Social Relationships in Electronic Forums
Hangouts, Salons, Workplaces and Communities
by Rob Kling
This article is a chapter in the book, Computerization and Controversy: Value Conflicts and Social Choices (2nd Ed.) by Rob Kling. San Diego, CA: Academic Press, 1996. This article may be circulated for non-commercial purposes. Please contact Rob Kling or compare it with the final published version before quoting directly.
Electronic forums are springing up worldwide, and especially in North America. Millions of people are now corresponding through electronic newsgroups, bulletin boards, conferences, distribution lists and similar media. Somewhere, on the Internet, on a private service like America On-line, or on an independent bulletin board, there at least one electronic forum that focusses on almost any topic that someone would want to talk (or write) about. And there many groups are organized for "casual chat" to help foster friendship, and sometimes even romance, between their participants. Enthusiasts for these forums argue that they are building new forms of community life (Rheingold, 1993). But other analysts observe that not every collection of people who happen to talk (or write) to each other form the sense of trust, mutual interest, and sustained commitments that automatically deserve to be labeled as communities (Jones, 1995).
This Part examines some specific controversies about the kinds of social relations that people develop when they communicate via computer networks. The search for "a sense of community" has been an enduring theme in United States' culture. Ironically, the technologies of freedom--trains, cars, and airplanes; telephones, faxes, and computer networks -- have enabled us to be on the move, and to live, work, and do business with more people with whom we share very limited parts of our lives. Further, at a time when community life in North American cities is unravelling--some people hope that people can meet and enrich their social lives at work and at home via computer networks.
The ways that people work and communicate via computer networks destabilizes many conventional social categories. For example, I just referred to "social lives at work and at home" as if they refer to distinct places as well as webs of social relationships. But telecommuting and virtual offices enables people to work routinely while they are in their homes, and blurs these boundaries.
This Part examines social relationships of people's physical lives--not just their electronic images. It starts by examining social relationships in workplaces. Then it examines people's private lives--their relationships within their pre-existing towns, cities and metropolitan areas as they lobby their local governments for political change or search for romance online. It also examines how communities of authors and readers are shifting their relationships with electronic journals and digital libraries.
Much of the recent flood of books and articles about computer networking, information highways, virtual offices and cyberspace are infused with technological utopianism and anti- utopianism. The selections in Part II by Weiland, Stewart and Kelly illustrate technological utopian analyses of social relationships in electronic forums. And the articles in Part II by Birkerts and Winner illustrate technological anti- utopianism. Most of the articles in this Part go beyond the utopian and anti-utopian genres to examine social life in cyberspace in more socially realistic terms.
Work Relationships and Electronic Communication
Many writers, including scholars, professionals and technical journalists, have speculated about the effects of new technologies on work life. Some speculate that electronic mail will eliminate organizational hierarchies, or at least reduce the barriers to communication between people at different levels of hierarchy in an organization (Sproull and Kiesler, 1991a) and facilitate the formation of more flexible work groups (perhaps even "virtual" work groups).
Other speculations involve the extent and the conditions under which electronic communications will foster or undermine a sense of community in the workplace and elsewhere. Workers who are connected by electronic communications media may form "communities" that differ in substantial ways from other communities to which they may belong. Much of what has been written about networks at work has been concerned, in part, with community. A recurring theme of electronically- enhanced group cohesion is typified by Heintz (1992, p 34), who claims that "the world of electronic science is smaller and more tightly knit."
Unfortunately, there are currently few empirical studies of changing forms of work that support these speculations. Technical journalists like Perry (1992) claim that "electronic mail has removed the barriers of time and place between engineers collaborating on complex design projects." Aydin and Rice (1992) describe how networks bring together different groups in the workplace. There is some empirical evidence that computer nets help foster a sense of community among geographically or organizationally isolated professionals, such as special librarians (Ladner and Tillman, 1992) and oceanographers (Sproull and Kiesler , 1991a).
A substantial body of research has attempted to identify the unique characteristics of electronic media, and how new media use may be optimized. While much of this research is social- psychological in nature, a few researchers engage issues of organizational behavior. Kiesler, Siegel, and McGuire (1984) conducted controlled problem-solving experiments that compared computer-based communication with face-to-face discussion. They found that the groups that used computer- communication took longer to reach consensus, participated more equally, showed more willingness to arrive at conclusions that differed from their initial proposals, and displayed more "uninhibited verbal behavior" (colloquially known as "flaming"). Some of the effects that they observed have been attributed to the absence of non-verbal cues that are present in face-to-face discussion (body language, smiles or frowns, etc.) and even to some extent in telephone conversation (laughter, voice inflection, etc.).
The first selection, "Increasing Personal Connections," by Lee Sproull and Sara Kiesler set the stage for examining electronic mail (e-mail) and distribution lists in organizations. They argue that electronic mail is not simply a tool that replaces telephones and paper memos--it has distinctly different social properties. They argue that the use of e-mail enables people who are peripheral in organizations to become more visible. Lower level staff can communicate more readily to upper managers. People in branch offices or the field can communicate more readily with others in the home office and other branch offices. They argue that these electronic connections helps democratize organizations by giving more visibility to people who are often out of sight or ignored by people in more central or powerful positions. Sproull and Kiesler go beyond the normal focus on job specific communication, and also examine distribution lists where people can communicate about hobbies (the cinema list) or just hang out (the rowdies list). They argue that these formats for electronic communication also help people make connections and heightens the sense of social solidarity in organizations. These are important claims, especially for geographically dispersed organizations or those that are experimenting with telecommuting.
But there is also the possibility that people's social relationships in networked offices may suffer in some ways. Research claims about e-mail facilitating less inhibited behavior and flaming suggest that electronic groups may behave somewhat differently than face-to-face groups (Kiesler, Siegel, and McGuire, 1984; Sproull and Kiesler, 1991a). Kezsbom (1992), a technical journalist, suggests one possible down-side to networked worklife: "As the use of cross- functional, multi-disciplined project teams increases, the conflict that accompanies such team work will rise accordingly." And Zuboff (1988) reports the experiences of a large drug company where managers claimed that their electronic communications were being treated as policy statements, even when they wanted to make an informal observation or ad-hoc decisions.
