Social Interaction within Virtual Environments (Part 2 of 4)

History

The first privately owned computer BBSs (bulletin board services) began to emerge around 1970. One such service was a group of experimental computer programmers in San Francisco who named their network CommuniTree after the philosophy adopted; “transformative because of the ontological structure it presupposed, and simultaneously created… [a] mode of tree-structured [organic] discourse” (Stone 1993).

The purpose of the CommuniTree BBS was to establish a computer network that would create “a new kind of community that could… transform existing society and facilitate the emergence of new social forms” (Stone, CommuniTree 1993). They saw networks as a “natural means for the cross-transference of memes, and their more rapid ferment into socially useful and aesthetically pleasing cultural artifacts” (CommuniTree, 1st ed.). In terms of information, they saw the dissemination thereof as a means to increase awareness, a means to create new bonds within an existing community. The meme is a cultural phenomenon encapsulated, as in a text or myth. Memes mimic the behavior of genes when injected into the body politic. And although inherently selfish, memes are most rapidly distributed via electronic networks (Dawkins 1989).

The network structure of the CommuniTree BBS followed a non-hierarchical principle; “If you distribute control and make it somewhat redundant in the network, it makes it very difficult… to disrupt the activities of the network” (CommuniTree, 1st ed.). Without central authority, a network operates in such a way that allows for any connected source not only to receive messages but transmit and relay them as well, the antithesis of many mass communication systems which follow a few to many broadcasting pattern.

The decentralized structure allows for simple unchecked expansion since permission from a specific authority is not a requirement for participation. Yet without a central figure filtering traffic, the network as a whole is vulnerable to malicious penetration unless individual nodes take system security into consideration. The disadvantage of the decentralized structure, in he case of CommuniTree, was that open subscription went unchecked. Not only was it unknown what links were being made to the network, but also unknown were the intentions and activities of those newly attached nodes. The CommuniTree BBS, despite its utopian intentions, fell prey to the destructive activities of non-appreciative grade school students. If such a structure were to survive, security at the individual node level would be a primary consideration.

At around the same time, a similar experiment was in progress. The development of the Intenet began around 1964 as a brainchild of the RAND corporation to provide the US armed forces with a communications network that could withstand enormous damage and still manage to function. Science fiction author Bruce Sterling explains:

[T]he network would have no central authority… it would be designed from the beginning to operate while in tatters. The principles were simple. The network itself would be assumed to be unreliable at all times. It would be designed… to transcend its own unreliability. All the nodes in the network would be equal in status to all other nodes, each node with its own authority to originate, pass, and receive messages. The messages themselves would be divided into packets, each packet separately addressed. Each packet would begin at some specified source node and end at some other specified destination node. Each packet would [travel] through the network on an individual basis, its particular route unimportant (Public Media Monitor V.3 No. 3).

I find it ironic the concept of decentralization was adopted as a system of communication for the military; an organization known for a rigid and hierarchical system of management. Clearly, the motivation of the CommuniTree BBS was to use the decentralized structure as a means of disseminating power and flattening hierarchies whereas the purpose of the early Internet was to maintain communication in the case of a disaster. It could be that the sole intention DARPA had behind building such a structure was to lend the armed forces further advantage in the event of an international crisis, but regardless, the principle of decentralization proves to be very effective within any physical and ordered arrangement as a means of maintaining communication. But to what degree does the system of communication within a social structure affect the exterior?

Within the past thirty years the content of passing bits and purpose of the network itself changed significantly. The Internet has passed experienced a rapid transformation from a tool for scientific research and military communication to an international arena for social discourse; an omnidirectional medium for the exchange, deposit, and retrieval of information.

Within the nodes of the networks are various forums, globally interactive text based applications: electronic mail, Internet relay chat, USENET news, world wide web, and multi-user environments (MUD, MOO). Although varying in degree of synchronicity, intimacy, technical design, and consumption of system resources, they all facilitate the fairly recent phenomenon central to this study: social interaction within virtual environments.

I want to emphasize that no definitive picture of the net exists. Although the network as a whole functions on compatible communication protocols variety of interfaces are available for different makes and models of computer systems. At each individual level, the network as a whole has a different appearance and purpose. “Everybody,” says Bruce Sterling, “has their own Internet.” But regardless of the site level variations, the implication of being an open, uncensored global communications medium resonates throughout.

Hierarchies

Before discussing the production of community within these virtual spaces, a few notes in regards to the structure of the apparatus itself is needed. The decentralization principle creates an environment allowing for unlimited growth and the establishment of connections from a variety of persuasions. In regards to the concept of hierarchy:

Hierarchy is a way of handling complexity: break down the task into sub-units which can handle the variety of choices and contingencies, and which can handle to results of even smaller sub-units further generated. Strategically, this yields few higher level nodes from which one can survey and guide the whole. Since the human mind can handle only so much complexity, it was bound to create and utilize some topology of hierarchy in an attempt to organize the resources and economies of scale of the material world. Following the invention of writing, we find increasing number of social and cultural empires founded on control of centralizing production, storage, and analysis of information. (Uncapher, forthcoming).

