CYBERSOCIETIES - VIRTUAL REALITY WITH A SHELF-LIFE?
Internet Chat-Sites, Message Forums and MUDs (Multi-User Domains) all generate cybersocieties, each with its own members, its own common ground and its own codes of practice. They're fun, they're easy, and above all they're popular. Who wouldn't want to make friends with new people all around the world? But a growing occurrence within cybersocieties is that they don't last forever - cybersocieties have a shelf-life.
The aims of the paper are to examine and analyse the development and culture of on-line society, and ultimately its dissolution. The widening amount of public access to the Internet, coupled with the rising number of Multi-User Domains (MUDs) and the more common Chat sites, has in the author's opinion led to a new kind of on-line society. These societies and cultures are constantly developing throughout cyberspace. The purpose of this paper is to illustrate how and why they have become so widespread, what social conventions have evolved within them, how new methods of communication and language form within each society, and why they fizzle out and die.
Sherry Turkle has previously done work on the development and utilisation of MUDs, but her analysis only reaches a certain date. Since her work, the Internet and cyberspace have become more widespread. MUDs were targeted towards the more academic or computer literate user, whereas today's Chat Sites are accessible to anyone with access to a computer and a modem. They're simple to use, thereby opening up cyberspace to all. Has the sheer number of new chatters lessened the cultural value of the cybersociety, or was it thus fated from the start?
The author wishes to acknowledge the following people for their invaluable help and advice in the completion of this paper:
Dr David Bell
Dr Melissa Lee Price
Dr Barry Taylor
and all the chatters, users and roleplayers from the Chatalot, Chathouse and Into The Storm websites who gave up their time to fill in questionnaires and be interviewed.
"At one level, the computer is a tool. It helps us to write, keep track of our accounts, and communicate with others. Beyond this, the computer offers us both new models of mind and a new medium on which to project our ideas and fantasies. More recently, the computer has become even more than tool and mirror: We are able to step through the looking glass. We are learning to live in virtual worlds. We may find ourselves alone as we navigate virtual oceans, unravel virtual mysteries, and engineer virtual skyscrapers. But increasingly, when we step through the looking glass, other people are there as well." - Sherry Turkle, Academic, 1995
"Its another environment. Its very interesting to me the way that a computer without the internet feels like a blind, lame thing, and as soon as you have the internet it opens up to being a really alive, vibrant, connective thing. Its as though the computer were waiting for the internet all along, the way silent movies had been waiting for sound and colour." - David Cronenberg, Film Director, 1999
"Hypothesizing about the social effects of new media is tantalizing, fun, and dangerous - dangerous because the forecast, like those of all new technologies, is sure to be wrong." - John V. Pavlik, Academic, 1996
With computer technology having an increasing impact upon all aspects of contemporary living, from entertainment and shopping to education and business, there has been a distinctive raise of academic interest in the field of computerised communications and their effects upon society. Various aspects of this field have been examined and analysed; however the area with which this essay is primarily concerned is that of cyberspace, the non-tangible area within which all computer interaction is deemed to take place. In particular, this essay is concerned with the notion of cybersocieties, groups of people who bond together in cyberspace to create self-contained communities or societies, from a superficial level such as forming a variant of a fan club, right through to those whose fantasy role-playing leads them to create entire on-line worlds for their societies to inhabit, interact and function within.
These cybersocieties can form in a variety of places and in a wide range of contexts. They can be formed by people who use the same message board, news service, bulletin board, information forum, role-play site, or chat site. Some societies declare themselves as such, with exclusive membership and websites devoted to their history and their members, whilst others exist in a more unspoken manner, where chat site users choose to band together on a regular basis at the same cyberspace location to discuss matters of common interest and to socially interact through the medium of cyberspace. This essay is intended to examine various aspects and concepts of cybersocieties, such as why and how they are created, the demographic of the people who belong to them, the structures, conventions, language and codes of practice that they generate, and their relative shelf-lives. The principle theory which this essay seeks to propose is that although cybersocieties are highly popular with their users and members, their existence as individually flourishing societies is short-lived without regular input from some form of eternal stimulae, and that even though contemporary society is entering into the technological age where many of the facets of modern day social and commercial interaction are becoming computerised, the cybersociety will never be sufficient to replace the requirements of actual society within the needs of the individual.
The research for this essay was carried out through the analysis of a variety of published texts relating to various facets of cyberspace, and by the practical gathering of information and opinions from various on-line sources, as well as from the websites themselves. An invaluable source of information is the user base, the chatters and cybersociety members themselves - the very people who use the websites, the chat sites, the message forums and the bulletin boards. A questionnaire was sent out to 70 users from a sample selection of websites (a copy of this questionnaire can be found in Appendix A), to which 24 users submitted replies. Several chat users and website administrative staff were also interviewed through the medium (1).
The author also spent a considerable amount of time in cyberspace, experiencing first-hand the processes and events which go into the construction and evolution of cybersocieties in a variety of forms, and the findings of this on-line time constitute the main body of this paper. The notions, concepts and ideas expressed by the author are those formulated through experience of the events in cyberspace, and are illustrated where applicable.
For the purposes of comparison, this paper will utilise three main websites which, through their structure and purposes, offer examples of some of the different societies and communities currently in existence online: Chathouse (2), Chatalot (3), and Into The Storm (4). Each offers a differing illustration of cybersocieties, whether it be differing by structure, by their intended audience, or by the level of involvement on the part of its constituent members and general users. These sites will be referred to in more detail throughout this essay.
The Culture of Cyberspace
"cyberspace: The notional environment within which electronic communication occurs, esp. when represented as the inside of a computer system; space perceived as such by an observer but generated by a computer system and having no real existence; the space of virtual reality." Oxford Interactive Encyclopedia (5)
The concept of cyberspace is a relatively new one. The creation of the computer network was developed only as recently as the late 1970s with the U.S.Defense Departments ARPAnet system (6), and the World Wide Web only came into existence in its present form with the work of Tim Berners-Lee in the early 1990s (7), but even in that short time the field has been examined within such contexts as communication (Tannenbaum 1998), control and administration (Beniger 1996), and even fantasy role-play gaming (Turkle 1995, McClellan 1999). Cyberspace has both its supporters and detractors, with perceptions of cyberspace (and those who frequent it) formulated in both the academic and public arenas covering a diverse range of opinions. Traditional schools of thought on the subject of interpersonal communication are now being challenged with the evolution of greater technological capabilities, as the ramifications of cyberspace and its capacity for communication and information exchange are felt throughout academia. Tannenbaum (1998) surmises thus:
"The channels through which interpersonal communication can occur are numerous, and affect the degree of interpersonalness that can be achieved. Some researchers believe that for interpersonal communication to occur, the communicators must be face to face, where each can employ all of the senses (hearing, tasting, touching, seeing, smelling), and access and respond to feedback instantaneously With the advent of new communications technologies, researchers are beginning to study interpersonal communication that occurs through channels other than face to face. For example, according to some definitions, interpersonal communication can occur through the telephone, e-mail, desktop video, and video conferences." (8)
The computer is no longer a mere machine that was built for word processing and databasing, it is now a medium of global communication. Instantaneous information exchange is now possible at the push of a button, yet there is much more to the computers global capacity than data transfer. Echoing the notions of interpersonality suggested by Tannenbaum, Beniger (1996) writes of the potential for cyberspace going beyond the boundaries of the merely technological:
" cyberspace consists not only of material things like people and their artifacts (computers, modems, telephone lines, etc.); it also has two major nonmaterial components: relationships among individuals, and the cybercultural contents of their heads - the sense of belonging to cyberspace, and of what that might mean. Taken together, these three components - material, relational, and cognitive - constitute not only cyberspace itself, but what is often called culture more generally." (9)
Beniger is using the component elements of cyberspace to illustrate how their coming together can be compared to the generating of culture, to show how the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. He is also intoning as to the human involvement, as to how the culture of cyberspace is generated not by the technology but by the people who utilise it and shape it, who explore its possibilities and push back the boundaries of its capabilities. The implication is not that the culture of cyberspace is a result of the technological advances of our time, but of the personal and social interaction of the mediums users through the utilisation of the technology.
