Communication Magazine /
Volume 2, Number 4 / April 1, 1995 / Page 14
Examining Community in Cyberspace
by Chris Silker
CyberSociety: Computer-Mediated Communication and Community
Edited by Steven G. Jones
Sage Publications, 1995, 241 pages
ISBN 0-8039-5676-2 hardcover or ISBN 0-8039-5677-0 paper
CyberSociety provides a much needed scholarly examination of
online communities--a topic that has primarily been discussed anecdotally by
the mass media. The collection discusses several different types of online
communities, such as Usenet newsgroups and Multi-User Dimensions (MUDs), as
well as addressing some of the issues that online communities must deal with.
CyberSociety also includes several good overviews of
computer-mediated communication (CMC). The authors examine CMC from a variety
of perspectives, including feminism, political science, anthropology, speech
communication, literature, and media studies. Additionally, I felt it is
extremely appropriate that a publication about life online provides most of
the author's email addresses in their biographies. Finally, the book contains
a fairly in-depth index, which is not always the case in such collections.
Although I felt this was a strong collection, it did have several weaknesses.
Only about half of the chapters presented research results, while the other
half continued the same sort of anecdotal treatment the subject of online
communities is given by the mass media. Additionally, several of the chapters
seemed only tangentially related to the concept of community. Although many of
the authors mention that further research on these issues needs to be done, it
would have been nice if CyberSociety had done more of that.
Overall, I felt the chapters (briefly reviewed below) were fascinating
reading, and I highly recommend this collection.
Introduction: From Where to Who Knows?
In the introduction, Steven G. Jones provides a brief rationale for the
collection, noting that the collection presents new "concepts and
understandings...emphasizes that new social formations may require new forms
of inquiry" (p. 7), and attempts "to understand the everyday life of the
network and its citizens" (p. 8).
Understanding Community in the Information Age
The first chapter (also by Steven G. Jones) provides some background on CMC
and continues to develop the collection's rationale. According to Jones,
CyberSociety attempts to examine community that is not
place-based (i.e., there is no "where" for us to study per se)--while
studies of traditional communities may focus on location, studies of
computer-mediated communities tend to focus on interaction. As Jones points
"Once we can surmount time and space and 'be'
anywhere, we must choose a 'where' at which to be, and the computer's
functionality lies in its power to make us organize our decisions about the
places we visit and stay in....A critical awareness of the social
transformations that have occurred and continue to occur with or without
technology will be our best ally as we incorporate CMC into contemporary
social life." (pp. 32-33)
Unfortunately, Jones's excellent essay led me to expect more from the
remaining chapters than they provided.
A Backstage Critique of Virtual Reality
In this thought-provoking essay, Cheris Kramarae examines virtual reality (VR)
through "feminist speculative fiction" and addresses some of the
gender issues related to cyberspace. Kramarae begins with an overview of how
VR is presently being used and considers how it will develop in the future. VR
proponents claim that VR's potential "is limited only by the
imagination" of its developers, which is what concerns Kramarae--"the
limited imagination of those working on or using the programs" (p. 41).
Kramarae also briefly describes Women, Information Technology, and Scholarship
(WITS), a "working colloquium" at the University of Illinois at
Urbana-Champagne whose participants are interested in making cyberspace a
space for women as well as men.
Nintendo® and New World Travel Writing: A Dialogue
This essay provides a fascinating juxtaposition of Nintendo® games and
"New World narratives," such as the writings of Columbus and Sir
Walter Raleigh. Authors Mary Fuller and Henry Jenkins believe that Nintendo®
is similar to "New World narratives" in that both place more emphasis
on the journey (or moving through space) than on the arrival (or goal
attainment). Presumably to reinforce the feeling of a dialogue, emphasize that
the work results from an ongoing conversation, and highlight the "two
stories" they are telling, Fuller and Jenkins trade the writing task back
and forth. Unfortunately, this alternating style distracted me from the essay
Making Sense of Software: Computer Games and Interactive Textuality
Ted Friedman begins this essay by noting that although new media change some
of our basic assumptions about media, they have not been examined in any
detail, if at all. Friedman points out that we presently lack a "software
theory" to explain the workings of software--I would point out that, after
reading these essays, it seemed to me that we presently lack theories to
explain a lot of news forms of communication. By examining software, starting
with computer games, Friedman believes it is possible "to move beyond
familiar paradigms and look at software that has developed truly new forms of
reader-text interaction" (p. 75).
Standards of Conduct on Usenet
Margaret L. McLaughlin, Kerry K. Osborne, and Christine B. Smith provide a
fascinating discussion of the origins and implications of Usenet conventions.
The authors make some particularly interesting points; for example, they note
that "the use of the `community' metaphor in characterizing network
discussion forums may prove to be only a starting point in analysis" (p. 107)
and that, in the future, more appropriate concepts may need to be
Searching for the Leviathan in Usenet
I haven't read Hobbes's Leviathan, so I fear my lack of
familiarity with one of this essay's structuring concepts may have limited my
understanding of some of Richard C. MacKinnon's points. However, I was
certainly able to appreciate MacKinnon's in-depth and engrossing discussion of
existence on Usenet. MacKinnon points out that, for one's persona to
"exist" on Usenet, the persona must be noticed. Thus, in the case of
Usenet, "I think, therefore I am" does not work--"I am perceived,
therefore I am"(p. 119) is more appropriate.
The Emergence of Community in Computer-Mediated Communication
Nancy K. Baym provides an insightful overview of the CMC literature, with
examples from her research on rec.arts.tv.soaps (r.a.t.s.). Baym also points
out that interaction by itself does not lead to the development of
community--other factors, such as external contexts and group purposes,
contribute as well.
Virtual Worlds: Culture and Imagination
Elizabeth Reid considers VR to be "an experience" rather than "a;
set of technologies" (p. 164) and believes that VR "is primarily an
imaginative rather than sensory experience" (p. 165). This is certainly true
of the "entirely textual" VR environments she discusses--Multi-User
Dimensions, or MUDs. Reid's essay clarified for me the ways in which MUDs are
similar to, and different from, other forms of CMC described in
The E-Mail Murders: Reflections on "Dead Letters"
Alan Aycock and Norman Buchignani juxtapose "on-line text and `real'
context" (p. 185) in the case of Valery Fabrikant, an untenured professor at
Concordia University in Montreal who murdered several people. My one
frustration with this article is the length of time it took me to figure out
who Fabrikant was; however, I believe that the authors did that deliberately.
I will admit that the "Fabricating Fabrikant" I had to do contributed
to the ethnographic spy novel feel of this article.
Chris Silker is a double master's student in
Scientific and Technical Communication and Forestry at the
University of Minnesota.
Copyright © 1995 by Chris Silker. All Rights Reserved.
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