuals to respond.
Though the online format removes body language, inflection, and tone, for some members it also clearly offers significant advantages in pursuing emotional communication. As Kali noted in her interview, "I think the more skilled a reader and writer you are, and the better you know the people who are reading and writing, the higher-bandwidth writing can be." For some Forum users, long online association, in-person meetings, and a combination of care and skill in writing allow significant amounts of emotional information to flow freely through the Forum's tangled message threads. Though the online format restricts and changes communication in a number of ways, its potential to communicate complexity and subtlety is considerable.
Forum users do widely attribute one negative effect to our online presence: the "every sub turns into machine" syndrome. This lament is frequently heard when a discussion that was thoroughly unrelated to computers suddenly turns to highly-technical back-and-forth between the Forum's "h4x0rs" -- for example, when in the middle of a discussion about Forum invitation policies, a mention of a website Lexicon wanted to create began a debate about the use of mod_perl. Although many interviewees complained that they found machine discussion uninteresting, the "every sub" adage is generally used as a joke. The asynchronous, easily browsable nature of Forum discussions makes this intrusion manageable for readers who aren't interested, and most saw no reason to strongly object to the introduction of an unwanted fiber to their thread. On the other hand, there were complaints about discussions at Forum parties undergoing a similar transformation:
There are some people who will get together and start talking about computers, and you won't be able to drag them off. It alienates everyone else.
- Kali (interview)
I don't think it's a stupid conversation; it's what they're interested in. [. . .] they're just not taking other people into consideration a lot of the time."
- miss bean (interview)
Despite some users' annoyance with the phenomenon of machine-related thread drift, this also demonstrates another benefit of online discussion. The "computer people," all of whom have shown both a willingness and an ability to contribute on non-technical matters as well, can inhabit both worlds: they can debate fine points of programming languages and hardware specs endlessly, and also poke their heads into discussions on biology, religion, and sentient mashed potato plants. In the wide borderlands in between, they can share the insight their work gives them into cyborgs, intellectual property, and other topics of general interest.
Observing that every sub turns into machine begs the question of why the Forum has so many members who want to talk about machines, and the online format was widely cited as a cause. While there are few known cases of an invitee being unable to get computer access or navigate the interface, differing levels of computer use and familiarity with the Internet can influence whether a user will remain. As may queen pointed out, "If you already spend nine hours a day checking your e-mail, it's not that hard . . ." (interview). The Forum's "cabal of geeks" (Kali, interview) often have technology jobs, and those who worked at computers universally used them to check the Forum as well.
It is clear that the effects of the online format on Forum communication are complex, with both advantages and disadvantages. For those most active on the Forum, however, the advantages seem to predominate, allowing those who are introverted or shy to make themselves heard, as well as more quickly and easily develop new friendships. In their interviews, Kali and Sark both admitted problems with meeting new people in person and found the Forum a convenient method of getting to know someone. miss bean added jokingly:
A lot of the time when people get together and talk, people with the loudest voices [. . .] dominate the conversation. Someone may be trying to make a point, or bring up something interesting they heard, and they'll just get mowed over by someone with a loud baritone voice talking about computers, for example.
-miss bean (interview)
An online format provides shy and introverted users with a more comfortable environment in which to open up; and as cherub observed, there is no correlation between RL shyness and online shyness (interview). In this light, it is not surprising that when twelve of the most prolific Forum users tested themselves with the Keirsey-Bates Personality Sorter, eleven were classified as introverts. For introverts, workers in the technology industry, people with an insatiable curiosity about others, and those who want to have thorough, deep, uninterrupted intellectual conversations, the Forum offers something uniquely satisfying.
VI. Forum life and "real life"
Cohn: Would you hang out with the Forum people without the Forum?
Niedrigkeit: No! [. . .] I think we're all the type of people that should know each other, but it's really hard to find each other. [. . .] I think we've created this community where if none of us really found it, a lot of us would be a lot more depressed, or not as happy. I can imagine people out there kind of feeling like they're alone, or hanging out with people who really aren't their type of people. (interview)
The Forum has a real-life component that dissociates it from some of the strangeness of entirely online communities, but adds a richness of its own. The overwhelming majority of interviewees did not feel that participating in the real-life group of friends was necessary to Forum membership, but almost all praised the opportunity to meet new people. Further, the Forum has brought together several clusters of friends that were previously related by only a few "points of contact." miss bean remembers it as a significant change in the Forum's culture when Lexicon began inviting his friends, and both enkidu and Niedrigkeit recounted that their initially separate social groups were brought much closer together by Forum interaction. pupok illustrated the principle (perhaps even better than she intended) when she wrote,
just recently i met <archangel> and <allea>. they joined on after i stopped using the forum, but i know i wouldn't have met them if it were not for the forum, probably. actually, i borrowed <archangel>'s copy of cryptonomicon and i need to return it, if you know how i can get in touch with him . . . (interview)
Asked how the RL group mirrors the Forum, Corwin responded, "if you want to talk about mirrors, you obviously have two facing each other. [. . .] There are feedback loops involved" (interview). jasper noted that in the cross-talk in threads "[t]here used to be a cluster of <Archangel> and Sark and rubidium. But that hasn't happened in a while" (interview). Their Forum subgroup has dissolved into the whole at the same time as the real-life relationships with their new acquaintances have become more comfortable.