The personality of cyberspace (authors term) is created through the bringing together and the blending of the personalities and personas of those who frequent it, not through the technological devices which facilitate it. The technology cannot exist as a cultural phenomenon in itself, it requires the input of those who utilise it. Television culture is seen as a predominantly one-way process, with the viewers being merely receivers of information and entertainment through a domestic medium, but the culture of cyberspace is a two-way, wholly interactive medium. True, it can be used as a one-way system, as a receptacle for information, but cyberspace has the capacity and ability to be a two-way system, with the user no longer being a mere casual participant in the information exchange.
Not everyone, however, shares Benigers non-materialistic views on the scope for cultural impact by the internet. The oppositional viewpoint can be illustrated by the opinions of Postman (1996) on the concept of the web user:
"Finding themselves short on real friendships, perhaps even afraid to make them, they seek a solution in simulated friendships, pathetically surfing the net to locate a kindred spirit, who like spirits everywhere will have no material existence." (10)
Postman is decrying the replacement of social interaction with computerised interaction, suggesting that nothing will replace face-to-face human contact as a means of developing forms of interpersonal communication. The individualistic nature of the computer user, sitting solo at a computer terminal, can be seen as undesirable by the detractors of cybersociety: it can be seen as a step in the wrong direction. After all, how can there be social interaction when a person is alone? Postman is taking a materialistic position, arguing that the non-tangibility of cyberspace is a limitation, and that social interaction and social culture can only be attained through a physical presence; interaction of people is more beneficial to cultural exchange than the interaction of computer bytes.
The views of both Beniger and Postman are valid, both express cogent ideas (although in Postmans case, rather generalised and seemingly naive) and although they assume a contrary stance, both illustrate the notion that the Web has the capacity to enable people to communicate with other computer users all over the world in a unique manner. The development of computerised communication, along with the increasing level of availability of the requisite technology, has opened up the boundaries of possibility for the computer user. The ability to communicate with people from all over the world in an easy, open and comparatively inexpensive manner is one of the factors which draws people to the Internet, and the growing number of Internet users leads to increases in the volume of subject material available through the Web. The Internet is by definition an interactive medium: it allows the user to take from it and put into it as much or as little as they like - it is a medium that everyone can be a part of, rather than merely a party to (as with traditional mediums of mass communication such as television or radio). It gives the user a voice with which to be heard, should they wish to be. Today, the proliferation of the technology and the dissemination of the capability to create Web material means that anybody can set up a homepage (11) of their own, through using websites such as Geocities (12) or Angelfire (13), and through this they can have an on-line presence - the user of the medium is now no longer a casual receiver of information, they can now broadcast for themselves through cyberspace, where their messages can be accessed by any other user.
Today an estimated 150 million people world-wide utilise Tim Berners-Lees project, the World Wide Web (14). A lot of Web traffic is business-related: a high percentage of companies have a Web presence of some form or other. Billions of pounds worth of business can be conducted at the push of a button, such is the scope for utilisation of the system. Face to face business meetings are no longer essential for the conduct of commerce - video conferencing is now the easiest way to bring together people from all over the planet in a live, real-time face-to-face conference, without any of them having to go through the inconvenience of leaving their offices. However, it is not just businesses that can benefit. The domestic user, the user for pleasure, can derive a great deal from the Internet. The Web is the easiest place to find information on any subject you desire:
"Rather like asking a librarian to fetch all the books on a subject, a web user can type in a subject, and almost immediately the web will deliver a list of hundreds of pages of information relating to it." (15)
The Web offers access to a multitude of sites based on an immeasurable number of topics, all accessible through any home computer and a phone connection. All that a user needs to do is go to a Search Engine website, type in the keywords of the subject they wish to look up, and press the button marked Search. Everything the user could want, need or desire is out there in cyberspace, from news and current affairs to sports results and weather reports, from film reviews and video playback to gardening tips and astronomy.
As with most new media or communications technology, the Internet and the World Wide Web have had a profound impact upon the culture of the world. The technical jargon of websites, surfing and e-mail have now entered into common parlance, the same as the term video is now a household standard reference to a video cassette recorder. What makes it so appealing is its simple nature - previously, the home computer was an elite piece of electronic gadgetry, owned by the few. However, with the rise of computer games in the 80s, the home computer became more widespread, the technology became more affordable and was more widely disseminated. With the introduction of the whole concept of the World Wide Web, home computing has evolved even further. With it comes its own culture, the computer culture, technoculture, the culture of cyberspace.
However, this Brave New World of computerised access to the entire planet is not without its negative elements. The comparisons between the advent of the Web and the advent of any other media device or system are inevitable - with the widespread acceptance of the technology into the homes of the masses comes the cultivation of disparagement and even fear. The advent of home video in the late 1970s gave rise to the era of the Video Nasty in the early eighties, through the intervention of opportunists who spotted a new market to generate money from. This was challenged in the UK by the moralistic media and public opinion campaigns of Mary Whitehouse, the Festival of Light, and the National Viewers and Listeners Association, which culminated in the passing of the Video Recordings Act of 1984, a piece of legislation designed to introduce some level of control over a new media which was rapidly on the increase. Similar fears are now being expressed over the growth of the web, illustrated here by the Daily Mails Leo McKinstry (1999):
"The Internet was meant to be the supreme invention of our age, a revolutionary development that would usher in a new era of global understanding. With its apparently limitless capacity for spreading information, supporters claimed it would be the engine for ever greater democracy and prosperity across the world. Far from being of universal benefit to humanity, it has, in reality, served as a haven for a growing army of fanatics, perverts and crooks who use its facilities for their own deranged ends." (16)
This opinion, if a little melodramatic, does illustrate concerns over the freedom of the Internet. The chief concern seems to be over the impracticality of legislation to control the technology - the nature of the Web, being both intangible and international, makes any attempt at legislation a futile exercise. This apparent loophole has indeed made the Internet a safe haven for opportunists and fanatics - as with the advent of video, one of the chief areas of concern is pornography. The lack of legislation and the lack of tangibility has meant that the Internet has been flooded with pornography from a variety of sources, ready to cater for an apparently high demand - it has been estimated that as many as 10% of Internet users spend more than 11 hours per week seeking out adult material on the Web (17). However, the intangibility of this cyberspace content and the resultant ineffectiveness of any proposed legislation has led to a possible solution from within - the main computer development companies such as Microsoft and Apple Macintosh have responded to these concerns by developing screening programs and with websites such as Cyberpatrol (18) and Net Nanny (19) where downloadable software can be obtained to block out the potential for access to any undesirable sites, thereby limiting the chances of adult content being located (intentionally or otherwise) by those for whom it would be unsuitable, i.e. children.
However, even though the Web does have this darker side to it, the dark side is not the main attraction. As mentioned previously, one of the main attractive points is the notion that anybody can access the rest of the world through their computer screens, the notion that they can communicate and exchange messages and ideas with anybody else on-line anywhere on the face of the planet. The easiest way to achieve this is to visit a website which allows the user to post text messages and/or images, such as bulletin boards, message forums, or chat sites.
The Phenomenon of the Chat Site
Internet 'Chat Sites' are a fundamental part of the cyber-diet of most web surfers - thousands of people log on every day to these sites, so they can 'chat' with other users situated all around the world. The appeal of such a means of communication is hard to pin-point, as essentially the notion is that of a double-blind medium. There is usually no transferral of sound or image - the two essentials of communication - save only for the typed text that appears in abundance. A user or chatter can be in conversation with a person they can neither see nor hear (although the technology to bypass this obstacle is becoming more and more widespread, with the advent of the Webcam (20)). The primary and secondary sensory inputs of the human body are deprived of actual interpersonal communication, and yet chat sites are amongst the busiest sites on the Web. Computer users flock in their thousands to chat sites and message boards throughout the Web to exchange their views, opinions and feelings with like-minded people. For example, the number of users who visit the Ecumenical Network, a global religious discussion group, is estimated by Pavlik (1996) as being 10,000 (21). The Manchester Storm Message Forum, a United Kingdom-based locally-orientated sport discussion forum, has only 229 registered members, however through also being open access it has attracted over 288,000 visitors in the four years that it has been established on-line (22).