In the next selection, "Gender and Democracy in Computer-mediated Communication," linguist Susan Herring examines the ways that men and women communicate in two different electronic discussion groups: LINGUIST--devoted to the discussion of linguistics-related issues--and Megabyte University (MBU), informally organized around the discussion of computers and writing. Herring uses a particular (idealized) conception of "democratic discourse" in which any participant can question any assertion, introduce any assertion, and express their own attitudes, desires, and needs without being coerced into silence or compliance by other participants. She carefully examined discussions on these groups for the rates of participation by men and women. She went beyond counting the number of messages to examine the lengths of messages (the longest messages were written by men), and the style of interaction (supportive, critical, hostile). She also examined the ways in which people received rejoinders to the comments that they sent to the group, or their messages were lost in cyberspace without public acknowledgement. Herring summarizes her disturbing conclusions:
"Despite the democratizing potential ... male and female academic professionals do not participate equally in academic CMC. Rather, a small male minority dominates the discourse both in terms of amount of talk, and rhetorically, through self- promotional and adversarial strategies. Moreover, when women do attempt to participate on a more equal basis, they risk being actively censored by the reactions of men who either ignore them or attempt to delegitimize their contributions. Because of social conditioning that makes women uncomfortable with direct conflict, women tend to be more intimidated by these practices and to avoid participating as a result.... (the) conditions for a democratic discourse are not met: although the medium theoretically allows for everyone with access to a network to take part and to express their concerns and desires equally, a very large community of potential participants is effectively prevented by censorship, both overt and covert, from availing itself of this possibility. Rather than being democratic, academic CMC is power-based and hierarchical. This state of affairs cannot however be attributed to the influence of computer communication technology; rather, it continues pre-existing patterns of hierarchy and male dominance in academia more generally, and in society as a whole."
Herring's study is based on a very special sample of people (academics) and a special kind of forum: a discussion group. Perhaps other kinds of groups or other kinds of electronic forums more effectively facilitate democratic discussions. Social psychologist Giuseppe Mantovani (1994) reviewed a broad body of systematic empirical research about the role of computer communication systems in enhancing democratic discussions between participants. Computer-mediated communication (CMC) tools, include both distance- spanning and time-synchronous systems, like teleconferencing, and distance- spanning and time-bridging asynchronous systems, like electronic mail (E-mail). These are diverse kinds of technologies, including those studied by Sproull and Kiesler and Markus in this Part , as well as those that support virtual offices. Mantovani carefully examines a position that has been most actively advanced by Sara Kiesler and Lee Sproull that "CMC is democratic because it supports participation in communication in organizations in a way that is consistent with Western images of democracy."
The democratization thesis can be stated simply; but it has a number of complex dimensions that Sproull and Kiesler explore in their book Connections and in the selection from their book ("Increasing Personal Connections"). In Connections, Sproull and Kiesler summarize a rich body of research about face-to-face meetings that shows that meetings are often dominated by members who are highest in status, most verbally articulate, and/or speak the most. Lower status members, or those who are shyer are less likely to influence the decisions made in meetings, even when they have important expertise. The democratization thesis mixes the moral value of democracy with the hope that more democratic organizations can more effectively draw upon the skills and expertise of their employees.
Unfortunately, Mantovani uses an informal conception of democracy, without carefully identifying very different meanings of democracy, such as equal participation, one person-one vote, ability for minority groups to organize and argue for their interests, and so on. It is particularly important be clear about the differences between political democracy (in which the authority to govern derives from the consent of those who are governed) from conversational equality that is closer to the Habermassian conception of democracy explained by Herring (Pateman, 1970). Democratic theorists like Pateman argue that effective political democracy at the national level is most likely in societies that have many arenas for people to experience conversational democracy and political democracy--including their workplaces and their communities. But conversational democracy does not transform authority relationships into those of political democracy. For example, university students might enjoy conversational democracy on a campus. But students usually play no significant role in selecting the faculty and administrators who exercise authority of over curricula and campus life.
Mantovani carefully examines a diverse body of research for evidence about the extent to which CMC use democratizes social interaction and social influence. Mantovani discusses a body of studies conducted by Tora Bikson and her colleagues (1989) that find that e-mail is effective in overcoming physical barriers, but not necessarily, social barriers. These technologies primarily enhance existing interaction patterns. He also draws upon Child and Loveridge's (1990), studies undertaken in different European countries, that found that CMC is usually designed precisely to support ongoing hierarchical relations. Montavani concludes that whether or not CMC engenders democracy actually depends on the social context of CMC use, on the organizational history and on the rules determining CMC's application.
The next selection by M. Lynne Markus, "Finding a Happy Medium: Explaining the Negative Effects of Electronic Communication on Social Life at Work," gives us a concrete illustration of Montavani's abstract reference to "the social context of CMC use," "organizational history" and "the rules determining CMC's application." Her careful case study of the social effects of e-mail use examines communications between the staff at an insurance firm's headquarters (HCP). HCP's upper managers required their staffs to rely upon e-mail, and it was the major medium for internal corporate communications at the time of her study. HCP's staff used e- mail to speed communications and bring people closer together, But they also reported significant negative effects, such as feeling that HCP was a less personal place to work. Electronic mail was often used to avoid face-to-face confrontation or unpleasant situations, and often in-office visitors were ignored while employees tended to the demands of messages on their computer terminals.
How should we understand the occurrence of these negative effects? Some analysts have argued that they are a byproduct of key characteristics of e-mail as a medium which reduces the intensity of important social cues, such as people's feelings (Sproull and Kiesler, 1991). Markus challenges the "social cues filtered out" theory, and concludes that managers ascribe negative effects of electronic communications to "people's deliberately intended inappropriate behavior." The negative effects that she cited were primarily focused on depersonalization--including employee feelings that the company was a less personal place to work, feelings of "invisibility," reduced feedback on job performance, and avoidance of personal contact. She believes that in some cases, these negative effects occur as ironic byproducts of people's attempts to avoid potential problems with system use. Markus examines how depersonalization may result from people's strategic behavior, such as using e-mail to send critical messages or forwarding messages to one's supervisor. This paper has far reaching repercussions for analysts who conceptualize the consequences of new information technologies, such as advanced e-mail systems and groupware.
