VID > Stewart Douglas > Conclusion

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

Stewart Douglas

Conclusion

The Internet constructs itself as a community founded on the concept of deconstructing social boundaries. By eliminating or rendering irrelevant pre-existing social boundaries, the Internet will enable the actualisation of a 'new' virtual community in which every one has the potential to be empowered, to have their voice heard. Wrapped in the cloth of romantic idealism, the online community will usher in the era of the global disembodied tribe of common humanity, fracturing those 'artifical' boundaries which prevent us form recognising our shared common interests. Even if the 'virtual community,' created amongst a nest of keyboards and monitors, "... was a response to the breakdown of physical community, then this wasn't such a bad place to be."62 At its most simplest level, this is what the Net provides: a 'place to be'. For surely the Net exists as a 'place': a location somehow separate from the physical community and appealingly capable of permitting a vast panorama of digital alternatives, infinite communities of 'difference' where everyone can ultimately 'fit in' and 'belong'. By virtue of its vastness, the digital void, like any other unexplored frontier, is capable of accommodating a limitless number of permutations of social networks formed when individuals cluster together. And certainly, in cyberspace, individuals seem to cluster together in groups to construct what is often referred to as 'online communities', as though they were fundamentally 'different' from the 'real' alternative.

This perception of 'difference' defines what is perceived to be the strength or weakness of the Net, depending on your point of view. For its proponents, 'difference' means a world without boundaries, without a definable 'territory'. This is regarded as the strength of the Net. Opponents regard this lack of boundaries to be the ultimate deficiency of the Net, picturing disembodied individuals sharing nothing but their isolation and cultural blandness. Thus, to a certain extent, the Net is defined by the dialectic created between these two polarities of vision. When applied to IRC neither interpretation is necessarily accurate. The nature of IRC allows the production of a virtually limitless number of social networks: 'nodes' of individuals clustered together through the shared perception of common interests. Within IRC, such 'clusters' frequently become more formalised 'imagined communities', establishing their own historicity, their own links with the past, present and future. While within the broader Net culture, IRC is frequently ignored in favour of more 'intellectual' demonstrations of communal solidarity, I regard the 'clusters' found on IRC as being viable 'imagined communities' for, in Anderson's terms, they exist as limited, sovereign communities: distinct 'nations' which have their own culture, identity and purpose.

Similarly, like the nations of the 'real' world those on IRC form a community which "... regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation which may prevail,... is always conceived as a deep horizontal comradeship."63 Such is 'life' within the confines of IRC. Channels such as #quiz with its stability and longevity is certainly conceived of by members (at least in the abstract) as possessing a certain degree of 'horizontal comradeship'. The individual regard themselves to be 'part' of a broadly shared group who have access to a shared perception of a community identity. This identity forms the conceptual core of the community and helps define its purpose. In abstract terms this identity is equally accessible to all, for it is defined by the rules of #quiz and supported by the codes of conventional behaviour. However, the concept of community embraces a parallel idea of membership and membership can be divided into degrees. In the 'real' world it is possible for any individual to access part of the community identity, but there is also a more intangible set of criteria involved in the assimilation of a communal identity. Reading about Gallipoli for example may allow an individual access to a section of the Australian identity, but it doesn't necessarily make them a 'genuine' or 'full' Australians. #quiz operates within a similar paradigm, reading the rules of #quiz does not guarantee 'full' membership, only the assimilation of a complex code of social behaviour based on those attributes deemed significant can allow the individual the potential to achieve 'full' membership.

However, the important thing for #quiz is that this potential does actually exist. The path to power, authority and status can be successfully negotiated with relative ease within the territorial boundaries of #quiz: basically all you need to be is persistent. It may be somewhat simplistic an analogy, but membership of #quiz functions a bit like a committee meeting: turn up enough and you'll get elected to something sooner or later. On IRC persistence has its own reward, the recognition from others that you are a 'regular' member of this 'community'. Within this context, 'regular' has a significant correlation with 'good'. Again it is important to remember that while being a 'good' member embraces a degree of status, it does not necessarily guarantee access to real power and authority, but it can help.

#quiz is a dynamic social network, with its own rules, codes, conventions and sanctions. It is a 'community', bonded together symbolically, historically and synchronically. Like all communities, it has its own sense of collective identity which is shared amongst members. It is able to attract and retain 'new' members and to encourage them to share in this collective identity. However, it is neither a digital wasteland of the socially incompetent trading conversational banalities, or the egalitarian virtual utopia of satisfied contented beings bonding together through the wonders of technology. It is simply an 'imagined community' and fulfils the function of such. Similarly, while both Net visionaries and opponents denigrate IRC as mere 'chat' as opposed to 'communication', #quiz demonstrates itself to be a particularly dynamic social network actively engaged in the synchronic construction of communal and individual identity. To dismiss #quiz as 'chat' is to misconstrue the importance of 'chat' in constructing a sense of 'self', of 'community' and of 'status'. The success of #quiz as a community rests on the use of 'chat' to establish a collective sense of identity. #quiz is not necessarily a horizontal community, devoid of struggle, oppression and brutality, but it does not really pretend to be. #quiz is ultimately about a 'game' and most games involve winning. The beauty and seductive appeal of #quiz is that there exists enough people who believe that 'winning' can be defined in so many ways. Answering the questions correctly is not the only form of 'winning' possible on #quiz.


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