Generally the use of a chat site tends to fall within a certain kind of protocol, within a certain set of social conventions which have evolved through the use of the internet as a means of communication. Each chatter logs on using a handle or alias, which is very rarely their real name, and seldom do people post pictures of themselves. Real names and genuine photos usually can be found on a chatters homepage, should they choose to divulge the URL, the address of it. In essence, a chatter is a character, and how much closely the character and the actual person resemble each other is entirely down to the individual user. However, this in itself raises problems - if the standard chatter is anonymous, then how can we trust what they say? In short, you cannot - absolute honesty has never been a predominant trait of the Internet chat site. The anonymity of the chat site has given rise to the notion of Internet role-playing, whereby a user's on-screen persona can be as close to or as far from their real personality as they wish. Even gender is not a boundary - men can have a female on-screen persona, women can be male. People can formulate characters that are animals - the scope for variance is limited only by imagination, once you (to paraphrase Beniger(1996) belong to cyberspace (23).
But how can one belong to a place that does not exist? Cyberspace is nothing more than a concept, a notion. It has no material presence, and yet the appeal of being in cyberspace is what drives people all over the world to log on and head there every day. Cyberspace is a name given to describe the indescribable, it exists and yet it does not exist. Computer users can get into cyberspace easily enough yet nobody can accurately portray it, because it is intangible. Cyberspace is fluid, it is without boundaries, it is whatever the user wants it to be. The freedom of cyberspace is certainly a part of its popularity - the notion that a user can be whomever they wish whilst in cyberspace is a highly attractive avenue of possibility. This line of thinking promotes the psychological notions of escapism, in that being in cyberspace is offering the user an alternative to their actual reality. In the same way that a trip to the cinema gives the viewer the opportunity to completely immerse themselves within the alternative environment presented to them on the cinema screen, the notion of being in cyberspace gives the user the opportunity to completely immerse themselves within the alternative environment presented to them on the computer screen. This theory is echoed by the findings of McClellan (1999), writing on the current resurgence of on-line role-playing in Multi-User Dimensions (MUDs, also referred to as Multi-User Domains) following their initial boom in the early 1990s:
"Though they relied on text, MUDs proved to be incredibly immersive, much more so than the virtual reality goggles and gloves that were being hyped at the time. Players were sucked into the worlds they helped to write. They spent hours in their favourite MUDs, sparking the first panic about Net addiction. In 1994, according to some surveys, MUDs accounted for 10 per cent of all traffic on the Net." (24)
This notion is also reflected in the views of the MUD users themselves. One such role-player describes the appeal of playing a character thus:
"I play [my character] to escape from the pressures and responsibilities of real life, and to have fun." (25)
The appeal of the role-play website is an extension of the appeal of such games as Dungeons and Dragons, a fantasy role-playing game that became a cultural index of the late 70s American college experience, and still to this day has a large following, along with the numerous role-playing spin-offs that it spawned. The basic context is that players create and develop their own fictional characters which would exist within a sword and sorcery game-world, and through the luck of the dice and the overseeing eye of the Dungeon Master (a non-participatory player who controls the flow of the game), the player would then become his character, and base his decisions on what his character would do in the situations that arise. The advent of the Internet meant that such role-playing sites could be generated online, with a central Webmaster overseeing the plot developments, to a much greater extent than previously available (26). The scope for involvement became limitless as the number of players that could access a game rose exponentially. The people who were formerly playing their character roles in college dorms were now able to take their characters (or make new ones) and enter them into the on-line fantasy worlds of cyberspace.
However, the appeal of belonging to cyberspace is not limited solely to the role-players and fantasists. Those chatters who use a fictional handle when visiting chatsites are not necessarily role-playing, they can be simply choosing to maintain their anonymity, or they could be embellishing their own personas. As one Chathouse user surmises: "I tend to amplify my personality on the net." (27)
As mentioned earlier, the scope of cyberspace is that it allows you to be whoever and whatever you want to be, and how closely your online persona matches your real life persona is entirely your own decision. However, for a persona to exist, it requires other personas to interact with - it requires others to be compared to and defined against. Postmans notion of kindred spirits is, after all, a worthy analogy to employ since it illustrates a basic necessity for the evolution of online culture - as in real society, there needs to be a wide range of personas and personalities for it to function. People go online not only to meet up and chat with people of a like-mind, but also to encounter those of differing opinions and viewpoints, whether they agree with their principles or not. The diversity of personality is an attractive factor for the Internet chatter. As one such chatter puts it:
"I see a variance of people. I see people online from work, filling their time with a little fun and games, I see people online from home in the day, the evening, the night talking to their friends, spelling out their troubles, looking for a shoulder to cry on or a heart to hold dear. I see idiots looking for trouble.... I see people trying to exercise their power, or to re-establish something thats been taken away from them. I see people bonding together through wit and wisdom, working together to create a safe place where they can go to get away from the trials of life for a few short hours. I see people of every kind coming together and reacting to whats in each others heads, in a place where the image is meaningless, and first impressions are created through words and not looks." (28)
This viewpoint suggests that although the primary interest in chatters is locating other like-minded individuals, the opportunity to encounter other viewpoints and opinions is also appealing. In itself, this suggests a possible level of intellectual intrigue, in that the chatter hints at the notion of analysing the personalities of other chatters through their online personas. This is not to say that the Internet is a refuge for the intellectual elite: far from it. The requirements for using the Internet are purely material - a computer, a modem and a phone line are all that is required. The fact is that anybody can use the Internet, so in those terms it could even be classified as being anti-elitist. Again drawing a comparison with television, the Internet comes out favourably in an analysis of the elitism of structure. Television, as with radio, has always corresponded to the model of the masses receiving and viewing programme material that is decided upon by a comparably tiny elite. Any material which the masses have the option to watch is pre-chosen for them. The masses have a limited choice in terms of which channel to choose (an ever-growing choice, granted) but it remains that the programme makers and the programme commissioners are those who decide which programmes make it onto the airwaves. With the Internet the user has a much higher level of choice, partly due to the proliferation of material and partly due to the much higher level of interaction affordable by the technology. The model of the masses as receivers has been broken down into a mass of individual receivers and transmitters, each with the scope to pick and choose which pieces of information they access, and within which time frames they wish to access.
However, despite the appeal of the ability to encounter and experience ther personas and personalities of users from all over the planet, not everyone online derives their pleasure from analysing each other - some do indeed go online to find Postmans elusive kindred spirits. The Web is a great place to make new friends, and in websites such as Chatalot and Chathouse, where the format is for multiple chatters to participate in an open discussion at any given time, the bonding together of groups of chatters to form their own cybersocieties is inevitable. The communal nature of these societies is an attractive factor for those who seek the company of the like-minded in their ventures into cyberspace. As one such chatter surmises:
"We are in our own little world, kind of on the inside looking out, instead of outside looking in." (29)
This viewpoint illustrates the notion of the kindred spirit, in that the chatter feels a bond with their fellow chatters, to the extent that they feel they are a part of something. They are a part of something that has a global scope, that can be turned around and pointed outwards to examine the entire world, rather than existing in isolation. The implication is that there is a vantage point to be gained, a position of greater access to a wider knowledge base. The basic requirements of human interaction afford the chatter with an insight into experiences and lifestyles beyond their own, all from within cyberspace.
The format of the chat site is one of its attractive factors. As the name suggests, the emphasis is on chat, on the informal exchange of views and opinions on whatever the topic of the day may be. Messages are posted in a public arena for all to see, and discussions are generated by users responding to the postings of other users. The messages posted are not recorded on the website, once they have been expressed they are displayed until the user moves on to the next message screen. This fleeting form of messaging is designed to emulate human verbal communication, in that when we chat to each other in real life, the conversation isnt usually recorded for others to access later. In this way, the chat system is almost transient, in that it exists in the moment and then is gone, with no permanent record left behind. The essence of real-life chat, its disposability, is captured within the structuring of the cyberchat website.