The studies by Herring and Markus raise important questions that counter our conventional notions of communication on computer networks. In 1993, the New Yorker magazine published a famous cartoon of a dog at a keyboard who says, "On the Internet nobody knows if you're a dog." Visual cues, such as how one is dressed (if at all) or a person's physique, do not appear in written e-mail. But Herring tells us how writing style can help reveal a person's gender, in addition to obvious gendered naming conventions, like John and Mary. And Markus shows us that people who know each other at work can effectively communicate many emotional nuances through written e-mail messages. Of course, people can misinterpret e-mail, as they do verbal comments. Many people hope that cyberspace can be "a place" where people develop more humane and democratic conversational relationships. And Kiesler and Sproull's studies suggest that electronic forums and e-mail can help people on the periphery of organizations and communities be more visible. But the evidence is beginning to mount that social relationships in electronic forums mirror many key aspects of face-to-face relationships.
Experiments with Community Life On-Line
Socializing and Romance On-Line
Although the first computer networks and conferencing systems supported communications between people who used them at work, the biggest growth now seems to be for people to use them outside of work--for finding friends and lovers, pursuing hobbies, scavenging for investment tips, political organizing, and so on. As in other applications of computerized communication systems, these uses are often the subject of promotional articles. To be sure, many people have found new friendships on some of the nations 60,000 independent computerized bulletin boards, via information services like Compuserve, Prodigy and America On-line, or via complex networks like the Internet. In addition, these diverse services have helped spawn diverse discussion groups via Compuserve's forums, Usenet's newsgroups, and The Internet's LISTSERVs.
However, in the United States, communities seems to be deteriorating from a complex combination of causes. In the inner cities of big urban centers, many people fear street crime and stay off the streets at night. In the larger suburban and post-suburban areas, many people hardly know their neighbors and "latch key" children often have little adult contact after school. An African proverb which says "that it takes a whole village to raise a child" refers to a rich community life with a sense of mutual responsibility that is difficult to find in many new neighborhoods. Real estate developers can rapidly build a tract of 50 or even 3000 homes and give it a homey village like name, such as Deerfield. But communities that are based on people caring about and taking responsibility for the well- being of their members are harder to build. Some advocates believe that computer technology in concert with other efforts could play a role in rebuilding community life by improving communication, economic opportunity, civic participation, and education (Schuler, 1994; Civille, Fidelman, and Altobello, 1993).
Before examining some of these politically-oriented community networks, it's worth discussing some of the personal considerations that draw people to using computer networks to make personal connections. Without a broad understanding of what kinds of social relationships people miss in their ordinary lives and seek on computer networks, it's too easy to overstate the value of high-minded civic and schoolish uses of computer networks. For example, Usenet, a global replicated-BBS structure offers more than 3500 topic-oriented "newsgroups" on everything from PCs and Novell LANs to book reviews, music, pets, sex, and politics. How much of the Usenet communications is devoted to "high-minded topics" like science and technology, and how much is devoted to recreational topics?
Usenet newsgroups include numerous topics, including discussions among cat lovers (rec.pets.cats), dog lovers (rec.pets.dogs), societal roles and relationships between men and women (soc.men and soc.women), as well as numerous specialized topics about computer technologies, politics, world cultures, hobbies and so on. These newsgroups are organized into hierarchies: comp.* newsgroups (like comp.sys, intel) focus on computer topics, sci.* on scientific topics, soc.*, alt.* and misc.* include diverse social topics, and so on.
One way to get some simple clues about the scope of popular topics is to examine the volume of messages that people write for these various Usenet hierarchies. Table #1 shows us that in a two week period in March 1994, people sent about 129,000 articles (taking about 198MB of space) to newsgroups computer topics. These messages were less than 13% of the file space required for all of the newsgroup messages in that period. However, the alt, rec, and soc hierarchies produced and consumed the vast majority of messages and file space.
Table #1 Message Volume for Top 16 Usenet Newsgroup Hierarchies, March 1994. Article Total Category Count Mbytes Pct Mbytes -------------------------------------------- alt 214195 835 53.8% 962 rec 168235 245 15.8% 336 comp 129021 198 12.8% 270 soc 69077 150 9.7% 192 clari 46707 63 4.1% 92 talk 18832 45 3.0% 58 misc 29986 43 2.8% 60 relcom 44415 41 2.7% 71 sci 21748 41 2.7% 53 bit 26158 39 2.5% 60 news 4942 29 1.9% 33 de 9418 23 1.5% 29 zer 13323 16 1.1% 27 fj 7902 16 1.0% 20 ncar 5060 15 1.0% 17 cbd 8619 11 0.7% 15
Usenet newsgroups constitute a small fraction of the world's electronic forums. But other kinds of forums also support interesting social relationships. Computerized BBSs (Bulletin Board Systems) that support "chat modes" sometimes foster special senses of personal trust and intimacy. Though they are less personal than face-to-face communication, they can also reduce social distance. The French government's Minitel system has developed a set of "messageries" which enable people to develop friendships, including romances, through simple terminals in their homes (see De Lacy, 1987). The messageries have been popular and controversial. Because they provide about 30% of Minitel's revenues, the French government has continued to allow them despite substantial controversy.
These systems are especially attractive to people who have trouble getting out of their homes to socialize people who are handicapped, feel socially insecure, live alone with young children, work at unusual hours, and so on. Such individuals are hardly the only, or even primary, users of these systems. But, for people with restricted social lives, electronic systems may provide truly important avenues to expand their social circles. "On-line" friendships may develop between people who never meet face-to-face (FTF) friendships that easily survive geographical relocation, and that might not have begun had age, sex, race, etc. been evident from the start.
