VID > Stewart Douglas > Chapter 4

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

Stewart Douglas

Chapter Four

Of Outlaws, Jesters and Lamers: Status, Identity & Power

Like all other communities, #quiz is dependent for its long term continuity on the ceaseless assimilation of new members. For the 'game' to continue, individuals must be encouraged to make the significant transition from 'occasional' to 'regular' members. Towards this end, #quiz has developed a series of systemic features which foster and promote a collective sense of unity based on a communally shared purpose. This 'shared purpose' effectively coalesces individuals into accepting membership by emphasising bounds of commonality and 'kinship' which permeate the 'imagined community'. The logonomic system provides additional support for the 'imagined community' by defending the central 'purpose' from threats which would disrupt communal 'vision'. In this way, the existing hegemony acts as a source of legitimisation for the community by providing it with the mantle of authority and security. In effect, the sense of community is enhanced by the very existence of a code of conventional behaviour or 'rules', because there is an expectation that a 'community' requires such a code. In other words, how can an individual become a member of a community if the membership criteria is not stated either implicitly or explicitly. The rules which govern #quiz, and which are enforced by those in power, fulfil this essential function: they define the membership qualifications and provide a guide on how to retain membership. As such, they provide a template for the individual to follow in order to achieve power, status and identity.

By establishing a conceptual methodology relating to power, status and identity, #quiz is able to sustain a cultural identity as a stable community which exists on IRC: it is able to sustain the 'critical mass' necessary for it to function as a social network. The success of #quiz as a culturally 'imagined community' is based on the extent to which it is able to continually assimilate individuals into embracing the validity of this cultural identity and assisting in its continued existence. Therefore, as a cultural group, #quiz is required to have sufficient communal 'appeal' necessary to effectively socialise individuals into conforming with the expected socio-cultural values deemed significant by the community. Part of this socialisation process involves encouraging the transition from 'new' to 'regular' by providing the individual with community recognition the more frequently they 'join' the channel. The greeting of members as they join the channel is part of this important transition process and encourages the individual to perceive themselves as 'belonging'. IRC is able to carry out this process extremely successfully: people who keep coming back to a channel are invariably recognised and greeted by existing members and this in turn encourages them to keep returning. Consequently, #quiz is self sustaining due to the fact it is able to institute particularly effective socialisation processes which encourage community loyalty and conformity. This is enhanced by the fact that in general, people who are unlikely to become acceptable members (for whatever reason) usually decide so relatively quickly and simply don't 'join' the channel again.

There are however a smaller group on IRC who effectively function as a sub-cultural group and for whom the various processes of socialisation have failed to effectively assimilate. For a channel like #quiz, with its implied commitment to community stability, the encroachments of an antipathetic sub-cultural group are particularly disruptive. On #quiz, such disruptive subcultures "... represent 'noise' (as opposed to sound): interference in the orderly sequence."57 In practice, the most disruptive sub-culture on IRC I have broadly classified as 'outlaws', although 'pranksters' is an acceptable alternative. In a sense the concept of the 'outlaw' can be traced back to the development of the Internet itself, with its own self conscious mythologising of the 'hacker': digital Robin Hoods playing games with the existing hegemony for no purpose other than 'fun'. The virtual community of the Net places significant value on the winking jest of the digital 'outlaw', for after all the domain of the Net is:

... vast, unmapped, culturally and legally ambiguous, verbally terse (unless you happen to be a court stenographer), hard to get around in, and up for grabs. Large institutions already claim to own the place, but most of the actual natives are solitary and independent, sometimes to the point of sociopathy. It is, of course, a perfect breeding ground for both outlaws and new ideas about liberty.58

Within such a territory, there is ample scope for the outlaw to carry out a variety of activities structured towards the disruption of the collective identity.