Chat sites are ideal locations for the evolution of cybersocieties. The regular and frequent input from the same users generates an artificial climate in which social interaction and interpersonal communication develop. A part of the attraction for the users is the whole notion of information exchange with similarly inclined individuals:
"People meeting regularly will quickly feel as a group/society which they may then open to others .I guess this is what gets some people addicted to chatting..." (30)
In the same way that community can be formed by the regular meeting of people within a geographical area, cybersocieties and cybercommunities are generated through a regular presence of the same individuals within a given section of cyberspace. The people that constitute the members of these cybersocieties will more than likely be the people who contribute most often, who input on the most regular and frequent basis. The interaction is what generates the notion of cybersociety. Participation is a key element:
"I didnt feel a part of a social group at first when I was just reading, but as I began to contribute then yes I did." (31)
The interaction is what defines a cybersociety, in that the communication between the constituent members is what drives the evolution, it is what creates the social conventions and the codes of practice, it is what makes the users feel a part of something. These notions of interpersonal communication achievable through an electronic medium are a large factor in explaining the phenomenon of chat sites.
Message Services and Bulletin Boards
As well as the chat site, cybersocieties can also be generated through the utilisation of the message service and the bulletin board. The fundamental difference between the message system employed by a chat site and a bulletin board is that where the chat is disposable, bulletin boards tend to be more of a permanent record of exchanges. Bulletin boards tend to be slightly more formal in their approach than chat sites, as usually there is a specific agenda to be considered. They also tend to be more structured in their themes, in that they will focus upon a particular topic and the subsequent messages will relate to that topic. All messages are accessible through the website to any user, and there are no limits on the number of people who can contribute (chat rooms tend to have a ceiling number of people who can access them at a given time, whereas bulletin boards are open access to all).
The computer users who utilise message services and bulletin boards tend to adhere closer to their own personas rather than role-play as characters, since in essence they are there to trade opinions and viewpoints. The people who use these websites are more likely to attach their real names, or derivatives of their real names, to their postings, since the desire for anonymity is not so great. However, one factor which has a bearing on this is the scope of the intended audience base for a message centre - users visiting the MTV Chat message service (32) are less likely to leave their real names or their e-mail addresses than users visiting The Manchester Storm Message Forum (33), partly due to the audience base for the former being much greater than the latter, and partly due to the main theme of the site being broader: MTV is a globally-focused music-based television channel with an intended website audience spread around the world, whereas Manchester Storm is a sporting team based in the north of England with a fan-base located predominantly within the geographical proximity. Even though both are equally accessible through the Internet, the MTV site naturally has a much higher prospective audience figure.
The format utilised by many bulletin boards and message services is an index of messages arranged sequentially in threads. The messages themselves are not fully displayed within the index, but each message will be listed by its title, and clicking on the title will access the message. The posting which features the initial question or viewpoint will be at the top of the thread, and any responses (called follow-ons) will be listed underneath in sequence, so that anybody wishing to read through an entire thread can do so by clicking on the top link and then working their way through the message sequence. This system is much easier to follow than the Guestbook system, where messages are shown in full, in the order in which they were submitted, regardless of their subject matter: Guestbooks are now used on websites mostly for their traditional intention of collecting the details of visitors.
Bulletin boards, through their sequential thread system and their permanent recording of messages posted, tend to lack the spontaneity of chat sites, in that the messages left on bulletin boards tend to be more inclined towards making a point or expressing an opinion, and responses to these opinions tend to be more measured, more thought through than a response posted in a chat site. In a bulletin board it is not necessary to maintain the same momentum of postings as it is in a chat site, since the bulletin board is not as live as its chat-based counterpart. In chat sites, the participants feed off each others postings, they take their cues from what each other writes, in order to generate exchanges. Postings on a bulletin board tend to be sequential, in that each opinion voiced will add to the debate generated by the message before it, but since each message is recorded on the website, many different threads can be running at any given time - chat sites tend to run through one topic at a time.
This notion of a higher level of formality, however, does not make bulletin boards any less of a foundation for the formation of cybersocieties. Indeed, members of the Tunnel Rats cybersociety, based in the Chatalot website, currently tend to use the sites bulletin boards as a way of keeping in touch with the rest of the group, since posting a message on a bulletin board does not require the presence of the intended recipient in the same way that posting in a chat site does. The presence of the bulletin board users can be seen as more permanent, in that when they exit the website their sentiments and opinions are still being expressed there, through their postings and messages, unlike chats disposability. An on-line presence can still be registered even when the person is off-line.
The Evolution of Language and Social Convention in Cyberspace
The parallels between the evolution of society and the evolution of cybersociety in terms of interpersonal communication are manifold. The conventions and codes of practice that exist within cybersocieties have evolved in the same way as they have in real life societies, in that they have come about through constant adaptation and an unspoken understanding of the principles of acceptability. Indeed, it can be argued that the conventions that are generated within cybersocieties are founded in existing social conventions of interpersonal interaction. According to McLaughin, Osborne and Smith (1995):
"Computer-mediated communicators themselves see their activity as inherently social. Furthermore, this activity takes place in a conceptual, if not perceptual, space." (34)
The space in question, cyberspace, therefore has a conceptual presence within the minds of the users. The notion of being in a place which has no material presence is not one which is easy to comprehend, so to refer to cyberspace as an actual place, albeit an intangible one, anchors the location. By allocating a virtual presence to sections of cyberspace, it becomes easier to categorise and to utilise. This concept is reflected in the chat room system used by many chat sites throughout the Internet - it is simpler to categorise a predetermined number of chatters as being present in a particular room, rather than for each chatter to have to take into account the actual geographical location of all the others. This in turn gives rise to the shared experience notion of cybersociety, in that by entering cyberspace and meeting with other people at a conceptual location, the experience is a common one. Regular visitors to a certain location will probably add to the conceptual space their own personal adjustments, making the space more personal to them and their chosen companions.
Taken as a medium of communication, the interaction of people through a computer network should be viewed no differently that the interaction of people outside of cyberspace. Tannenbaum (1998) surmises thus:
"Modern multimedia has its roots in communications methods that are probably as old as human communication itself. Multimedia is fundamentally no different than any other form of human communication." (35)
By drawing this parallel, Tannenbaum is implying that the utilisation of multimedia technology as a means of communication should come as no surprise, that it is an expected progression. The basic requirements of human contact and communication lead to the adaptation of any new technological innovations to serve this need. There is, however, more to be taken into consideration. The adaptation of the technology alone does not mean that it will be effective in serving its new intended purpose. As Jones (1995) points out: "Connection does not inherently make for community." (36)
Cybersocieties are not formed simply through the process of connection to the Internet. Although the technology affords the generation of cybersocieties, it does not create them. Despite the immense capacity that multimedia technology has for globally-scaled interaction, it is ultimately the input of the human users that generates the cybersociety. The technology is a means to an end and nothing more. It is in the utilisation of the technology, however, that the conventions and metalanguages of cyberspace are developed.
The nature in which cybersocieties are generated has a tremendous influence on how behavioural protocols are developed within them. A cybersociety cannot exist without interaction between its participant members, therefore the conventions which arise are a result of that interaction. They are generated in perpetuity, rather than being pre-established. Even the role-play cybersocieties, which have stricter codes of conduct and etiquette designed to be in-keeping with the theme of the game, are constantly undergoing a transformation in their social conventions and interactions. The process is fluid, the conventions constantly changing, being updated to suit the requirements, personas and even morals of those currently taking part.
There are, however, certain criteria that need to be met before any kind of social evolution can occur within a cybersociety. It is not sufficient to simply have a meeting place in which computer users can go to exchange views with each other - a more regular input is necessary. As suggested by McLaughlin, Osborne and Smith (1996), writing on the subject of newsgroups, the generation of a cybersociety is partly attributable to the rate of visits by the users:
"The frequency and regularity of contributions by a proportion of newsgroup readers further distinguishes this form of social interaction as a more stable and enduring aspect of community." (37)
This leads us into the area of structure. If a cybersociety can exist only through the regular input of a select number of members, it gives rise to the notion of hierarchy. The development of the cybersociety and the conventions which it adapts are a result of the input of those who feature within the categorisation of regular and frequent users. Naturally, the conventions and viewpoints expressed by the most frequent users will become the more dominant simply through their volume and presence. The most frequent users can be seen as the leaders, the ones from whom the others take their cues as to the levels of acceptable behaviour. Codes of conduct are therefore developed not through a set or predetermined guidelines but through the constant application of a set of personal and interpersonal standards, which tend to be reflected throughout the demographic of the group. The social conventions which arise from the interaction of the group dynamic will found the basis for these codes of conduct.
