VID > Stewart Douglas > Introduction

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

Stewart Douglas

Introduction

The West Australian recently published a brief article warning of the detrimental effects inherent in the rapid and widespread acceptance of the Internet. 1 In the article, the Internet is explicitly accused of contributing to the destruction the 'community', of producing individuals who are socially 'autistic', able to communicate only through computers, devoid of the essential core of the communal 'lifestyle'. John Nieuwenhuizen in his book Asleep At The Wheel adopts a similar tone, warning of "... a further winding back of human contact." 2 The 'Internet', the 'digital age', the 'information superhighway' has become increasingly linked with disparate visions of a global community of the future, a community dependent on the technology of computer mediated communications. Such dependency will herald in either a 'new age' of understanding and tolerance based on the transmission of cultural knowledge, or a bleak communal wasteland composed of isolated individuals disassociated from the 'happy' participation in a 'real' cultural 'community'. The Internet has created its own prophets and critics; each polarised in their positions relative to the contribution the Internet will make to the 'community' of the future. However, there would be little dispute within either polarity regarding the suitability of the application the term 'community' to the Internet, as well as parallel recognition that a 'community' can be both inclusive and exclusive. A 'community' has a dynamic sense of its own conditions of membership, however flexible or rigid such conditions may be, and of those attributes deemed desirable for the individual to possess, express or regard as important. Naturally, a 'community' also encompasses a repertoire of attributes regarded as undesirable, as well as 'shared' imagings regarding particular socio-economic, ethnic, sexual or racial groups deemed likely to possess these undesirable elements. Within this context, it is therefore somewhat problematic for Dale Spender to proclaim: "We are becoming different people; we are creating a new community." 3 At a reductionist level, few would deny this. Where there are difficulties is in defining the nature of the term 'we' and of the word 'community'. For its prophets, the Internet will produce a global 'community', free of racial, cultural and geographical boundaries. For people like Negroponte, Gates and Spender (using terminology frequently couched in the idealistic terms of the earlier counter-culture mythologies of the 1960's), the 'community' of the Internet will be open to all, a true 'community' devoid of the omnipresent discrimination of membership criteria (although the ability to hum a few bars of any song by the Grateful Dead would be appreciated). In opposition to this 'tie-dyed' vision, critics like Nieuwenhuizen warn of the fracturing of any relationship to the 'real' community, of the destruction of 'cultural identity', crushed by a homogenised 'digital' culture which is predominantly American, male, white and wealthy. From this position, the Internet offers a 'community' of 'emptiness', a digital void, the stark realisation of Ray Bradbury's perennial short story "The Pedestrian", where people live in isolation, connected only through the 'dim light of the television set'.

The common factor in both interpretations is a direct link between the Internet and 'community'; a perception that the Internet will change the current relationship existing between the individual and the 'community' to which he or she belongs. In the simplest of terms, the Internet will either 'open up' the channels of communication, creating a culture of diversity, or produce the foreclosing of any 'sense of identity', the blurring of a normative cultural perception of 'Self' and the 'Community' as defined within the parameters of the modern nation state. However it is possible that both positions are reductionist in approach, that the differences between a 'virtual community' and a 'real' community are in themselves problematic and so difficult to establish as to be basically irrelevant. Benedict Anderson (1982) has suggested that the relationship between the individual and the 'community' is inherently 'imaginary' anyway, that is exists through the perceived sharing of 'cultural narratives'. What then is the difference between a 'virtual' community and an 'imagined' one? From this position, what are the characteristics of a 'virtual' community, one whose frontiers (if they exist at all) exist in the boundaries of 'cyberspace'? How is this 'community' constructed? What are the characteristics of a 'virtual' community and what rules, myths and symbolic structures are shared between members? The intention here is to attempt to respond to some of these issues, to analyse the characteristics of the 'virtual community' through the application of Anderson's concept of the 'imagined' community. Similarly, there will be a parallel effort to establish the 'lines' of power and control which may exist and which are 'perceived' to existing between members of the 'virtual' community. In other words, how is the 'virtual' community constructed?

However, it must be recognised that the word 'Internet' itself is an extremely generalised term. As a concept, it encompasses a broad range of technological activities and embraces such things as the World Wide Web, Newsgroups, Email and Internet Relay Chat amongst others. All of these activities share the same technology, they are interrelated, but not necessarily interchangeable, in much the same way that the term transport embraces such things as rail, road and air. Such aspects of transport are inter-related, but not always interchangeable. It would be impossible, for example, to travel by rail from Melbourne to Hobart, the different forms consist of distinct components of a more complex whole. Thus, to use the term 'Internet' to apply to a 'virtual community' is sufficiently vague to render the task meaningless. The aim is to focus on a component of the larger whole, to determine the structure of a 'virtual community' as it is articulated through individual participation in the Internet Relay Chat. Similarly, Internet Relay Chat is sufficiently large to be intimidating, therefore, the study will be restricted to a relatively small number of channels, that while small, represent a 'range' of channels commonly available on the 'chat' network.

