VID > Stewart Douglas > Chapter 1

So Who's Got Ops? Power, Control & the Undernet Virtual Community

Stewart Douglas

Chapter One

The Hierarchical Community, or, "On The Internet Nobody Knows You're A Dog."

The February 1997 edition of the American magazine NetGuide, featured a cartoon based on the articulation of a perception; a perception that exists within an 'imagined community'. The cartoon depicts a group of six people sitting around a table. Five of the six are identified through the use of Western racial stereotypes as belonging to the generically constructed socio-cultural group usually classified as 'Arab'. Three of the five are in 'traditional' Arab dress, with sunglasses, pointed beards and 'swarthy' complexions. The fourth wears a military uniform, a snarl, a three day growth and sports a gun, just visible over the top of the table, while the fifth wears an ill fitting Western suit, has a claw for a left hand and an amazing array of scars over his face. The final figure (presumably intended to be an Israeli) is dressed in a smart suit, complete with tie and is writing on a piece of paper with a pen. Above the cartoon, the caption reads: "Suppose the Mideast peace negotiations were held in a chat room".

Speech balloons from each of the six figures (from left to right) consist of:

"Hi!" "Wot's up?" "Nothin' much." "How old are you?" "NOYB! What's your sex?" "Gotta do homework. Bye." 13

In terms of its mediated construction of social reality, the cartoon becomes more than the racist representation of a 'different' cultural group, whose 'humour' exists within a significantly broad construction of 'orientalism' that has its own contextual historicity. Certainly, in terms of its ideological construction, the cartoon functions as an embodiment of Western perceptions of the 'Arab' world, but contextually the cartoon also represents a manifestation of the cultural perspectives embodied within the internal commodities of a subtly different 'imagined community': an 'imagined community' that carries with it its own 'shared' historical construction of the myth of its origin, its own heroic figures and monuments and its own recognition of an imagined 'Self' that is able to fabricate a perceived image of a community.

The cartoon represents an articulation of the socio-cultural matrix existing within an 'imagined' community which is socially constructed as functioning within and through the 'virtual' world of the Internet. In common with other 'imagined communities', the 'virtual community' of the Internet constructs the essential symbolic foundations necessary for the manifestation of an inherently mythical structural unity embodied in the articulation of an 'imagined' global community; a sense of nation that "... regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail .., the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship."14 The 'virtual community' exists as a conceptual meta-community, a community that exists sans frontier, a community that is able to function beyond the historical problematic of racial and geographical boundaries, for on the Internet "....nobody knows you're a dog."15 And presumably nobody cares either, or at least that is the myth.

Such 'imagined' constructions can be regarded in themselves as inherently problematic, despite the assurances of the 'prophets' and 'politicians' of the digital age that "... the access, the mobility and the ability to effect change are what will make the future so different from the present. The information superhighway may be mostly hype today, but it is an understatement about tomorrow."16 Thus the 'virtual community' perpetuates the myth of its own meta-geographical egalitarianism, democracy in its purest form. However, even Negroponte has to concede that "... the vast majority of Internet users today are newcomers"17 and bemoans "... their inconsiderate use of the Internet.."18 (italics added) It is within this dynamic construction of the stratification of the 'virtual community' that the cartoon regarding the interpreted conversational matrix of the Internet 'chat room' begins to assume a contextual relevance. The cartoon becomes the articulation of a process of social stratification, a recognition that there exists within the 'virtual community' of the Internet a hierarchical structure of status, merit and importance. A structure that exserts and maintains its own logonomic systems of control and empowerment. An example of this hierarchical stratification can be established through the effective marginalisation of the 'chat' section of the Internet in the cartoon. Netguide proclaims itself to be the "official publication of the Internet Developers Association", it embraces a specific context of commercial (and presumably 'virtual') validity and legitimacy, yet, despite its championing of the digital 'underground' and the shared 'imaginings' that go with it, the magazine publishes a cartoon that reinforces a logonomic stratification it would seek to deny.