The informal, unwritten nature of the codes of conduct gives rise to one of the main problems within cybersocieties: what can be done when the codes are broken, the boundaries transgressed. Since there is usually no formalised hierarchy or administrative structure (save for the Dungeonmasters of the roleplay sites) the adherence to the codes of conduct must be done on a voluntary basis by the individuals within the group, since no one individual can take responsibility for their enforcement. Therefore, when a transgression occurs, there are no existing protocols which can be drawn upon in order to deal with the situation. Transgressions have to be dealt with within the society in an autonomous manner, thereby pushing the cyberspace model of society back towards the Dark Ages. Case studies of such occurances have been published, for instance Dibbells (1994) "A Rape In Cyberspace" (38), which illustrate that when confronted with a transgression of the unofficial codes of conduct within a cybersociety, the resulting processes can either serve to strengthen or destroy the notions of community that exist within. The medium itself, with its physical separation of its users, can facilitate transgression, as the absence of actual personal contact can allow the users emotions to be vented to a greater level. As one user puts it:
"Sometimes it is easy to be more aggressive on-line than you would be in a face to face confrontation." (39)
Conventions of behaviour within cyberspace are evolved in response to the events that occur there. Whether they are conventions as to levels of acceptable use of foul language and content or simply patterns of sociable behaviour, they generally evolve as responses to situations that arise. As an example, users of the Manchester Storm Message Forum (a bulletin board) now have established protocols to use for posting material that bears no direct reference to the main topic of the website, which in this case is the sport of ice hockey:
"Due to complaints about the clutter on the Forum from people posting off-topic information, PLEASE use the subject line to say when the post is off-topic, and please change the subject line to reflect any changes in subject! This will give those who have to pay for their Internet connection an idea as to whether to spend their money reading it or not." (40)
The resultant convention is now that posters using the website included the words off-topic within their subject heading, thereby delineating their message as not being directly concerned with the main topic of the website, and thereby giving other users a greater indication as to whether the thread is worth perusing. Such conventions serve as guidelines for the general use of the website, and although formulaic in their design, they all facilitate the evolution of the cybersociety.
The informal nature of most cybersocieties and chat sites facilitates the generation and development of what can be referred to as cyberlanguage (authors term). Cyberlanguage, in this context, refers to the discourse in which the conventions of written text are altered and adjusted to suit the medium. Since communication in cyberspace is mostly textual, it seems inevitable that the users of cyberspace should evolve their own means of abbreviation, paraphrase and even inflection, so as to lessen the formal nature of communication and information exchange. Kolko and Reid(1998) highlight the problem:
"Language, as the building block of what occurs in cyberspace, is more ephemeral than the written word and more fixed than the casual spoken word. This tension can pose problems for on-line communities where words have both the spontaneity and immediacy of social speech and the permanence of writing." (41)
Connery (1997) further pin-points this potential source of confusion:
"When we speak in conversation, the tacit assumption is that we can change our minds about what weve said. When we write, the very act of witing seems to imply that our minds are made up." (42)
The spontaneous nature of chat exchanges within cyberspace means that there is a kind of pace to be maintained, to simulate a verbal exchange, and this necessitates the development of recognisable shortcuts and representations. One of the key limitations of the written word in terms of its employment in cyberspace is that it lacks the indices of intonation that the spoken word possesses, in that there is an increased difficulty in assessing the manner in which a particular statement is being made. The tone of the voice, the inflections in the speech, the manner of delivery are all lost when the words are transcribed onto the computer screen. Certainly there are pre-existing methods in which the tone of the text can be illustrated better, such as the use of italics to indicate that a certain word is being stressed within the reading of a sentence, but when taken into the context of a chat environment, further solutions are required.
One of the principle methods employed within cybersocieties to delineate the style and intented tone of delivery of transcribed text is the use of emoticons. Emoticons, a term derived from the concept of emotion icons, are combinations of letters and/or symbols found on the keyboard that are typed in to portray a mood or an action that the user wishes to convey to the intended readers of the text. The most common example of a set of emoticons being utilised in cyberchat communication are derived from the notion of one of the pop-culture icons of the early 1980s: the smiley face, a simple design comprising of two dots for eyes, and a line for a mouth, encompassed within a circle to represent a faces outline. Within the textual exchanges of cyberspace, a variant on the smiley face can be placed at the end of a sentence to illustrate the mood of the user. For instance, the emoticon
conveys that the preceding comment or
message is intended to be read in a light manner, or that the
writer is currently happy. Conversely, the emoticon
implies sadness or displeasure. However, not all users find that their requirements for emoticons can be delineated within the two basic designs, so approximations of further emotions can be created through the imaginative employment of the key symbols available. For example, the following symbol
may appear to signify nothing other than a semi-colon followed by an end bracket, but if the recipient knows the cyber-convention of turning their head ninety degrees to the left, they will find that they have just been winked at. Likewise the symbol
is no longer just a semi-colon followed by the letter p, but an emoticon representing a smiley sticking out its tongue. The inclusion of one or more of these symbols within a message, be in on a chat site or bulletin board, gives the reader a more accurate notion of the writers intended interpretation. The use of these emoticons in cybersocieties is generally in-keeping with their recognisable conventions of use. As Baym (1995) writes:
"The repertoire of emoticons also comes with a number of conventions about their appropriate use, including what kind of messages should be marked and how many smiley faces is too many." (43)
To an outsider, unfamiliar with the textual short-cuts and the emoticon system, decoding the text messages on a chat site can prove quite a challenge. The ability to comprehend the messages that are being enhanced through the use of these short-cuts is one of the factors that contributes towards defining the members of chat-based cybersocieties, in that within each society there will be developed different variations of short-cuts. Not all acronyms or short-cuts are universal. This in itself is partially an elitist device, in that to be able to decode some of the short-cuts in use, the user must become familiar with the website where they are utilised. The casual user may experience difficulty in following conversations where a lot of short-cuts are in use, and resultantly may feel left out or isolated. Inversely, having an understanding of the short-cuts and the cyberlanguage being employed gives the user a greater sense of belonging, since it equates to them being a part of the cybersociety.
Coupled with a knowledge and understanding of the conventions of cybersocieties, an understanding of the cyberlanguage gives the user a greater founding within that cybersociety. In the same way as a real-time knowledge of social conventions and the use of language can allow a person to feel more an active part of society, the same is true in cyberspace. The evolution of the language and the social conventions have followed a similar path to their real-life counterparts, and the benefits of an understanding of them offer similar rewards.
Cybersocieties outside of Cyberspace
In essence, a cybersociety is something that exists solely within cyberspace. It consists of the coming together of computer users within the computer network, within whatever context is applicable. A common occurrence, however, is that these societies are coming together outside of cyberspace, their members are meeting up in real time. This blurring of the boundaries is serving to break down the barriers between society and cybersociety, and to further the notion that the multimedia computer is becoming more and more a communications tool. No longer is the cybersociety an entirely autonomous entity, it is now becoming a means by which other societies can be created. The bringing together of cybersociety members in real-life settings, however, partially negates the role of the technology, as it is no longer the only medium of communication. The strength of the concept of the cybersociety is its dependence upon the utilisation of the technology that enables it to exist. When the users of the technology can achieve their intended aims of interpersonal communication with each other outside of the cyberspace arena, the power of the cybersociety is diminished. In this respect, the technology becomes a stepping stone, a means to an end, rather than an end in itself.
Geography, it seems, plays an important role in the progression from cyberspace to real time in terms of the evolution of cybersocieties. Since cybersocieties have the potential to encompass the entire globe, thereby having a wide geographical spread amongst its members, the probability of its members coming into real time contact with is each other is limited. This is, however, not an insurmountable problem. For instance, The Tunnel Rats cybersociety (44) has members in five continents, yet there have been numerous meet-up events held over the past couple of years. Questions of geographical remoteness therefore are lessened, since the possibilities of meeting up in real life are not as limited as it would seem.
