|Computers & Texts No. 12
Department of American Studies
University of Maryland
Cyberculture is emerging as an interdisciplinary subject of academic study. The following article outlines the main areas and concludes with a range of online and printed resources designed to introduce the dynamic qualities of the subject.
Ten years ago, the Internet was an exclusive computer network used primarily by United States Department of Defense officials, a scattering of academics, and a handful of computer hackers. The term 'cyberspace' was known and used by only those familiar with William Gibson's 1984 masterpiece, Neuromancer. Virtual identities, virtual communities, and virtual cities were more likely to be discussed in science fiction reading clubs than within The New York Times and scholarly journals.
Today, of course, it is difficult to escape from the Net: we read, see, and hear about it in the news, we use it for work and pleasure, we are bombarded by commercials telling us how the Net will make life more simple, global, and utopian. Yet while the hyperbole which accompanies the Net is at times unbearable, it is difficult to deny that a new culture is developing. This culture, cyberculture, has become one of most dynamic fields of academic study. In this essay, I wish to provide a set of strategic readings and fieldwork exercises with which to approach this emerging topic.
Although the field of cyberculture eludes neat and easy categorisation, it is useful to divide our topic into three overlapping sections: virtual identities, virtual communities, and virtual cities. One benefit to such a division is that it encourages students to approach, explore, and think about cyberculture from a number of perspectives. Using this division, students examine cyberculture in terms of self, social interactions, and space. Moreover, conveniently accompanying each of these sections are excellent and accessible books: Sherry Turkle's Life on the Screen, Howard Rheingold's The Virtual Community, and William Mitchell's City of Bits. These books are discussed at greater length throughout this article.
One of the most interesting aspects of cyberculture is the changing notion of selfhood. How do we represent ourselves within online spaces and how is this representation different from the 'real' self? Where are our bodies when we negotiate through electronic spaces? How much of our online persona is a product of self-representation? How can-or do- we tweak this persona?
An excellent book with which to examine such issues and questions is Sherry Turkle's Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet. A licensed clinical psychologist and professor of the Sociology of Science at M.I.T., Turkle uses ethnography to explore the self, multiple selves, and the construction of identity within the dynamic worlds of MOOs and MUDs. (MUDs, standing for 'Multi-User Dungeon' or 'Multi User Dimensions,' are online, text-based, multi-user virtual environments. MOOs are object-oriented MUDs.) Turkle examines the thin boundaries between the 'real' and the 'simulated,' and tackles such issues as online cross-dressing, role-playing, and virtual sex.
Besides the text's early sections-in which Turkle contrasts the Macintosh and IBM's interfaces to explain key distinctions between modernism and postmodernism-the book is extremely accessible to undergraduate students. For more adventurous students, instructors can supplement Life on the Screen with Allucquere Rosanne Stone's essay 'Will the Real Body Please Stand Up?: Boundary Stories about Virtual Cultures' in Cyberspace: First Steps (ed. Michael Benedikt 1991) and Amy Bruckman's essay 'Identity Workshop: Emergent Social and Psychological Phenomena in Text-Based Virtual Reality', found online at ftp://media.mit.edu/pub/asb/papers/identity-workshop.rtf
One of the beauties of cyberculture is the ease with which field trips can be arranged. Instructors can easily illuminate course readings and discussions with strategic fieldwork exercises. In other words, the best way to understand virtual identities is to experience virtual identities. This can be accomplished by having students visit one of a number of user-friendly MOOs or MUDs, including LambdaMOO, MediaMOO, or Diversity University MOO. Students keep journals, noting their MOO experience, the simulated environments, and their interactions with other MOOers. Instructors can also encourage students to explore in pairs and groups. Students should reflect on how travelling in groups affects individual identity perceptions and representations. Finally, instructors may wish to have advanced students construct virtual environments-a room or wing within a MOO for example-and reflect upon how this role of WebMaster affects self-identity and social interactions with other participants.
Identity in cyberspace from the University of Wales, Aberystwyth's Media & Communications Studies site.
Cyberspace is a social space. Whether emailing a friend, exploring a MOO, surfing the Web, or posting to a listserv or newsgroup, users interact with one another. This communication-often random and sporadic, often prolonged and regular-fosters a sense of community. Yet what kinds of communities are formed when participants do not interact face-to-face but rather online? How are these communities different from traditional, geographically-based ones? How are they similar?
These questions are best approached with the help of Howard Rheingold's seminal book, The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier. Published in 1993, Rheingold's book is one of the first attempts to tackle cyberculture in general, virtual communities in particular. Despite the hyper-kinetic change which seems to transform the Net every month, the book is surprisingly up-to-date and relevant. Moreover, Rheingold's presentation-a mixture of journalistic prose, academic analysis, and rich, interesting anecdotes-proves especially accessible to university students.
Rheingold begins by contextualising his subject, providing a brief history of the Internet, along with some key terms and issues revolving around virtual communities. From here, the author turns to the heart of his topic-the formation of virtual communities and the crucial roles participants play in this formation. Although Rheingold's enthusiasm at times prevents critical, in-depth analyses of the economic and political dimensions of online communities, his treatment of the social aspects proves both fascinating and thought-provoking.
