Computer-Mediated Communication Magazine / Volume 2, Number 5 / May 1, 1995 / Page 15

Representation(s) and a Sense of Self: The Subtle Abstractions of MOO Talk

by Stephen Doheny-Farina (

For the last couple of years I and thousands of others have been engaged in synchronous CMC via a variety of MOOs. A MOO is "a network-accessible, multi-participant, user-extensible virtual reality whose user interface is entirely textual," says pioneering MOO designer Pavel Curtis. "Participants (usually called players) have the appearance of being situated in an artificially-constructed place that also contains those other players who are connected at the same time. Players can communicate easily with each other in real time." (1)

As I learned how to negotiate in this new medium, I assumed for a while that I faced two distinct difficulties: one technical, the other social. The technical seemed to involve how- to-MOO issues while the social centered on my efforts to establish an online persona and to interact with others. But I soon learned that the social vs. technical is a false distinction. On the MOO socialization and technical expertise go hand in (typing) hand.

On MOOs I became socialized by learning a number of socio- technical things. I learned how to type messages that would appear to others like this:

          sdf says "Hi. It's good to see you again."
and how to type messages that would appear to others like this:
          sdf thinks we should probably begin the meeting.

I worked out host computer issues involving pagelengths, word wrap, and split screens. I jumped into conversations and began to learn the discourse conventions. For example, I began to learn some common practices of interpersonal discourse, like announcing one's presence or acknowledging the presence of others. When I arrived in a room or when someone suddenly appeared in a room I was already in, I learned to type things like:

          sdf waves to. . .

One may do this to be friendly, but one also does it to make it clear that the physical person represented by the character name is actually at the keyboard and ready to participate. Likewise, I learned to narrate my MOO experience to expand the complexity of my response to others, to establish some level of creativity and playfulness (even in so-called professional situations), and to better develop interpersonal bonds:

          sdf sheepishly admits to reading only one of those
          books--and that one was the ez one with lots of
          Aja says "OK, who wants to volunteer to put that
          information online for us?"
          Aja says "Hmmmm, well don't everybody jump up at once."
          sdf nervously clears his throat and seems to be quite
          interested in his shoes.

All of these types of discourse appeared to me to be the representation of interpersonal interaction among all of those people who are actually seated at their keyboards in distant locations. Yet, this appearance deceived me in a subtle but important way. Examine for a moment the following scene that opens with the name and description of my room.

          The Royal Scam
          See the glory. . .

          You enter a bright, sun-lit room amidst dozens of green
          and flowering plants hanging from above. Beyond the
          plants you notice walls lined with books. At the far
          end of the room in front of a large open window, you
          see an old oak desk and Queen Anne's Chair.

          sdf and Hoops are here

          sdf waves
          Crimson_Tide arrives out of nowhere
          Hoops waves to sdf
          sdf waves to Crimson_Tide
          Hoops says "Hi, Crimson_Tide"
          Hoops hears the tinkling of wind chimes and sees
          Rose_Darling descending slowly and gracefully into your
          sdf waves to Rose_Darling
          Crimson_Tide hugs Rose_Darling
          Rose_Darling gives Crimson_Tide a big hug
          Crimson_Tide says "Hi, Rose
          Hoops waves to Rose_Darling
          Crimson_Tide jumps up, clicks his heels together and
          pops a certs (with a sparkling drop of retsin) into his
          Rose_Darling pokes Crimson_Tide
          Hoops bonks Crimson_Tide onna head
          sdf says "Ok, looks like we're all here. Shall we
          Crimson_Tide aieees
          Crimson_Tide smiles and rubs his forehead
          sdf eyes Crimson_Tide warily
          Rose_Darling says "I'm ready."
As I gained MOO literacy, as I became a regular at a few different MOOs, I learned how to converse in the kind of language you see above. I began to speak like everyone else did. I began to type out statements like "sdf eyes Crimson_Tide warily" because eyeing warily was commonly said when one wanted to narrate generally good-natured doubts about someone. (Quite often characters eye themselves warily, especially after typing something that suddenly appears to them to be pretty stupid. I've done it numerous times.) What I did not realize for quite a while, though, was that while I was typing out all of my statements, others were not. They were giving a variety of commands that generated these statements. Indeed, nearly every statement in the above conversation--other than the direct quotes--can be delivered by invoking what are known as Feature Objects. Below, for example, are a few of the many available at MediaMOO:

Given the manipulation of feature objects in MOO talk, what is happening is not the representation of interpersonal discourse but, as John Unsworth has argued, the representation of the representation of interpersonal discourse. There are several levels of abstraction between the person at the keyboard and the persona appearing in the MOO. And it is the MOO technology that shapes these levels in very subtle but significant ways. ". . . MOOs in general take shape under twin forces not unlike fate and free will," says Unsworth, "where free will is what we always have understood it to be, but where the role of fate is played by the operating system in which the MOO is embedded. . . . [C]omputer operating systems are historically and culturally determined." (3).

In the MOO, then, free will means that I can "say" anything I want in the MOO. I can create any FO that I want and use it any way I want. But fate means that socialization is, in part, the communal immersion within the constraints of the technology. It means that the technology shapes expression (in a small way) as feature objects go from the real to the hyperreal. That is, for a while, FOs are used on the basis of users' offline perceptions (do I want to say that sdf hugs someone? Am I -- Stephen, sitting in New York with his hands on the keyboard -- a hugger?). But over time feature objects can lose their connections to "real" hugs and become what one "does" when one meets another player in the MOO. So, in this case, as interpersonal relations become increasingly virtualized, the representation of the representation of affection replaces affection -- but convinces us that we experience affection. Finally, fate means that the power to shape discourse goes, in part, to the programmers (who will decrease in number as a percentage of MOO participants as more and more people enter these virtual worlds.)

Because I am not nor ever will become a skilled MOO programmer, my ability to manipulate a large but limited set of feature objects created by others shapes my online persona. And that should make for a compelling game of self-construction. I can watch as I create and manipulate my selves within the confines of the virtual world I've entered. But I must always remember that there are several levels of abstraction between the selves I construct offline and those I construct online. The person typing these words may not be a hugger but sdf is. ¤


  1. Pavel Curtis quoted in Unsworth, J. (forthcoming, 1995). Living inside the (operating) system: Community in virtual reality. In (Eds.) T.M. Harrison & T.D. Stephen. Computer networking and scholarly communication in the 21st century. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.
  2. For these and other features see, for example, #6927 Vlad's Hug Feature and #9610 Gracie's Big Ass Spam Features at MediaMOO.
  3. Unsworth; See also Selfe, C. & Selfe, R. (1994). The politics of the interface. College Composition and Communication, 45(4), 480-504.
     sdf waves
     sdf goes home
<where he meets> Stephen Doheny-Farina, Associate Professor of
Technical Communication at Clarkson University, Potsdam, NY.
     Stephen eyes sdf warily

Copyright © 1995 by Stephen Doheny-Farina. All Rights Reserved.

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