The actual ability of the constituent members of a cybersociety to meet up, however, is not the only factor to be taken into consideration. Another important aspect is the frequency of the meetings. A cybersociety which holds regular and frequent meetings in real life will see the technological aspects of the cybersociety as a conduit for their contact, to help to arrange the real-time meetings, whereas a cybersociety that gathers on a less frequent basis will still be largely dependent on the technology for its existence. The frequency of meetings within cyberspace, as mentioned earlier, is an important factor in the evolution of the cybersociety, and for the development to be sustained then therefore so must the frequency of the interaction.
The societies which meet up outside of cyberspace tend to be those based outside of the role-play genre, since the role-players are predominantly in character during their time in cyberspace, and the escapism and fantasy are parts of the appeal, thus limiting the appeal of meeting up in real time, save for the purposes of possibly starting new role-play games. The reasons behind making the progression from cybersociety to real-time meeting may be multiple, but the basis is always the same: the interpersonal relationships reach a level where taking communication from the computer and into real-time is seen as a natural progression. As Cutler (1996) points out:
"Relationships formed online do not always remain in cyberspace. As intimacy and trust develop out of mutual disclosure of motivations and needs, the desire to love and care for the newfound friends and lovers increases the need to meet face to face." (45)
No matter how sophisticated the technology that affords interpersonal communication may be, the basic human requirement of face to face contact will sooner or later become a prominent motivational force. This inflects toward the structure of cyberspace, in that it consists of a population of visitors who are, by virtue of the technology, more than likely alone, or at least physically isolated from each other. The desire to progress from computer-mediated communication to face-to-face interpersonal communication further delineates the role of the technology as that of a tool - as mentioned earlier, it reinforces the notion of the computer being a means to an end, rather than an end in itself. As Lajoie (1996) theorises:
"Virtual reality should not be construed in opposition to real reality, but rather as an extension to the latter." (46)
This notion reflects upon the current trend for the intertwining of virtual and actual reality, in terms of the development of the computer as a tool of business, entertainment and communication, as mentioned previously. The notion is that the computer is becoming a more and more standardised medium of communication, and that its place within global culture is becoming more and more disseminated, it is becoming more a part of the norm.
This in itself creates a paradox. A part of the appeal of the Web to its users is that it enables them to experience new things, to meet new people and to trade ideas and opinions with others, and yet through the proliferation of the technology and the dissemination of the capacity to utilise the technology, the medium is becoming less specialised. The limitations and shortcomings of what can be achieved in terms of interpersonal communication are being further foregrounded by the new technologies that develop. As referred to previously, the Webcam is becoming a basic element of Web communication, thereby highlighting a deficiency in the current levels of communication afforded by a purely text-based system. As Willson (1997) suggests:
"Virtual communities are celebrated as providing a space and form for a new experience of community. This experience is depicted as multiple, liberating, equalizing and thus providing a richer experience of togetherness. However, a critical examination of these understandings reveals, paradoxically, a thinning of the complexities of human engagement to the level of one-dimensional transactions and a detaching of the user from the political and social responsibilities of the real space environment." (47)
The implication here is that once the initial fascination with the experience of on-line communication is passed, and the utilisation of the tehnology becomes a part of the routine existence of the user rather than serving as a specialist activity, the limitations of the system will become more and more apparent through the integration of the technology into modern culture. The Web, as mentioned previously, serves as a perfect conduit for business, where interpersonal communication is largely unneccesary. It also serves well as a source of information and entertainment, and yet with the advancement of the tehnology the capacity to satiate the demands for interpersonal contact and the capacity to sustain longer-term cybersocieties are both diminished. Interrogate The Internet, an online analytical group, forsee a further lessening of the appeal of the Web as a basis for interpersonal communication and the evolution of cybersocieties that accompanies it:
"The hype about the Internet has in fact created a new enchantment in Western societies. Dealing with the realities of virtual reality, however, will be a process of progressive disenchantment wherein the limits of communication and information as the essence of emancipation become clear." (48)
The theory being proposed here is that the disenchantment is a key factor in the relative short life-expectancy of cybersocieties, that the members will eventually commence seeking external stimulae in order to maintain the desired levels of interpersonal communication. This in turn promotes the theory that cybersocieties have an indeterminable but also relatively short expected existence, that they can be equated to virtual reality with a shelf-life.
The Shelf Life of Cybersocieties
Cybersocieties are usually formed within cyberspace through the coming together of people through a common facet of the medium, usually a particular part of a particular website. Initially only a handful of people know each other, by and large everyone is a stranger, yet they are there for a common reason (generally it is an interest in the main theme of the website). The people get to know each other, and they band together, they become accustomed to each others online company and companionship, returning to the website time after time to partake in exchanges with the other users. The initial period is always the most intense, with the society members keen to keep the impetus going, to keep contributing, to stay a part of the group. New people will arrive, attracted by the processes going on, or invited in by existing users. But then the intensity eases off, as users find they have other activities that require their attention, or their time online is limited by an unforseeable factor, or simply they grow tired of the high intensity. The result is the same - the society meets online less and less, and maintaining contact with the members becomes more and more difficult until the few that remain are the ones who are more than likely the very same as those who established the society in the first instance. Dr Melissa Lee Price explains her theory as to the rapid rise and ultimate dispersal of The Tunnel Rats, a cybersociety currently based within the Chatalot website:
"[At first] we were all pretty new chatters found a place we liked and were joined by people who had the same interests. Most of us started chatting because they had a gap in their life or time - not that they were missing out on things, but that they had the time to chat and they found people they wanted to hang out with. Then people who were different joined in and changed the tempo of the rooms. It was no longer as much fun, so we filled that time with other things. We still miss chatting and wonder where everyone went, and we keep in touch via email. But we cant seem to find the time to chat like we did. Weve filled that time with other things." (49)
In this sense, the constant fluidity of the Web and the sheer number of its users seems to be one of the factors that contributes to the shortening of the life of the cybersociety. The analogy of comparing the cybersociety to a real life society comes under the microscope here, in that questions are raised as to the commitment of the cybersociety member. As Jones (1995) suggests:
"Another of the many questions we must ask about electronic communities is: What is the nature of the individual members commitments to them? In the physical world, community members must live together. When community membership is in no small way a simple matter of subscribing or unsubscribing to a bulletin board or electronic newsgroup, is the nature of interaction different simply because one may disengage with little or no consequence?" (50)
This highlights one of the potential shortcomings of the medium, in that the closeness of the users within cyberspace can easily be usurped by the isolationist nature of the utilisation of the technology. After all the intensity and interest of being within cyberspace, the user is still really an individual sitting at a computer terminal, and their withdrawal from cyberspace will probably have little or no consequence upon the events that subsequently occur there.
The increasing incidences of cybersocieties emerging from cyberspace into the real world, as mentioned previously, also have a profound impact upon the shelf-life of the cybersociety. When the society is no longer bound by the confines of the medium of communication, the medium in question becomes merely a tool rather than an instigating factor. The requirement of human contact will advance beyond the capacity of the medium, and the contact affordable within cyberspace will no longer be sufficient to satiate the demands. As Postman (1996) point out:
"It is time for us to give up the notion that we may find solutions to our emptiness through technology." (51)
The implication here is that the users of the technology can achieve only temporary solace in their utilisation of cyberspace. Although the promise of cyberspace is almost Utopian, the requirements of the real-life user cannot fully be met through the technology, and therefore they should look to other avenues of fulfilment. The implication has validity, in that technology can never replace interpersonal communication, but can merely act as a conduit for it - it is a tool of communication and nothing more:
"Its nice to see the same names, but I cant relate that to real life unless Ive met the people in the flesh." (52)
Although regular contribution to a cybersociety can and does develop a sense of community, the limitations to the level of interpersonal communication do pose problems.
