VID > Stewart Douglas > Chapter 3

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

Stewart Douglas

Chapter Three

The Electric Oligarchy: Power and Authority on IRC

The process of social interaction that occurs on #quiz enables it to be considered as a viable social network, with its own prominent patterns of social relations, conflicts, disruptions and cleavages. As a social network, #quiz operates within a social dialectic defined by a perceived commonality of purpose shared amongst members. Ties and communal relationships are established, re-affirmed and contested in a continual process involving the exchange of socio-cultural capital between members of the 'imagined' network. Such exchanges, and the predominant patterns which underpin them, significantly help to define the identity of the 'imagined' community. However, it would be erroneous to assume that the process of sharing occurs equally among members. Any social network involves the complex interplay of a variety of social forces which mitigate against such egalitarian outcomes and #quiz is no exception.

Within #quiz, a factor which discourages equality is the separation between the 'expert' and the 'novice'. As expected, the 'novice' maybe relatively unfamiliar with expected patterns of behaviour and may react inappropriately, or contrary to convention. It takes time for the 'novice' to assimilate the correct codes of behaviour, to familiarise themselves with the rules and to establish connections with the communal identity. Through the process of interaction with the existing social dynamic, the 'novice' develops a sense of ownership of the communal identity and becomes accepted as part of the 'imagined community'. Essential to this acceptance is recognition of the 'rules' of accepted behaviour and a parallel commitment to acknowledging the validity of these 'rules', be they formal or informal. To effect the transition from 'novice' to 'expert', the individual must internalise a relatively complex set of systemic features which aid in establishing a position relative to the body corporate and to those members who have a greater degree of access to this central core. In this way, membership of a social network requires the individual to negotiate a position relative to other members and to those with power and authority. On #quiz, this process involves the assimilation of a variety of 'cues' which provide information regarding the nature of existing power relations. It is through process that "... meanings, systems of ideas and beliefs, ideologies, are constructed in discourse and function to maintain and transmit existing power relations."49 As a social network, #quiz is engaged in the continual construction of communal identity, for it is through this constructive process that order and continuity are maintained and imposed. The communal identity, existing as it does as a symbolic body corporate, provides the means for individuals within the social network to establish the nature of their relationship with the 'imagined' community. This body corporate encapsulates those rules, ideals and structural processes considered significant to the continued existence of the social network.

The construction of the communal identity, or body corporate by the social network, aids in the development of an 'imagined' centre around which individual members can be located in hierarchically arranged 'rings' or strata. Similarly, the process of 'imagining' a communal narrative or social network pre-supposes the parallel existence of codified systemic features which operate according to expected patterns shared among members. However, it is important to recognise that the construction of meaning is "... not a conduit system whereby fixed and finite meanings are transmitted from sender to addressee, but rather a polyphonic structure ..... constantly shifting in relation to contexts and subject positionings or coding orientations."50 In common with other forms of communication, the social discourse existing on #quiz is directly involved in the semiotic process of maintaining and regulating social activities, and defining power and status relations. This has significant implications for any interpretation of the ideological structure of #quiz. It is often suggested that computer mediated communication eliminates or mitigates the transmission of coded messages of power and status existing between individuals and which are implicitly embedded in the 'real' world. In contrast, the elimination of power codifications results in an equal "... meeting of minds to form and develop ideas. Every user of the Net gains the role of being special and useful".51 This is an inherently simplistic interpretation and misinterprets equally of access with equality of status. While it is arguably true that people as individuals now have the capacity to "... broadcast their observations and questions around the world and have other people respond"52, it is erroneous to assume that such 'broadcasts' and 'responses' are somehow 'liberated' from the 'troublesome' ideological complexities embedded in the process of constructing 'meaning'.