The inverse is not nearly as true; the Forum has neither displaced nor dictated real-life relationships. There were some extreme cases like Kali, who said that her real-life and Forum social groups overlapped "[a]lmost completely. I'm pretty shy. And whenever I meet someone I like, I try to get them on the Forum" and cyb, who has many friends off the Forum but judged that many were "transient" and the Forum relationships (many of which predated the Forum) were the "important ones" (interviews). But most members had many non-Forum friends, and none disdained them for not wanting to join. enkidu said that "[a]bout the worst thing that happens is I have to remember what I can refer to in a group of people" (interview).
Overall, then, members agreed that the Forum was a different kind of interaction but not a new and closed society. Lexicon wrote of the Forum-related offline interaction that "The Forum is a subset of our collective friendship, not the other way around. [. . .] All its actual limitations are made up for by other communications means. ICQ. E-mail. Real conversations!!!" but also affirmed the importance of the Forum to real life, in that "I imagine that if I ever had the chance to develop a friendship with someone I met on the forum, it would advance very quickly due to our familiarity from the forum" (interview). As Corwin's remark about mirrors and feedback loops suggests, the online group does not control the offline group, nor vice versa -- their influence on each other is mutual and ongoing.
The Forum's parties and social gatherings are also inclusive. Any party that is advertised on the Forum and open to members can be named an official Forum party, complete with a number, a letter, an icon, and a patron deity. Some have had only a few members in attendance, along with many of the host's personal friends; others were more like the recent "Forum and bean second birthday, mod 2," which consisted mostly of active members, had pictures posted on the Forum, and featured the new party game of "Forum Pictionary."  The (approximately) weekly Forum coffee nights are less likely to involve non-members, though guests and prospective members are welcomed.
VII. Structures and roles
Looking for membership criteria suggests that the Forum will have other features of a society. We asked members if they perceived the Forum as producing any social roles or hierarchies. They indicated that, while arguably elitist with respect to the world at large, the Forum is internally egalitarian, or at least socially mobile. Most mentioned that they took note of regular versus infrequent posters, and considered regular posters more involved in the community. But very few brought up anyone's total number of posts, even though the software makes it prominent, and none used it as a basis for strict hierarchy.
Kali believed that "[t]he more you post and the larger percentage of the group that reads/likes your posts, the more cred you have" (interview), "cred" referring to a public image of credibility and respect. However, she also agreed with cherub that cyb, an infrequent poster, had cred because of his work on the Forum software. As cherub defined cred more generally, "[m]aybe it's the amount of interest you show for [a subject. . . .] Interest and competence combined" (cherub, interview). Even cyb, who declared that he had "God-like powers," framed them in terms of cooperation and influence: he has power because he's the one who's good at writing software, and can refuse to code anything "stupid." But if any of the Forum's other programmers wanted to write a new interface, "I would never stand in the way of the development of the Forum against my wishes, because I'm just one member of the community" (interview).
The lack of a power structure, however, does not preclude a social structure. Respondents agreed that certain Forum members are acknowledged as "experts" in their topics. Corwin has lectured on classical derivations of words often enough that, when the origin of a word is being discussed, it's not unusual to see a post like "[it has a d]ifferent root, I'm sure. Corwin?" The Forum also has agreed-upon sources for knowledge about biology, modern history, art, and intellectual property, in addition to a sub full of computer experts. These authorities are rarely unquestioned, though, and their contribution is seen as a service rather than a position of power.
Allea: That's usually how in evolutionary history that you occupy a niche. You just do something, and that's what you do, and you're good at it [. . .]
Archangel: They are organic constructs. enkidu will tell you about the biochemical basis for whatever is generally at hand, and he does that because that's what he's interested in and that's what he knows and wants to share, not because we decided or it came to be understood that we needed a biochemist to tell us these things, and so enkidu said, "Well, I'll be the biochemist" and sort of took it up. It evolved naturally. That's what I meant by self-created niche. (interview)
motive nuance agreed that diversity was more important than specific functions, picturing:
. . . an n-dimensional space of roles that you need a certain distribution in. [. . .] I think you need a sort of variety of people who come at things in a variety of ways. And if your variety is severely lacking in some respect or other, then I don't know, that's just usually going to be detrimental in the long term. (interview)
Lexicon expressed the tentative nature of even these roles, the impression that "even our knowledge specialists have a lot of insight well outside their fields" (interview). It is worth noting that several members took this latter quality as an identity, seeing themselves as commentators and synthesizers for the various experts. Members had a general perception that the Forum benefited from both the depth of members' knowledge and their cross-pollination, and this explains why so many happily accepted the identity of the specialist who has escaped specialization.
There were also more socially-defined roles identified, such as initiators of threads versus responders. Kali said she helped "push discussion" (interview), sometimes even sending private messages asking others to respond to a post. enkidu saw himself as a mediator, trying to
watch for when arguments are starting to get ugly, when people are talking past each other and don't seem to realize they're doing it, and get things onto the same terms -- make sure people are civil, make sure they realize what they're arguing about and when they're not on the same page. (interview)
These roles were recognized by several of the other interviewees, who also commented frequently on a trio of posters who were known for interchanging numerous messages consisting of short jokes and puns. While some readers enjoyed them more than others, Corwin summarized members' view of them as "social glue, a human version of primate grooming behavior" that helps keep the Forum together (interview).
VIII. Forum discontent
But the relevant point here is that we are [all] adults, or at least Kali and I are, and we don't need any intermediaries. If I want to scream and pull her hair and call her a fat bitch, she's more than capable of kicking me in the nuts and telling me I'm no better than a Skript Kiddie. But in intellectual terms.
