Appeared in Connected: enagements with media. ed. George E Marcus. Late Editions, 3. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996. Please quote and cite from the published version.


The Electronic Vernacular

Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett

Department of Performance Studies

New York University

If, as Abbott Payson Usher suggests, "The development of printing, more than any other single achievement, marks the line between medieval and modern technology...[and is] the first instance of a process being pushed through to a decisive stage in a relatively short time," then electronic communication broadly conceived marks the line between modern and postmodern communication. It too has reached a "decisive stage in a relatively short period of time," so short that we can personally experience major transformations in less than a decade (Usher 1959 [1929], 236). Rapidly growing numbers of people are using computers (attached by modem to phones) to navigate a vast network of interlocutors and pockets of information in a matrix that is at once amorphous, anarchic, and intensely social. It is this aspect of the new communication technologies that I will explore here.

In The Informational City: Information Technology, Economic Restructuring, and the Urban-Regional Process (1989), Manuel Castells focusses on "the relationship between information technologies and the spatial dimension of the processes of production and management, leaving aside the study of social life and residential patterns" (Castells 1989, 5). During the 1980s, when this book was written, Castells found too little reliable empirical research on "the interaction between communication technologies and urban social life" to address this topic and gave precedence to an analysis of how the informational mode of development restructures capitalism (3). The rapid growth of electronic communication during the six years since this book was published dramatizes the need to examine how this technology figures in social life. My interest here is in the interaction order.

At the heart of this topic are the following considerations. Communication in the absence of face-to-face interaction and at a distance is as old as the circulation of objects (gift exchange, commercial transactions, postal service) and the transmission of signals (drumming messages whose sound carries for several miles down a quiet river or using smoke to produce visual signals legible from afar). They differ from the telephone, gramophone, phonograph, and radio in terms of what Murray Schaffer (1977) calls schizophonia--the separation of sound from its sources. Capturing the actual sound of the human voice (rather than a drummed adaptation of spoken language) or of a musical performance in a medium that makes it possible to play those sounds back at will--anywhere at any time in any context and in the absence of those who made the sounds--has profound consequences not only for the interaction order but also for the larger socio-economic order. Schizophonia is relevant here because the telephone is a pivotal early technology of live telepresence that has penetrated the social practices of everyday life--not as mass culture, but as a commonplace tool. Furthermore, the telephone is instrumental to electronic communication, which produces a different kind of telepresence, not yet fully phonic, but telepresence nonetheless.

That said, is electronic communication basically a more powerful version of the telephone (on which, incidentally, it depends) and the postal service or is it a distinctive medium in which new social and cultural formations are being produced? David Harvey has argued that there is nothing significantly different in the ways that electronic communication and the telephone (and the mail) organize social relations and space. I will argue to the contrary. The advance from sea mail to air mail, manual to electric typewriter, from phone to fax (the issue is actually more complicated), are not of the same order as the relationship of electronic communication to the telephone. I will argue that electronic communication is not just a faster (or more efficient) way to do what the telephone and fax can do.

As Paul C. Adams (1992) notes in his study of television as a gathering place, "the concept of a place without a location" has informed media studies since the 1960s (Adams 1992: 117). It has also interested geographers such as Yi-Fu Tuan, for whom place is "a center of felt value." Tuan suggests further that "Every activity generates a particular socio-temporal structure" (Tuan 1977, 4, 130-131). As I will argue, the specificity of networked interactive electronic communication becomes specially clear in the unintended consequences of non-instrumental uses of these media, uses for which they were not initially intended. For this reason, playful uses of the medium may be even more revealing than strictly practical applications, which are not without social and cultural consequences. Communication technology develops more rapidly, initially, in the contexts of military applications and entertainment, that is, at opposite ends of the instrumentality spectrum and there is much to be explored in their relationship.

My subject here is electronic communication in everyday life today--that is, messages typed on a keyboard, visible on a screen, and transmitted through a global network of computers and phones, though multimedia has arrived (for those with technology to receive it) and across the Internet itself and as electronic communication and broadcast technologies converge. I want to understand what ordinary users of the medium are producing in it, socially and culturally. Analyzing a moving target presents its own challenges, not least of which is the compulsion to constantly update the account, even as I write it.

* * *

The questions are legion, and while I will not explore all of them here, they suggest what the topic holds.

* * *

After briefly characterizing the net, its extent and rate of growth, I will explore social life in this medium--first, at the intersection of virtual and actual worlds, and second, within the electronic medium itself. The sites include electronic discussion groups (listservs and newsgroups), projects (Jargon File, Internet and USENET cookbooks), games (The Oracle), text-based virtual worlds (MUDS, MOOS), and real-time conversations (IRC). The few examples explored here suggest the usefulness of looking closely at what people are actually doing with the medium and provide a basis for discussing some of the questions raised above. Sites of play, among the richest for observing sociability, take distinctive forms in this medium. However trivial the evidence may seem--sociability is after all about itself--play is serious business. Those who play well are more likely to work well with the medium. And, working in the medium is not only instrumental, but also intensely social.

Who Is Connected?

Despite the sense that everyone everywhere is connected by an electronic net that knows no physical barrier, this ideal has yet to be realized. Access, while growing and spreading rapidly, is not equal. Before looking more closely at computer mediated communication (CMC) in action, consider for a moment the history of the Internet and who is and who is not online. I use the term online advisedly because the Internet, itself a network of networks, is linked to other networks that are not strictly speaking part of it. Taken together, they form what John S. Quarterman (1994) calls the Matrix.