As a consequence of the inability to apply traditional methods of establishing relationships between members, IRC has developed its own systemic features of coercion and control. To suggest that IRC has effectively deconstructed social boundaries is problematic, as what has happen is a substitution of traditional markers of cultural boundaries with other markers more appropriate to the structure of IRC. In other words, in place of traditional markers of power and authority, "... complex rituals have evolved to keep users within the IRC 'fold' and to regulate the use of authority."53 I am suggesting that the 'imagined communities' constructed on IRC, of which #quiz is an example, have developed an extremely complex series of determiners of social behaviour which are hierarchically organised from the top down and which are used for two related purposes. The first is to provide support for the continuing stability of the communal identity by establishing a shared set of 'rules' and conventions which members accept and follow. In a sense, this may be considered the defensive function of the logonomic system, for the 'rules' encompass a guide to behaviour considered acceptable: to be 'accepted' all a new or 'novice' member has to do is follow the 'rules' and membership is automatic. This function is defensive because it is designed not to impose sanctions, but to provide a conceptual 'template' for the 'ideal' member. In other words, the 'rules' of #quiz define those traits considered exemplary for a member of the channel. This in turn implicity means that the logonomic system of the channel will support the 'ideal' member in any dispute which may arise, further enhancing the development of a collective identity. The second purpose of the logonomic system existing on #quiz may be regarded as the offensive function, used to protect the integrity of the channel from a series of external threats such as 'rogue' operators, 'takeover' attempts and other significant disruptions to the 'game'. Such functions remain the concern of those individuals who have 'Z' access and who are able to exert considerably more authority than other members. The offensive function also reinforces collective identity by shown to all members that the channel has the ability to defeat any external (or internal) challenge to the community.

As will be shown, the shared transmission of discourse on #quiz is explicitly concerned with the dissemination of messages of power and status, for it is through these codified messages of status and power that #quiz is able to maintain a cohesive network. Rather than eliminating power and status distinctions and producing an 'imagined community' where all are presumed 'equal' before their keyboards, #quiz has constructed a society in which the recognition of hierarchical variations in power are of paramount importance. In practice, social success on #quiz depends on the 'newbie' quickly recognising the existence of a simplistic hierarchically structured power structure operating in a direct linear fashion. Challenges or disruptions to the existing hegemony are usually quickly dealt with. Certainly, the communication process on #quiz operates in an interactive creative process of exchange between members, for such exchanges are necessary for the shared construction of a social network. However, on #quiz not all members are created equal. This in turn influences the sense of collective ownership shared among members: while all members own the 'community of the channel', some 'own' significantly more of it than others. On #quiz the defining criterion of power and status can be identified as 'degree of access' to the central 'core' of the channel. Status and power is allocated according to the 'degree of access' an individual has at any particular time. For some individuals the allocated 'degree of access' remains constant, for others it is extremely variable and, too a certain extent, determined by the whims and wishes of those who have a more permanent 'degree of access'. Unsurprisingly, the relative 'degree of access' accorded to members can become a source of disruption and challenge, particularly when there is a perceived danger to the 'game'. In this way, IRC is circumscribed by an ideological foundation and, despite attempts to the contrary by Rheingold and others to emphasise the 'freedom' of the Net, there exists no significant variations between the 'real' and the 'imagined' community in terms of permitting and encouraging individual members access to power and authority. Power and status still remain the domain of the relative few and access to power is controlled through the mediation of a plethora of explicit and implicit means, sanctions, rewards and 'cues'. While the 'cues' may differ, #quiz is still involved in the ideological process embedded in discourse. Put simply, some members have a greater degree of access than others and this fact influences and shapes the patterns of discourse which occur on the channel.

If 'degree of access' is a significant factor on #quiz, then it is important to identify what is being 'accessed'. On #quiz, this 'degree of access' manifests itself in two separate, but interrelated ways and it is important to create a distinction between the two modes of application which can be applied to the concept. The first operates at a symbolic level and involves the shared recognition that the channel has a broadly defined purpose which can be identified and stated, while the second is systemically embedded in the nature of IRC itself. On #quiz, 'purpose' is provided by the 'game'. The 'game' is the central purpose of the channel and, in order to safeguard it, there is a set of 'rules' which help to guarantee its perpetuation and which further clarify the purpose of the channel. The 'game' and the 'rules' interact to reinforce a shared symbolic construction of a cohesive social unity based on a perceived collective commonality of purpose. Thus the construction of an 'imagined community' involves the dissemination of the concept of a central common purpose which in turn promotes the construction of a community identity. Social cohesion is strengthened through the shared perception that a communal identity does in fact exist and that it can manifest itself via the application of a variety of systemic features. These patterns may not necessarily be readily identifiable by all members of the social network, or even accessible to them, but their effects on governing the social process should not be underestimated. #quiz has its own logonomic features, its own 'laws' and to be 'on' #quiz, to be a member of the channel, means the individual has expressed tacit understanding and approval of the 'rules of the game'. The immediate criteria for membership involves the simple act of 'being on' the channel, to be able to 'stay on' requires the individual to assimilate and accept the body corporate as having an inherent validity. This acceptance runs concurrent with the individual member recognising the existence of a 'inner core' of members who have access to the body corporate and who may bestow (or remove) permanent or temporary access to the core of the communal identity. For this reason, it would be a mistake to assume that certain structural features of #quiz, such as its synchronic nature or the fact that it is constituted via the free association of individuals rather than imposed in an external sense, mean that #quiz lacks a hierarchically constructed logonomic system.