Within IRC, the outlaw's "... favourite risky business is the time-honoured adolescent sport of trespassing. They insist on going where they don't belong."59 The 'outlaw' exists in a curious relationship with the broader scope of the IRC community. On the one hand their activities are at times regarded with grudging affection, as they represent the romanticisation of an earlier era of the digital 'frontier'. This is particularly the case where the target of an 'outlaw' incursion was perceived to be an externalised monolithic 'other'. Conversely, within more stable Net communities such as #quiz, the encroachment of the outlaw is regarded with significantly less tolerance. However, it is important to discriminate between degrees of perception of 'outlaw' activities, for while some incursions are viewed as puerile and boring, others are often regarded as original and inventive. Both can be a nuisance, but only the latter can be admired, only the latter can accrue status for the perpetrator. For #quiz the intrusive activities of an 'outlaw' can have a number of consequences, ranging from the mildly annoying to total disruption to the continuity of the 'game'.

The implications of 'outlaw' behaviour for #quiz depend on the nature of the attack and the response is usually determined by the attacks relative severity. A typical assault usually takes the form of a sophisticated type of flooding:

<Wolfboy>                   _________-----_____
<Wolfboy>        _____------           __      ----_
<Wolfboy> ___----             ___------              \
<Wolfboy>    ----________        ----    7th Sphere  \
<Wolfboy>                -----__    |             _____)
<Wolfboy>                     __-                /     \
<Wolfboy>         _______-----    ___--          \    /)\
<Wolfboy>   ------_______      ---____            \__/  /
<Wolfboy>                -----__    \ --    _          /\
<Wolfboy>                       --__--__     \_____/   \_/\
<Wolfboy>                               ----|   /          |
<Wolfboy>                                   |  |___________|
<Wolfboy>                                   |  | ((_(_)| )_)
<Wolfboy>                                   |  \_((_(_)|/(_)
<Wolfboy>                                   \             (
<Wolfboy>                                    \_____________)
<Wolfboy> 				   "Those who live 
<Wolfboy> 				    shall be forever 
<Wolfboy> 				    dead."

Such invasions will usually result in the offender being 'kicked' with a warning. A repeat offence will result in banning for a particular period of time. Again it is important to remember the degree of ambivalence the community of #quiz feels towards the disruptions caused by such activities: after all, everybody likes a good laugh every now and again. Often the relative sophistication of such 'floods' is a cause for general admiration:

* knitty Q:who is dis
<knitty>           ___  _____    
<knitty>         .'/,-Y"     "~-.  
<knitty>         l.Y             ^.           
<knitty>         /\               _\_         
<knitty>        i            ___/"   "\ 
<knitty>        |          /"   "\   o !   
<knitty>        l         ]     o !__./   
<knitty>         \ _  _    \.___./    "~\  
<knitty>          X \/ \            ___./  
<knitty>         ( \ ___.   _..--~~"   ~`-.  
<knitty>          ` Z,--   /               \    
<Earth> *** Flood detected from knitty
*** knitty was kicked by Z ((Earth) Flooding is NOT allowed on 
<fido> homer!!!!
<General> simpsont
*** knitty (________@________________) has joined #quiz
<Turbine> cool flood though
<Turbine> doh
<Cat> wrong channel for that knitty
<servant> i thought that was funny
<servant> and...
<fido> heheh
* plastic wonders how that is done?
<Turbine> some people are soooo creative
<Cat> :)
<Vikki> ha
<knitty> yes general
<knitty> bye

Knitty's flood, based on Homer Simpson's face, is accorded a degree of status within the community of #quiz. While it is a disruption to the 'game', it is openly acknowledged as "a cool flood", a relatively benign disruption and its inventiveness is commented on in favourable terms. Certainly, knitty is 'kicked' from the channel for the disruption, but is able to 're-join' to view the results of the disruption. Consequently, even though there is varying degrees of interference with the 'game', there is sufficient internal flexibility within the community to encompass a reasonable degree of tolerance for the 'outlaw'.

