Let’s start with something basic. Up until recently, communities were rooted
in neighborhoods and fostered in certain kinds of places — the park, the
front stoop, the local bar, the back fence — or they evolved from an issue
that brought believers together — Women’s Lib and anti-war sentiment in
the sixties and seventies, religion through the ages. These kinds of
communities, though founded on a particular issue or common faith,
traditionally occupied distinct spaces: political rallies and marches on
Washington, churches, mosques and synagogues.

In virtual communities, where space becomes a metaphor and emotions become
icons, what happens? What is gained? Does the electropolis entail a loss of
intimacy or offer a quicker route to it? Right now, virtual communities are
largely built around text; is this a just a primitive, stop-gap solution
to inadequate bandwidth, or is there something about carving out worlds
with words that enhances or permits the development of community? And
finally, should we be calling these things communities at all? Or are we
witnessing the birth of a new kind of interaction that loosely resembles
community but, in fact, merits a new, more descriptive name?



Are the communities of interest facilitated by computer networks a way
of revitalizing civil institutions through civil communications, or are
they fostering a dangerous illusion of civil association that doesn’t have
an effect in the world where things like liberty matter. If a
community doesn’t have the power to prevent the state from stealing the
freedom of its citizens, for example, these arguments are academic. Right
now, there is a fight going on in American power circles, over who will
control the communications media that make virtual communities possible.
The freedom of individual citizens to communicate without fear of state
censorship is at stake. If the communities of interest that have emerged
from the Internet prove to be valuable in fighting the power grab by
Congressional censors, then their value must be respected. If the battle is
lost, the question is moot.

If there is any community at all in a virtual community, it happens
between the people. The many-to-many public conversations and private
e-mail dialogues facilitated by computer networks are human relationships.
Do those virtual relationships lead to real friendships? Do people who
meet electronically form bonds face to face? Do people you meet online end
up visiting you in the hospital, attend your wedding or your funeral? I
can point to real instances from my own life in which the answer to
those questions is “yes.”

I would disagree with anyone who asserts that virtual communities
are trifles that never have any substantial effect on people’s lives. If
all the virtual communities were to cease to exist tomorrow, you can count
up a considerable number of Alzheimer’s care givers, people with AIDs or
cancer or multiple sclerosis or any number of other diseases who regularly
obtain not just up-to-date information, but emotional support beyond what
they can obtain in their geographic community.

The world of the geographic community has been assaulted for this
century, long before computers came along, by communications and
transportation technologies. The automobile, the telephone, and the
elevator, fueled by a petroleum-sucking industrial economy, paved over an
extraordinary amount of the natural world that had existed up until our
grandparents’ time. Like it or not, we have cities in which millions of
citizens are afraid to go out at night. Instead, they stay inside and watch
the tube. Compared to staring at the television, even the most insipid
communication on the Internet is marginally more animated, at very worst.
What about the disabled? The elderly? Who is disenfranchised when virtual
communities are dismissed by theorists who don’t know any better?

Having made that strong defense, based on my own experience, let me
voice my neutrality regarding the long-term viability of virtual
communities. Right now, I think the power of virtual communities is very
much in question. Onerous and ignorant legislation by would-be censors in
Congress and insidious legislation by surveillance-positive legislators
have been vigorously opposed by millions of netizens. The jury is still out
on whether this loud opposition has had any effect.

We could have had all kinds of philosophical discussions about the
reality of virtual communities, but the current conflict over control of
expression on the Net is a reality that can’t be ignored. The result of
that conflict will answer the question.

“In novels, where space becomes a metaphor and emotions become icons,
what happens?” would be the glib answer. It’s legit. Think about it.
However, I don’t want to be flip about a serious question. I believe we
have every reason to be skeptical of emotions triggered by any media,
whether those electronic messages come on television screens, drive-time
radio, or ascii exchanges like this one. I believe people should personally
be wary of bogus mediated emotions. You can’t ignore the reality that you
can reach out and turn off the computer in a virtual community. That’s a
fundamental difference that one ignores at one’s peril.

We’re *born* into a world in which intimacy has been sliced, diced,
and reassembled into a simulacrum. The average American home has the
television on more than six hours a day. We elect Presidents and support
companies because of what that little box tells us. It’s a tricky question.
If you are using something as a substitute for enduring human
relationships, you have a problem. On the other hand, isn’t loneliness a
problem? Is it unreal for a person who would otherwise have spent the
evening alone to have a perhaps substantial and profound conversation with
another human via e-mail?

It remains to be seen [whether text based communities are just a stop-gap
solution to narrow bandwidth.] The way this technology expands, time
compresses. In three or five Net years, we’ll see whether ascii-based
communities are replaced by many-to-many multimedia. My guess is that both
forms will continue to survive and it will take multimedia to mature as a
medium, the way cinema, for example, matured between Edison and Griffith.