While nearly all interviewees praised the civility of Forum discussions, there were several who were frustrated by some of the same qualities. shrike was alone in accusing them of "sucking each other's dicks for no reason, just because they're friends and they don't want to offend each other" (interview), but others joined him in the concern that people on the Forum were excessively similar in beliefs and backgrounds, so that even the greatest disagreements were fairly mild. Without contradicting the people who saw the Forum as diverse in interests, personalities, and areas of study and work, they noted overarching areas of similarity:
I think there is a decidedly liberal bent and an elite bent to everything[. . . .] Like as a group we're generally in agreement that it's a good idea for intelligent people to be in charge and changing the world, and [. . .] to help everyone out so that people can live above subsistence level. And I don't think that we're really being exposed to all the arguments against those ideas.
- Niedrigkeit (interview)
I love posting on it, but I feel like I'm the only vaguely moderate person there.
- Patrick (interview)
The users who described themselves as being outside the Forum's mainstream didn't feel any hostility, but there was widespread curiosity as to how the Forum would handle a member who was truly ideologically opposed to its generally progressive, intellectual values. enkidu though he thought it might be possible, but also feared that the Forum's civility was linked to its homogeneity:
We do have some tendency to remain civil with each other by delineating our areas of agreement, and we do that by creating a straw man of, like, the far right and collaboratively beating it to smithereens. We all know what we're all opposed to, so we can work things out among ourselves without really feeling we're on opposite ends of anything. (interview)
cherub thought that if there were a sufficiently dissenting member, "there would be yelling and screaming and flaming. And then eventually the person who disagreed the most would either stop talking about that kind of stuff or be ostracized or kicked off" (interview).
Two members who live outside of Texas surprised us by bringing up a less obvious form of exclusion based on location. wisconsin witch said that she sometimes had trouble relating to the Forum because most members "can talk about a professor and all know who it is. [They] can say 'did you see that art show? I really liked such and such a piece.' I can't do that, but I feel that it kind of gives me a window into your world" (interview). jasper, who lived in Austin for most of the Forum's history, specifically mentioned one of the locally-oriented subs: "I don't read Event Reviews, not because it's not pertinent but because it always makes me sad" (interview). While no one cited this as a serious problem, let alone an offensive or destructive one, it is one that the Forum will have to deal with as members graduate and begin to scatter geographically.
Criticism over the issues discussed above was generally mild or theoretical, based on imagined future situations. However, our interviews uncovered a different type of tension that was far from benign: recurrent fears of cultural elitism and "intellectualization."
I think that there's just an attitude of "I'm smarter than everyone else on the planet, ha ha ha." [. . .] People feel like they have to say something that seems intelligent, even if maybe it's not. Or even at the expense of the actual thought.
-may queen (interview)
That's one of the things that bugs me. It feels very elitist. sometimes I get on there and it's like "'Dang, this is so snobby!" I do feel it's a little bit intellectually snobby. It has a very "us-versus-them" vibe to it. [. . .] Maybe part of that's being in Texas; I think it's like hyper-Austinization. People in Austin think they're better than the surrounding hickville areas, and sometimes it feels like an exaggeration of that. [. . .] It could use more of a mainstream kind of cultural infusion. But I don't know if the fact that everyone shares kind of a culture might be one of the things that makes it work. You add ten kids from Midland, Texas who spend the whole time going to Sunday School and can't imagine voting for anyone but Pat Buchanan, it may not work out. They might leave.
pupok, a charter member who had almost entirely stopped posting, wrote:
i would think that you could judge the success of a community like the forum on how long and involved the threads get. but i think at the same time, that scares away some people. sometimes i think the conversations these days are sort of above me. and that makes me feel stupid. and that makes me more reluctant to post. (interview)
In general, several users expressed a feeling that Forum discussions inevitably turn from personal sharing to abstract, philosophical discussion. Early Forum users pupok, may queen, and shrike all cited overintellectualizing as one of their reasons for pulling away.
These same users were also more likely than others to mention the sharing of creative work as one of their favorite parts of the Forum, as well as to mourn what they saw as an insufficient focus on that kind of work. Despite her harsher comment above, may queen complimented the Forum as a place to get real feedback on her writing, something that was difficult to obtain otherwise. shrike, however, objected to what he saw as "more talking about than doing" (interview), and expressed unhappiness that, while Forum members seemed very creative to him in real life, they didn't share their original work as often as he'd like. miss bean added that "There are people around I could talk about art with, but it turns into a philosophical discussion rather than [an aesthetic] one" (interview), and that a lack of the type of feedback she was most interested in discouraged her from posting.
However, feelings on intellectualization were never simple. may queen recounted both personal and intellectual conversations she'd enjoyed, and pupok and shrike both thought they might return. miss bean, who complained at length about computer and philosophy topics taking over conversation, said:
I would much rather be at a party with people talking about Kant ['can't']-- Kant ['kahnt'], beauty, etcetera, [. . .] than I would at a party where people were talking about how much they had to drink the other night[. . . .] But if it's just the one group of people talking about that . . . I just get so bored[. . .]! (interview)
Clearly there was no personal antipathy towards the intellectual members, and none coming from them. The members quoted above participated in many Forum discussions, and most posted creative work that a wide variety of readers appreciated. They were by no means considered troublemakers or habitual misfits (with the exception of shrike, discussed below).
Further muddling the issue is the fact that some of the threads considered the most argumentative or overly intellectual were also considered the most valuable by other members. The series of "Spirituality" threads, which contained some of the most heated arguments ever on the Forum as well as extensive discussions over definitions and logic, and even meta-discussions over argument tactics, drove many Forum members to frustration, even if they were generally pleased with the level of intellectualism. Others, however, considered them excellent, and when the major participants in the threads were asked about their feelings the responses were surprisingly positive.