Various timelines tracing the history of the Internet (and the Matrix more widely conceived) and tracking its size and rate of growth appear regularly on the Internet. Smoot Carl-Mitchell and John S. Quarterman's history (1990, 1994a, 1994b), on which I base the following account, starts with Paul Baran's Rand Corporation report in 1964, which proposed "a network technology sufficiently decentralized that a network could survive arbitrary loss of links or nodes, as for instance in a nuclear war" (Carl-Mitchell and Quarterman 1994). Such a network was funded in 1968 and running by 1969 in the form of ARPANET, "the first distributed packet-switching network." ARPA (Advanced Research Projects Agency) was established in 1957 by the Eisenhower administration with the intention of making the United States competitive with the Soviet Union, which had launched Sputnik that year.

With the development in 1977 of the IP protocol--IP stands for Internet Protocol--communication across a wide variety of networks became possible. By 1979, USENET (User's Network) was reaching out to those without access to ARPANET. USENET refined the mailing list idea: "Instead of sending a copy of each message to every person that wanted to read it, which would have required sending multiple copies to each participating machine, USENET sent one copy to each machine." Users logged on to a USENET site and read the messages posted there, rather than receiving them as mail in their personal accounts. (The number of USENET sites worldwide is estimated at the time of this writing at 260,000 [Treese 1995]. There are up to 9000 newsgroups, defined by topic--the number varies as new ones form and inactive ones are removed from the list. On the history and character of USENET, see Rospach 1995, Salzenberg 1994, Spafford 1995, Vielmetti 1994.)

During the 1980s, the term Internet came to refer to the network of networks, ARPANET and its successors forming the core. Their various names--MILNET, ARPA Internet, DARPA Internet (making the defense aspect of ARPA research explicit during the Reagan era), and Federal Research Internet--reflect splits, specializations, and diversification of participants and funding sources (NASA, NSF, DRPA--Defense Research Projects Agency, Department of Energy). The exponential growth during the 1980s of the Internet, which became the preferred name for what had become a vast and interconnected set of networks, is a result of several factors: the proliferation of personal computers, the wide adoption of the Internet Protocol (IP), an enlarged infrastructure of fibre-optic cable, and the role of the NSFNET backbone. "From being one among many, it quickly became the largest of all," in the words of Carl-Mitchell and Quarterman.

During the 1990s, the development of WAIS (Wide Area Information Servers), anonymous TELNET connections to online library catalogues, and the burgeoning use of protocols such as Gopher, WWW (World Wide Web), and Mosaic have made it easier to operate, and to operate more effectively, in the distributed environment of the Internet. Commercial providers that now provide IP connectivity are growing rapidly. The corporate and business worlds confer on CommerceNet ( The Internet Mall uses the conceit of floors to organize a list of goods and services that can be ordered directly through the net. The Food Court, for example, is on the top floor, which is at the end of the list (Issue #26, release for Mar 15, 1995, finger The mass marketing of goods and services over the Internet is becoming a reality--as I write this sentence, National Public Radio (March 27, 1995) is announcing that MCI Communications is the first long-distance carrier to do online merchandizing. The vehicle is Marketplace MCI. The White House, United Nations, and World Bank came online in 1993 and a year later the Senate and House of Representatives provided their own information servers. Though low income communities and remote areas continue to lack access to these technologies, public schools are becoming a site not only for computers as a learning tool, but also for networked communication. Children of all classes are being exposed to computers at school. In Texas, all secondary schools are networked. They have experience with video games (whether in arcades or at home). Adolescents in some areas are using electronic cafes.

Technologies are converging. Audiences can now reach television and radio stations via the Internet. Interactive Talk Radio began broadcasting in 1993, the year the first film, "Wax: Or the Discovery of Television Among the Bees," was transmitted over the Internet (Markoff 1993). At the time of this writing, an estimated 3,200 American newspapers have started to offer interactive access, ClariNet, an electronic newspaper, had 80,000 subscribers by December 31, 1994, and more than 70 peer-reviewed scholarly journals are being published electronically on the Internet. Even comic strips ("Dilbert" and "Frank and Ernest") have begun using email addresses. (Treese 1994a, 1994b, 1995, Zakon 1993-1994).

Urgent issues are commanding greater attention in what has become a vast, heterogeneous, and anarchic medium dedicated not only to national security, scientific research, and business but also to play. They range from civil liberties, free speech, censorship, obscenity, privacy, security (encryption, firewalls), and crime concerns to ones of access, regulation, privatization, commercialization, and proprietary rights, specially intellectual property. These issues bear on the nature of public space and civil society unmoored from fixed geographic locations, political boundaries, and familiar social arrangements.

As of December 1994, more than 55 million people are estimated to be using the Matrix (the Internet, other distributed networks such as USENET, commercial providers such as Compuserve, Genie, Prodigy, and America Online) (Quarterman 1994c). Growing exponentially, doubling each year since 1988, those using the Internet itself form the world's "largest and most directly connected community in the world" (Quarterman 1993). John Perry Barlow has characterized Internet as "one of the largest and fastest growing creations in the history of human endeavor," which is not only a prediction but also a utopian projection. At its current rate of growth--estimates are between 15% and 25% a month--Barlow and others calculate that every single person could be online within decades, though given that parts of the United States do not even have telephones, universal access will not be so easily achieved (Barlow 1992 [1991]).

But even in this decentralized and rapidly expanding medium, informed in large sectors by a strong libertarian and utopian ethos, there are inequities, familiar at the national level and replicated globally. It is common in online communities such as the WELL (Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link) for men to outnumber women four to one, and for a few people (10%) to do most (80%) of the talking. Lurkers, those who watch but do not post, can outnumber posters 10 to one. There is the sense that most participants are white, a sizeable number Asian, and an indeterminate number, generally assumed to be small, are African American. Those who spend long hours alone, working independently if not in isolation, often at home, and who use computers in their work, are the most likely candidates for telecommuting. (Rheingold 1992, see also Rheingold 1993.) Poor and remote areas are underserved if served at all. American cities smaller than 100,000 persons, according to John Coate (1992), are priced out of the market, because it is too expensive to call an online service--when the nets do yet extend that far, a user must make a long distance call to reach a gateway.