The term “community” is elastic. Sociologists write libraries
about gemeinschafts and gesellschafts. But I think it will take some more
years before we are clear on how a virtual community is and is not like a
real community. When we have a clearer model of what virtual communities
are, in terms of their impact on people’s real lives, and their political
impact, if any, then that will create a sufficient cloud of associations
that people will know exactly what you mean and what you don’t mean when
you call something a virtual community.


Since we’re not being held to any chronological order in this discussion,
I’ll begin at the end and make my way, as best I can, from there. Are we
witnessing the birth of a new kind of community? Though I’m wary of the
“greatest-development-since-the-discovery-of-fire” hyperbole we’ve all run
across, I’d have to say yes. Has this new, electronic community been a
response to the not-so-gradual erosion of civil soicety in the west and the
disappearance of many of the intermediary institutions that gave it shape?
Perhaps. Though I suspect that in many cases cyberspace communities will
simply end up mirroring social forms in a-physical space (Christnet instead
of the Second Baptist Church), it seems clear to me that the disintegration
of the real world communities adds impetus to our migration to — as you
call it — the electropolis. Is this a viable alternative to those older
physical forms of community — however flawed by nature and tattered by
“progress” they may be? I think not, and here’s why.

Though I run the risk of sounding like Bill Bennett (a recurring
nightmare), my problem with the concept of virtual communities revolves
around the issue of responsibility. To my mind, for example, the value of
the intimacy we achieve with someone on the Net is diminished by the fact
of anonymity; the gains, however great, must always be qualified by the
relative safety of the medium. While it may take courage to reveal
ourselves to a virtual friend or lover, how infinitely more courageous to
bare our soul to someone sitting across the table from us or lying next to
us in bed. Though one could always argue that in real life we construct
masks and inhabit avatars as surely as we do in cyberspace, there’s no
denying, it seems to me, that physical presence elicits a degree of
responsibility, or accountability, missing from the virtual world.

This relative lack of accountability on the Net, which I see as both
seductive and dangerous, raises some interesting questions. Are we opting
for virtual communities (and the safety they afford) because the physical
ones frighten us, perhaps? Because free speech, in many real-world
communities, has yielded to prudence and self-censorship? Because we’re
concerned that someone might register their disagreement by shooting us
through the liver? Is it possible, in other words, that we’re increasingly
afraid, in this over-armed culture of ours, of expressing our opinions
openly and courageously?

I think it is. But is the annonymity of the virtual community the answer? I
don’t believe so. By opting out, so to speak, we’re leaving the field to
the voices of ignorance and bigotry and intolerance that most require our
resistance. Affirming one another’s views (or arguing with one another) on
the Net isn’t good enough; at best, it can provide impetus to real-world
action; at worst, it is a recipe for political quietism. What we have to
do is something considerably harder — carry our convictions into the real
world, translate our arguments to the real arena: the neighborhood
barbeque, the local bar and the church picnic.

My philosophical stance, as should be clear by now, is based on a
fundamental allegiance to the physical world; I’m no less uncomfortable
with an abstraction like “the virtual community” than I am with its earlier
incarnation, the Heavenly City. When the flesh is made word (as John Perry
Barlow put it in a letter to Harper’s magazine), I get nervous. Why?
Because transcendentalists from Plato to Augustine to (god help me!) Kevin
Kelly, by positing the existence of a world elsewhere, by subordinating the
physical realm to some alternate space, have made it possible for us to see
this world we inhabit, this life we all share, as anything less than
sacred. What troubles me about the virtual community is that it denies,
implicitly, the wholeness of human existence, the unity of body and the
spirit. On this issue, I’m with Whitman: the body is the soul. Lose one
and you lose the other.

At bottom, of course, the issue is as much genetic as spiritual; human
culture, we know, evolved over millennia in direct response to the
pressures and constraints of the physical world. What evidence is there to
suggest that we can divorce ourselves from the physical realm (all in a
blink of the evolutionary eye) without incurring enormous
pain — psychological, social, broadly cultural?

As I see it, the constraints of bandwidth imply a kind of sensual
segregation; what’s locked out from the virtual community is enormously
important: the physical touch, the eloquence of the unsaid, the wonderfully
complex and valuable tissue of untranslatable “languages” by which we
communicate as surely as we do via the spoken word. When I recall the
virtual communities I entered, I remember (despite the mass of words) a
world of enormous silence. Handicapped by the medium, our language (asked
to do more than it can) grows strained and awkward. Like children trying
to talk beneath the surface of a pool, we become all gestures and wildly
exaggerated lip movements. Or, to draw a slightly more incendiary analogy,
we come to resemble the “grotesques” of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg,
Ohio. Cramped by the inability to express themselves in words, Anderson’s
characters erupted in an assortment of physical tics; limited to expressing
ourselves with words alone, we court a similar (and proportional)
grotesquerie.