Such rogue 'playfulness' is characteristic of the wider Net community, and has become internalised into the cultural mythology. Discussing similar disruptions on 'The Well', an early attempt to establish a 'virtual community', director Matthew McClure describes such 'outlaws' as 'vibes magicians', individuals who "... came in and saw how it (the cultural community) worked and just played it like an instrument."60 This same degree of tolerance for what can be categorised as 'cool' disruptions perpetrated by 'outlaws' or 'vibes magicians' exists on #quiz, but it is important to recognise the communal perception of the existence of a distinction between the 'cool' and the simply 'stupid'. One is tolerated and accorded a certain amount of status, while the other is treated as a 'mindless nuisance'. Nevertheless, even the 'stupid outlaw' is generally treated with a considerable degree of what can be termed 'guarded tolerance'. Even those individuals who are 'banned' from #quiz for a specific period of time are usually 'let back in' well before the time has elapsed. Within #quiz while the application of punishment is swift, the conditions of parole are extremely compliant and reflect a broader collective vision of 'virtual' tolerance. The virtual community of #quiz would echo McClure's sentiments regarding a particularly disruptive individual on 'The Well': "Just because she was obnoxious and had strange ideas didn't mean that she couldn't get to play."61 Ultimately, one of the strengths of a channel like #quiz is simply that everybody does get the opportunity to 'play', however the term 'play' maybe be defined.

Within the 'imagined community' of #quiz, 'play' can and does exist in a number of forms. The most obvious form of 'play' involves the process of answering questions and a member can achieve status and recognition through the process of being successful at this form. More complex forms of 'play' involve the 'way' the 'game' is played and embrace the extent to which the individual is seen to contribute to the atmosphere existing on the channel. This type of 'play' usually takes the form of self depreciating humour or witty comments, but it can include floods such as the ones shown above (so long as they occur infrequently or at less busy times). Such behaviour is valued on #quiz and a member can become 'well known' for the quality of their comments. The most extreme forms of 'play' involve those activities which flow 'against the grain' of the channel and whose sole purpose is perceived by the community to be malignant:

<^SODS^> 13,1  Ten toes up, ten toes down...       
<^SODS^> 13,1  2 little butts going round and round!
<^SODS^> 11,1                 _   _                
<^SODS^> 11,1           ooO  / ) ( \  Ooo          
<^SODS^> 11,1          /  ) / (   ) \ (  \         
<^SODS^> 11,1          \ ( (   ) /   ) ) /         
<^SODS^> 11,1       ----\_).oooO-Oooo.(_/----      
<^SODS^> 13,1**************************************
*** ^SODS^ was kicked by Z ((robe) Pretty please, shut the F**K UP)

Measured against the definition of 'play' shared by the collective community of #quiz SODS' attempt is evaluated as being inappropriate, as shown by the relative severity of Z's parting comment, particularly when compared to the simple "flooding is not allowed" comment made to the person responsible for the Homer Simpson flood. In contrast, SODS attempt is deemed to lack the necessary degree of inventiveness and, as a consequence of its lack of cultural cachet, is dealt with harshly.

Banal interruptions to the flow of the 'game' are also dealt with quickly:

<SUCK> zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz
<PUN> aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa
<SUCK> ooooooooooooooooooooooohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh
<SUCK> next q
<PUN> aaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh
* Tirkin Q: female star of Alien?
<Coupe> weaver
> weaver
<Yarn> weaver
<tikket> weaver
<Mojo> sigorney weaver
<PUN> not so quick
<SUCK> my mum
* Tirkin coupe!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! sigourney weaver
<Coupe> woooohoooooo
<SUCK> next q
<PUN> what is Sucks really name?
<ricki> next q
<SUCK> fred
<PUN> tim
<SUCK> tim 
<SUCK> fred
<SUCK> tim 
<PUN> tim
<SUCK> next q
<PUN> thats right
<SUCK> shut up PUN
<PUN> tim
<SUCK> thanks tony
<SUCK> next q
<SUCK> next q
<PUN> sorry i will go back into my box
<SUCK> you have a box
<PUN> the pink kind
<Tirkin> who wants ops?
<cloth> the pair of you shut up
<PUN> next q
<SUCK> are u talking to me
<PUN> sorry i will go back into my box
<SUCK> you have a box
<PUN> yes
<SUCK> cooooooooooooooool
<PUN> next q
<SUCK> next q
<SUCK> next q
<tikket> brats
<PUN> next q
*** tikket (________@_____________________) has left 
<SUCK> hello next q
<Mojo> someone?
*** SUCK was kicked by Z ((cloth) Pretty please, shut the F**K 
<PUN> yes please
*** PUN was kicked by Z ((cloth) Pretty please, shut the F**K UP)