In this sense, there is a tendency to view any 'imagined community' as possessing a cohesive unity of self image; a shared perception of the communal 'self' that is somehow divided equally amongst members, regardless "...of any actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail."(Italics added)19. This presents the members of a nation as being homogeneous in their 'imaginings', as though they 'share' a set of perceptions characterised by their commonality. Furthermore, it presupposes a degree of 'equality of access' that may not actually exist. The result of this reductionism is to marginalise the degree of 'flexibility' allowed the individual within the politics of everyday life. It does not provide sufficient explanation for the production of distinct sub-cultural groups that may, or may not, engage in acts of resistance to the unity of the 'imagined community'. In terms of the 'community' of the Internet, I believe this has a number of significant variations, each of which impact directly on systemic features embedded in the construction of a viable sense of 'Self". This will need to be explored in greater detail later on, but some explanation at this stage may clarify several points of possible contention. There is an already mentioned tendency to use the term 'Internet' in a global sense, to characterise it as possessing an inherent structural unity, a monolithic society comprised around the transmission of electrons through wire. However, this 'community' of cyber-space also demonstrates a systemic hierarchical structure. It is a fractured multi-layered strata comprised of dynamic, ever-changing tectonic plates of a social construction. Similarly, membership is multi-layered, with the individual sharing his/her membership across a diverse spectrum of socially constructed situations. In other words, the individual participant of the cyber-community may be involved in a diverse range of newsgroups, each with distinct social parameters, as well as being a regular member of several 'chat' channels. Again, the normative social expectations involve a repertoire of skills, expectations and behavioural patterns. The individual becomes a contextually located social being expressing a multiplicity of allegiances according to requirements of a particular situation.

IRC can be regarded as possessing the features of a sub-cultural group. Within any community there are sub-cultural groups that are excluded from effective participation, either through legal/cultural sanctions, or through their own rejection of such participation. Such groups may be able to 'tap into' the 'imagined community' through their 'sharing' of the historicity of the 'imagining' process, but still be denied full membership. The 'imagined community' can subsequently be fractured into an almost limitless panorama of ghostly 'imaginings' that co-exist in varying degrees of comfort with the dominant. To imagine a 'community' involves both an inclusive and exclusive process, and there is a tendency to focus on 'macroscopic' aspects, to the detriment of 'micro' manifestations of 'difference' that may express an antagonist relationship to the dominant 'imaginings'. There exists within the community 'degrees of membership', and these 'degrees' are based on something more than linguistic ability. As an example, politicians and talk back radio hosts can lay claim to membership of 'middle Australia', the 'self-evident' nurturing ground of traditional values and home of "...the Australian legend or national mystique." (original Italics)20 Naturally, 'middle' presupposes the existence of a 'top' and a 'bottom', and not everyone is able to assume full membership rights of the 'middle' kingdom. The 'bottom' have only restricted access to the full 'benefits' of the 'imagined community', and this 'bottom' or 'lesser kingdom' possesses sufficient flexibility to discriminate against the individual across a diverse range of criteria,21 of which racism is only one applicable sanction. Language does not provide a guaranteed passport to full membership, for while a particular language may be "...always open to new speakers"22, the same cannot be said for the 'imagined community'.

Anderson correctly maintains that the 'imagined community' exists within the dynamic interface created between its concrete manifestations, (maps, memorials, museums) and its production of a 'national identity. The concrete becomes permeated with the 'ghostly', and helps to define a sense of national 'self' that permits differentiation from the external and internal 'Other'. The 'imagined community' is able to manifest its conception of 'self' as an external reality, to express membership through specific objects of 'cultural' significance that define the historicity embedded in being part of the 'community'. It becomes a dynamic process of reaffirmation: this is what 'we' were, this is what 'we' are, and this is what 'we' will become. The 'narrative' of the 'imagined community' is always being written, reproduced and transmitted. It is able to respond to real or imagined threats, and to appropriate new manifestations of the communal identity.