Technological innovation in itself is also to blame for the erosion of the cybersociety. Despite the notion that the Internet affords its users with near-instant access to information from a global source, the direction of technological innovation has always been towards improvement, towards the notions of faster and better. The creation and development of ICQ software has been another nail in the coffin of the cybersociety. ICQ, the name being a derivative of the phrase I seek you, is a program which enables users to communicate instantaneously with other users, with messages appearing on the recipients screen as they are typed. This system is faster than the message board and chat site systems which have been the mainstay of the cybersociety. With more and more chatters using ICQ, their time spent at the chat sites or on the message boards diminishes, as a faster method of message exchange is being employed. The target audience scale for ICQ postings is also different - ICQ messages tend to follow closer the notion of interpersonal communication, rather than being posted within the public domain. ICQ affords a greater level of interpersonal communication, at the expense of the notion of cybersociety. The users no longer need to be located at the chatsite to achieve the level of interpersonal communication that they require - ICQ runs independent of any website location, the user can be surfing anywhere on the Internet and still be contactable through ICQ. This freedom of movement through the Internet means that one of the basic requirements of society is undermined, in the sense that the constituent members are no longer united by a common geography. As in real life society, where the members of a community are bounded partly by their geographical proximity, the members of a cybersociety are partly bounded by their location within cyberspace. The cybersociety is formed within the geographical confines of a particular part of cyberspace, a particular website. Once the constituent members are no longer bound by the geographical location, then the foundations of the cybersociety are weakened.
The concept of the cybersociety is based upon the notion of people coming together in cyberspace and bonding through a common interest or theme. The degrees of bonding, the closeness of the society, the structure, the frequency of engagement, the intensity of activity are all variable factors. There are no set criteria for what constitutes a cybersociety, no established protocols or principles for their evolution or continuance. Cybersocieties evolve through the input and the actions of their constituent members, each will follow a different pathway, each will have different aims and intentions, each will be participated in by a variety of people in a variety of manners. The government of these cybersocieties comes from within. The regulations that they adhere to and the conventions which they apply are all developed internally and through democratic processes, or through the regular input of the same users - the criteria for behaviour is self-regulatory. Transgressions are dealt with on a case-by-case basis, as there are no universally recognisable authorities within cyberspace. Cybersocieties share only basic-level foundations with real-life societies, in that they rely on a variety of personalities within its constituent members, and that regular input is needed to propagate the evolution of the social relations, but the geographical limitations are surmountable, the physical presence non-existent. The members of cybersocieties are free to draw from them whatever they wish, they are free to participate to whatever level they desire, to achieve whatever level of interpersonal communication they so choose. The almost transience of the cybersociety, coupled with the inevitable slowing down of the initial impetous of the group, all give rise to the notion of the limited life-span. The interpersonal communication afforded by contemporary computer technology may be fun, it may be meaningful, it may be partially fulfilling, but it will never be able to replace the more human aspects of input required.
(1) Interviews were conducted through on-line chat sites or through ICQ. (Details of ICQ can be found in the conclusion chapter of this paper, or by visiting the ICQ website at http://www.icq.com)
(2) Chathouse - http://www.chathouse.com - an interactive chat website, themed on the model of a house. Chatters can enter 'rooms' and converse (via typed messages) with other people in the 'room' . Some rooms are open access, some are registered member access, and some are subscription only.
(3) Chatalot - http ://www.chatalot.com - a similar theme to Chathouse, with the differences being a wider range of rooms, and a user-base that is more geared towards registered chatters (as opposed to transcient chatters). Chatalot is also currently the home of a cybersoci ety named The Tunnel Rats, an informal society made up of internet chatters.
(4) Into The Storm - http://www.intothestorm.co.uk - this website is a fan-based website, designed for use by supporters of a sports team, the Manchester Storm Ice Hockey Club, and features a bulletin board area entitled The Manchester Storm Message Forum, where internet users can leave messages on subjects around Manchester Storm and the sport of ice hockey in general.
(5) Definition of the term 'cyberspace' taken from The Oxford Interactive Encyclopedia CD-Rom, developed by The Learning Company, Inc. 1997
(6) Created in the late 1970s, the ARPAnet system was developed by the U.S. Defense Department as a means of facilitating data exchange between computers.
(7) Tim Berners-Lee created and developed the HTML and HTTP coding systems which form the basis of all information exchanges through the Internet.
(8) Tannenbaum, R.S. (1993) Theoretical Foundations of Multimedia. Computer Sciences Press, W.H. Freeman & Company, page 275.
(9) Benigar, J.R. "Who Shall Control Cyberspace?" in Communication and Cyberspace, Strate, L., Jacobson, R., & Gibson, S.B. (1996) Hampton Press Inc., page 51.
(10) Postman, N. "Cyberspace, Shmyberspace" in Communication and Cyberspace, Strate, L., Jacobson, R. & Gibson, S.B. (1996) Hampton Press Inc., page 381.
(11) The term 'homepage' refers to a website set up by an individual or small number of people and has no commercial content - it will usually feature personal information or be dedicated to a particular topic of interest, such as a pastime, musical group or film.
(12) Geocities - http://www.geocities.com - this website offers free homepages for its users to set up on whatever topics they choose, subject to certain terms and conditions on use and content.
(13) Angelfire - http://www.angelfire.com - like Geocities, this website offers users free space on the Web to set up their own homepage. It also offers basic tips on the use of HTML codes in order to achieve greater effects on the users\rquote homepages.
(14) Cobain, I. & Alleyne, R., 'Genius who spun the Web' Daily Mail Tuesday 6th April 1999, page 56, IT Mail section.
(15) Cobain, I. & Alleyne, R., 'Genius who spun the Web' Daily Mail Tuesday 6th April 1999, page 56, IT Mail section.
(16) McKinstry, L., 'Can Internet's creators ever take control of their monster?Daily Mail (Commentary) Friday 23rd April 1999, page 22. This Commentary was written in the wake of the Trenchcoat Mafia killing at the Columbine High School in Colorado, U.S., in which twelve students and one teacher were killed by two students armed with guns and home-made bombs. The students were alleged to be heavy Internet users and are thought to have found the bomb-making instructions through web-surfing.
(17) Figures taken from McKinstry's article (see above footnote), which quotes them from 'a recent study' which is unfortunately uncredited in the article.
(18) Cyberpatrol - http://www.microsys.com/cyber - a downloadable piece of software that searches for certain keywords within a website and prevents access to that website should any of the keywords be found. The user can determine which keywords to look for (the most prominent word being 'sex\') and can protect their chosen settings with a password, so that other users of the computer (such as children) cannot then access any undesired sites.
(19) Net Nanny - http://www.netnanny.com/netnanny - funtions in the same manner as Cyberpatrol.
(20) Webcams are small digital cameras that function as a part of the computer's hardware. Used in conjunction with the appropriate software, a user can 'stream'or 'feed' a moving image of themselves over the Net as they work at their computer. In addition to cameras, computer microphone technology is also available so that computer users can speak with each other whilst online.
(21) Pavlik, J.V. (1996), New Media Technology. Allyn & Bacon, page 286.
(22) Actual figure 288483 taken at 9pm Saturday April 22nd 2000. The Into The Storm website was launched in May 1996.
(23) Benigar, J.R. "Who Shall Control Cyberspace?" in Communication and Cyberspace, Strate, L., Jacobson, R., & Gibson, S.B. (1996) Hampton Press Inc., page 51.
(24) McClellan, J. 'Mind game in the MUD' Guardian On-Line cover story, Thursday January 28th 1999.
(25) Opinion expressed by Chatalot role-player 'Stryder Corrigan' (male, 16 years, USA) in a questionnaire response, October 1998
(26) The first on-line role-play site, in the form of a Multi-User Domain, predates even the Web - it was created in the late 1970s by Richard Bartle and Roy Trubshaw, students at the University of Essex. (Taken from McClellan, see footnote 21).
(27) Opinion expressed by Chathouse user 'Ping' (female, 26 years, UK) in a questionnaire response, October 1998.
(28) Opinion expressed by Chatalot user 'Undercover Vicar' (male, 26 years, UK) in 'The Tunnel' room at the Chatalot website, 5.1.99
(29) Opinion expressed by Chathouse user 'Energizer Bunny' (female, 29 years, USA) in a questionnaire response, October 1998.
(30) Opinion expressed by Chatalot and Chathouse user 'G-Max' (male, 27years, Bavaria) in a questionnaire response, October 1998.