(Tele)communication infrastructures, data networks, and industries are increasingly concentrated in a few multinational corporations. According to Howard H. Frederick (1992) "Ninety-five percent of all computers are in the developed countries," while in many other parts of the world, even newspapers, books, telephone, radio, and cinema are in short supply. He explains further that "about ninety-six percent of the world's news flows" is controlled by five news agencies. As Barlow (1992 [1991]) notes: "To a large extent, America is the Old Country of Cyberspace. The first interconnected networks were developed here as were their protocols and much of the supporting technology. Leaving aside the estimable French Minitel system [established in 1981 and still unconnected to the Internet], Cyberspace is, in its present condition, highly American in culture and language. Though fortunately this is increasingly less the case, much of the infrastructure of the Net still sits on American soil."

Government support of these developments is "a major reason that the United States currently has 60% of all users, hosts, and networks on the Internet" (Carl-Mitchell and Quarterman 1994b). Taking as a measure the amount of information transferred during 1993, the United States accounts for 16,897,635 Mbytes, Europe for 1,435,735, Asia for 354,378, and Africa for 12,106, according to the Internet Society's "1993 Internet Global Statistics." The Internet Society was chartered in 1992. Nonetheless, new communication technologies are making inroads. Marking the end of the Cold War, which was a major factor in the emergence of ARPANET in the first place, East European countries, including Russia (in 1992), have connected to the Internet. Uruguay, the Bahamas, Nicaragua, and Iran joined in 1994 to bring the total of countries that can be reached by electronic mail to 159 (Treese 1994). By April 1994, they ranged "from Antarctica to Greenland, from Fiji to Ghana, from Moscow to Cape Town, from Iceland to India" (Carl-Mitchell and Quarterman 1994x).

Relatively new states such as New Guinea, unencumbered by old technologies and by a large work force attached to them, can computerize such enterprises as newspapers from the outset. Since 1990, "dish-wallahs" have been serving "an estimated 20,000 [cable networks] scattered across India" by means of an unregulated structure of video cable, satellite dishes, modulators, and television sets. They are "propelling Mother India out of information limbo by hard-wiring its living rooms directly into the global jet stream of satellite news, live sports, and the geosynchronous gyrations of MTV" (Greenwald 1993: 75).

It is a short step from broadcast to network, from receiving what is transmitted to using the technology interactively. When the military cut the telephone lines in Thailand, people fought back with cellular phones. In several countries where open communication has been hampered by censorship and the monopoly of the official press, the fax machine has been the instrument for a free press--Interfax in the Soviet Union and Mediafax in Mozambique are two examples (Keller 1993). Operating out of Minnesota, the Environmental Fax Orgy's manifesto explicitly defines the fax as a "new tool for media artists and community activists." During the recent demise of the Soviet Union, the KGB communicated in its established hierarchical mode, slowly through a chain of command, while the opposition was nimble in its use of decentralized electronic networking. The "natural anarchy" of the Net" makes it hard to restrain--"Because of the decentralized and redundant nature of digital media, it was impossible for the geriatric plotters in the Kremlin to suppress the delivery of truth" (Barlow 1992 [1991]) Though these governments are themselves gearing up, "For the first time in history," Frederick (1992) notes, "the forces of peace and environmental preservation have acquired the communication tools and intelligence gathering technologies previously the province of the military, government and transnational corporations."

Where Strangers Meet

What are we to make of an activity in which strangers at terminals at the far ends of the earth write messages to each other. These people have never seen each other, though the multimedia capabilities of the Internet are now making possible portrait galleries at WWW sites--for example, The Internet Relay Chat Gallery. These people are not likely to meet. They may not even know each other by name, but only by address. They come together as pen pals exchanging private messages, or collectively in a variety of electronic forms--for example, a conference (or electronic mailing list), bulletin board or USENET group, interactive real-time chat, or fantasy game. What brings them together is the willingness to talk about the topic at hand or to participate in the "consensual hallucination" of a virtual world, in the words of William Gibson, whose science fiction novel Neuromancer (1984) imagined cyberspace and the matrix with unprecedented fullness.

As Howard Rheingold (1992) notes, "In traditional kinds of communities, we are accustomed to meeting people, then getting to know them; in virtual communities, you can get to know people and then choose to meet them. In some cases, you can get to know people who might never meet on a physical plane." As early as 1968, J.C.R. Licklider and Robert Taylor, research directors of the Department of Defense, whose ARPAnet became the foundation of Internet, referred to physical locations as "accidents of proximity" and predicted the emergence of "communities not of common location but of common interest" (Rheingold 1992). Once formed, such communities are marked by horizontal and egalitarian, rather than vertical and hierarchical modes of operation--whatever people's status IRL (In Real Life), the medium promotes a sense of peers, though pecking orders do form, and an anti-authoritarian ethos. Free speech and open access are prized in what is a highly decentralized medium of such reach and volume that it verges at points on anarchy, a quality that some believe will be its salvation in the face of efforts to rein it in for commercial and other purposes.

Despite Rheingold's characterization of the medium in terms of strangers who are unlikely to meet, the online and in-the-flesh worlds can and do converge and online communication is being used increasingly to further offline concerns. Some electronic lists are extensions of prior face-to-face relationships, while others organize occasions for the listers to actually meet. It is not uncommon for particular online communities to have an IRL geographic center--ECHO (East Coast Hang Out) in New York and the WELL (Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link), established in 1985, its headquarters in Sausalito. It services not only the San Francisco bay area, but is also global in reach. Local members meet socially on a regular basis. Nor are all those who log on doing so in isolation. Electronic coffeehouses in San Francisco provide espresso and computer terminals for those who want to log on to SF Net. For disaffected youth known as "slackers," these electronic cafes are "living room/telephone/mailbox," as well as portals to an "extended 'cyber family'" (Bishop 1992).

