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Lori Kendall is one of the first to explore the brave new world of social relations as they have evolved on the Internet.
In this highly readable ethnography, she examines how men and women negotiate their gender roles on an online forum she calls BlueSky. The result is a first-rate analysis of the emerging social phenomenon of
Internet-mediated communication and a ground-breaking study of the social and cultural effects of a medium that allows participants to assume identities of their own choosing. Despite the common assumption that the personas these men and women craft for themselves bear little resemblance to reality, Kendall discovers that the habitués of BlueSky stick surprisingly close to the facts of their actual lives and personalities.
Late one morning in Berkeley in November 1994, I head off to my local pub. I'm hoping someone there will have heard from Rob, a friend currently en route to California from Colorado. I'm supposed to meet Rob later in the afternoon at UC Davis, seventy miles east of Berkeley, but don't want to make the trip if he's been held up by snows over the pass at Tahoe. Even if I do drive to Davis, I'll spend lunchtime here at the Falcon, where I can always find people I know, chatting and hanging out for a bit.
The Falcon is a small, out-of-the-way place, known mainly to its regulars, who tend to shun the occasional curious passersby. The utilitarian furnishings look a bit worn and include so many different styles that one patron says it looks "as though a used furniture store had exploded." A large schoolroom chalkboard hangs next to the bar. Today when I enter, the heading at the top of the chalkboard reads "Fave of the 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover." Various bar patrons have listed a phrase next to their name:
Fave of the 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover
OD on Crack, Jack
Sell the pics to the paper, Draper
Reveal that you're gay, Ray.
Give her the slip, Flip
Glue her to the wall, Paul
Slip Out The Back, Jack
hit her with a truck, buck
Don't like your new Teddy, Freddy
Be Seeing You, Lou
Change the locks, doc
move, no forwarding address, Bess
Blow her away, Jay
As usual around lunchtime, the bar is crowded. A few people sit singly at tables, but most sit in small groups, often milling around from table to table to chat with others. As in many such local bars and pubs, most of the regulars here are male. Many of them work for a handful of computer companies in a nearby high-tech industry enclave. The atmosphere is loud, casual, and clubby, even raucous. Everybody knows each other too well here to expect privacy at any of the tables.
After exchanging greetings with several people, I ask if anyone has heard from Rob in the last twenty-four hours. "Does anyone know where he's staying in Reno?" Eric, a slight, pale, scholarly-looking young man with long hair pulled back into a ponytail, waves from one of the corner tables. People often retreat to the quieter corners when they've brought work to do into the bar. He calls, "I heard he departed Steve's [in Colorado], but nothing since." I reply, "Last I heard he was stuck in Reno due to snow, but he was supposed to call this morning, and I haven't heard from him. I wonder if he got chains?" Eric shrugs, shakes his head, and returns to his work.
At a table near the bar, Dave, a big, tall white man in a long leather coat, breaks into song, "Oh-a-wishing well will ya give me what ah want, will the prahce be no ob-ject?" Sam, a short, stocky Filipino, counters with, "That's the sound of the men working on the chain ... ga-a-ang. That's the sound of the men working on the chain ... g-a-a-ang." Adding to the cacophony, Rick grabs a microphone set into the wall near the bar and announces, "CHALKBOARD!" In response, Mike gets up and adds "Keel over dead, Fred" to the chalkboard.
Meanwhile John shows Sam an ad in the paper for an upcoming music store sale, and they discuss prices on guitar stands. Dave, finished with his singing, shouts out, "I HUNGER!" Chris stands up from the same table and calls out, "HUNGER ROLL CALL!" Chris, Sam, Dave, and I raise our hands; Rick shakes his head no and waves the Power Bar he's eating.
Andrea, a petite woman with lightly tanned skin and short brown hair, enters the bar. Mike, happy to see her, comes over and gives her a big hug, then picks her up and, pretending she's a football, starts running across the room with her as she laughs, a bit bewildered. Greg shouts out, "Don't spike her in the end zone!" then blushes wildly and insists he didn't intend the double entendre. "I just meant don't throw her down on her head!" Several others nearby roll their eyes, and Andrea smirks at Greg.
At the table where I've taken a seat, Mike, John, Sam, and Chris engage in a mock argument over the relative virtues of stringed instruments versus keyboards. When the argument dies down, I ask, "Should I assume Rob bought chains and drive to Davis where he originally was supposed to meet me? Or should I assume he's stuck in Reno and wait in Berkeley to hear what he's doing?"