Thus, while the process of social construction is shared, its expression may be asymmetrical. In common with other social networks, #quiz has its own quintessential core of identity, a pool of 'secret knowledge' to which only a relatively few have direct access. In this context, the shared construction of an 'imagined community' involves the simultaneous recognition that there exist modes of asymmetrical delineation which create real and symbolic distinctions among members. Within #quiz, this delineation between members relates back to the earlier separation I made to the concept of 'degree of access'. In the initial discussion, 'degree of access' was used at a symbolic level and referred to the way in which the channel acknowledged the existence of a central 'core of identity'. However, here 'degree of access' is being applied systemically and refers to the modes of operation permissible in IRC itself. Nevertheless, while the two meanings are being treated separately, I believe that the interaction between the two interpretations is partially responsible for the way in which the 'imagined community' of #quiz is constructed. In other words, the systemic features of IRC, with its complex hierarchy of levels, determine and predispose the users of IRC towards the production of patterns of social behaviour which are inherently rigid, stratified and power based. At the practical level, this results in an 'imagined community' which is constantly engaged in subtle challenges and responses to perceived internal and external threats. This in turn provides a means to justify and perpetuate existing power structures as being essential to guarantee the security of the 'game'. By extension, any threat to the 'game' constitutes a threat to the existence of individuals as members of that 'community': a threat to one is automatically a threat to the other. On #quiz, real or imagined threats to the 'game' provide the methodology necessary for its own perpetuation. This is manifested in three ways, all of which serve to perpetuate and reinforce the existing logonomic system. The central core of authority, or the highest level, belongs to the Channel Manager (or Channel Owner).54 The next level comprises those members who have been granted 'Z' access, then those who have been awarded the position of 'operator'. Other finer distinctions are possible, such as giving members a 'voice', but this happens rarely on #quiz and is essentially beyond the scope of this study. These three forms provide the 'superstructure' responsible for the real and symbolic coordination of the channel and are able to determine the nature of the interaction occurring on #quiz.

Conceptually, it is useful to regard #quiz as functioning as a feudal society, for a number of significant number of parallels can be established. Essentially, authority is divested downwards from the 'royal' court through a complex network of 'lesser' nobility each of whom is directly answerable to the Channel Manager. It is the Channel Manager who 'owns' the channel and who is able to determine the allocation of 'Z' access. 'Z' access provides the channel with both its 'nobility' and its 'police force', for individuals who have 'Z' access are able to perform a number of actions inaccessible to the majority of users. They can grant operator status to particular individuals deemed deserving, or remove operator status from those who prove unworthy. In the past they have been able to 'recover' the channel from unwelcome takeovers carried out by rogue 'operators' and restore legitimate authority. Similarly, disgruntled members can appeal or approach the 'royal' court either directly or through its elaborate structure of 'lesser' nobility in order to air a particular grievance or clarify a position. However, ultimate authority belongs to the Channel Manager, for , as stated in the Rules of #quiz, 'Z' people "... run the channel....but all of you answer to me (Channel Manager).....this is not a boastful thing. Someone has to have the final say and its me."55 This is not to imply any criticism of the Channel Manager, or to suggest s/he abuses their authority in any way, but it does indicate the hierarchical structure of control that IRC has developed over a relatively small time frame. In this situation, #quiz is reflecting the predominant pattern adopted by IRC and widely regarded as a legitimate logonomic system within that community.