Electronic networks are mobilized in various ways IRL--to volunteer help in time of need or to participate in an "online wake," to confess or pray at a distance, to route sourdough starter, to create a digital quilt or participate in an electronic quilting bee, or as a tool of political mobilization, lobbying, or activism on behalf of a wide range of issues.

Postings on the Internet in April 1994 repeated the announcement in People's Weekly World (PWW) about the "People's March on the Information Superhighway" in support of a "National Town Hall Meeting that links 50 cities by telephone Sunday April 10, 1994." The topic is "For Real Change Today and Socialism Tomorrow." The featured speaker is Gus Hall, national chair of the Communist Party USA. The objective is to raise $400,000 by July 4th. PWW is now reachable not only through an 800 number but also electronically ( NewtWatch keeps navigators of WWW up to date on the Speaker of the House, the ethics complaints against him, his record on the issues, contributors to his campaign, and his personal finances. CAN-RW (Campus Activists' Network, Right Wing Alert), an e-mail discussion group, has used the Internet (much more powerful than the phone chain) to organize nationwide demonstrations at 100 locations against the Republican Contract With America (Herszenhorn 1995).

During the Los Angeles disturbances, one electronic network found itself discussing what was happening and discovered that one of the listers, Beverly Thomas, was an African American woman. Thomas reported that she was able to speak more openly to the list about her understanding of the situation than had ever been possible in person. As the discussion proceeded, some members of the list volunteered to help--one offered to help organize loan assistance and Thomas herself is assisting in the development of The Resource Link, a bulletin board intended "to connect individuals who would like to get involved with others who need help" in rebuilding Los Angeles after the disturbances (Wallace 1992). Those on WORDS-L responded to the grief of one of their listers when a loved one died by urging each other to use snail mail to send their condolences, rather than clog the person's email account with messages of sympathy. When David Alsberg was killed by a stray bullet by a fleeing thief, "his cyberspace neighbors from around the nation mourned Mr. Alsberg's death in an on-line wake that lasted weeks." A former computer programmer at Citicorp, he had been laid off and was without life insurance at the time that he died. The online mourners "decided to begin soliciting recipes to compile an electronic cookbook. Proceeds from sales, once they begin, will go to a trust fund for the Alsberg family" (Lewis 1994, A1).

As collaborative projects in support of a charitable project, cookbooks and quilts have a long history offline and a new life online. Quilters on Prodigy's Homelife Club Bulletin Board "began to share quilting tips, exchange ideas and even swap fabrics back in the summer of '89," which made them "the first electronic quilting guild," according to Quilt Magazine, as reported in Prodigy's newsletter. The conviviality of the electronic bee prompted listers to look for each other at quilting events and to wear "big blue stars so they could identify each other and get acquainted face to face"--those posting to rec.arts.marching.drumcorps in 1993 collaborated on the design of a CyberCorps t-shirt that would allow them to identify each other in the stands at live events featuring marching bands. Not only could quilters in areas without local guilds network electronically, but also the online bee collaborated in the creation of "Cuddle Quilts for children and adults with AIDS at the Coming Home Hospice in San Francisco" (Schindler 1991).

Collaboration in a Distributed Medium

Even when the outcome is not a fabric quilt, its pieced and collaborative nature migrates into the electronic medium, which amplifies these aspects even as the quilt itself is dematerialized. A Digital Quilt project was organized for Woman's History Month in 1993. The announcement, which emanated from Northern Illinois University School of Art Gallery 200, this multiple site installation of art on the theme of women and spirituality consisted of squares transmitted by fax, email, or other electronic medium: "The images will be collected prior to March 23 and arranged in patterns on the wall." Like the exchange of quilt scraps by online quilters, easy passage between electronic networks and the physical world is exploited by the SOURDOUGH list. It serves as a kind of switching station for the exchange of sourdough starter--bubbling yeast is, in a sense, routed along a mainframe network. Just before Passover, discussion focusses on what to do with that most hometz of substances, leaven itself.

Recipe exchange has escalated to the point that Internet and USENET cookbooks require special software developed in connection with military applications and subject to security regulations:

Because the size of the archive and the quantity of people who use it, Digital advises all users that it is the legal obligation of the individual who accesses this archive to comply with the U.S. State Department regulations which govern the transfer of certain software products which are designed to meet military applications (like aerial mapping) and/or used in military applications (products which contain the des algorithm for file/data encryption).

Internet and USENET "cookbooks" are enormous databases, the cumulative result of thousands of people who have posted recipes to one or another list or newsgroup, where there discussion, tips, and variations often appear as well. With all due respect to their encyclopedic cookbooks, not even the indefatigable Mrs. Beeton, Fanny Farmer, or Elena Molokhovets could have imagined anything quite like this ongoing accretion of deposits from disparate sources. The USENET Cookbook also extends and transforms the recipe exchanges stimulated by food columns in newspapers and magazines--readers send in recipes, they are printed in food columns, clipped and recirculated, sometimes culminating in a cookbook edited by the journalist in charge of the newspaper column.

These databases offer a fluid mass of possibility that coalesces into smaller sets each time users select recipes and de facto form their own cookbooks. They are the new community cookbooks, explicitly defined as such:

This is a community cookbook, from an invisible worldwide electronic community. Like all community cookbooks, it was the favorite recipes of the members of the community, suitably edited and organized. The USENET Cookbook is a collection of the favorite recipes of USENET readers worldwide.

The USENET Cookbook is an online database distributed with the intention that it be published as a book. The USENET Cookbook is distributed with software that enables every user to make his own customized edition of it, leaving out the recipes that he has no interest in, and perhaps adding a few of his own that he hasn't yet submitted to the network. There will many different versions and editions of it, all with the same title, and all copyrighted. (

The collection of "recipes and lore from the global village," that is, from the newsgroup alt.gourmand, is copyright (1991) by the USENET Community Trust, with the provision for copying without fee as long as it is not for commercial advantage and the holders of the copyright are credited. The openended nature of the corpus and the infinite number of versions and editions of The USENET Cookbook and every recipe collection derived from it are less like printed community cookbooks, which fix a particular set of contributed recipes. They are more like the expanding and contracting collective wisdom of an offline network of cooks and their individual repertoires, but without commensality, without actually breaking bread together, face to face, that is.