Lexicon: I never really latched onto any other threads like that one. As far as I'm concerned, that's the only IMPORTANT thread we've had. [. . .]
Hoff: so why was the spirituality thread your favorite and "the only real one"?
Lexicon: Lots of others have been Important. But I've been thinking a lot about directed self-improvement. That's possibly the only one that was, to me, directed. Making it IMPORTANT. I really want to get all out all my ideas on religion/philosophy and try and establish a base set of rules, my Premises, that I feel comfortable with. (interview)
although i personally found the discussion frustrating, it's important to remember that there was a social as well as an intellectual purpose in my engaging in it. i'm at a point in my friendship with <lexicon> where it's very important to me (and to him, i think) that he better understand both religion in general and my religious life in particular. the thread served the purpose of helping us to get to a point where we could talk in more depth about the subject by getting the painful process of defining terms out of the way -- something that would have been more difficult, and perhaps doubly painful, in person.
I learned a lot about how other people's religious views differed not only from mine, but from my expectations of theirs. Most notably the idea that objective reality of divinity and such is not important to some of them--whereas I had thought that my lack of belief in it was the big difference between us, I now think their appreciation for the story is a more important defining characteristic.
-Doctor Pipe (e-mail)
Members praised the Forum for being able to dispel arguments based on misunder-standing and cultural mismatch. But there has been no explicit discussion of intellectualization (except in the form of "every sub turns into machine"), and interviews revealed the concern to be disproportionately common among members who had stopped posting, or who post very infrequently. Evidently the problem is both invisible and genuinely divisive. It is clear that most Forum members disagree with the complaints, given their strong approval of the Forum's intellectual tone. Archangel and Allea's praise of the Forum's analytical response to emotional topics makes it clear that not even a division of the Forum into intellectual and personal subs would allow all users to get what they want.
A related question that came up in interviews was whether responding to a post was an intellectual or a personal gesture. may queen felt that a lack of response "usually implies that people think you're a lame-ass," and wisconsin witch worried that that because some of her posts were ignored, others might be finding her annoying (interviews). This is not unsupported by the responses of many members who agreed that "[r]esponses are how you gauge if people think that what you say is interesting" (cyb, interview), and that "interpersonal politics outside of Forum [affect] Forum posting patterns. What people respond to or avoid totally" (Sark, interview).
Problematically, there was also a widespread opinion that responding to everything would be equally bad. On Usenet and old-style BBSs, there is a longstanding tradition of disdain for short posts expressing nothing but agreement. Most Forum members felt that the attitude existed here as well, or as pupok said that "someone who regularly posted 'me too' posts would start to be somewhat ostracized. perhaps taken less seriously in general" (interview). Interestingly, most interviewees said that they had no objection to "me too" posts per se, but that they didn't make them because others would object! Resolving this snarl of perceptions and misperceptions surrounding short posts, while far from vital to the Forum's future, is a project that might lead to considerable improvement in the Forum's level of comfort and sociability.
Most members were aware of the almost all-white racial makeup of the Forum, although they universally denied that there was any specific bias, either explicit or implicit, in their group. Kali recalled that the circle of friends that formed the original Forum were from predominantly white neighborhoods in Austin. Niedrigkeit, more generally, said that "we're who we meet up with" (interview). He and many others identified racial imbalances in higher education, what jasper called "huge reasons that would take forever to get into" (interview) as a cause. Racial homogeneity was seen as undesirable, but not a serious deficiency and not something that had an easy or direct solution. miss bean, the only obviously non-white member of the group, was alone in expressing genuine unhappiness with the racial situation, but was unable to offer specific suggestions for improvement. Most members agreed with Kali, who said "I can't imagine what we would do if we were like, 'we need some black people!' Whatever we did would be incredibly racist" (interview).
Considerably more interest and speculation were devoted to the gender imbalance. The racial makeup of the Forum reflects the racial makeup of the real-life social group of many members. But the real-life group has no shortage of females, whereas only one-third of active Forum members are women. The most common reason suggested was that women were less likely to have had computer training; or, as Sark said in his interview, "[n]ot enough people give their girls Legoes when they're growing up!" While the Forum software requires no technological expertise to use, a general sense of comfort with a computer certainly increases the likelihood that it will be used. Moreover, BBSs in the past did require some skills, and having participated in online groups when younger may influence a potential member's willingness to do so now. Finally, the tech industry, where users find themselves parked in front of tempting Internet connections all day, is predominantly male.
Again, explanations moved responsibility up to the level of overarching social factors. Some felt that the problem was even more general than computer education, that "Women aren't encouraged to think as much as men, so if they're intelligent they probably show it less on average" (cherub, interview), or that "a lot of women may be less likely to share [strong ideas], because of quote-unquote 'not wanting to come off as a bitch,' or maybe not feeling that it's appropriate" (Patrick, interview). Allea speculated that males were more likely to invite other males, and an initial chance imbalance had simply snowballed.
However, some respondents had more Forum-specific theories.
I think that the community of the Forum is more like the community in circles of girl friends. That's something that guys aren't able to have a lot of the time. [. . .] this may not be typical of the guys on the Forum [. . .] but circles of guy friends, it seems like they can't give each other support, they can't honestly congratulate each other on things. It all turns into stupid arm-linked pats on the back. Whereas girl friends really know what's going on in each other's lives and will literally cry on each other's shoulders or give each other great big hugs. And that's the way the whole Forum is. Maybe it's more attractive to guys who are like 'man, I can't find this anywhere else!'
motive nuance and Kali were both emphatic that even if girls didn't need the Forum, the Forum needed girls.