In the next selection, "They Call it Cyberlove," Margo Kaufman reports her experiences in meeting others via computer services. Kaufman started out indifferent to computer networks until a friend, Jon, seems to have disappeared. She found that Jon had simply been living like a hermit to his "physical world friends" while he spent much of his days on-line. Jon drew Margo into his electronic world, and she rapidly became fascinated by the nature of her conversations on America Online. She felt empowered by being able to send an electronic mail message to email@example.com (but unfortunately doesn't report the nature of such an electronic conversation). And she felt that "the lost art of conversation is thriving online. I had lengthy discussions about politics, literature, music, and art." While Margo met new friends on-line, Jon confessed "I use the computer in part to avoid conviviality." While Margo began to chat and play games nightly on her computer, she also found some irritating interactions (such as being "hit upon" by some aggressive men. Fortunately, she found a way to click them out of her life. But in the end, Margo found that she was behaving similarly to Jon by ignoring old friends. Unlike Jon, Margo was married and had some "real-life (RL)" social interactions at home. Throughout her essay, Kaufman remains a wry observer of the interplay of life on-line and off-line.
In the next selection, Lindsy Van Gelder's tale of "Alex" discusses the way in which some people have developed unusually intimate friendships on these electronic systems. Although the anonymity afforded by electronic communication can exhilarate and liberate, it also raises new possibilities for abuse. Van Gelder's tale serves as a reminder of this fact since "Alex" impersonated a disabled woman. Obviously, violations of trust are possible in many different arenas; however, the ease of computerized access to a special group of people, along with interactive yet voiceless dialogue, certainly aided Alex in perpetuating his fraud. Some readers may detect a slight moral ambiguity in this particular case, since Alex indisputably did some good as well as harm. Yet, not only were his intentions manipulative and largely self-serving; some of his victims had a strong sense of "identity rape" as well.
Community Building Through Computer Networking
Kaufman's and Van Gelder's articles help sensitize us to some of the nuances of life on-line. And they set a more realistic stage for discussing community networking than do articles that examine only the joys of life on-line. Kaufman and Van Gelder's articles can stimulate us to question who will be drawn to spend a lot of their time communicating through computer networks, and whether extensive networking will enhance or undermine the vestiges of existing communities.
Cyberspace symbolizes a new American frontier full of unexplored opportunities, that stimulate high levels of excitement as well as fears of chaotic semi-organized activity and even personal harm. New frontiers attract adventurers, speculators and even con artists. Taming a frontier is a kind of work that favors people who are bold and action-oriented rather than timid or reflective. Community has been a kind of question in the United States, as well as an answer. Sociologist Claude Fischer (1991) notes that discussions of community in the United States are marked with unacknowledged tensions. This is a country inhabited by people with diverse religious and linguistic traditions. American have been traditionally mobile. And a deep ideology of individualism makes community sound like an oppressive organization, as well as a romantically warm concept. These contradictions are brought forth, but not resolved in Howard Rheingold's book The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier.
There have been several community networking experiments, including high-profile systems in Cleveland (Ohio), Santa Monica (California), and Blacksburg (Virginia). The following description of the Blacksburg Electronic Village typifies the enthusiasm of the experimenters for the potential role of widely available computer networks or conferencing systems for enriching community life:
The Blacksburg Electronic Village is a project to link an entire town in Southwestern Virginia with a 21st century telecommunications infrastructure. This infrastructure will bring a useful set of information services and interactive communications facilities into the daily activities of citizens and businesses. The project will encourage and nurture the development of applications and of delivery mechanisms for services designed for everyday life. The goal of the project is to enhance the quality of people's lives by electronically linking the residents of the community to each other, to worldwide networks, and to information resources in new and creative ways. The entire community of Blacksburg is being used as a real-life laboratory to develop a prototype "residential street plan" for the country-wide "data superhighway" being discussed as a high priority on the national agenda. The project is being conducted so that its most successful aspects can rapidly be replicated in future electronic villages in the state of Virginia and elsewhere in the United States. The prototype in Blacksburg will exemplify four characteristics essential to a successful electronic village:
In the next selection, "Yakety-Yak, Do Talk Back!: PEN, the Nation's First Publicly Funded Electronic Network, Makes a Difference in Santa Monica" Joan Van Tassel examines early experiences with PEN. Van Tassel describes how PEN's use met many of its founders' hopes that it would enhance political participation in Santa Monica. Even homeless people were able to use public access terminals to organize on their own behalf.
But not everyone was enthusiastic about PEN. Van Tassel mentions some aspects of PEN's use that undermined a sense of community:
"netbozo takeovers (massive missives from a few residents who dominate the system), excessive flaming (no surprise to cyberspace denizens), and topic digression. Some PEN users, including several public officials, withdrew from PEN conferences because of what they perceived as vicious, unwarranted personal attacks from flamers."She also quotes a Santa Monica resident who wrote:
"The city probably spends $200,000 a year on PEN. There are 85,000 residents, 5,000 users, and 150 heavy users. Why should the taxpayer pay so some crazy wacko can write 'fuck you' to the council members when he goes off his meds?"
Not only is PEN heavily used by a tiny fraction of residents, but the men and woman who use PEN represented a distinctive segment of Santa Monica's residents who make more money, are more likely to be male, and are more likely to be college graduates. They are also much more politically active than the typical Santa Monica resident. Van Tassel's article helps identify the complexities of community building on public access computer networks and the nuances of success and failure.
The next selection, "Taboo, Consensus, and the Challenge of Democracy in an Electronic Forum" by Julian Dibbell is also a study of the complexities of building electronic communities. Superficially, the article is about an offensive cyber-rape that took place in a fantasy computer world. But Dibbell examines the ways that groups define their norms and forms of social control when some of their members are offended by some violation. It is easiest to be permissive and tolerant in both real life and in electronic forums when no one is offended or harmed by anyone else's behavior.