Operating at the convergence of military and recreational applications of a particular algorithm, this project captures two orders of magnitude that are defining features of a digital and distributed medium. Extreme miniaturization (the size of the smallest unit of information, of code, etc.) brings with it proprietary and security issues. At what point is the appropriated material so small (and the final result so different from the source) that the information can be treated as if it no longer belongs to someone else, an issue that arises in sampling sound and morphing digitized images? (See Karnow 1994.) At the other extreme is the sheer vastness of the database and its distribution, with the potential of overwhelming disorientation and pathological distraction. Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder is an affliction of the multitasking mind (Schwartz 1995, 49; Hallowell and Ratey 1994). Support groups have formed within USENET, for example, for the electronically obsessed. Alt.irc.recovery was formed in 1988.

Sustaining Diasporic Formations

The upsurge of Jewish networking, its rapid growth, scope, and ambitions, highlights the power of the medium to sustain an already diasporic formation. Consider the mission statement of Jerusalem One:

The aim of Jerusalem One is to build and maintain a professional, accessible system which will provide current and useful information of unlimited scope to the Jewish world. Among its activities is the involvement of key Jewish organizations in networking for the first time. Its target goal for the first year is to increase the number of active Jewish Internet users by about tenfold, reaching at least 100,000 Jews worldwide.

Lubavitcher Hasidim coordinate the dispersed followers of their leader (rebe) using a variety of communication technologies. They could be said to be doubly diasporic, as Jews and as Hasidim. Historically, the followers of a Hasidic leader have lived in various places. They converge on his town and gather around him on special occasions. New communication technologies have made possible the gathering of a vast and farflung following in new forms of assembly. A recent posting on the Internet announced that on the eve of Purim (1995) there would be live satellite broadcasts during which "Jews all over the world on 5 continents will simultaneously proclaim and sing in the presence of the Rebbe Shlita the following words: YECHI EDONENU MORENU, MELECH HAMOSHIACH LEOLOM VOED!," acknowledging thereby the conviction that the Lubavitcher rebe is the Messiah. Since his recent death, followers can send their kvitlekh (petitions) to his grave electronically, rather than come to the cemetery in person and leave notes on a little pieces of paper at the actual grave. The Hebrew term ohel in the email address refers to the special structure enclosing the tomb of a famous person.

Extending to "tens of thousands of subscribers" who "vary from a traveling college student in a remote island of Iceland to public high school students in Chicago," Chabad-Lubavitch in Cyberspace provides "Jewish individuals living in places where there are little Jewish resources...almost all the religious instruction they might need," from formal lessons to "an electronic shmooze with a friendly Chabad Rabbi." A printed flyer begins, "At first, it was a message engraved in stone. One G-d. Two Tablets. Ten commandments." It proceeds through the history of the printing press, telephone, photograph, photocopy, broadcasting, and satellite communication to digital information technologies and "A visionary future [that] is taking shape Cyberspace." It concludes with a passage from a talk on Judaism and Technology by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, in which he states that "Today's great breakthroughs in scientific understanding were predicted in the Zohar, nearly 2,000 years ago....and are preparing the world for the advent of the seventh millennium--the era of Redeption."

Chabad-Lubavitch in Cyberspace claims to have reached 250,000 individuals in the first year of its operation. It is run by the educational arm of the movement: "As always, utilizing the cutting edge of modern technology of its outreach and educational efforts, the world wide Chabad-Lubavitch Movement is on the Information Superhighway," proselytizing to Jews to return to orthodox religious observance (URL: /chabad.html). Those who return to the faith bring with them their worldly experience, tertiary education and professional knowledge in a wide variety of fields, including media and communication technologies.

Such access is provided to most sectors of the Jewish world in the form of more than 150 Jewish discussion/mailing lists, Web sites for news and media, and online hypertext versions of traditional texts such as the Code of Jewish Law (indeed, it could be said that texts such as the Talmud are already hypertextual in character). That anyone can log on is anticipated in an FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) file devoted to Judaism, which is addressed to new readers of USENET group soc.culture.jewish. It starts with "Who We Are" and ends with "The Holocaust, Antisemitism and Countering Missionaries." Such files are standard practice, a way of bringing newbies up to speed, without trying the patience of veterans with repetition of the same questions.

Activities that have until only taken place offline find a hospitable setting. Parody in the form of the academic essay, "Latkes vs. Hamentashen: A Materialist Feminist Analysis" appeared in time for Purim, a carnivalesque holiday. During March 1995, Sociologist Robin Leidner and anthropologist Judith Shapiro debated the relative merits of the fried potato pancakes associated with Hanukkah and the triangular stuffed pastry eaten on Purim, a venerable subject of Purim parody, now transposed to the Internet.

Talmud Fortran, a parody of text and commentary laid out like a page of Talmud, appeared as postings on soc.culture.Jewish. Treating programming problems in the manner of Jewish legal thought (halakha), an example that circulated just before Purim 1993 offered several glosses on the following: "As I recall, you are not (on certain days) permitted to separate the good from the bad. How does this apply to debugging programs on those days, or on using formal verification methods?" One reply stated: "So long as there is less than one part in 60 of bugs in the code, it is kosher, so there is no need to deliberately look for bugs to be removed" and elaborates with such questions as "How does one kasher one's software tools after they've become contaminated" by contact with bugs. Bugs in the offline world pollute the food in which they are found.