Essentially, participation in #quiz requires the individual to accept a form of social interaction and control that can be regarded as 'willing feudalism'. Casual users or 'lesser' members function as 'serfs' within this framework, and are required to recognise the legitimacy of the existing power structure. At least until they themselves are 'oped'. However, unless you have 'Z' access, any elevation from 'serfdom' is only temporary and is lost when you leave the channel. Consequently, the status of 'operator' becomes something to be earned, and can involve a significant improvement in the social standing of the member. Within the continuing context of the 'game', this can be a significant inducement, but this is not necessarily automatically the case.

Unlike other channels, the operator on #quiz is under constant pressure to provide questions. Without the continuous flow of questions the function of the channel ceases to exist and members are quick to criticise those 'ops' who either fail to ask questions or who ask 'silly' questions. Through this process, the channel is able to perpetuate the myth of collective ownership and conceal the real distribution of power. While criticism of an 'op' is technically forbidden, it is acceptable when the 'op' is failing their 'duty' by not asking questions. In this situation, the 'disempowered' member is able to legitimately access a mantle of pseudo-authority and, in the process, reinforce collective solidarity. After all, they are 'breaking the rules' in the best interest of the channel and, within certain boundaries, this is all the legitimisation required. The failure of an 'op' to ask sufficient questions to fill the demand is one of the most significant cause of disruption to the existence of the 'game'. This in turn relates back to what may be interpreted as a rather selective application of the 'rules' of the channel. Technically, the rules preclude the 'begging' of 'ops', or of the granting of undeserved 'ops'. However, even the rules of #quiz can be regarded as 'flexible' in order to ensure the existence of the 'game'. It must be remembered that the 'game' defines the channel and, by extension, the structure of the social network constructed amongst the members. If the game ceases to exist, then the channel is 'reduced' to being a simple 'chat' channel and the security provided by the 'imagined community' is removed. Consequently, there is a constant pressure exerted by members to keep the questions coming at all costs. Even the 'rules' are often sacrificed in order to guarantee the continuation of the game. This elevation of a systemic process is possibly unique in IRC, because of the way in which the 'process' of the game defines the nature of the channel.

In general, the 'ops' on other channels exist to supervise the channel, to prevent 'takeovers'. However, on #quiz the 'op' has an additional implied commitment involving the maintenance of a specific process considered essential to the existence of the social network itself. Therefore, if other channels exist purely to 'chat' or for other social reasons, #quiz perceives itself has having a more significant reason for its existence and that reason is provided by the 'game'. The 'game' provides a meta-contextual catalyst for the production of social exchange. It is the 'duty' of the 'op' and of individual members to safeguard the 'game'. This in turn leads to the fluid application of supposedly rigid 'rules'. In the situation below, one of the basic 'rules' of #quiz is being broken:

<Fred> give me ops and I'll ask questions
<Hydro> MORE Q'S MORE Q'S!!!
<candy> Fred for ops!!!
<Monk> What is the biggest selling game for PC of all time
<Hydro> Doom1
<Betty> OP DC!!
<Monk> Hydro
*** LOKI sets mode: +o DC
<Monk> someone OP me, i'm good
*** DC has quit IRC (Leaving)
<candy> op Monk!!!!!
*** Fred (___________@______________) has left #quiz
*** Caddie (____@________________) has left #quiz
<LOKI> how meny right Monk
<Hydro> op Monk!!!!!!!!!!!!
<candy> everyone leaving :((
<LOKI> ok
<candy> Loki noone is asking qs so i don't think it matters
*** LOKI sets mode: +o Monk
<Monk> kewl
<candy> yay
<Soldier> Monk: can you please put /me before your qs, i'm 
   rather blind
<Hydro> How Many times has Kirk died(In both literature and 
*** LOKI sets mode: +o Jonno
<Soldier> 2
<candy> 3
<Betty> shit, thats a bit hard!