It is common for groups that meet in electronic forums to debate about the nature of behavior that participants find to be acceptable to them. For example, Usenet newsgroups periodically debate about the level of public personal criticism that is acceptable, the kinds of message content that are appropriate for a specific forum, and so on. In particular work groups, there can be debates about the extent to which "personal electronic mail" can be shared with others.
Dibbell examines a group which as meeting in a MUD (Multi-User Dungeon) which was developed by Pavel Curtis, a Computer Scientist at Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center and made accessible over the Internet.
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. This virtual gathering place has many of the social attributes of other places, and many of the usual social mechanisms operate there (Curtis, 1992).
Although Dibbell and Curtis describe the use of MUDs for fantasy games, MUDs are also being explored as formats for on-line conferences and digital libraries (Henderson, 1994). Dibbell's vivid article is a superb account of the ways that some participants in a particular MUD (called LambdaMOO) observed a violation of their unstated norms, felt the violation as a real experience in their lives, and tried to articulate principles for punishing the violator (by expulsion/execution). Dibbell is specially sensitive to the tenuous relationships between everyday life and the experiences of people in electronic forums. After describing how a character known as Mr. Bungle cyber-raped two other participants in LambdaMOO, he notes:
These particulars, as I said, are unambiguous. But they are far from simple, for the simple reason that every set of facts in virtual reality (or VR, as the locals abbreviate it) is shadowed by a second, complicating set: the ``real-life'' facts. And while a certain tension invariably buzzes in the gap between the hard, prosaic RL facts and their more fluid, dreamy VR counterparts, the dissonance in the Bungle case is striking. No hideous clowns or trickster spirits appear in the RL version of the incident, no voodoo dolls or wizard guns, indeed no rape at all as any RL court of law has yet defined it. The actors in the drama were university students for the most part, and they sat rather undramatically before computer screens the entire time, their only actions a spidery flitting of fingers across standard QWERTY keyboards. No bodies touched. Whatever physical interaction occurred consisted of a mingling of electronic signals sent from sites spread out between New York City and Sydney, Australia. Those signals met in LambdaMOO, certainly, just as the hideous clown and the living room party did, but what was LambdaMOO after all? Not an enchanted mansion or anything of the sort--just a middlingly complex database, maintained for experimental purposes inside a Xerox Corporation research computer in Palo Alto and open to public access via the Internet.
Even so, people, who manipulated characters in a database, identified with them, and began to struggle with their rules for creating a civil society for LambdaMOO's participants. One ironic part of the process was that, after substantial deliberations, LambdaMOO's designer and operator imposed a form of democracy on its participants. This article is much less about sex in cyberspace than a haunting contribution to the debates about social relationships and democracy in electronic forums.
How Freely Should Information Flow in Computer Networks?
Part VI examines issues that arise from the fact that information can be used to tighten social control. But the control of information also raises important problems. Information control (censorship), traditionally discussed in the context of print and broadcast media, has taken on an important new dimension in the age of the computer. Here the issue is freedom of people's abilities to send and receive information on computer networks. Questions about who controls information in electronic networks have not been resolved in any absolute sense.
Presently, there is a significant mobilization to draw people onto e-mail and computer conferencing systems to communicate "at work" and "after work." Most of these systems are privately owned, either by employers, or by firms which sell conferencing services (ie., Prodigy, America On- Line, Compuserve). The operators of both kinds of systems claim the right to monitor and control communications content, and rely upon 18th century conceptions of private property to ground their claims. In addition, there is a movement to expand "civic nets" whose explicit aims are to foster lively discussions about local politics (Schuler, 1994; Van Tassel, 1994). While the operators of these systems are usually much more respectful of participants' privacy and freedom of expression than are the operators of some of the private systems, there is no commonly accepted normative framework for these systems.
The shift from face to face, paper, and telephone to computer- mediated communications, makes people's communications more persistent, permeable, less controllable, and more traceable. The persistence of messages sometimes puzzles people. Electronic communication can appear to people as a transient conversational medium, even though the messages usually have the persistence of archived text. Electronic forums are often permeable. Messages stored in e-mail or conferencing systems can be read verbatim unobtrusively. In fact, most reading is unobtrusive to the message sender (and is more like paper mail than face-to-face conversations or even phone calls).
People lose control over who may read ("overhear") their electronic conversation. Overheard conversations can be repeated, but listeners are often aware that they are learning hearsay rather than a verbatim account. Even taped phone messages can usually be heard by only a few other people. In contrast, computerized messages can be copied verbatim and rapidly sent to hundreds or thousands of potential readers. Electronic messages are often more traceable than their paper or verbal counterparts. Face to face conversations are transitory, and leave no trace of their existence for someone who walks into the conversational space after the discussants have left. In contrast, letters may be dated, and indicate to whom they were addressed. Phone calls may be identified by the phone numbers, dates, times, and duration of phone calls. (Cellular phones may be identify a party's location). Email messages may also be marked by their time, addressing, size, and so on.
The operator of an e-mail system or conferencing system has tremendous surveillance capabilities, and censoring capabilities, if they choose to exercise them. In practice, surveillance has been infrequent, but occasionally surprises participants and chills important discussions.
Electronic mail and the records of conferences are often explicitly contested terrain. Today, firms are being encouraged by both the apostles of "virtual corporations" (e.g., Davidow and Malone, 1992) and the Federal government to develop and institutionalize telecommuting. Email use has become routine at most large US corporations and many smaller ones. Some organizations have issued specific policies, but these vary considerably. Some companies, such as Pacific Bell, Nordstrom's, Eastman Kodak and United Parcel Service, inform their staff that E-mail will be monitored because it is company property and it is in the corporate interest to do so. Other firms, including Hallmark Cards, Warner Brothers, Citibank and General Motors, have established policies that focus on employee privacy rights and better data security measures (Cappel, 1993).