Trek-Cohavim was announced as a new list on May 21, 1995 "for those who want to discuss the Star-Trek World from a Jewish or Israeli perspective." Cochavim is the Hebrew word for stars. Postings have entertained such questions as: since the Jewish calendar is lunar, how would the Enterprise deal with the scheduling of holidays? Would it go by the moons of another planet? What is the correct blessing for replicated food (made of energy)? Can an android convert to Judaism? "What if a male from a race that didn't have foreskins wanted to become Jewish?" (May 23, 1995) Imagining Jewish life on the Enterprise is not unlike imagining the present in relation to the world of the Bible and Talmud, when Jewish ritual law was formulated, elaborated, and codified. Projecting forward, the posters on Trek-Cochavim are engaging in what one person called "hypothetical Jewish law" (May 23, 1995). It is common practice to test the interpretation of a ruling by applying it to hypothetical situations. The difference here is in the nature of the hypothesis.

In effort to give the spatiality of information greater palpability and vividness, the WWW Virtual Shtetl takes its inspiration from the small town Jewish world imagined in Yiddish fiction. The author of the Virtual Shtetl, Iosif Vaisman, announced it as follows:

When Reb Menachem-Mendl left his native Kasrilevke and went to Yekhupets and other big cities, he had to write his dearly loved wife Sheine-Sheindl long letters on paper because there was no e-mail. Of course, now there is email, but there is no Kasrilevke, and even Yekhupets, I must tell you, has changed significantly. As a remedy against historical injustice, I am announcing a Virtual Shtetl: Yiddish Language and Culture Home Page on World Wide Web (URL:

Still under construction, the Virtual Shtetl will contain text, sheet music and recordings, paintings, drawings, and photography. Intended as a collaborative project, the site already has "several buildings under construction. The main topics on the home page are Library, Post Office, City, Art Center, and Kitchen."

The identification of location with topic, which I take up below, is used here to thematize in architectural terms the classification and arrangement of information. Indeed, this thematization is consistent with a more general tendency on the net to imagine text in the round, as sites once called bulletin boards and lists become kiosks and malls and newsstands. Consistent with the history of books, there is increasingly a conflation of textual and architectural construction, modelled on such fantasy environments as MUDs. Architectural reference adds gravitational force and familiar coordinates to a medium whose weightlessness can be disorienting. The convention, popular in the Renaissance, of creating a title page in the form of a portal, complete with columns, arches, and other classical architectural elements, has its analogues in the "home page" conventions of the World Wide Web. It is also related to architecture as a mnemonic, the house of memory of classical rhetoric and oratory.

While the technologies of telecommunication seem to make irrelevant the offline locations of the interlocutors, there is a way in which they can intensify the centrality of an offline site. An article in The Chicago Tribune (January 27, 1993), circulated on the Internet, reported that "an Israeli company announced a fax service in Jerusalem enabling Jews around the world to send prayers directly to the Western Wall." Those with only a telephone can call 1-800-505-PRAY 24 hours a day "in time of need for any reasons" to have their prayers faxed immediately to the Rabbis in Israel associated with this service: "Prayers recited daily at the Western Wall in Jerusalem." Advertised in The Manhattan Jewish Sentinel (March 24, 1995, p. 19), this service is targeted to those praying for recovery from illness--the announcement was framed by repetitions of the word khay (Hebrew for life). Faxes can be transmitted directly from the computer and some are routed through electronic mail systems, which are gradually supplanting them.

Interactivity as Art

Artists and institutions dedicated to the arts have been turning to electronic communication to intensify access to their offline activities, to subvert them, and to explore the artistic potential of distinctive characteristics of the medium. Growing numbers of virtual museums and art galleries are appearing online. An Internet World Exposition, "accessible from pcs linked to 'INTERNET PLANETARIUMS' in cities in different countries" is slated to take place in 1996 and will promote the construction of high capacity phone lines. Unlike the WebLouvre, which is where the Louvre, "The world-famous museum is currently hosting three online exhibits, Art Crimes and IAMfree, whose very names announce an oppositional mission, do not have an offline corollary, even if the information they provide does, for such sites provide online access to art produced offline. Art Crimes is a WWW site (ftp: in the form of a collaborative gallery, in which photographs of graffiti from various cities are contributed and can be viewed and downloaded. The posting that announced the opening of the gallery, initially a United States and Czech Republic collaboration, in the fall of 1994 declared, "See guerilla art worth being arrested for." The home page of the gallery itself explained that "Many of these pieces no longer exist in the real world." But, what can be seen online are images digitized from the analog medium of photography, which does exist offline, even when the walls themselves have been erased. IAMfree (The Internet Arts Museum for Free) (http://www/ is "like a museum that lets you steal." It is a place where "The admission is FREE and you make take what you like!", according to postings in November 1994. Whereas WebLouvre extends the reach of an already powerful institution, virtual art galleries like Art Crimes may be the only display site for the work they show. WebLouvre treats the network as a broadcast medium (viewers cannot add works to the exhibit or interact with it other than to browse). Galleries like Art Crimes are conceived as collaborative ventures.

Correspondence art or mail art, an "offline but internationally dispersed community" termed "The Eternal Network," prepared the ground for art based upon fax and upon computer networking. The crucial difference, however, is in "the artistic interpretation of network as interactivity and collaboration" (Couey 1991, see also Ascott and Loeffler 1991). The Electronic Cafe's International's 6th Annual New Year's Eve Around-the World "TELEBRATION" (1994) is the latest in twenty years of "interactive art communications" and "telecommunication art events" (Couey 1991). This event integrated a WWW site, CU-SeeMe, and IRC Chat with the Actual Magazine party in Paris, a Telepoetry MOO, an Image Gallery, sound files and images, networked ambient music at The Kitchen in New York City, videophone links with the Contemporary Art Center in Moscow, and "other forms of cyber schtick" via digital and analog bridges, as a posting from at many sites on the Internet announced in the weeks preceding the event. It is a quintessential example of an interactive telecommunication art event. These phenomena lend themselves to the analysis of what Margaret McLaughlin (1994) calls the topography of online "artspace" and the exhibition culture of the Web, which takes advantage of the Web's hypertextual principles of linkage in a distributed environment, its multimedia capabilities (sound and image, both still and moving and in color), and its relative ease of access across the Internet and within many different operating systems. The rapid growth of WWW, now at 10,000 sites, is expected to reach 40,000 sites within the next nine months (Neubarth 1995, 4).