Women have a different perspective, and we can't get it represented.[. . .] Allea sometimes adds that, especially to science discussions. She'll add a note of ethics and reasonableness and a sense of what would be an abomination to discussions. I think it's possible to discuss philosophy and be kind of earthy and emotional about it, and come to very different conclusions because you start with different premises. And I find myself being the sole person willing to argue that way, and it's not even something I feel I'm very good at!
nuance, too, felt that women had a substantially different perspective, potentially adding "[t]hings you won't get from a guy" (interview), as well as making it harder for Machine to take over.
Suggestions for resolving this problem were no better than the ones for race. miss bean said that "[i]f you find someone who's a girl who's interesting, that's great. But if you find a boy and don't invite him because you have too many, that's just silly" (interview), and no one suggested otherwise. Kali suggested that "We need to go to graduate school. [. . .] There we will find women who are interested in talking about intellectual subjects, and enjoy it" (interview). For the most part, though, there was little belief that the Forum was doing anything to keep women out and little belief that it could specifically draw them in.
Several members explicitly disagreed with the idea that intellectual discussion was non-feminine, and some suggested that women would fare better on the Forum than in real-life groups. Niedrigkeit noted that women are frequently interrupted or shouted down in real life, but on the Forum "you don't really have to be an alpha type to be heard" (interview). As noted in section V, however, there was also some belief that the lack of body language made the forum less appealing to women. It does seem that gender has some correlation with forum discontent -- nearly all the interviewees who complained about overintellectualization were female -- though it is worth noting that not all females complained about overintellectualization.
Overall, members seem to agree that the Forum's imbalances are complex and emergent, not deliberate attempts at creating out-groups. In this vein, we can examine the careers of members who explicitly and voluntarily stuck out.
shrike, in addition to giving good shock-value quotes, offers an interesting window through which to examine the problems of homogeneity and intellectualization. Thought not from Austin, he was one of the first invitees, and for months after the Forum's inception he provided its "voice for the working class" (interview). By this he wasn't referring to socialism, but to lowbrow, vulgar, disorganized ranting, a response to the cautious and measured discussion that occurred elsewhere on the Forum.
When you're talking about an emotional issue, then there should be some emotion involved besides agreement. Especially when you're talking about the emotion itself [. . .] Civility is interesting if you're saying something intriguing, but if you're not you might as well be kicking each other in the ass, because at least it's amusing.
Despite his incoherence, his posting off-topic, and his sometimes severely offensive interjections into reasonable arguments, most members accepted and appreciated shrike, and none openly objected to him. The fond memories he evoked in interviewees who remembered him are something of a puzzle, given his apparent contempt for the Forum's norms. However, it was clear that shrike was unlike the juvenile flamers infesting Usenet in that he did care somewhat about the community. He was sometimes enticed to join a conversation, and when he did so his contributions were substantial beneath their vulgarity. He explained the role of shock in potentially resolving disagreements:
Even though everyone was pretty intelligent and open, the level that people were willing to fuck with other people's ideas was pretty minimal. They were willing to say, "Have you considered this," but [sometimes the] only thing that is going to jolt them out of it is to highly, highly insult and offend them [. . .] It's not just enough to point out a difference of opinion. You actually have to show them, emotionally. (interview)
Shrike's most jarring comments were indeed found in arguments where they served to introduce a previously ignored point of view. Although they failed to produce any open changes in conviction, they at least served to spur some discussion and make evident the fact that there were cultures and value systems radically different from those of the Forum.
This accords closely with how others perceived him; Kali described shrike as the "trickster," and Corwin recalled that "he made me very aware of my social protocols and the rules by which I operate" (interview). But although shrike considered himself to be a member of the community, at least in a "asocial, sociopathic, reserved way," he recalled, "I got the feeling that to be fully welcome, I would have had to play along in a fashion that I didn't really want to, so therefore I, like, made myself less welcome" (interview). He left the Forum in its first six months and has not returned since, although he visits Austin on occasion and remains friends with many members.
Some time after shrike left, a new challenge to the Forum's civility arrived. rubidium seemed like shrike's successor in his stubbornness and frank tactlessness. He joined a thread on computer intelligence, and his unyielding and contrarian posts sparked the Forum's most concentrated burst of activity ever. But unlike the spirituality discussion, few readers remember it kindly. There and elsewhere, rubidium was seen as argumentative and disrespectful, ignoring or disingenuously misunderstanding posts that tried to argue with his ideas. Almost all interviewees spontaneously mentioned him in negative terms, although a few still saw him as valuable. cherub and cyb, his main sparring partners in the AI thread, conceptualized him as another Forum trickster, though less entertaining than shrike. They felt that rubidium moved discussion along and provided alternate viewpoints, though cherub allowed that having more than one of him would be a real strain on the Forum.
Consistent with this view, it must be noted that rubidium has a history of making substantive posts as well as argumentative ones, and it is quite possible that he will evolve into a useful -- and currently underpopulated -- forum niche. Lately we have seen two noticeable changes in his posts: they have become both less bellicose and less frequent. He remains contrarian and unusually modernist and conservative, but he also shows an increased willingness to justify his point of view and respond reasonably to others. It seems that the Forum may have partially socialized rubidium (no doubt he would argue that he's socialized us), or that other causes which were responsible for his disruptive behavior have remitted. In any case, his days as a prominent disruption seem to be over. It remains to be seen whether he will become a positive member of the community or another loss to attrition. rubidium was unfortunately not available to give an interview for this study.