I’m seeing 13 Ghosts in ILLUSION-O tonight at the Film Forum. I’m going
with Andrea, Brett, Al, Nancy and Jackie, all people I’ve met through Echo.
If virtual communities didn’t lead to this sort if thing, I wouldn’t use
them. (By the way, if you’re curious, ILLUSION-O refers to the fact that
you can only see some of the ghosts with special “Ghost Viewers.” William
Castle always had a gimmick.)

Andrea is Andrea Juno of Re/Search Publications. She has been my hero ever
since they re-issued Daniel Mannix’s “Freaks: We Who Are Not As Others.”
We talk about men. Brett just got a job as a result of the home page he put
on Echo. He’s from Oklahoma. He’s my first friend from Oklahoma. Nancy
came on through a friend and is so smart and so funny I feel like thanking
her friend every time I see her at the Art Bar. Jackie dated my ex-boyfriend
whom she met through Echo. Romance, work, ideas and people to go to the
movies with. This is what I look for in a neighborhood.

I think people will always use words to communicate in virtual communities
like Echo. It’s just easier for most of us to tell you with words what we
are thinking and feeling rather than trying to draw you a picture. A simple
graphical browser will make it easier to navigate these conversations but
the conversations will still be mostly words. The one element I do get
worked up about adding is sound. This is probably heresy coming from
someone with a BFA, but I think sound is more powerful than anything visual.

Electronic neighborhoods, virtual communities, whatever. I do wish I could
think of something to call them that didn’t sound so geeky.


This question seems to suggest that we must choose between participating in
place-based communities and joining electronically supported, virtual ones
— that it’s one or the other. But that’s just not the case. It’s more
accurate to say that bodily presence and telepresence now play differing,
and potentially complementary roles in sustaining the connections that
matter to us.

Consider, for example, all those affluent teleworkers living in Aspen.
Through physical location they connect themselves to a very particular
place and small-scale local community. At the same time, through digital
telecommunication, they make the connections that they need to more
far-flung communities of interest. It’s the combination that works for
them. There would be no value to locating in Aspen if they just sat all day
typing messages in darkened rooms, but there would be no way to remain in
Aspen if they had to rely solely on the economic opportunities, services,
and intellectual connections available within that small community itself.

And contemplate the following (I think plausible, if a bit optimistic)
scenario for urban restructuring as telecommuting takes hold on a large
scale. The old downtown gradually loses its role as a concentration of
workplaces, and is refashioned as an entertainment and cultural center.
Simultaneously, the former bedroom suburbs get higher daytime populations
as former daily commuters stay at home to work. This makes local service
institutions — lunchtime restaurants, health clubs, etc — more viable.
And people flock to these institutions because they find that they miss the
social milieu that the downtown workplaces once provided. So we get a kind
of rebirth of Main Street — re-nucleation of small neighborhoods around
local service institutions. Once again, it’s a combination of spatial
organization and telecommunication that delivers what’s needed.

So I think it’s rather fruitless to argue the respective merits of the
theoretical extremes — communities that are sustained by face-to-face
contact versus those that rely entirely on telecommunication. It’s far more
interesting to consider the messy, complex, hybrid conditions that are
emerging as cyberspace overlays physical space and we live increasingly at
the intersections of the two.


I was going to compose a response to Mark but William said it all in his
last paragraph. William rocks my world today.

I’m tired of responding to arguments like the ones Mark made. I’m happy to
have Mark and others like him continue on thinking whatever they like.
What do I care? There’s always William and others like him to talk to.

It’s not that I’m a utopian about virtual communities, far from it. Here. I
have an idea.

This is from “Little Black Heart of the Telephone” by Robert Penn Warren.
This is for Mark since I was just less than kind.

“That telephone keeps screaming its little black heart out:
Nobody there? Oh, nobody’s there!–and the blank room bleeds
For the little black bleeding heart of the telephone.
I, too, have suffered. I know how it feels
When you scream and scream, and nobody’s there.”

(Skipping to the last stanza …)

“Anyway, in broad daylight, I’m now on the street,
And no telephone anywhere near, or even
Thinking about me. But tonight, back in bed, I may dream
Of a telephone screaming its little black heart out,
In an emtpy room, toward sunset,
While a year-old newspaper, yellowing, lies on the floor, and velvety
Dust thick over everything, especially
On the black telephone, on which no thumb-print has,
For a long time now, been visible.

In my dream I wonder why, long since, it’s not been disconnected.”

MOVIE UPDATE: So we experienced ILLUSION-O last night, my virtual/
physical friends and I. It was okay. EMERGO (the gimmick that went with
“House on Haunted Hill”) was better. Saturday it’s PERCEPTO with
“The Tingler!”

This morning the guy I am dating flashed this message on my screen: (He
lives in LA.)

“I was just lying on the couch dreaming of what I will do to you when I see
you again. It involves your couch, opening your legs, tongues and
blindfolds.”

I can assure you, even though I was on the computer, my body was right
there with me. Take that, those of you who think the computer can
miraculously separate our hearts and minds (and lust) from the flesh.


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