When the sensibility of the electronic (and computational) medium is wedded to live performance, the result is literally and metaphorically electrifying. In the corridors of M.I.T., TechSquares, as MIT's square-dance association is known, is reimagining the form in the terms, and with the help, of computers. According to Fred Hapgood, in his account of the sensibility of engineers at MIT:

These dances draw on an enormous vocabulary of calls, up to a few thousand, all of which a dancer (at that level) is expected to know. Some calls involve imaginary or "virtual" dancers, so-called "phantom spots," that give the choreographer 12 or 16 centers of motion instead of 8....

Planning the sequences is a demanding art, almost always requiring a computer, and new sequences are required constantly; the experience looses its edge, or so dancers say, unless the series of calls is completely unpredictable. The challenge to the dancers is to keep the square going, to keep the group spinning and folding and unfolding as the caller jumps back and forth inside this huge volume of possibilities....The ideal is for the caller and eight dancers to bring each square to the edge of collapse and keep it balanced there, hanging over the face of the wave. (Hapgood 1993: 21-23)

Hapgood comments that the pleasure the dancers take in disorientation as a state of mind--and I would add, as an aesthetic--"ordinarily expresses itself in technical pursuits." When TechSquares perform, square dancing and engineering converge, amplifying the pleasure of the computational intelligence of this dance form and refiguring it for a new generation.

Fully in the Medium

Most of these cases are sited at the intersection of virtual and actual worlds. Consider for a moment communication that never (or only rarely) leaves the electronic medium. Such communication throws into relief assumptions about authorship, identity, anonymity, presence, and performativity.

The Oracle

The USENET Oracle takes the basic presupposition of virtuality and anonymity to an illuminating extreme and reveals distinctive characteristics of electronic communication. Thousands of participants, all of them anonymous to one another, collaborate in the creation of the Oracle by playing the roles both of supplicants who ask the Oracle questions and the Oracle itself, who answers them. Technically, the Oracle is "an automated mail server that allows two people, a questioner and a respondent, to create a text without knowing one another's identity" (Sewell 1992). David Sewell explains the concept:

A questioner, or "Supplicant," e-mails a question to the Oracle. The Oracle software puts the question at the end of a "question queue"; when its turn comes, it will be mailed to someone else who has submitted a question. That person now becomes an "incarnation" of the Oracle and must e-mail a response to the question back to the Oracle's address. Finally, the Oracle combines question and answer and mails the completed "Oracularity" to the Supplicant while saving a copy for itself. Because the software encodes all names and addresses, neither questioner nor respondent know one another's identities.

This high-tech party game has grown in popularity to a readership, by March 31, 1995, of 65,900, thanks to the growth of the Internet itself and the increased visibility of the Oracle. Since its inception on October 8, 1989, some 30,000 people have asked or answered 136,000 questions. Digests of the best Oracularities, ten at a time, appear on and on the Oracle's new WWW site ( Readers can also ask to receive them by email. So far, 719 digests have appeared.

The Oracle is predicated on several conditions--anonymity and collaboration on a grand scale unimpeded by physical location. And it exemplifies such signature features of electronic communication as role playing, multiple identities, simulation, parody, heteroglossia, recursiveness, and a penchant for metacommunication. With regard to anonymity, Sewell explains that "questioner and respondent are invisible to each other. They share neither a physical location nor a common time of writing. Both writers must guess at the likely range of cultural references, terminology, and specific knowledge that their co-authors share." Participants say that anonymity encourages "freedom of expression, and the shared aesthetic illusion of an Oracle persona." In a medium that records everything, where you may not be physically present but nonetheless identified by an e-mail address, anonymity must be expressly produced. Physical absence gives only the illusion of anonymity. The system has to be programmed to suppress authorship. And the players actively produce anonymity and through it the persona of the Oracle.

When someone wanders into a newsgroup by mistake and asks an inappropriate question, the moderator of the list may respond to the sender, refuse to post the message, or send an FAQ file. Unmoderated lists, depending on their style, may treat the newcomer with patience or scorn. Recently, when someone lost on USENET wandered into the Oracle newsgroup, the person's question was automatically relayed, at random, for an answer. Ever dependable, the Oracle responded to the query "Can anyone tell me how to access bulletin boards [sic]" (Usenet Oracularity #719-07) with a lengthy account of cork, thumbtacks, and push pins. A request for an address on the part of someone otherwise knowledgeable about the medium produced the following response, quoted here with it original spelling and punctuation:

Date: Mon, 27 Mar 95 16:22:15 -0500
From: Usenet Oracle
Subject: Usenet Oracularity #719-06
Selected-By: (David Sewell)
The Usenet Oracle has pondered your question deeply.

Your question was:

> Although I work for an oracle, sometimes it's the wrong one.
> I am lost! I want to mail to several people that are
> locked up in the X400 world. How do I do this? For
> instance, consider the following adress:
> How on earth do I go about reaching this very dear friend
> of mine on mail from norway?
> My own mail connection is through a gateway on the
> company's WAN, but all this does, is chucking the messages
> out on the internet. I have heard there are gateways out
> there, but I do not know how to access them. If you know
> the answer, please help me with syntax and adresses
> to mail her, and also instructions for her on how to mail
> me back.
> As a return favor, I can help with information on how to
> mail between internet and IBM's IBMMAIL network in the
> closed world of AS400's and larger blue beasts.