There are a few documented cases in which supervisors felt threatened by employee's criticisms via e-mail, and had them fired. Cappel (1993) summarizes two of the most visible cases:
"In the Epson case, Shoars, a former e-mail administrator at the company's Torrance, California site, raised objections when she discovered her boss was routinely reading messages which passed through a gateway between the company's internal e-mail system and its external MCI communications e-mail service. Shortly after, Shoars was terminated, when the company claimed she opened an MCI Mail account for her personal use. Shoars filed two suits over this issue: a $1 million wrongful termination suit and a $75 million class action lawsuit on behalf of herself and others at the site who claim that the company invaded their privacy by reading their e-mail messages. In January 1991, a California judge dismissed the lawsuits, ruling that the state's telephone wiretapping law (which the plaintiff had alleged was violated) had nothing to do with electronic mail....
Zuboff's report on a related case may dim unbridled enthusiasms and lead us to wonder about the conditions most likely to generate these transformations. When a group of about 130 professional women formed a private conference that threatened male managers, participation was discouraged by upper managers and many participants dropped out (Zuboff, 1988:382-383).
Should workers have significant rights to treat their electronic communications as private? Why shouldn't Nissan's argument that an e-mail system is private property, and thus messages are Nissan's property, guide our social norms (see Brown, 1994)? After all, in other workplace contexts such as telephone call monitoring, the courts have previously upheld the right of an employer to monitor where "a valid business reason" exists. Langdon Winner portrays this position that privileges private property in hauntingly stark terms:
For those who manage the systems of computerized work, the structures and processes offer a wonderfully effective means of control. Here is an electronic equivalent of Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon, the ingenious circular design that allowed the guardians of a prison, hospital, or school to observe every inmate under totally panoptic scrutiny, the system is, of course, totally opaque. They are allowed to see only what the program allows. Closely watched and clocked, workers within the city of icons may find even fewer chances to express their individuality or participate in decisions than they did in the old-fashioned office or factory. When space is intangible, where do workers organize? (Winner, 1992).
Increasingly, people are being encouraged (or channeled) into communicating via electronic mail at work rather than by phone or face to face by private firms (see Markus, 1994) and recently by the Federal government (IITF, 1994). It's hard to argue that this shift would best serve the public good if it were to lead to more panoptic workplaces and a depletion of social capital. As with the on-line services and community networks, the most appropriate policies would be those that give employees significant freedoms to exercise free speech and rights of association in their electronic workplaces. In some cases, they may be working from home, and only their electronic images will pass through the disks at work.
Electronic communications systems can encourage the formation of diverse groups. But managers are likely to eradicate electronic groups that threaten their power, except in those special organizations--like universities and R&D labs --where there are strong norms against censorship.
Universities, for example, usually try to maintain norms of openness, and are usually permissive in allowing information that is not illegal to be posted on publicly accessible bulletin boards. However, if a posting offends certain groups, people will clamor to have it removed. Many political, religious, ethnic, and occupational jokes are offensive to members of those groups. The line between humor and libel, "fair humor" and cruelty is not finite.
In February 1988, the administration at Stanford University blocked access to an electronic bulletin board posting from Usenet an internationally distributed electronic forum with a wide readership. The Stanford administration's action was stimulated by complaints about a racially insensitive joke that appeared on a Usenet newsgroup. Similar episodes have occurred at other universities and administrators have acted in various ways: from removing postings, leaving them untouched, or removing them when people complain and then restoring them when others complain about censorship! At Stanford, the administrative action was highly selective, blocking access to the files containing the allegedly offensive jokes, but not interfering with an unmoderated joke forum, or with many other forums (including a few that allowed students to discuss their use of illegal drugs, or to exchange information about sexual techniques and nude beaches). In response, Stanford's Computer Science faculty voted to treat Stanford's computer systems with the same kind of academic freedom as the university library and influenced the administration to restore the controversial newsgroup.
In October 1994 controversy erupted when the administration
of Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) in Pittsburgh
Pennsylvania attempted to ban about 80 sex-oriented Usenet
newsgroups from campus computers, including the alt.sex.*
hierarchy, rec.arts.erotica and alt.binaries.pictures.erotica.
CMU's administrators felt that Pennsylvania law and recent
court rulings forbid them to knowingly distribute sexually
explicit materials to minors. Many of CMU's students are
under age 18, and the university administrators wanted to obey
the applicable laws. The announcement noted that CMU
intended to support free speech, and that the only criteria for
censoring computerized newsgroups "is that either the
intended purpose for which it was established or its primary
use (majority of the posts) makes it illegal for Computing
Services to provide access to the bulletin board (Kuszewski,
1994)." The administrations' actions were immediately
protested by students, faculty, and nationally visible groups,
including the American Civil Liberties Union and the
Electronic Frontier Foundation. How can anyone fault CMU's
administrators for wanting to obey their State laws? The
questions arise in interpreting the extent to which CMU is
bound by their interpretation of Pennsylvania State law. For
example, the university library and bookstore are likely to
contain erotic novels by famous authors such as Henry Miller,
Anais Nin, and Erica Jong. CMU's administrators were not
about to censor their library and bookstore. In addition, there
are questions about the legal status of computerized bulletin
These issues were hotly debated on the Usenet newsgroups comp.org.eff.talk, alt.comp.acad-freedom.talk, and alt.censorship. In the next selection, "Applying Library Intellectual Freedom Principles to Public and Academic Computers" Carl Kadie who moderates alt.comp.acad-freedom.news characterizes eight additional cases where someone attempted to censor a newsgroup for its contents. Kadie examines each of these cases in light of specific academic freedom guidelines which have been articulated by the American Library Association. Kadie is a strong advocate of free speech and encourages the people and organizations who manage electronic forums not to censor messages and files which some people may find offensive. The counterpoint position argues that there are some materials, such as racist hate literature, that are so damaging, that bulletin board operators should have a right (or even a moral oblgation) to be able to remove.
Communication, Persuasion, and Influence in Scholarly Communities
The Internet, which is often viewed as a symbol and prototype for new data superhighways, was developed and refined in specific academic and closely related R&D communities. We now turn to some controversies about the ways that electronic media are changing communities of scholars. Even though a good deal of university research involves long hours of solitary work, research takes on a special meaning within the social worlds which encourage it, utilize it, and reward (or ignore) it.
