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Dancing at a digital ball

The internet has revolutionised the ways in which we live and behave, none more so than the way we interact with other people. Computer-mediated communication has helped produce streams of digital messages, yes, but with this has come a new ‘a sociological phenomena’: virtual communities (Jones, 1997). We no longer have relationships with people in the ‘real’, physical world, but in virtual domains, too. Rheingold describes these online communities as ‘like having a corner bar complete with old buddies and delightful newcomers… except instead of putting on my coat… I just invoke my telecom programme and there they are. It’s a place.’ (Rheingold, 1995: 62) . One cannot help but think, though, that this is a rather idealistic account of the situation. In this essay, I look to explore whether online communities offer the friendly, Cheers-like space that Rheingold suggests, or if, in fact, this metaphor should be replaced with something more cynical: something that also provokes thought about ‘the tidy division of the world into the symbolic and the real’ (Dibbell, 1998). At points I will draw on examples from comments on a blog post featured on The Guardian’s Comment is Free website – ‘These space mission cuts will cost us our scientists’ (Pillinger, 2010) – but the bulk of the piece reflects on previous scholarly works.
In order to critique this cutesy ‘corner bar’ analogy, Rehingold’s motivations must first be considered. In The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier, he asserts that ‘virtual communities are social aggregations that emerge from the Net when enough people carry on those public discussions long enough, with sufficient human feeling, to form webs of personal relationships in cyberspace’ (Rheingold, 1993: 5, italics added). This is the basis for his numerous real-world comparisons to online communities, which have lead people to suggest that he views such groups as ‘a kind of ultimate flowering of community’ (Jones, 1995: 11). His analogies constantly refer to idealised everyday situations: bars full of friendly faces, self-sufficient homes, the ‘good life’. Rheingold, then, sees the virtual community as a utopia; the community we all wish we could be a part of in real life.  
In its most basic guise of plain-text discourse, computer-mediated communication is ‘disembodied, manufactured, inorganic’ (Lister, 2003: 174). This isn’t to say that it can’t convey human feeling, but to suggest that through its inherent lack of depth – say, diversity in age, ethnicity and social class – it can struggle to provide a sense of community.  Though agreement on the formation of virtual communities is a contentious issue (see, for example, Jones, 1997), central must be some ‘common bonds of adversity’ (Lister, 2003: 174), which are difficult to establish in a one-dimensional environment, such as a text-based chatroom. Online users therefore forge identities for themselves, through which other members are able to observe similarities and differences between themselves and others.  Identity is ‘constructed through discourse’ (Lister, 2003: 167) and the information supplied in profiles – be they lines of text in the now-dated Multi User Dungeons, or the feature-rich content on Facebook – and it is this that is the key driver in the shift from computer mediated communication to  virtual community (see, for example, Baym, 1998).