Here I am suggesting that the 'Internet' exists within a social construction of subtle complexity. It has, to a certain extent, promoted (and been promoted) as a separate sub-cultural 'community': a world without frontiers. It therefore follows that there is a parallel suggestion that the manifestation of contemporary conflict rests in the infatuation of the modern nation state in perpetuation and reinforcing frontiers, boundaries and borders. Distinctions that keep 'people' apart, that separate 'us' from achieving the realisation of our common humanity. Hence, universalism provides the philosophical background for the 'true believers' in the Internet. A tacit belief in 'communication' as being the means to achieve understanding. After all, cyberspace "... is free of control by politicians and bureaucrats who cannot force (by threat of physical and/or financial punishment) the citizens to comply with their demands. In any open forum, honesty will always defeat dishonesty.."23 Ultimately, the Internet is the most 'open' of forums, the last domain of the digital cowboy, able to roam the virtual range free from the petty constraints of the 'everyday', with all its rules and regulations. In this way the Internet 'community' consists of free speaking individuals, the personal empowered to the nth degree, with every opinion valued, considered and passed around like so many virtual peace pipes, to be shared amongst all. Naturally, one would expect the 'reality' of the 'virtual' to function within slightly less idealistic terms. Indeed, the Internet has shown itself to be slightly less tolerant of divergence than its prophets might be prepared to admit. Douglas Rushkoff, the author of Cyberia, recently bemoaned in an article that "...online, we are all too human."24 He complains of a lack of tolerance towards difference and deviation within the Internet community, asking "... if we can't be honest in the safety of cyberspace, where can we be.?"25 In this sense, it is to easy to mis-appropriate the concept of 'virtual' and to use it as a conceptual cloak, partially concealing the 'reality' of the social situations made possible through the Internet. Certainly the Internet can be conveniently described as a 'virtual community', but it is not comprised of 'virtual humans'. It is important to recognise that the identity sitting at the other end of the keyboard is a 'real' human occupying a real socio-cultural context. As such, the 'virtual community' is not the only one available to its members, but simply one of may possible alternatives.

Similarly, all communities can be said to exist only in the 'virtual' sense, they are carried around like so much cultural baggage, permeated with historicity and perpetuated through language. For Anderson, language provides the essential core of the 'imagined community', for "... from the start the nation was conceived in language, not in blood, and that one could be 'invited into' the imagined community.26 Where the 'virtual community' is able to establish a primary distinction from the 'imagined community' as defined by Anderson, is this total commitment to language, not only as the means for production, but also as the mode of maintaining historicity. Conceptually, the community of cyberspace may be considered almost as an 'oral' community, rather than a 'virtual' one. For like other communities based on an oral tradition, the 'virtual' community occupies no less a tangible space. It has its own 'reality', a reality that is shared between those members prepared to believe and participate in that 'reality', to accept the 'reality' of the emotional content of shared communications. Thus, while it is unable to erect monuments and edifices in the real sense of the physical world, the community is still able, through the semiotic process, to manifest those essential 'narratives of continuity' which occupy the 'reality' of the digital age. As will be shown, it is also able to construct and exert control over the degree of access permitted to individual members. Language provides the primary badge of membership to the 'virtual' community certainly, but it also enables the stratification of cyber-society, the restriction of the communal narrative to members evaluated as being more worthy of such access. In this way, the cyber-society may be interpreted as having more in common with the emergence of nation-states during the middle ages, than with the modern nation state. The cyber community exists in a strict hierarchical structure, with its own relatively rigid caste system of Royalty, Priests, Acolytes and peasants. However, unlike the middle ages, change and challenges to the established order happen with significantly more frequency.