Additionally, the history and development of the Internet is beyond the scope of this study, as is the history of the Internet Relay Chat network itself. However, it is important to recognise that the Internet Relay Chat is a relatively recent component of the Internet and that this may influence the position of importance or otherwise accorded to the 'chat' network within the 'sub-culture' of the Internet community. This aspect will be dealt with later in the study, as it may have a bearing on the 'virtual' community as constructed by the participants of the 'chat' network itself. In general terms the Internet Relay Chat involves the synchronous transmission of typed words through an Internet connection to one of several thousand available 'servers'. Each server is in turn able to support an almost limitless number of channels and each 'user' is theoretically able to 'join' any channel (although restrictions can be imposed by those 'members' who 'own' the channel) or 'create' new channels they can 'control'. The software used by most 'users' tends to be divided equally between mIRC or Pirch, 4 both programs are readily available on the Internet itself in the form of shareware and to suit a variety of platforms (Windows 95, Windows 3.x, Apple etc). And while a user is supposed to 'register' their use of the program through the payment of a nominal fee, this tends not to happen particularly frequently. Hence, to all intents and purposes, the necessary software (once an Internet connection is established) is essentially free. Through use of the software, a user is able to participate in a variety of synchronous discussions using a text-based medium. These discussions can by available to the entire channel or 'private' ie. sent to another individual user for their own personal viewing. Hence the Internet Relay Chat is able to provide users with a continuum of discourse ranging from the public to the personal in an essentially simultaneous mode. In other words, a user can be participating in the general conversation occurring in the channel, while engaging in any number of 'private' conversations with other users who may be on the same channel or indeed may be on several different channels. Additionally, it is not uncommon for users to be members of several channels simultaneously, dividing their attention between each channel and contributing to the discussion according to the ebb and flow of interest, topic and the desire to actually 'participate', rather than simply 'watch'. 5

The extent of synchronous communication shared between members might be argued to favour the production a particularly dynamic social process, one that is both symbolic and symbiotic; one that is inherently active, constantly expanding and contracting in response to the ebb and flow of its members. And within this social dynamic, it is important to acknowledge the symbolic significance of the terminology shared between those individuals who participate in the 'chat' network. Individuals 'join' a network, they 'join' a channel, they can also 'own' a channel, stop other users from joining, 'kick' and 'ban' others and generally establish and enforce the 'rules of membership'. Against this social dynamic, constructed through the ebb and flow of a technology based communication, to what extent does the 'virtual' function as a 'community'? What does it provide for its members? For Dale Spender, using the Net "... is a satisfying, affirming and delightful pastime."6 Yet is this in itself a reductionist perception? Surely 'nattering' is also an ideological activity, steeped in the politics of everyday life? Even Spender expresses concern with already pre-existing patterns of exclusion, with the sublimation of cyber-society by a priori logonomic systemic features which discriminate against "Woman Ð and Indigenous people and those with few resources."7 Within this socio-cultural milieu, is it possible to establish those social semiotic processes which provide the foundation necessary for the 'virtual community' to foster and promote the 'flux of loyalty' essential to 'bind' individual 'members' together, while simultaneously serving to exclude and marginalise others? 'Nattering' on the 'Chat' lines is an active semiotic process, involving the transmission and reception of 'shared' understandings, the adoption of symbolic 'commonalities' of identity which extend beyond the synchronic nature of the chat line and intrude into the world of the 'real'.8 What is the structure of this section of the 'cyber-community'? It is these questions which provide the conceptual substructure for this study. Within this structure, it is important to 'locate' IRC within the broader community of the Internet itself, as I am suggesting that patterns of perception existing within the cyber community exert an influence on the perception of IRC users themselves, that there is a symbiotic relationship between the Internet community and the sub-cultural grouping formed by IRC users. To ignore the 'positioning' of IRC within the Internet community as a whole is to ignore the inherent possibilities made available in considering IRC as existing as a relatively distinct sub-culture: one with its own style, ideology and language. And one that is simultaneously in opposition to, and parasitic on, the larger community. The focus of this analysis will concentrate on approximately three IRC channels 9 available on the Australian Undernet 10. This material will consist of the transcription of the 'logs' of a variety of 'chat' sessions held over a seven month period. The channels selected are all 'registered' channels, as these channels have a significantly higher degree of permanence than those created 'on the fly' by individual members. In other words, these channels have an 'existence' that does not necessarily depend on members being on the channel at any particular time. 11 I am suggesting that this 'aura of permanence' helps promote a sense of shared commonality among members, while simultaneously generating historicity: a sense that the channel has a 'past', a tradition that members can share in. This is particularly important in establishing the nature of the virtual community of IRC.


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