Whether responsibility is located at the level of the individual, the Forum, or the general culture, nearly all the Forum's problems seem to tie in to the issue of intellectualization. Yet the responses of members who value intellectualizing and those who object to it show no strong dichotomy. Some interviewees objected to short, conversational messages, agreeing with motive nuance that "Five minutes in public would give me the same amount of conversation, and more productively, than a whole lot of posting short posts on the Forum, so mostly I avoid it" (interview). But all were neutral or positive towards substantive personal posts, stories, and "gossip." Chispa, who is known as the group's expert on American and international politics, said that she also values the informal aspects of the Forum and that it "serves as kind of a journal for me" (interview). miss bean wondered if it was really intellectualization that she objected to:
I wonder what people think when I post about a lot of things that they don't find make sense. Like if they think I'm intellectualizing about illustration or what. [. . . W]hen other people post about things that I'm not interested in or don't make sense to me, I'm bored. . . . So, maybe I'm one of them too. I guess I just intellectualize about different things. (interview)
Patrick, who writes on economics, said that he values the way the Forum lets him ask people questions like "'Hey, I was wondering what was the first time you fell in love with somebody. What was that like?' That would be really awkward in a conversation" (interview). Amusingly, his next example of unworkable RL conversational topics was politics. This offers another indication that the intellectualization conflict doesn't have "sides" or "winners" – although if it deprives the Forum of valued members, it may have losers.
IX. Forum futures
I'd like to strap everyone to their computer 24 hours a day and have negative feedback directly from my keyboard to everyone, so everyone would be posting constantly and eventually everyone would fall sway to my whims. Same thing I like out of every social group. (interview)
-shrike's none-too-worrisome image of a better Forum
Corwin, the classicist, joked during his interview about a mythical golden age of the Forum: "Ah, we were as giants then." He concluded that if there is a golden age, it is now. And, though they note some tensions and weaknesses, most members seem to agree. The Forum variously offers entertainment, intellectual stimulation, and emotional connection, and is loved for it. But every age must come to an end, and the Forum is becoming aware of upcoming changes that could lead to a lean times or good ones, to death or to transformation.
For over a year, the Forum has been waiting for Momoko. cyb, the programmer who set up the current software, is working on "an architecture for making it so that we can all be together and be working on stuff, just like MUDs used to be where you were all together and working on stuff, even though you were doing different stuff" (interview). One early Momoko-based application will be a replacement for the buggy, uncustomizable WWWThreads software. There is great enthusiasm about Momoko on the Forum, and several discussions have been dedicated to feature requests and progress reports. In interviews, however, most saw it as a bonus and not a necessity. As motive nuance said, software is "just the medium and not the message. The existence of the software is vital, but it's not the Forum itself" (interview).
cyb, however, believes that his work will help ensure the Forum's survival. New members will join more frequently if the Forum is easy to access, and with Momoko, he boasts, it will be accessible by e-mail, text browsers, palm devices, wireless phones, and refrigerators (interview). Kali, a longtime user of MUDs, was enthusiastic because "[n]ew software, and the ability to add features, really gives virtual spaces a sense of life. I think it will add a great deal to the Forum, for us to be able to change the interface and customize it into what we, as a group, feel we specifically need and want" (interview). It seems likely that both perspectives are right: new software will not fundamentally change the Forum, but it will strengthen ties, improve access, and help the Forum grow.
Whether there will be anyone to use the software is a grimmer question. Most Forum members are the same age. This means that most of us now have, or nearly have, college degrees and are looking towards the world outside of Austin. Will the place of intellectual discussions, shared lives, and joyous parties survive, once the members work eight hours a day and live hundreds of miles apart?
lepage felt that even now, only a small core group is keeping the Forum alive: "I believe that the day to day relaying of information that I see [. . . is] useful in developing closeness, etc. But, because only a couple of people do this I see it as an imbalance and thus not really accomplishing much in the development of community" (interview). Those who didn't question the Forum's status as a community now still saw it threatened in the future. may queen and Patrick articulated the age-old fear of young people: "Ten years down the line, somebody's having their kid for the first time, the Forum is gonna fall way down in terms of how important it is" (Patrick, interview). Generally, there was concern about whether members would continue to give the Forum time when faced with real-life responsibilities and more convenient relationships. Sark wrote,
I now have to worry about rent, budgets [. . .], paying bills on time, keeping my job, having health insurance, maintaining my car, and the list will only get longer and more complicated as time goes on. [. . .] But. it just means you have to fight harder. We have the potential to not get caught up in the machine (unlike our threads here, which always seem entangled in Machine . . .), and maybe to change it.
Most members agreed, believing that we can keep the Forum alive, as a place of shared work if not as a full-time community:
Archangel: I think that, at the very least, the Forum will serve as a built-in source of interdisciplinary rigor. I think that the people on the Forum have a lot of potential intellectually to—
Allea: Change the world! (interview)
The fully mythical form of this story was narrated by Doctor Pipe, who is an aspiring science fiction writer and the Forum's fearless futurist:
[It will be] the spawning ground of tomorrow's intelligentsia. [. . . I]f somebody mentions the Forum, all the people who are in the know will be like, "Oh, the Forum! You're one of those? You know, those Forum people who are involved with the lunar supercollider that just got built and that book that came out and, like, have been working on studying sunspots and all that crap? (interview)
Lexicon joined him, with "this vague notion that we can do Even More. Like religion is supposed to do, but without all the fucking dogma" (interview). But others offered a vision that is more intact, if less ambitious:
All the little banter-y, silly things might kind of ebb away as people don't see each other from day to day. But then, I don't know. Because that would be their venue to do that. With the Forum people could talk every day, whereas in the past they would have talked every week.