Electronic publishing has attracted an interesting group of enthusiasts who view them as virtually inevitable. Richard Lanham (1994) argues that electronic publishing will erode the importance of the codex book (a collection of pages, bound between two covers in a fixed sequence) as "the operating system" of the humanities. Lanham suggests that the digitization of textual, audio and visual communications will encourage reorganizations of knowledge via hypertext. Common storage representations, transmission protocols and manipulation algorithms will enable a confluence of data not previously achievable with analog paradigms. In Lanham's view, this technological capability makes inevitable a future in which the reader is the author and where copyright law is irrelevant:
Texts are not fixed in print but projected on a phosphor screen in volatile form. They can be amended, emended, rewritten, reformatted, set in another typeface, all with a few keystrokes. The whole system of cultural authority we inherited from Renaissance Humanism thus evaporates, literally, at a stroke. The "Great Book," the authoritative text, was built on the fixity of print technology. That fixity no longer operates. The reader defined by print the engrossed admiration of the humanist scholar reading Cicero now becomes quite another person. He can quarrel with the text, and not marginally, or next year in another book, but right now, integrally. The reader thus becomes an author. Author and authority are both transformed. ....
Lanham explores this exciting imagery of people communicating differently through electronic reading and writing as a lively alternative to the relatively static world of traditional printed books. Lanham doesn't examine how these electronic academic communities will develop in practice. For example, imagine that you had an electronic copy of his article, and that you disagreed with some of his arguments. How could you communicate your disagreement to other people who also have his paper on-line? Would you have to post your commentaries in a centralized archive? Could you send them as messages throughout a network? The mechanics of making electronic communication matters as much in the details as do the mechanics of reading a paper book and commenting privately in the margins. Further, Lanham doesn't ask whether people will continue to want portable paper books for leisure reading in bed or on a beach--and thus paper and electronic versions of many books will co-exist. Despite these limitations, Lanham forcefully opens deep questions about the nature of humanistic inquiry and the relations between readers and authors in a world of electronic writing.
There is a fundamental change in the world of scholarly publishing and libraries as they shift from paper-based to electronic formats. Today, few prolific academic authors peck away at typewriters. While virtually all academic journals articles and books are now produced in electronic form, the majority are sooner or later printed on paper for sale or distribution to their readers. It is difficult to create forums for lively discussion and debates in the paper journals because it can take months from the time that a letter is sent to the editor for it to appear in print. So, most scholarly journals publish research papers, but rarely publish debates about their credibility and importance. These discussions used to take place through correspondence between colleagues and face-to- face at conferences and in special seminars.
The driving images of electronic publishing and digital libraries converge in focussing upon ways that an authors' keystrokes (and thoughts) can be rapidly transmitted to potential readers without the required mediation of paper formats, even if there is significant editorial structuring and filtering. An even richer set of images rests on expanding the scope of scholarly discussion, by using diverse electronic forums to support active dialogues and debates. Today, there are thousands of specialized electronic scholarly discussion groups which communicate worldwide through electronic mail via Usenet newsgroups, LISTSERVs, and ad-hoc mailing lists. This trend was heralded by Computer Scientist Peter Denning (1987) as a "new paradigm for science" in which busy scholar could better cope with the torrent of new specialized publications.
One area in which electronic publishing is particularly well organized is high energy physics. Physicists follow work in other labs to build on others' research. But they are also fiercely competitive (Traweek, 1988). Major awards and rewards, such as Nobel Prizes and memberships to the National Academy of Sciences, are granted to those who have been the first to be credited with new observations or to develop new theories and paradigms. Like other scientists, physicists circulate early versions of their articles (pre-prints) to colleagues. Because academic publication can take one to two years from the date an article is first submitted to a scholarly journal for publication, physicists who work on a research frontier avidly read their colleagues' preprints. Hepnet, an electronic database of preprints that is accessible over the Internet, allows high-energy physicists to document their claims to fame with preprints unambiguously time- stamped and rapidly accessible world-wide.
In the selection, "The Electronic Journal: What, Whence, and When?" Ann Okerson argues that electronic journals should become an important form of scholarly communication. Okerson characterizes Hepnet, whose database of prerints contains over 200,000 high energy physics articles, as one of the most interesting experiments in electronic publishing. Physicists also rely upon traditional paper journals to review their pre-prints for scientific merit and to publish them in a paper format for circulation to libraries and other subscribers. High-energy physicists publish in both electronic and paper formats, and do it in a way that does not challenge conventional beliefs about the legitimacy of paper-based publication.
The electronic journals (e-journals) available through the Internet come closest to fitting the image of direct communication between authors of systematic studies and their readers. In the last few years, electronic journals (e-journals) have appeared in diverse fields, from avante-garde cultural studies to medicine and even to medieval studies. Okerson's article first appeared in an e-journal, The Public-Access Computer Systems Review and I found it when I was browsing the journal's electronic archives. These e-journals are currently the subject of substantial debate by scholars and librarians (Fuller, 1995; Harnad, 1995; Kling and Covi, 1995). Some scholars, like Anne Okerson, see them as a new form which will bloom in the 21st century. But Okerson acknowledges that e-journals are criticized for lax intellectual standards and for requiring readers to work with clumsy computer technologies.
I have found that many scholars (especially those who have never knowingly read an e-journal) are confused about their character. For example, some academics assume that article in e-journals are not subject to the kind of stringent peer review that characterizes the highest quality paper journals. In fact, some journals, in paper or electronic form strictly review each article. Other paper journals and e-journals use less restrictive reviews. And to complicate matters, some journals such as the Journal of Artificial Intelligence Research (gopher://p.gp.cs.cmu.edu/) blend e-journal and paper formats by publishing each article electronically when it is accepted, but also publish an single paper issue once a year that librarians (and others) can purchase to file on bookshelves. The Journal of Artificial Intelligence Research doesn't signal its electronic publishing in its name, and it works as a stealth e- journal (Kling and Covi, 1995).