Required in the organization of large amounts information are sophisticated devices capable of receiving, filtering, and presenting; computers, or in the context of networks: nodes. The dissemination of power in terms of the command and control of information creates a scenario in which the apparatus itself becomes more cohesive. An analogy to design is Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic structure, a “constant play of many strengths and resilieancies of the many interconnections forming the whole” (Uncapher, forthcoming). With a hierarchical structure, all gradients arrive at the same point, the removal of that central point of balance causes the entire structure to collapse. It is no wonder why the objective of a coup d’etat are centers housing political figures and telecommunication facilities (Kousoulas 142). In eliminating pivotal points of command and traffic, the desired area of control is easily encompassed.

Community

As a result of open participation within this non-hierarchical, “multi-user” environment facilitated by a variety of text based applications, community surfaces. Following the definition that social interaction is a reciprocal activity, the exchange of text is what produces stimuli and therefore the medium from which community is centered (Kousoulas, 1982).

Interactivity or community does not occur unless contributions are made to a group. Considering the metaphor “Information Highway,” suggesting speedy lanes of binary traffic without delays, an image bringing to mind a type of point-and-click imperialism in which the territories are seamless and without the shameful history of physical colonization. The recent advertisements from the mass media offer such convenience but fail to recognize the system of virtual co-operation responsible for the construction of the initial roads they now wish to pave with fiber optic links and mouse driven “information retrieval at your fingertips.” The “information highway” does not suggest community, interactivity, or collaboration but results in a “thanks in advance” for the reciprocation of a request. [3]

3 The annoying phrase “thanks in advance” is often the salutation of requests. This assumes that somebody will respond, and no further interaction is necessary.

This discussion of community (and entire thesis) reflects upon only those who have chosen to interact since I’m understanding that the purpose of an organization to further the common interests of their members (Olson 1971). Examining the elements existing on the very surface of community, society, organization, or social group, immediately a common thread of utility is encountered. Utility is the cohesive element within a social group that gives it some purpose and function. This utility may be in the form of labor, abstracts, ideology, some element of identity, or in the sense a virtual community: the deconstruction and exploration of identity.

In this critique of virtual community I’ve considered Mancur Olson’s comments on the traditional theory of groups in which he notes two basic variants of the theory; the casual and the formal. The casual form is such that:

…private organizations and groups are ubiquitous, and that this ubiquity is due to a fundamental human propensity to form and join associations… This “instinct” also “underlies the formation of all the divisions and subdivisions … that arise within a given society and occasion moral and, sometimes, physical conflicts.” …This universal joining tendency or propensity is often thought to have reached its highest intensity in the United States (Olson, 1971)*

The formal variant has less to do with what Olson emphasizes as an “instinct” or “tendency” to organize, but rather one of physical utility common in “primitive” societies:

It begins with the fact that “primary groups” -groups so small that each of the members has a face-to-face relationship with the others -like family and kinship groups are predominant in primitive societies (Olson 1971).

The traditional theory of organization does not apply well with social groups within virtual environments. The casual variant assumes group participation is part of human nature, that people join because of some instinctive need to belong. But this explains anything about the purpose of a group. It is clear that some motivation is necessary for bonding, there is no purpose in simply joining. The motivation explained with the formal variant is that groups form because of physical reasons, mainly proximity and kinship neither of which are the basis of social encounters within nets.

If neither of these theories apply to virtual interaction then how can we justify such a thing as community within virtual environments? In advanced societies, certain structures are created that replace group organization based on proximity or kinship. These structures are not based solely on physical characteristics, but ideological or spiritual beliefs (e.g. churches, political organizations, clubs). The fact that members of these virtual communities revolve around the exchange of text, that they meet in familiar places may be sufficient to call them communities, and there would be no need for arguing the existence of community, but yet what is the cohesive element?

Donna Haraway, in her essay “Cyborg Manifesto,” refers to cyborg societies as affinity groups: “related not by blood but by choice, the appeal of one chemical nuclear group for another, avidity” (Haraway 1991). The appeal, or the attraction is one not based primarily on the traditional model but one of multi-purpose ideology, not based specifically on any pre-existing platform. Since I find none of the descriptions of the purpose of groups adequate for explaining social formation within virtual spaces, I’ll continue with the reference as affinity groups.

The main distinction between these virtual affinity groups and physical social units is their method of text based discourse. Therefore lacking physical codes of gender, race, class, and so on. The function of these affinity groups is the ability to escape these physical labels and devise identity, to explore and create anew. And what happens when people are given the freedom to explore identity? I’m leaving the question untouched for the moment, and shifting to a topic that may help clarify the puzzling element of what has been identified as the function, or utility. Before the transition, I’ll summarize some of the points raised thus far:

1. Social interaction is a reciprocal activity. Interaction within virtual environments is based on the exchange of text.

2. The traditional theory of groups: The traditional theory raises some interesting questions of groups in general but is not so useful in explaining the cohesive element between virtual affinity groups. The fact that affinity groups (aka virtual communities) form around the exchange of text, at a distance, and without previous physical engagements, calls for a re-examination of traditional models.

3. I’m regarding the cohesive element of these affinity groups as the ability to interact without physical codes present. Participants can filter in or out as many physical social variables as desired.

4. Virtual spaces are active incubators for the generation of new types of communities and identities.

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