Chris smirks at me and says, "Chains! Kinky!"
John says, "I would just go with the original plan. It's up to him to call you if he does something weird."
Chris persists, "So what would you and Rob be doing with chains, hmmmm?"
I laugh and whap Chris lightly on the shoulder.
John glares at Chris. "That joke is getting old, boyeee."
Mike chimes in, "Chris, that dead horse, he ain't gonna move no matter how hard you kick."
In response, Chris pulls a large lever, and a trapdoor opens under John, who falls through the floor. Conversation continues normally, and a few minutes later John returns through a door at the back.
* * *
Well, it didn't quite happen like that. It's true that most bars don't have trapdoors conveniently located exactly beneath the patron you wish to chastise. You may have guessed by now that the Falcon's location is not a back street in Berkeley. The Falcon is a hangout on an online forum called BlueSky. I've presented an approximation of a set of conversations that occurred online and entirely through text. I did visit the Falcon on that November morning and greet people who were already there. "John" did get annoyed with "Chris" for harping on a bad joke. Chris's retaliation involved a text command to the computer program that runs BlueSky, causing the character that John uses online to be shunted from the Falcon to another "room" on BlueSky.
by introducing BlueSky, the Falcon, and some of its patrons in this way, I risk implying that I and the other BlueSky participants spend our time online enacting an elaborate pantomime of bar behavior. Perhaps we even appear to take our virtual metaphors too seriously. But rather than present the above narrative as an example of what "really" happens online, I propose it as something akin to the feel of interactions on BlueSky (although the Falcon is usually much more chaotic than the above exchange conveys, as may become apparent later). True, sitting down at a computer and logging on to BlueSky differs significantly from walking down the street and into a neighborhood pub. For one thing, Eric would never be able to get work done in such a boisterous place were it not merely a window on his computer screen that he can ignore at will. But the bar metaphor encompasses the friendliness, random bursts of song lyrics, joshing, and mock (and occasionally more serious) arguments that occur on BlueSky. Also, the online textual description of the Falcon plays into the metaphor, describing the site as a bar "with myriad tables and chairs of every conceivable material, height, and design, as though a used furniture store had exploded," and BlueSky participants themselves use the local-pub metaphor to explain their relationships with each other and the appeal of hanging out on BlueSky.
In the ethnography of BlueSky that I present here, I use the pub metaphor to help interpret BlueSky's social world. Although participation on the Internet is increasing, probably more people are familiar with bars than with Internet chat spaces, if not from their own experience, then from media representations of bars, such as the television program Cheers. The bar or pub metaphor also conveys something of the character of the social space on BlueSky, the participants' relationships, and their use of the social space that BlueSky provides (Byrne 1978). Because the clientele is mostly male, the Falcon provides a space in which people enact and negotiate masculine identities within a particular class and race context (Cavan 1966; LeMasters 1975; Katovich and Reese 1987; Smith 1985; Communication Studies 298, 1997). The territoriality of BlueSky's distinct group of "regulars" also resembles that of the patrons of a neighborhood bar (Cavan 1966; Katovich and Reese 1987; Smith 1985).
Textual Virtual Realities
BlueSky is a type of interactive, text-only online forum known as a mud. "Mud" originally stood for "Multi-User Dungeon," based on the original multiperson networked Dungeons & Dragons-type game called MUD. Muds are also sometimes referred to as Multi-User Domains or Dimensions. For a time, one could quickly start a "flame war" on one of the Usenet mudding newsgroups by making a statement about what the acronym MUD means. To oversimplify the arguments greatly, some participants seek to deemphasize the historical connection between muds and earlier Dungeons & Dragons games, while others see this as an unrealistic "sanitizing" of the historical record. Although I am more sympathetic to those who seek to acknowledge muds' lineage, herein I take a third path, referring to muds in the lower case (except where I quote other written materials) to deemphasize the acronym and its origin. Participants use the term "mud" as both a noun and a verb. "Mud" can refer to a type of mud program or to a particular social space using such a program. "Mudding" refers to participation on muds, and a "mudder" is a mud participant. By using "mud" as a word rather than as an acronym, I reproduce mudders' own terminology and also reflect the increasing recognition of muds as a particular genre of online forum.
