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A Review Of Article 29 "A Rape In Cyberspace"


    Julian Dibbell’s article entitled “A Rape in Cyberspace; or How an Evil Clown, a Haitian Trickster Spirit, Two Wizards, and a Cast of Dozens Turned a Database into a Society” details an incident that was pivotal in LambdaMOO’s transformation from a simple chat site into a cohesive virtual community.  A number of fundamental questions are brought up throughout the article as Dibbell describes the incident, the ensuing debate and resulting actions. Where does the line between physical and mental end and begin?  What happens when the distinction of what “real” violence is, becomes blurred?  What does being a part of a community mean? When does being a community elevate into something that encompasses more than just physical interactions?  Throughout this paper, I shall be exploring some of these questions through comparison with my own experiences and other examples in the hopes of discovering why this is one of the most sited article concerning the nature of cyber-communities at this time.

     One of the most terrifying, perhaps, life-altering experiences that anyone can ever have is that of being raped; to be taken against one’s own will for the sexual gratification of another and have no means to stop it or fight back.  It is well known and accepted that rape is an expression of not only sexual desires, but also more importantly about power over another’s body and mind.  While there is no doubt that what Mr. Bungle did, was not a rape in the physical sense, things become blurred on an emotional and mental level because the people involved and watching did have strong emotional reactions.  He managed to tap into that realm of the metaphysical where the distinction between body and mind become blurred.  Although no one claimed that a rape had been committed in the physical world, the emotional impact that the event had was very real.  This sentiment was abundantly made clear by the reactions and responses of the members of LambdaMOO.

    The citizens of LambdaMOO were outraged and did what most people do when there is a crime committed in their community – they went looking for revenge.  This posed a number of problems as the moderators of the site were trying to move away from unilateral sanctions in the hopes of forcing the community to take responsibility for itself and not continue being dependant on the wizards as parent figures chastising unruly youngsters.  It soon became apparent that the debate going on about Mr. Bungles’ actions was not getting very far and the only thing being accomplished was that more and more people were becoming upset.  There were calls for everything from dismemberment to his removal from the community in it’s entirety, which for the most part means a banning of the name and possibly the ISP from the site permanently.  This type of banning effectively kills the name, and if the ISP is banned as well, then it blocks the user from getting into the site under any handle.

    This article brings up some interesting ideas about what constitutes a community.  Is it a group of people in close physical proximity that you do not socialize with or barely speak to, or is it a meeting or like-minded individuals with similar motivations and desires as your own?  In a world of automated cashiers, banking, gas pumps, and vending machines, it is very possible to go throughout the day without coming into contact with another human being.  This has led to widespread feelings of isolation through out the populace. Isolation, as well documented by various studies, is a contributing factor to the sharp increase in suicides as well as a prime group for the growth of apathy.  One of the most vivid examples of this is that of a true event where a woman was slowly murdered in broad daylight on a busy street and the people walking there did not do a thing to help but instead pretended that neither she or her attacker real.  Humans are social creatures and the advantages of the electronic age, while fulfilling our need to have information and material goods as close to instantly as possible has been shown to have a correlation with the dehumanization and breakdown of traditional communities.

    This is where the virtual community has come to the forefront in present times.  The virtual realm is, for many, their last bastion of belonging.  One has only to look at the number of chat rooms that have been created in the last five years to conclude that there is a need for interaction with other people that is not being filled by the physical world.

    Perhaps one of the most interesting issues to be brought to light by this article is how strongly the members of a virtual community with react when they feel that a crime has been committed against one of their own.  The idea of all members of a community having a say as to whether to “murder or banish” a party that has offended seems not only impractical but also somewhat ludicrous in the physical world.  Justice would never be done, for the same reason that the woman who was murdered on the street wasn’t helped.

    I have had personal experience in several of my chats where there have been a few members who have not only used voodoo doll type of attack but also hacking to retrieve personal information about their victims and take their harassment to the level of cyber-stalking.  For the elders, it is little more than an annoyance.  We have no problem separating our characters from ourselves and when the need arises, to use the ignore tab or in extreme cases to use the boot/ban tabs or call someone who has that power in that room.  However, to a fresh-faced newbie who is still getting their bearings, it can be a terrifying experience.  This is not to say that attacks are not taken seriously in my other chats, because they are. There is an understanding however that while attacks on a person’s character, while it will still bring retribution in a role-play sense is tolerated, personal real-time harassment is grounds for removal permanently from the site – no questions asked and no exceptions.  This is done for the well being and security of our members.

    Like the members of LambdaMOO, we are very protective of the place we have created for ourselves and will not allow it to be vandalized or terrorized by those that would see it shredded or twisted for their own gain.  It is our sanctuary, our haven from the cruelties of the physical world.  It is a world where we can dream big, be silly or weak if we need to be.  It is where we make friends and enemies, lovers and rivals.  Most importantly however, it is ours – and we will fight if necessary to keep it that way.
Dibbell, Julian "A Rape in Cyberspace; or How an Evil Clown, a Haitian Trickster Spirit, Two Wizards, and a Cast of Dozens Turned a Database into a Society" In High Noon on the Electronic Frontier: Conceptual Issues in Cyberspace. ed. Peter Ludlow.  Massachusetts Institute of Technology. United States of America. 1999.  375-395

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