Like the modern nation state, the community of the 'virtual' "... presents itself as simultaneously open and closed."27 Through its inherent reliance on language, the Internet is able to present the myth that its membership is open to all. And in a sense this is true: all this is really required is a computer, a modem, and ISP account and the necessary software. In this sense, the Internet can be interpreted as an open system, albeit depending on the socio-economic status of potential members. However, language must also be considered as an ideological complex, one that is "... constructed in order to constrain behaviour by structuring the versions of reality on which social action is based, in particular ways."28 In this way, the Internet must be considered as a closed´ system, because it is also directly involved in the shared construction of social identity, of establishing the 'nature' of the relationship between those involved in the semiotic process. In other words, the cyber-community has appropriated and manufactured its own semiotic codes: its own style. Furthermore, this style embraces its own metasigns in order to clarify and structure group identity. The 'virtual community' has selectively, and selfconsciously, assembled its own anti-language in order to "... simultaneously exclude outsiders, and express the ideology of the anti-group."29 I am suggesting that this is a deliberate ideological process of conscious selection: that it is important for the members of the 'virtual community' to construct the 'community' as being different, in much the same way that other stylistic movements such as punk, Gothic or grunge all self-consciously create modalities of deviance, patterns of shared behaviour which fulfil the crucial role of identifying and excluding. And it is surprising to find how much the 'difference' of the Internet is promoted, how much the cybersociety is constructed in terms of what may be termed an 'anti-group', different from the mundane of the cultural mainstream.

For a significant section of the cyber-society, what is happening is the construction of a 'meta-society' that is perceived to be presenting a viable alternative to the existing world order; a new digital utopia, leading to "... a new class of people who feel at home everywhere ..., but some social institutions appear increasingly out-moded."30 The foundation for this 'digital utopia' rests in the de-construction of global boundaries through the exclusive use of language. Language has always formed an important part of the construction of social difference for countless anti-groups or sub-cultures, with the Internet, language provides both the message and the medium. Language provides the fundamental symbolic code of deviance, the passport to full membership of the sub-cultural identity. Thus any individual can theoretically connect to the Internet and be 'part' of the virtual community (just as anyone can buy a Nirvana album and a flannelette shirt and label themselves as grunge), but membership is hierarchically constructed, it is not divided equally amongst all. For this reason, the sheer popularity of the Internet, is itself a cause for concern among sections of the 'established' cyber-community. In his work Virtual Communities, Howard Rheingold eulogises on the early days of the Internet, where, even though the online newsgroup service, was "... only a few months old, the air of camaraderie and pioneer spirit was evident among the regulars."31 Similarly, the purpose was (presumably) not just to discuss the latest Grateful Dead tour or rumours of a Jefferson Airplane reunion ( although these probably formed part of it) but to enable a:

... low rules, high-tone discussion, where savvy networkers, futurists, intelligent misfits of several kinds who had learned to make our outsider status work for us in one way or another, could take the technology of computer mediated communication to its limits.32

In a sense, this quote from Rheingold represents the crystallisation of the cyber-community in terms of its own mythologising. All of the essential terms are incorporated within Rheingold's sentence: 'low rules', 'savvy', 'intelligent', 'misfits', 'outsider' and 'status'. A more cynical approach could read this to mean: 'white', 'wealthy' and 'male'. From this linguistically potent birth, the Internet has struggled to achieve a 'virtual' adolescence. However, the eventual appearance of puberty has not necessarily been greeted with such enthusiasm among what Rheingold terms the 'old-timers':

One of the great problems with the atmosphere of free expression now tolerated on the Net is the fragility of communities and the susceptibility to disruption. The only alternative to imposing potentially dangerous restrictions on freedom of expression is to develop norms, folklore, ways of acceptable behaviour that are widely modelled, taught, and valued, that can give the citizens of cyberspace clear ideas of what they can and cannot do with the medium...33

From this, one can only assume that in his heart of hearts, Rheingold is basically a behaviourist. This relatively clear delineation between those who possess the essential knowledge and understanding to use the Internet 'properly' and those who don't, forms an important aspect of the community of cyberspace.