As in other online chat programs, people use Internet accounts to connect to mud programs running on various remote computers. They can then communicate through typed text with other people currently connected to that mud. Muds also allow participants to create programmed "objects," which convey the feeling of being in a place, adding richness to the social environment. Hundreds of muds are available on the Internet. Many still operate as gaming spaces. Others are used for meetings, for pedagogical purposes, and as social spaces.
Muds can be considered a type of text-based "virtual reality" in that people have the feeling of being present together in a social space. Stone has suggested that in fact several types of text can constitute forms of virtual reality or at least have served as part of the continuum in the historical development of "cyberspace." She proposes as a starting point in this continuum the seventeenth-century exchange of written descriptions of experiments among scholars. "By means of such writing, a group of people were able to 'witness' an experiment without being physically present" (1991: 86). Anderson (1991) similarly describes the role of textual representation in the creation of a feeling of community among dispersed people in his analysis of newspapers as key to the formation of national identities in the New World.
Other media may similarly connect geographically dispersed people and provide a sense of connection with people never encountered face-to-face. For instance, like the long-standing tradition of travel narratives (Pratt 1986), television's You Are There promises people a "visit" to other times and places so they can get to "know" people they may never meet. Adams suggests that television itself can also be viewed as a place, to the extent that it is "(1) a bounded system in which symbolic interaction among persons occurs (a social context), and (2) a nucleus around which ideas, values, and shared experiences are constructed (a center of meaning)" (1992: 118). As such, television provides viewers with the experience that they are interacting with others, either through vicarious identification with people and places viewed on it, or through the knowledge that large numbers of dispersed others are also viewing the same images.
by the same logic, online forums can also be viewed as places. World WideWeb pages provide experiences similar to television in that they often provide pictures (sometimes even motion pictures) of other people and places and can similarly be viewed by multiple, remote others. The term "surfing," ubiquitously used to describe browsing on the web, also derives from television experience, in which people "channel surf." The variety of material available on the web exceeds that found on television, and the experience of choosing links to follow may provide an even greater sense of going somewhere. The World Wide Web also enhances the possibilities of interconnection with others in that some web pages include links to chat spaces. Some also display the number of "hits" so far-that is, the number of times a page has been accessed. This statistic allows people to imagine the number of others who have shared their viewing experience and even allows them to compare popularity of websites.
More interactive forums-such as e-mail lists, newsgroups, and chat rooms-provide an even greater feeling of contact with remote others because they allow people to interact and respond to each other. Of these, "synchronous" forums-those that allow for near-instantaneous response (including the various chat programs and muds but not including e-mail lists and newsgroups)-can provide a particularly vivid sense of "place" and of gathering together with other people. Rather than merely viewing a space through the electronic window of television, many people feel that when they connect to an online forum, they in some sense enter a social, if not a physical, space. Conversation in such chat forums takes place at a pace similar to face-to-face conversation, the room description and most of the objects remain stable from visit to visit, and people's entrances and exits generate text messages that allow them to "see" each other come and go.
Researchers have also described bulletin boards systems (BBSs) as giving people a sense of group membership in a common place (Baym 1995; Correll 1995; Myers 1987). For instance, Correll (1995) indicates that participants on the Lesbian Cafe describe it as a space. BBSs enable participants to post messages and read what others have posted. These messages resemble e-mail more than synchronous conversation. Even if people are logged on to the computer system at the same time, with posts and responses occurring in fairly rapid succession, they have less of a feeling of sharing the same space and time than participants in synchronous forums have. On the Lesbian Cafe, participants frequently had to redescribe "objects" in order to maintain the spatial metaphor. Object descriptions changed depending on the messages people wanted to convey and because of their forgetfulness. Also, lag time between posts decreases the sense of copresence. Although gaps in conversational rhythm also occur on muds, often because of network slowdowns, they are usually brief.
Excerpted from Hanging Out in the Virtual Pub by Lori Kendall Copyright © 2002 by Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission.
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1. Blue Sky in the Morning
2. Logging On: An
Introduction to BlueSky
3. Mudding History and Subcultures
4. Hanging Out in the Virtual Locker Room: BlueSky as a Masculine Space
5. Identity Crises
6. Computer-Mediated Relationships
7. Class, Race, and Online Participation
8. Hungover in the Virtual Pub: Power and Identity Online
Epilogue: The "Where Are They Now?" FAQ
Appendix A: Basic Mud Commands
Appendix B: "Mudders in the Mist": Ethnography in a "Partly Compatible" Setting
Appendix C: Unedited BlueSky Log from October 8, 1996