Technically, individual members are not supposed to 'beg' for 'ops. In other contexts Loki's appeals would result in a warning and possibly even being 'kicked' from the channel. Yet, in this situation, the 'game' is perceived to be lacking due to insufficient questions and hence the 'op-ing' of Monk by Loki is considered to be an appropriate action. This in turn leads to one of the interesting contradictions inherent in the patterns of power and control inherent on #quiz, that of denial or negation of the mantle of authority by individual members. In the example provided, Loki 'ops' DC after another member suggests they would make a suitable 'op'. DC then promptly 'quits' IRC, presumably in order to avoid having to assume 'op' status. This behaviour is extremely common on #quiz and is often commented on unfavourably by other members. Such people are regarded as failing to fulfil their 'duty' as members of the channel. There is an implicit expectation that if a member spends a considerable amount of time answering questions then s/he should also be prepared to ask a few as well, particularly if the member concerned is critical of the questions:

<coral> some easier q's??:))
<Friday> Why don't you ask some coral??
<boris> yeah coral
<coral> aint got opps
<boris> u think your so tough

This type of discussion occurs frequently on #quiz and should be regarded as one of the means through which the channel is able to exert control over individual members. As a consequence of the censuring process, coral accepts 'ops' and subsequently asks a number of questions. Failure to do so can occasionally result in being 'kicked', or more usually, in the offending member not being given 'ops' at a later time when they actually want them. Either way, the message is extremely clear.

Power and authority on #quiz is usually expressed in an explicit fashion. There is little or no room for the subtle articulation of codes of status and modality. On #quiz, power usually always manifests itself in an open fashion and is typically supported by other channel members. #quiz embraces an expectation that those in authority will behave in concert with each other:

* worm announces: i will feel free to KICK anyone flooding number 
questions with multiple guesses - more than 3 and you go!!! be warned. i'm 
an op. onya worm - getting sick of all the bingo on #quiz :)

The expectation is that those with a high degree of access will explicitly support and reinforce any decision that can be interpreted as preventing interruptions to the continuity of the game. As part of this process, Friday's comment strengthens collective solidarity by reminding members of the purpose of the channel. It has the concurrent effect of demonstrating to the channel the unity of purpose shared among the 'ops'. Such 'visible unity' is repeatedly demonstrated on #quiz and its importance to the channel should not be underestimated:

<fatso> hey if u want ops simply just join #nba ok
<fatso> hey if u want ops simply just join #nba ok
<fatso> hey if u want ops simply just join #nba ok
<fatso> join #nba
<stanley> bye bye fatso
*** fatso was kicked by george (now, that was dumb, wasn't it?)
*** fatso (fatso@____________) has joined #quiz
*** fatso was kicked by muddy (bugger off)
*** fatso (fatso@_____________) has joined #quiz
*** fatso was kicked by Z ((Jeeves) no advertising)
<Pandora> bye
*** fatso (fatso@_________________) has joined #quiz
<fatso> its jus not bball
<muddy> hahahahaha
<fatso> hey if u want ops simply just join #nba ok
<Pandora> ban time
<fatso> join #nba
*** student sets mode: +b *!*fatso@*.______________
<george> go away fatso
*** fatso was kicked by student (Banned)
<hym> heheh
<dana> thanks student!!!!
<punk> wow 3 kicks at once hehe

In this situation, the articulation of authority enables #quiz to consolidate its own communal identity by highlighting and punishing unacceptable or inappropriate behaviour. The collective identity of the channel is symbolically foregrounded and the shared common purpose is emphasised. Similarly, such actions provide the channel with the methodology to discriminate between those who 'belong' and those who don't. Clearly, any individual who puts the 'game' at risk doesn't belong and any punishment they receive is widely held as fair and reasonable.

Furthermore, expressions of power by those with 'Z' access paradoxically function as a means of blurring status distinctions between members and strengthening the sense of collective purpose. Rather than emphasising differences in status and control, the use of power can provide an important means to define the collective sense of unity and enables those with 'Z' access to symbolically forge 'links' of commonality with the rest of the members. In effect, the use of power allows the empowered to demonstrate to the disempowered the shared nature of the collective identity: regardless of status, we are all directly involved in the perpetuation of the 'game'. Threats to the 'game' encourage responses of solidarity, particularly when the threat comes from a 'rogue' operator, as in this situation where satan starts 'kicking' people indiscriminately:

*** Malamute was kicked by satan (satan)
*** Geoffery was kicked by satan (satan)
*** Geoffery (_______@________________) has 
joined #quiz
*** Malamute (_______@____________) has joined 
<Geoffery> Hey
<Malamute> hey!!  what did I say?
*** Yentl was kicked by satan (satan)
*** Yentl (_________@______________) has joined #quiz
*** Board^ (____@____________) has joined #quiz
<Allen> who knows Z ?
<Joker> thought you had ops Geoffery
* Diablo dosn't like satan much.
<Spaz> anyone here with access?
* Malamute says oh well if thats how you feel, I'm outta here!!!
<Geoffery> satan kicked me for no reson
<guitar> i do
<Joker> satans bells!!!
* guitar raises his hand
<Allen> anyone who knows Z should get him to kick satan
*** satan was kicked by Z ((guitar) the devil made me do it)
<Diablo> he's kicked heaps of ppl for no reason
<curly> looks like all qs going to hell
<Crete> Anyway...
<Crete> Back to the questions.
<Spaz> hehe
*** satan (__@_____________) has joined #quiz
<Spaz> thanx crete
<Crete> No, thank you.
<Spaz> ok
<Libra> here here crete
<Geoffery> no ops
<Allen> better op Geoffery, Yentl, etc
<Will> hmm
*** Z sets mode: +b *!*___@*.__________
*** satan was kicked by Z ((Will) Being a wanker)
<Crete> (My audience loves me)
* Malamute says nice talking to you folks but he just can't 
  stand being kicked for no reason Bye Bye!
*** cloth (_____@_________________) has joined #quiz
<Yentl> good one
<cloth> hmmmm
*** Z sets mode: +o Will
<Yentl> bye blue
* Malamute says enjoy asking the Q's Z
*** Z sets mode: +o silk
*** Malamute (_____@______________) has left #quiz
<Yentl> at least he got his back

Such 'takeover' attempts are the most significant disruption to #quiz and are one of the reasons why 'Z' access was instituted. Previously, if a 'rogue' op took over and performed a mass de-op and left, then the channel was left without an 'op'. Now, those who have 'Z' access are able to retrieve the situation with very little disruption to the 'game'. It is for this function alone, that those in positions of authority are granted so much leeway on #quiz, because regular members know that the sanctity of the channel may depend on those with the necessary 'degree of access' retrieving the situation from extreme difficulty. In such situations, the recognition of differences in power and authority are regarded as being of little consequence so long as the channel remains intact:

<worm> you HERO tank....
<worm> saved our good channel
<fLIcker> purple heart to Tank - action above and beyond the 
   call of duty

It is through such expressions of power that #quiz is able to articulate its own collective solidarity and too soften the detrimental effects embedded in the recognition of the existence of distinctions between members. Within the greater collective picture, such distinctions are shown to be irrelevant.

IRC (and #quiz) rarely functions as a democracy and its supporters would suggest that the synchronous nature of IRC would make the effective operation of a democratic system extremely complex. As an alternative to 'chaos' and 'anarchy', #quiz has instituted a system of control considered essential to the continued existence of the 'game'. The Channel Manager functions as the centralised authority capable of delegating power and status to those channel members who have proved themselves worthy of 'Z' access. Those members with 'Z' access provide #quiz with the control system necessary for the perpetual existence of the 'game'. They "... are here to keep the game running smoothly, and not to fight with. They are also there to provide instructions to all new users. #quiz is not a democracy as most people believe. You are a guest here and will be treated as such unless you become unwelcome."56 Naturally, the individuals most likely to be considered 'unwelcome' are those who violate or disrupt the continuity of the 'game'. In this way, #quiz functions as a feudal 'nation-state' with clearly defined 'borders', 'rules' and 'sanctions'.

Interestingly, while the hierarchical distribution of power on #quiz is occasionally questioned and criticised, such disruptions rarely produce significant alterations in the essential structure. An individual may have their 'Z' access removed for a 'grave' offence, but the systemic features remain. This fact can be directly related to the nature of #quiz itself, for any individual who is unwilling to accept the existing pattern of power is perfectly free to either 'join' a different channel, or start one of their own. Such events have occurred in the past, with disgruntled ex-members forming 'alternative' #quiz channels of their own, although the fact that #quiz is registered, precludes them from calling the 'rebel' channel #quiz. invariably, such attempts to set up a competing channel 'wither on the vine' and the disaffected members either return to the fold or simply leave. Either way, the collective identity of the channel, protected by its ruling hegemony, remains a safe, secure constant: an 'imagined community' which can never be totally usurped or displaced and which is accessible at any time.

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