Clearly, the behaviour of SUCK and PUN is not regarded as possessing any relative merit. By virtue of its juvenile banality, the disruptions to the 'game' that are the result of their behaviour are accorded little status and they are kicked accordingly by another member who has 'Z' access. However, there are ways of been kicked. Knitty was also 'kicked', but received a certain degree of recognition based on a generally shared interpretation of the relative 'merit' of the disruption: in knitty's case, it was a "cool flood". SODS, PUN and SUCK are interpreted as little more than intrusive nuisances, they are "brats", people who 'devalue' the perceived worth of the wider Net community. Such banal intrusions occur frequently in #quiz, provoking regular members at times to wonder what channel they are on:

<pole^> what is this, #lamer?
<Job> we wonder

However, it is important to acknowledge the unifying function that such disruptions have on the community. Any disruption provides the community with an opportunity to defend itself, to 'rally round the flag' and establish links of common purpose between members. Threats to the channel foster and promote collective action and help define the symbolic cohesion of the community. They encourage the community to establish its perceived 'territorial boundaries' and, occasionally, permit the elevation of particular individuals to the rank of 'hero'. By dealing with the threat of the external 'other', the 'imagined community' creates the narrative necessary to maintain a sense of historical depth. Bounds of continuity with the past are formed through acts of defensive/offensive action undertaken by the community in defence of its shared collective sense of purpose. Similarly, the clarification of a communal tradition aids in the perpetuation of that tradition into the future.

The creation of an 'imagined community' on #quiz is a complex process of negotiation, clarification and reinforcement and involves the defining of external and internal boundaries. Such boundaries substantially assist in defining those behavioural patterns, values and attitudes deemed most appropriate for a member of the community. Within #quiz, members are continually been provided with exemplars of valued behaviour as well as shown the consequences of undesirable behaviour. Through the process of perpetuating its communal narrative, #quiz defines the behaviour of the 'model' citizen and provides a symbolic methodology for the individual to achieve status within that narrative. Thus, within #quiz, there is a roughly established delineation between power, status and identity which the community effectively submerges beneath its collective sense of 'self'. This shared 'submergence' of the distinction between power, status and identity encourages the community to deny the existence of potentially disruptive forces embedded in the foregrounding of discriminatory patterns of power. While the community 'knows' that such distinctions exist, it has no desire to be reminded of it except during times of crisis. By blurring the differences between power and status, it enables the perception that upward mobility is within the grasp of any member who is able to demonstrate desirable behaviour.

While real power is divested to those who have 'Z' access, it is still possible for an individual to achieve the 'status of recognition' through the relative value placed by the community on the contribution they have made. In this way, status is achieved through the recognition of 'value', and while this may be intangible and difficult to accurately isolate, it is still a factor in the development of a communal sense of identity. It is essential for the member to feel that they belong not only to a community, but that they have a sense of 'self' as being a member of that community. In other words, the individual member is aware that there exists the potential to contribute directly to the communal narrative and to be able to achieve communal recognition for that contribution. Within #quiz, there are several methods through which such recognition can be achieved. While direct power and authority remains with those who possess 'Z' access, it is theoretically possible for any member to 'scale the citadel' of power. Possibly the easiest way to achieve community recognition is to make the transition from 'new' to 'regular' member, however 'regularity' itself does not necessarily equate with access to power and status. What is also required is the demonstration of particular or general attributes deemed to be significant by the community. The most significant attribute on #quiz embraces a commitment to the continuity of the 'game' through such things as the regular demonstration of inventive humour, a willingness to ask questions and the necessary degree of 'the right stuff'. The allocation of power, status and identity on #quiz allow the community to symbolically share in the acceptance of the 'myth of potential': demonstrate appropriate behaviour, recognise the value of this behaviour and attend regularly and the rights of full membership can be attained. Within this framework, the myth of equality before our collective keyboards plays a significant part in ensuring the continuity of #quiz: membership is perceived to be easy to obtain, recognition is easy to obtain and with recognition comes a degree of individual status and identity. After all, on the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog and any dog has the potential to become one of the 'top' dogs. All you have to do is be a 'good' dog. Within IRC, 'good' has a multitude of definitions and it is theoretically possible for any 'dog' to find the right channel to suit them.

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