- jasper (interview)
The Forum is a group of people that are related enough to my group of friends that I hang out with them a lot online in this regular place, and that's what it is, that place, that group. Twenty years from now I'll still have friends and they'll still be online.
- cherub (interview)
cherub's comment, while hopeful on one level, also points out the fact that not every Forum user sees the Forum as having a dramatic future, or even as having a future at all separate from the specific individuals that make it up. For those users that saw the Forum as being more purely social (especially those who pined for more purely "fun" discussions), the Forum's future lay less with maintaining a strong group identity than it did with the efforts of individuals to keep personal relationships active.
The question of how the Forum would change leads naturally to the question of how we would change, and in our interviews we asked people if they thought the Forum would affect their "life's work." There have already been a few significant effects: Archangel and cherub, who met through the Forum, have begun producing electronic music together. Doctor Pipe has solicited editorial and scientific advice for his novel, A Dirge for the Sinking City, for which he is currently seeking publication. pupok and Patrick credited Forum discussion with helping direct their academic work:
[My undergraduate] thesis is about free trade and the environment, and that kind of seed was planted there. [. . .] I didn't know if I could write something in that [field], and so when I was writing in one of these threads, when I had this huge discussion about trade and the environment, I was like, "Yeah! I can definitely discuss this!" and not only that but I have opinions about this, so I can really get into it.
i think my interactions with <miss bean> about art schools at least influenced a lot of my decisions regarding the trajectory of my education. and i think i wouldn't have had those conversations with her if there had not been a forum.
Many members thought that the Forum's influence would grow as we begin to change from students to professionals, and some predicted that both the camaraderie and interdisciplinary intelligence of the Forum would be important to them in their future vocations. miss bean and jasper, both aspiring illustrators, said they appreciated the ability to get helpful, unintimidating feedback (although miss bean sadly noted the lack of technical knowledge in art). Corwin added that "having people with diverse interests makes up for not being able to keep up in your own field, let alone anybody else's" (interview). Kali talked about a close, continued intertwining of our intellectual lives, as did Niedrigkeit:
There's <Doctor Pipe>, and he's writing novels[. . . . We have] <Lexicon> and <Archangel> who want to get all rich. Then behind a lot of them we have people like [<enkidu>] and me and <motive nuance> who are building up this more theoretical, more science-y type stuff, where it would be kind of weird for us to directly communicate with the public [. . .] but if everyone's affecting each other's ideas, it will get out somehow. (interview)
Most generally, enkidu suggested that the Forum was for "[k]eeping each other alert":
Hey, there's other stuff out there than what you're doing. There are other smart people outside your discipline. People care what's going on. You should care too. Stay awake. (interview)
Almost all members agreed on how to continue the Forum's growth: through friendship. We asked how they would feel if the Forum were opened to the public, and the response was unexpected only in its vehemence.
Letting everybody in would certainly kill the community [. . . . Y]ou're bound to get some evil people and all they want to do is ruin your day, because people are like that sometimes. Like they have a grudge against somebody, or they just want to disrupt things, or they're really juvenile – someone says something mean or doesn't respond to their post, and they're all like, "Blahblahblah I hate you!!!" and they Denial of Service the machine and all that kind of thing. . . . So you have to have some kind of entrance policy, to keep the community small and so that everybody knows each other. But if you make it seem like a big deal to get on, then no one will ever come because people are just intimidated by that kind of thing. They want to be welcomed or accepted, or else they won't just come at all. [. . .] So I guess the trick is making it elitist while seeming not elitist. That's the trick to entrance policies. Only certain people can come in, but we'll make everyone feel like they can come in.
References to the vulgarity and flaming that choke public discussion groups like Usenet and Slashdot were frequent, but even people who did not imagine some kind of eschaton said that a completely open Forum "would feel a lot less like a home, and a lot more like a home away from home. A lot more like a public space" (motive nuance, interview). Rather, members believed that we simply needed to look for intelligent, open-minded people wherever we could find them, and to slowly bring them into the culture of the Forum.
We are forced to question, though, how much longer that will even be possible. Our study of the Forum has revealed neither a virtual community that meets in real life, nor a conventional community that has a message board. The Forum exists in both worlds, and the interactions in each are closely entwined with those in the other. We have discussed the ways in which a real-life meeting in the past can make a written message more intimate and understandable. But problems may arise when large groups of members have never had the opportunity to meet one another, and the Forum may have to change. It could become larger and less familiar, a place for academics to collaborate and nothing more. Or it could shrink, until it became an ongoing conversation between a few friends who would have wanted to keep in touch in any case. But the possibility remains that we will be able to retain what we have, sustaining personal, intellectual, and creative relationships through shared trust, high-quality conversation, and the occasional party. As members scatter to pursue their individual hopes and dreams, the future of the Forum is still undetermined.
In the past months, the Forum has merged itself not only with our lives, which happened long ago, but with our work as well. Our close study of the community and its people has had two effects. One of them we expected; the other surprised us both.
The surprising conclusion was that the Forum is neither mature nor stable. The lingering discontent over intellectualization, and its possibly irreconcilable clash with other members' need for long and deep discussions, was until now nearly silent. The possibility that the Forum could shatter, or waste away, when the ties of locality are broken was also brought into disconcertingly sharp focus.