Librarians observe numerous practical problems when academics try to work flexibly with today's e-journals (Entlich, 1993). They might be rapidly disseminated and searched online. But long e-journal articles are hard to read in many common workplaces places unless they are printed on paper. These places include airplane flights, especially during landing and takeoff! More importantly, publishing exclusively in electronic formats has yet to become truly legitimate in major research universities (Lougee, 1994; Beninger, 1991). And few university libraries have explicit collection development policies which enable them to systematically archive specific e-journals.
In the next selection, "I Heard It Through the Internet," Library professional Walt Crawford, argues that people who find their news and reading material via the Internet must be specially skeptical about the sources of various files, their authenticity, and their veracity. Crawford, who has served as President of the Library Information Technology Association, is alert to the oppportunities that the Internet opens up and to the complexities of relying upon electronic materials. Traditionally, publishing houses, editors, and librarians acted as gatekeepers, and curators. Almost any Internet accountholder can set up shop as a publisher, and bypass the institutional apparatus of publishers and librarians to reach a large potential readership. This form of institutional bypass surgery has many charms: it facilitates rapid communication, and it enables authors who have novel viewpoints to reach potentially large audiences. But it assumes that readers are sophisticated enough to make their own judgements of the veracity of materials.
On March 23, 1989 chemists Martin Fleischmann and B. Stanley Pons announced that they had sustained a cold fusion nuclear reaction at the University of Utah, using relatively simple laboratory apparatus. Almost as noteworthy as their announcement was the way it was made. Rather than following the usual protocol of deferring public discussion until publication of experimental details in a scientific journal, Fleischmann and Pons called a news conference. Within hours scientists world-wide were apprised of the Utah claim, and fax machines and electronic mail networks were soon abuzz with copies of a Fleischmann and Pons paper, which in turn generated hundreds of E-mail responses and discussions of details. It took several years for the scientific community to conclude that Fleischmann and Pons' experiments and claims were basically not credible. Today, a scientist seeking publicity could promptly announce her results with a web page or a papers sent to a LISTSERV.
More serious, would be the problems of intentional deception. Crawford notes,
"Anyone with an Internet connection and a decent graphics toolkit can create pages just as impressive as anything from the Library of Congress or NASA--but without any regard for factuality or meaning. You don't even need good taste to build impressive presentations; modern software will provide professional defaults so that you just add your erroneous or misleading text and graphics."Crawford doesn't suggest that filtering be reimposed; but he does suggest that readers learn to be aware and be wary of what they download).
In the next selection, "Information Technology, Scholarship and the Humanities" Vartan Gregorian, President of Brown University, examines the effects of electronic communication and electronic publishing in terms of the production of knowledge and teaching in universities. In contrast with Denning (1987) he observes that computer nets help academic specialists retain and even refine their narrowness. He argues that,
"We must rise above the obsession with quantity of information and speed of transmission, and recognize that the key issue for us is our ability to organize this information once it has been amassed--to assimilate it, find meaning in it, and assure its survival for use by generations to come."
Gregorian notes that specialization has been a master trend in universities for over 100 years. Computers did not cause specialization. But he notes that "Information technologies also contribute to the fragmentation of knowledge by allowing us to organize ourselves into ever-more-specialized communities." Gregorian makes some rather harsh observations about electronic communities in academic specialties:
Are you developing an interest in exotic insects, rare minerals, or an obscure poet? With little effort you can use electronic mail and conferencing to find several others, in Japan, Peru, or Bulgaria, with whom you can communicate every day, creating your own small, self-confirming world of theory, technique, and methodology. McLuhan's prediction that electronic communication would create a global village is wrong, in my opinion. What is being created is less like a village than an entity that reproduces the worst aspects of urban life: the ability to retreat into small communities of the likeminded, safe not only from unnecessary interactions with those whose ideas and attitudes are not like our own, but safe from having to relate our interests and results to other communities.Gregorian's harsh criticisms would be most apt when scholars (and other professionals) work primarily on-line from their homes or offices. And some faculty do adopt these hermit-like workstyles. But universities also create face-to-face forums that bring together people with diverse viewpoints--invited speakers, committees to create or review curricula, interdisciplianry research institutes, faculty seminars, and so on. Gregorian's dark vision is an interesting warning. But it may also be a byprduct of university administrations that reward extreme specialization, and that don't develop lively forums and formats for discussions amongst their faculty. In those cases, a special risk for urban universities with dispersed faculty, life on-line may become much more seductive than life on-campus.
When Do Electronic Forums Computer Enhance or Undermine Community Life ?
In the last selection, "On the Road Again" Richard Sclove and Jeffrey Scheuer examine the metaphor of information highways by discussing the social effects of the Interstate Highway system on community life in the United States. Sclove and Scheuer note that the interstate highways were not constructed because the public demanded them. Rather, a coalition of powerful business firms lobbied Congress to create them. Although they expanded Americans' sense of the open road and space to roam, they were sometimes routed through cities in ways that divided neighborhoods. They became the gateways to regional shopping malls that killed many lively downtowns. Today, interstates are clogged with commuter traffic during urban rush hours.
Electronic services might also compete with today's public places, if only because few people can (or will) simultaneously log in to an on-line service while simultaneously participating in a face to face group meeting outside their homes. If the enthusiasts for electronic communities and virtual communities had their visions come true, electronic services would be so active they could shrivel many existing traditional face to face forums. They would be like the lively regional mall drawing trade away from the old down-town (Kling, Olin and Poster, 1995). Sclove and Scheuer remind us that while highways connect places, they don't always connect people in ways that build community. And they suggest that the best designs are likely to come when people who are effected by them can participate actively in their conceptualization. Ironically, it may require the political action of strong communities to strengthen their citizen's social ties through electronic connections.
Rob Kling has been with the Department of Information and Computer Science, University of California, Irvine, but will be with the Center for Social Informatics, School of Library and Information Science, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana as of July 25, 1996.
Copyright © 1996 by Academic Press. All Rights Reserved. Printed by Permission.