What is being constructed and reinforced within the community is an explicitly hierarchical symbolic structure based on the understanding of, and access to, particular semiotic codes. The community of cyberspace has promoted the creation of a symbolic code accessible only to those who possess the necessary 'savvy', presumably something akin to what Thomas Wolfe has identified as 'the Right Stuff'. Status, power and legitimisation are accorded to those individuals who are perceived to be 'guardians of the code', those who possess the essential 'attitude' deemed appropriate for cyberspace. In practice, this stratification, can be manifested in a variety of forms. For Rheingold, this involves the adoption of a particular counter-culture style, a sort of digital Bohemian dilettante engaging in intellectual discussions like so many latter day Fabians. There is a concurrent tendency to emphasis the 'stimulation' inherent in various newsgroups, or on locations like 'The Well'. What is constructed is a relatively well defined dichotomy: discourse in the 'real' world is hampered and restricted because it is simply 'talk', hollow rhetoric designed to maintain existing patterns of social relations. In opposition to this, what happens on the Internet is 'communication', the liberation of language into a more elevated form, a return to a linguistic utopia where 'communication' is empowered with the ability to set people free. Naturally, those with the greatest degree of 'freedom' are those with the necessary degree of intellectual 'savvy'. This in turn leads back to the cartoon mentioned at the start of this chapter. If the Internet is the font of communication, an inherently rational intellectual pursuit, then IRC represents a reversal of this process of enlightenment, a return to 'talk', to 'chat', to the exploration of the mundane and the ordinary. And, after all, very few of the citizens of cyberspace would like to be defined as 'ordinary'. How much more appealing to be the symbolic reincarnation of the 'Merry Pranksters', travelling on the 'digital' bus of the counter-culture revitalised.

Within the Internet community disparate individuals are able to generate "...mechanisms by which collectives generate and maintain the commitment of their participants in a new social terrain."34 IRC is the newest of this 'new terrain' and is generally marginalised by the prophets of the Internet community. At best, it is interpreted as a place of relatively trivial play or leisure, a "... cross cultural grab bag"35: the cyberspace equivalent of pulp fiction, or the synchronous realm of the prepubescent mundane. Alternatively, popular media frequently portrays the IRC as the hunting ground of the paedophile, luring the innocent towards depravity. Consequently, IRC is frequently represented as the 'soft-underbelly' of the virtual community, a lesser cousin who shares some of the attributes, but none of the genuine features. The cartoon is part of this ongoing process. Despite the plethora of magazines devoted to the Internet, comparatively little editorial space is devoted to IRC and its users. This is surprising, given the anecdotal evidence of its popularity. As an example, the local high school has recently installed an Internet connection in the library for student use. Many students find the Web boring, yet using IRC will quickly result in a crowd forming, with all students eager to participate.36 They find the synchronous aspect of IRC to be significantly more appealing than the asynchonicity of newsgroups or the passivity of web pages. It is the immediacy of IRC that provides its appeal and it is this aspect which simultaneously causes more 'traditional' users of the Internet to regard it with a certain degree of disdain. Certainly, as will be explored later, a significant amount of communication on IRC consists of numerous conversations that essentially follow the dialogue constructed in the cartoon, but nevertheless, such conversations are themselves examples of a significantly complex semiotic process. It is an error to trivialise these dialogues because they still are expressions of an attempt to construct and maintain a social network. In this way, the synchronous nature of IRC works against it, because the broader community of cyberspace has tended to equate synchronicity with the ephemeral, with the superficial, with the ordinary life of the 'real' world.

The cartoon becomes the articulation of this process, of reducing IRC to the mundane, while simultaneously providing the means to re-affirm the added value of communal 'goods' produced by other Internet communication structures. To a certain extent, the users of the IRC are aware of their own marginalisation and have adopted it as part of their own method of establishing and maintaining a stylistic ideology. The term 'chat', frequently used in a derogatory sense, becomes symbolically encoded with a slightly more complex ideological message, one which "... serves to erase or subvert (its) original straight meaning."37 Through this and other processes, users of IRC are able to generate and maintain the stylistic identity of a sub-cultural group, with all of the structural complexity this entails. This forms an important contextual link for any interpretation of the way in which the IRC community is constructed, maintained and controlled.


New: 16 March, 1998 | Now: 8 May, 2015