August 1998

A Slice of Life in Another Virtual Community

Book Review: Cyberville: Clicks, Culture and the Creation of an Online Town
By Stacy Horn
Warner Books, 1998
352 pages
$23.00 (US)
ISBN: 0-446-51909-X

Reviewed by Andrea Baker

This may be the first book on any aspect of the Internet or cyberspace that I could not put down, that I read eagerly from cover to cover. Why? The account of the exploits, moods and relationships of noted denizens of a New York-based online community provoked my interest by capturing the flavors of online interaction accurately and entertainingly.

Author Stacy Horn founded the online community, Echo, in her apartment in 1989 so she could be part of an Internet community in her own neighborhood, New York City. She wanted access to large numbers of people who would maintain continuous online communication with each other, and who could meet offline, face-to-face (f2f) to supplement and deepen contacts already made. She created an asynchrous conferencing system for the "Echoids" which has grown to over 3,000 members. Mostly in their twenties and thirties, many Echoids work in publishing as writers and editors, in cyberspace as designers and programmers, and in cultural arenas as musicians and artists.

As originator and participant, Horn easily received permission from 140 people to quote from their postings. By interweaving members' writings with her own thoughts on the history and evolution of the New York City community, she gives us a first-hand, in-depth case study of how people online form bonds, make jokes, cooperate, and conflict with each other by typing words on a screen.

The main "characters" in the community are introduced early on and continue to express themselves throughout the book, as themes emerge in different chapters. Chapters cover positive topics such as the importance of selecting good hosts or moderators to enhance discussions, and how people meet for friendship, romance and sexual encounters. More difficult issues involve how Echo has handled conflict over controversial issues including the design of private conferences limited only to women or younger members. Since Horn believes in "no censorship", as well as "no personal attacks" she has given obnoxious, even harassing posters vast leeway, banning only two individuals in the nearly ten years of Echo's existence.

Based on her experiences with Echo, Horn testifies that New Yorkers have different ways of communicating than the residents around San Francisco who formed the core of the older virtual community, the Well. For example, a discussion thread called "I hate myself" sounds a drumbeat which may indeed be peculiar to New Yorkers, or perhaps to more artistic types who do not fit in with the corporate or mainstream crowd. In contrast, one resident of another discussion conference started in the Midwest complained recently that when he created the same topic, copying Echo, some members suggested he seek therapy quickly, and the topic died. Here are just a few quotes from "I hate myself" sprinkled throughout the book: "I hate myself for so many reasons I don't have room to post them (from Miss Outer Boro, 1991), "for letting my Chia pet die" (A. Grant), and one of many with follow-ups from other posters, "I hate myself because no one missed me when I was gone for like a whole month" (Chameleon), "for not filling Chameleon's mailbox while she was gone" (jneil). Another commonplace communication device of Echoids is the use of the word "fuck" in many forms and other profane phrases, employed playfully and humorously, as well as aggressively.

Contributors sometimes write creative introductions to themselves such as parodies, poems or plays, reflecting the preponderance of people from the art world, and literary and scholarly spheres in NYC. A few active members are recognizable nationally or internationally, such as a well-known writer from the women's movement and a cyberights lawyer, not to mention John F. Kennedy Jr's brief foray into Echo, engagingly described by Horn, who walked him through the process.

Horn is friends with many of the Echoids, after knowing them online and meeting most IRL (in real life). Echo follows the Well in having a localized core who can and do meet at regularly scheduled f2f social functions, though outsiders may join in too. One poll found that 83% of the posters know other Echoids and 67% have attended f2f gatherings. Only 58% of the 3500 members are "lurkers", a figure Horn says is low compared to other groups, primarily because of the NYC emphasis. She sums up her community by saying that "It's a place to share our drama" in cyberspace, which is the "killer app".

Cyberville joins Howard Rheingold's The Virtual Community (1993) as one of the best depictions to date of what cyberspace has to offer. While Rheingold movingly describes specifics of support systems of the Well and its evolution, he spends most of the book giving much needed, detailed histories of aspects of the Internet, including newsgroups, MUDs, chatlines, and online activist organizations. Horn sticks to elaborating the case study of Echo, causing the reader to feel part of the ongoing dialogue among the interwined paricipants who are telling their stories.

Dr. Andrea Baker ( a sociology professor who is researching couples who first met online and plans to teach an online course on gender roles. She invites you to send her email with your comments or if you know couples who might want to particpate in the study.

Copyright © 1998 by Andrea Baker. All Rights Reserved.

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