This sense of identity, however, need not accurately mirror the user’s real-world persona. As Poster suggests, ‘internet discourse constitutes the subject as the subject fashions him or herself’ (Poster, 1997: 222); the user is free to create an online identity of their choosing. Pausing briefly to consider the community of commenters on Clive Pillginger’s piece, it seems most members describe themselves minimally: some have a profile picture which may or may not represent their physicality, and some provide descriptions of themselves, but these are in the minority. Most are instead defined largely by the other articles they have commented on, and their discourse in the community. For example, when Rockyspoon begins ‘first, as a geologist... I can tell you without reservation that the earth is recovering from The Little Ice Age…’, he reveals his specialism to the group; when Madhatter admits that ‘the Hubble telescope's images [have] made me gasp in wonder more than once’, we have a brief glimpse into his psyche. Such insights are intriguing, but these blog commenters remain rather mysterious, as a lot is known about their news interests, but relatively little about them, and even what is known could be fictitious. This is the crux of the matter: users are able to camouflage, or even hide, their real-identities online; the internet offers them a ‘schizoid compromise’ (Turkle, 1984: 280).
The main problem with Rheingold’s ‘corner bar’ analogy is that it does not account for the shadowy sense of identity outlined above. Virtual communities are not simply the friendly, welcoming bar connoted by Rheingold’s metaphor; they are not a place ‘where everybody knows your name, and they're always glad you came’ (Portnoy & Angelo, 1982). Rather, they are spaces with the capability, at least, of containing something more sinister. Lister seizes on the notion that online forums and chatrooms ‘serve almost no other cultural function than the remediation of the self’(Bolter & Grusin, 2000: 285), and further suggests that they ‘allow us to participate in the carnival-like masquerade of online identity play’ (Lister, 2003: 166).
Finding a real-world metaphor to describe a virtual environment is inherently risky – there will always be areas where the two disagree – but the concept of the online community as a Venetian masked ball, alluded to by Lister, resonates with that discussed above. Popular in 16th century Renaissance Italy, at their height masked balls were synonymous with the Venetian carnival. The city was transformed for a day in to an enormous masked ball, providing revellers with a multiplicity in space and self: free to roam the streets, moving from one area of the party to the next; free to change masks and, consequently, identity. Understandably, the anonymity afforded a level of debauchery and harmless fun, but there was also a darker side to such parties, which carried with it death, murder and rape (see, for example, the assassination of Gustav III of Sweden, or Allen Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death). These three key concepts - anonymity, multiplicity, and scandal - neatly sum up the darker side of the masked ball. I suggest here that these concepts are also evident in online communities, where users create digital disguises, move between virtual spaces, and use these phenomena to facilitate bad behaviour. These more sinister aspects are just what Rheingold’s analysis of virtual communities fails to identify and, in what follows, I shall consider how the masked ball metaphor may provide a more suitable alternative.

Anonymity: masking identity

In Life on the Screen, Turkle suggests that ‘when we step through the screen into virtual communities, we reconstruct our identities’ (Turkle, 1995: 177), and so it is. Just as a party-goer may choose a mask that says something about themselves – or about a self they wish for – whilst simultaneously masking other aspects of their personality, so too does a member of an online community when they sign up to a particular service, channel or chat room. To refer back to our case study, when users sign up to The Guardian’s Comment is Free service, they are encouraged to create a profile, at a web page that acts as a ‘social laboratory for the experimenting with the constructions… of self’ (Turkle, 1995: 180). We find on Pillinger’s blog’s comments a range of users. KevinNevada says he’s from Las Vegas, enjoys ‘Space development, science, politics, music, film’, and provides a picture of himself, appearing contemplative. Elsewhere, Goldmine admits only that he’s from Brighton and appears to resemble the cartoon character Hong Kong Phooey, whilst Kepler remains entirely mysterious, with no description or avatar whatsoever.  Even in this small enclave of the internet, it is possible to see that users remediate themselves in a wide variety of ways. Users’ identities aren’t defined just through the clues they give, though, but also by their discourse in the community. Other individuals in the community are able to relate to this virtual ‘self’ constructed from both description and discourse, but nothing more. As a result, each community member can ‘play a role as close to or as far away from [their] real self as [they] choose’ (Turkle, 1995: 183). The fundamental difference between the metaphor of a masked ball and a corner bar is that there is a necessary caution stemming from hidden identity in the former. A user’s mask can take whatever form they want and - excitingly, terrifyingly – they can also change it.

Multiplicity: free movement and a fragmented self

Masked party-goers of the 16th century benefitted from a luxury that normal part-goers didn’t: they had the option to switch between physical forms. Whether removing a mask or donning a new one, they could easily change their identity. This accords wonderfully with Turkle’s suggestion that, on the internet, ‘people are able to build a self by cycling through many selves’ (Turkle, 1995: 178). This sense of a fractured self, where people are ‘confronted by a bewildering, fleeting multiplicity of possible identities’ (Hall et al, 1992: 277), is ignored by Rheingold’s analogy, and yet it is a crucial aspect of web culture. Looking at the interactions within the comments on Pillinger’s blog post, one would be unable to tell whether the aforementioned Goldmine is, say, simultaneously playing the part of KevinNevada. Common sense might try and force us to rationalize that it wouldn’t make any sense, that they each interact with the community differently but – and, crucially, this is point – as an observer we have no way of knowing if a discourse of this type isn’t simply being played out by a handful of users. The anonymity and multiplicity of identities online can leave us constantly guessing at the identity of the real-life being behind the avatar, leaving those friendly faces around Rehingold’s bar looking somewhat less welcoming.