Like traditional communities, virtual communities develop over time. In order to witness this development, students must be involved with a particular online community for a significant amount of time. This requirement is met by having students select a virtual community-an academic mailing list, a Usenet newsgroup, a MOO, or an interactive Web site, to name a few-near the beginning of the course and monitor, observe, and participate in it throughout the semester. While politically-minded students may tend to focus on issues of inclusion and exclusion, socially-minded students may explore opportunities for individual and collective empowerment, group dynamics, and social co-operation. An excellent assignment is to have students compare their observations and conclusions regarding virtual communities to those put forth by Rheingold.
Besides questions of self and community, the topic of place has become integral to the study of cyberculture. While so much of cyberculture exists without shared geographic space, a large segment does indeed exist within and for shared spaces. One example are community networks, place-specific, computer-networked websites devoted to a particular city, town, or village. Here, community members come together-not face-to-face, but rather online-to discuss local issues, browse through city council minutes, order a dozen roses, or a pepperoni pizza.
This fascinating, yet tricky sense of place within cyberculture is treated by William J. Mitchell in his book City of Bits: Space, Place, and the Infobahn. Mitchell, the Dean of Architecture at M.I.T., is concerned primarily with the shrinking boundaries between 'real' and 'virtual' geographies. This conflation, Mitchell argues, leads to significant ramifications upon contemporary cities. Although his topic is quite theoretical, his writing is largely accessible, a result no doubt of the author's successful fusion of heavy theoretical tropes with illuminating examples found in popular texts such as film, television, and science fiction.
Like Rheingold, Mitchell provides his readers with a bit of context. This context-ranging from Gibson's 'console cowboys' to Donna Haraway's cyborgs-gives students a useful, albeit simplified theoretical foundation with which to approach the issues addressed by Mitchell. For advanced students, instructors may wish to assign Douglas Schuler's New Community Networks: Wired for Change, a comprehensive book on the topic of community networks. Schuler, the chair of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, a founding member of the Seattle Community Network, and a software engineer, focuses on community networks' potential for fostering democratic participation on the part of community members.
The best way to begin to understand virtual cities is to visit them-not in person, but online. Community networks such as the Blacksburg Electronic Village (http://www.bev.net) and Telluride's InfoZone (http://infozone.telluride.co.us/InfoZone.html) provide excellent starting points for students to observe and examine virtual cities first hand. (For a large list of community networks, see: http://www.sils.umich.edu/Community/exampcns.html) Instructors should encourage students to explore the division (or lack thereof) between commercial and public space, issues of inclusion and exclusion of marginalized cultural groups and voices, and users' ability to not only witness public debates online but also participate in those debates. Instructors can assign advanced students the task of comparing and contrasting a number of different community networks. In particular, students should analyse how the structural development of the community network (commercial-based, civic-based, or user-based) is reflected in the network's design, opportunities, and/or limitations.
William J. Mitchell's City of Bits available online from the MIT website.
One of the most fascinating aspects of cyberculture is its perpetual fluidity. The moment we think we have 'figured out' email, listservs arrive. After developing a 'faultless' model with which to study mailing lists, MOOs, MUDs, and the World Wide Web come to town. Thus, readers must keep in mind that while our three topics of cyberculture-virtual identities, virtual communities, and virtual cities-and our three primary texts-Sherry Turkle's Life on the Screen, Howard Rheingold's The Virtual Community, and William Mitchell's City of Bits-are up-do-date, thought-provoking, and trailblazing today, they may become as obsolete as the Macintosh Lisa tomorrow.
At the same time, instructors and students may find the dynamic nature of cyberculture quite exciting. Instead of reading, studying, and regurgitating the canon, today's students of cyberculture find themselves upon a crossroads-it is up to us to decide why and how we study cyberculture.
Because so much of cyberculture and criticism of cyberculture is found not in books and journals but rather on the Web, I decided to conclude this essay with a list of relevant sites. These sites can and should supplement the readings and fieldwork exercises.
Related Online Journals:
Amy Bruckman (1992). 'Identity Workshop: Emergent Social and Psychological Phenomena in Text-Based Virtual Reality'. ftp://media.mit.edu/pub/asb/papers/identity-workshop.rtf
William Gibson (1984). Neuromancer. New York: Ace Books.
William J. Mitchell (1995). City of Bits: Space, Place, and the Infobahn. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
Howard Rheingold (1993). The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley.
Douglas Schuler (1996). New Community Networks: Wired for Change. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley.
Allucquere Rosanne Stone (1991). 'Will the Real Body Please Stand Up? Boundary Stories about Virtual Cultures' in Cyberspace: First Steps, Michael Benedikt (ed). Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
Sherry Turkle (1995). Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet. New York: Simon & Schuster.
[Table of Contents] [Letter to the Editor]
Computers & Texts 12 (1996), 2. Not to be republished in any form
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Document Created: 22 August 1996
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