This view has a reassuring side, in that instability and immaturity mean that we are in no danger of becoming stagnant. We were also surprised by the dedication and the love that our friends expressed as we interviewed them. The Forum has changed lives, and if we can manage to keep it alive it will continue to do so. Its death never seemed so close, but neither did its potential to foster close relationships, bridge gaps of time and space, and engage problems public and private. If nothing else, our study has reminded us how grateful we should be.
Investigating our own community, an idea we were initially uncertain about, has paid off in other ways as well. Beginning with the idea of simply explaining ourselves to outsiders, we were instead constantly forced to explain ourselves to ourselves. We found ourselves in the role of the anthropologist who works for the community, as well as on it. Forum members will be invited to read our work, and we hope it will spark discussions about our strengths, our weaknesses, and the stories we can tell about our future – threads that will help show the path through the labyrinth ahead of us.
The second conclusion is one that we already knew, but which was confirmed more strongly than we ever hoped: the Forum is not just something we enjoy, it’s something we create. Members who post their ideas come away with them larger and more complex; those who post their problems leave counseled and consoled. For two years now, none of us has had to be completely alone. The forum will not survive forever, and even now it's not a major social group to all of its members. But for us, and other devoted users, it is a very real community.
Does this make us cyborg? Certainly we owe the Forum’s existence to the computer, and our ability to live closely with it. But the advice, the kindness, the stupid rugby jokes, do not come from computers. They come from the humans on the other end, with whom we are also joined. Our interviewees occasionally joked about telepathy and hive-minds, but the model is genuinely useful. The Forum can increase the strength and the functional intelligence of any member to the level of the entire community. We stretch our minds, both to make them grow and to bring them closer together. We create a space where they almost touch, where the spark of intelligence can leave one brain, travel briefly through the world, and enter another -- a cybernetic synapse.
We would like to thank:
for teaching us about cyborgs
and the members of the Forum
for writing our paper.
Camfield, Jon. 1998. Talk, Text, and Type: Conversation on the Internet. Unpublished manuscript, 1999. (available in PDF upon request).
Downey, Gary Lee. 1995. The Machine in Me: An anthropologist sits among computer engineers. New York: Routledge.
Hakken, David. 1999. Cyborgs@Cyberspace? An Ethnographer Looks to the Future. New York: Routledge.
Healy, Dave. 1997. “Cyberspace and place: The internet as the middle landscape on the electronic frontier.” In Internet Culture. Porter, David ed.
Rezabek, Heath Michael. “Autologue: Interdisciplinary dialogue within the global network environments." Online (HTML). <http://www.leri.org/institute/context/autologue.html> NoTAM, November 28, 1998.
Rheingold, Howard. 2000. The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier. Revised Edition. Boston: MIT press.
Turkle, Sherry. 1995. Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet. New York: Touchstone.
 For privacy reasons, and in keeping with its casual name amongst its participants, we will refer to this community as simply "The Forum."
 This phrase, while evocative, is somewhat of a misstatement. What Rheingold seems to mean is that Usenet requires no central machine or specific network for distribution.
 Or, to use the more standard Internet jargon, "real-life" (RL).
 Currently just over two years old.
 From an e-mail by one of the authors (Christine Hoff), dated March 20, 1999 (personal communication: "party invitation!").
 One of the authors, Christine Hoff.
 One of the authors, Michael Cohn.
 See, for example, miss bean: "***s*c*r*e*a*m***," 4/15/1999 and pupok: "proportionses" 4/10/1999, both on Visual Arts.
 Chispa: Philosophy, "question about relating," 02/05/01.
 Corwin: Earth, "Evolutionary analogies," 08/01/00.
 Kali: Future Studies, "storying corporate futures," 04/18/01.
 Lexicon: Game of Questions, "the bomb," 02/20/01.
 pupok: Brain, "Electra," 04/15/99.
 lepage: philosophy, "Science and pagans," 08/21/00.
 In his interview, Doctor Pipe extends this metaphor nicely by remarking that threads are often "buried" under backlog, and refers repeatedly to "long-lived" (recurring) discussions.
 Literature, "haiku: stolen from powell's newsletter," 08/09/2000.
 Symbols, "voting systems," 11/21/2000.
 Brain, 04/14/2001
 Life, "doh!" 07/07/1999
 "levels of discourse," Philosophy and Religion, 07/30/1999.
 Lexicon: "Love-at-first-sight," Game of Questions, 6/21/1999; Patrick: "What's Sexy?" Game of Questions, 12/5/2000.
 Lexicon: "If you had a sentient something-that-isn't-usually-sentient protecting you, what would it be?" Game of Questions, 3/28/2001.
 Psychospunk: "Classic Question about New Year," Game of Questions, 12/27/2000.
 Read "hackers." The origins of the term are complex, and in some environments this spelling is an insult. Essentially, the word is applied by programmers to highly competent, creative "computer people" and not, as the media does, to malicious computer criminals.
 Lexicon: "Frequently Axed Question," Feedback, 05/07/2001
 With a few notable exceptions. Some users regard the labels on message subs as meaning that discussions should be restricted to the subject matter, and will complain if a thread on one of their favorite subs drifts too far off-topic.
 All twelve tested as intuitive (N) rather than sensing (S), unsurprisingly indicating a preference for theoretical knowledge over practice. The other two axes were mixed, with slightly more respondents testing as thinking (T) over feeling (F) and perceiving (P) over judging (J).
 Words ranged in difficulty from "miss bean" to "breaking down dichotomies."
 Sark: "Procrastinating by posting", Life, the Universe, and Everything, 04/12/01.
 "I don't wanna grope," Future Studies, 05/01/01
 Contrary to appearances, this is not the name of their band.