What’s more, online, people are able to move between communities, just as partygoers in Venice could roam the city. Lévy describes beautifully how ‘[t]he contemporary multiplication of spaces makes us nomads again… spaces metamorphose and bifurcate beneath our feet’ (Levy, 1998: 31). Though he refers to transport’s effect on space and time, his sentiment is apt here: online, people are able to rapidly move between spaces, even occupying more than one space at a time. Viewing The Guardian’s Comment is Free as a large community, of which Pillinger’s piece and other blog posts are a sub-communities, the users we have encountered elsewhere in this text wander freely between discussions. They are to be found arguing about not just science and technology, but topics as diverse as politics, travel, football and music. While Rheingold’s analysis doesn’t suggest the ‘corner bar’ is the only community which people may frequent, it does not convey a constant shifting between communities, a sense of dynamism, that is integral to the way most people seem to use the internet.
Scandal: anonymity facilitates bad behaviour

Members of internet communities are able to mask themselves; they’re able to swiftly change identity and locale. Combined, these effects are, cynically, the perfect tools with which to behave badly. Just as murder and rape were possible in the masked balls of the 16th century, so villainous deeds can be performed in online communities with little risk of effectual punishment. This is definitely not to put real-life murder on an equal footing with offending people in an online chatroom, but to suggest that the sense of anonymity offered on the internet is a facilitator of individuals’ bad behaviour.  Take, for instance, the way one community member, Wyngwili addressed Pillinger directly: ‘So fucking what I couldn't give a shite.’ Would Whgwili choose to speak to Clive Pillinger – professor, holder of a CBE, Fellow of the Royal Society – like this in person? A sociopath might, but the norms of society generally frown on such behaviour. More extreme cases, such as that documented A Rape in Cyberspace (Dibbell, 1998), show that this heady sense of anonymity can cause some to behave in extremely inappropriate ways online. This, then, is the sinister side of virtual communities, facilitated by masked identity, which Rheingold chooses to ignore whilst sat in his comfortable drinking hole.
Rehengold’s metaphor of the virtual community as a ‘corner bar’ is naïve. It overlooks the problems of multiple identities, and the ramifications of such an oversimplification. I have proposed that, if one wishes to compare the virtual to the real, it may be more sensible to consider the online community as a masked ball. In doing so, it is possible to consider how members of the community can camouflage their identity, change it, and even exploit this in manifold locations. Consequently, a sense of abandon in the user – a feeling of freedom - means they can do as they please, and this can have troubling consequences.

There has been an implicit assumption to this point that the metaphorical ball constitutes an entirely virtual world, but by questioning this assumption, Rheingold’s position becomes weaker still. Turkle speaks of the windows that we use at our computers every day, and suggests that ‘the life practice of windows is that of a decentred self that exists in many worlds, that plays many roles at the same time… [now, real life may be] just one more window’ (Turkle, 1996). Maybe, then, the Venetian masked ball metaphor is one played out in real life; this is what sets it apart from Rheingold’s entirely virtual bar. Our real selves now live in a world with our virtual acquaintances; the line between real and virtual is blurred to such a degree that the two are as one; ‘illusion is no longer possible, because the real is no longer possible’ (Baudrillard, 1988).  In short, there may no longer be any way of accurately discerning between the real and virtual communities that we all increasingly a part of. We dance the through the Venetian night in the arms of not just our virtual acquaintances, but our real-life friends, too.


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