(31) Opinion expressed by Into The Storm user 'Mikey B' (male, 28 years, UK) in a questionnaire response, October 1998.
(32) MTV Chat - http://www.mtv.com/nav/intro_chat.html - popular music-based chatsite, affiliated to the MTV music video television channel.
(33) The Manchester Storm Message Forum - http://www.intothestorm.co.uk/wwwboard/current.html - see introductory chapter for details.
(34) McLaughlin, M.L., Osborne, K.K. & Smith, C.B. "Standards of Conduct on Usenet" in Cybersociety: Computer-Mediated Communication and Community . James, S.G. (ed) (1995), Sage Publications Ltd, page 93.
(35) Tannenbaum, R.S. (1993) Theoretical Foundations of Multimedia. Computer Sciences Press, W.H. Freeman & Company, page 34.
(36) Jones, S.G. "Understanding Community in the Information Age" in Cybersociety: Computer-Mediated Communication and Community . James, S.G. (ed) (1995), Sage Publications Ltd, page 12.
(37) McLaughlin, M.L., Osborne, K.K. & Smith, C.B. "Standards of Conduct on Usenet" in Cybersociety: Computer-Mediated Communication and Community . James, S.G. (ed) (1995), Sage Publications Ltd, page 92.
(38) Dibbell, J., "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 Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture. Dery, M. (1994), Duke University Press, pages 237-261.
(39) Opinion expressed by Into The Storm user 'Andy W' (male, 40 years, UK) in a questionnaire response, October 1998.
(40) Message taken from the introductory page of The Manchester Storm Message Forum on the Into The Storm website, January 1999.
(41) Kolko, B. & Reid, E. "Dissolution and Fragmentation: Problems in On-Line Communities" in Cybersociety 2.0: Revisiting Computer-Mediated Communication and Community. James, S.G. (ed) (1998), Sage Publications Ltd, page 213.
(42) Connery, B.A. "IMHO" in Internet Culture. Porter, D. (ed) (1997), Routledge, page 174.
(43) Baym, N.K., "The Emergence of Community in Computer-Mediated Communication" in Cybersociety: Computer-Mediated Communication and Community . James, S.G. (ed) (1995), Sage Publications Ltd, page 159.
(44) The Tunnel Rats is a cybersociety formed in the Chatalot wesbite, see introductory chapter.
(45) Cutler, R.H. "Technologies, Relations and Selves" in Communication and Cyberspace. Strate, L., Jacobson, R. & Gibson, S.B. (eds) (1996) Hampton Press Inc, page 380.
(46) Lajoie, M. "Psychoanalysis and Cyberspace" in Cultures of Internet: Virtual Spaces, Real Histories, Living Bodies. Shields, R. (ed) (1996) Sage, page 160.
(47) Willson, M. "Community in the Abstract: A Political and Ethical Dilemma?" in Virtual Politics: Identity & Community in Cyberspace. Holmes, D. (ed) Sage, page 159.
(48) Interrogate The Internet, "Contradictions In Cyberspace" in Cultures of Internet: Virtual Spaces, Real Histories, Living Bodies. Shields, R. (ed) (1996) Sage, page 131. (Interrogate The Internet is "an interdisciplinary working group that meets bi-weekly to critically examine and discuss the impact and implications of cyberspace." Definition listed on page 124.)
(49) Dr. Melissa Lee-Price, co-founder of The Tunnel Rats cybersociety, interviewed via ICQ on 8.5.99
(50) Jones, S.G., "Understanding Community in the Information Age" in Cybersociety: Computer-Mediated Communication and Community . James, S.G. (ed) (1995), sage Publications Ltd, page 11.
(51) Postman, N."Cyberspace Shymberspace" in Communication and Cyberspace. Strate, L., Jacobson, R. & Gibson, S.B. (eds) (1996) Hampton Press Inc, page 380.
(52) Opinion expressed by Into The Storm user 'Steve' (male, 30 years, UK) in a questionnaire response, October 1998
APPENDIX A: QUESTIONNAIRE
The following is a copy of a questionnaire which was sent out via e-mail to 70 chatters, posters and users of various domains, and was received on a voluntary basis. Of those sent out, 24 responses were received. The questionnaire was designed to be of a general nature, in order to gauge some basic views and collate some rudimentary facts, before selecting some interviewees for further questions. Some of the findings can be found in Appendix B. It was felt that a casual approach to the questionnaire was required, as anything too academic in structure or form would possibly be received in a less positive manner than required:
Im currently doing research for my Masters degree thesis, which Im writing on the subject of the culture and growth of cyber-societies. As a part of my research, Im sending out this questionnaire to people that I know visit internet chat sites and/or message forums, and you are one of the chosen people! (lucky you!). Either that or you volunteered, in which case: thank you! So if you could spare a few minutes to send me a reply, itd be very much appreciated!
All questions are optional - answer whichever you like! Any you dont feel like answering, then feel free to leave it and go on to the next one!
N.B. The term real life refers to time spent not visiting a chat-site or a message forum!
1. Please state your full name:
2. What is your date of birth?
3. Town and Country of residence?
4. Current occupation?
5. Where do you go online from? (home/work/school)
6. How much time per day/week do you spend at on-line chat-sites or message forums?
7. Which chat-sites and/or message forums do you regularly use/contribute to?
8. How did you hear about the chat-sites/message forums?
9. Which names/handles do you use?
10. For what purpose do you use online chat-sites/message forums?
11. Do you feel that chat-sites/message forums lead to the creation of online cyber-societies? Do you feel a part of a social group when you interact with other chatters online?
12. Does your online persona differ from your real self? Do you play a character online? Why?
13. Do you find it easier to communicate with people online rather than in real life?
14. Do you ever meet other chatters/message posters in real life?
15. Do you feel you have more friends online than in real life?
Thanks for your trouble! There may be a follow-up questionnaire at a later date, probably when I think up some better questions!
APPENDIX B: QUESTIONNAIRE FINDINGS
The questionnaire illustrated in Appendix A featured some basic questions as to the locations from which users accessed the Internet, and how many hours a day they spent online. From the answers provided by the 24 people who responded, the following figures were generated. As with the nature of random samples, the figures relate only to the responses received, yet in the authors opinion they are generally indicative of the medium as a whole.
Percentage of people online from:
Home - 33%
Work - 33%
School - 4%
Home and Work - 28%
Average time spent online per day: 2.5 hours
Average age of users: 28.5 years
The following books (including individual publications and compilations), newspaper articles, CD-Rom articles, and on-line journal articles were used in the writing of this paper:
Cobain, I., & Alleyne, R., Genius who spun the Web Daily Mail Tuesday 6th April 1999, page 56, IT Mail section.
Dery, M. (1994), Flame Wars: The Discourse Of Cyberculture. Duke University Press
James, S.G. (ed) (1995), Cybersociety: Computer-Mediated Communication and Community. Sage Publications Ltd
James, S.G. (ed) (1998), Cybersociety2.0: Revisiting Computer-Mediated Communication and Community. Sage Publications Ltd
McClellan, J.,"Mind game in the MUD" Guardian On-Line Cover Story, Thursday January 28th 1999.
McKinstry, L., Can Internets creators ever take control of their monster? Daily Mail (Commentary) Friday 23rd April 1999, page 22
Oxford Interactive Encyclopedia CD-Rom, The, developed by The Learning Company, Inc. 1997
Pavlik, J.V.(1996), New Media Technology. Allyn & Bacon
Porter, D. (1997), Internet Culture. Routledge
Shields, R. (1996), Cultures of Internet: Virtual Spaces, Real Histories, Living Bodies. Sage
Strate, L., Jacobson, R., & Gibson, S.B. (eds)(1996) Communication and Cyberspace. Hampton Press Inc
Tannenbaum, R.S. (1993) Theoretical Foundations of Multimedia. Computer Sciences Press, W.H. Freeman & Company
This thesis was submitted to Staffordshire University in May 2000 as a part of the coursework for a Master of Arts degree in Cultural Representation. Copyright is owned by Richard Allan (the author) and Staffordshire University (the institution). Please do not reprint or redistribute without the express permission of the author. (Richard Allan can be contacted at email@example.com.)