And in response, thus spake the Oracle:

} You say you work for an oracle and that the WAN just
} chucks e-mail out on the Internet? The first thing you
} need to do is ask your oracle, "How much e-mail to my girl
} friend can your e-mail chucker chuck, if your e-mail
} chucker could chuck e-mail?" This will ensure that the
} system has sufficient e-mail capacity for your needs.
} You could also post a message to several hundred Usenet
} user groups about your problem (say, every one with "mail"
} or "computer" in its title. You will be sure to get many
} interesting responses.
} E-MAIL ADDRESS! If she's got one, your e-mail chucker
} should chuck it right to her, for chrissake! Or give her } a phone call and ask!!
} You owe the Oracle a grovel (a good one), and 12
} suggestions on how I can get supplicants to think for
} themselves.

While the Oracle did not provide the instructions requested, it did teach a lesson in Internet culture in a form consistent with the principles of the Oracle newsgroup.

With regard to collaboration, Sewell argues that like "the medieval author, who, in Hans Robert Jauss's words, wrote 'in order to praise and to extend his object, not to express himself or to enhance his personal reputation,'" the anonymity of Oracle authors is essential to their collaborative creation of an all-knowing presence, its ring of universality, absolute truth, and collective wisdom--just like the unsigned newspaper editorials characterized in these terms by E.M. Forster, whom Sewell cites. This is "traditionalizing" with a vengeance, imagined here in Foucaultian terms: "The Net may yet turn out to be that culture imagined by Michel Foucault 'where discourse would circulate without any need for an author...[and] would unfold in a pervasive anonymity," that Sewell compares to "cathedrals of cyberspace that countless unacknowledged builders and designers will collaborate on for the sake of creation itself."

With regard to the performativity of the Oracle, there is fluidity in personas that authors create. Role-playing has been often observed in this medium, which is generally conducive to the creation of multiple personae--often cited are cases where men adopt the personae of women, without letting anyone know, whether in the context of an electronic list or within an interactive fantasy game such as a MUD or MOO. Medium-specific parody makes Oracularities thoroughly heteroglossic, in Bakhtin's terms, as do meta-Oracularities. Simulation and recursiveness are characteristic of electronic communication more generally.

The New Hacker's Dictionary

There are also grand collaborations among those, who while they are not anonymous to one another, may never meet, but who will form a strong feeling of "us-ness." Produced collaboratively in the electronic medium, the Jargon File, now in Version 3.1.0 (October 15, 1994), defines itself as "a comprehensive compendium of hacker slang illuminating many aspects of hackish tradition, folklore, and humor" ( preface.html). Periodically frozen in print, the online Jargon File was published as The Hacker's Dictionary (1983), edited by Guy Steele, and as The New Hacker's Dictionary (1991), edited by Eric Raymond (a second edition appeared in 1993 and a third is in preparation)--a detailed revision and publication history may be found in both the Jargon File and the Dictionary. Consistent with the libertarian spirit in which it has been created, the document is in the public domain "to be freely used, shared, and modified. There are (by intention) no legal restraints on what you can do with it, but there are traditions about its proper use to which many hackers are quite strongly attached" and these include proper citation, including the version number of the file.

As "the common heritage of the hacker culture," self-defined as "an intentional culture less than 40 years old," the Jargon File, started in 1975, features "slang terms used by various subcultures of computer hackers...among themselves for fun, social communication, and technical debate." A conservative claim to heritage, tradition, and folklore, which suggests longstanding attachments to shared and enduring values and practices, a concern with the essentially hackish, and an attempt to pin down the origins of terms serve a legitimating function even as they are wedded to a progressive view of hacker language and culture as generative, emergent, contentious, and multi-authored:

We have also tried to indicate (where known) the apparent origins of terms. The results are probably the least reliable information in the lexicon, for several reasons. For one thing, it is well known that many hackish usages have been independently reinvented multiple times, even among the more obscure and intricate neologisms. It often seems that the generative processes underlying hackish jargon formation have an internal logic so powerful as to create substantial parallelism across separate cultures and even in different languages! For another, the networks tend to propagate innovations so quickly that 'first use' is often impossible to pin down. And, finally, compendia like this one alter what they observe by implicitly stamping cultural approval on terms and widening their use. (Raymond 1991, 4)

Characteristic of specifically hackish language are terms such as bigot and brain dump:

bigot n. A person who is religiously attached to a particular computer, language, operating system, editor, or other tool (see religious issues)....True bigots can be distinguished from mere partisans or zealots by the fact that they refuse to learn alternatives even when the march of time and/or technology is threatening to obsolete the favored tool. It is said "You can tell a bigot, but you can't tell him much." Compare weenie. (Raymond 1991, 59)

brain dump n. The act of telling someone everything one knows about a particular topic or project. Typically used when someone is going to let a new party maintain a piece of code.... (Raymond 1991, 77)

Each term, its etymology and account of its meaning and usage, offers an historical and ethnographic snapshot. The hypertextual possibilities of the "see also" convention contribute to the fluidity of this self-consciously autoethnographic text.

Not only is the Jargon File itself always in process, in tandem with the emergent language and practices it documents. It is also in the nature of dictionaries, rarely read from A-Z, that readers select from arbitrarily arranged (i.e. alphabetical) entries and pursue (or not) the linkages among them. They consult the Jargon File and the Dictionary in ways that let them form their own temporary albums of ethnographic snapshots, a process that is greatly assisted by a hypertextual interface. These search trails offer as many points of entry as there are terms in the lexicon. They yield ephemeral sets. They offer partial views, variously configured, of a phenomenon in flux on the basis of an always provisional text. That text is itself implicated in the phenomenon.

Demonized by the media and prosecuted by the law, not always justly, hackers publish the Dictionary to demonstrate their creativity in a positive way to a wider public through "a sort of sacred epic, a hacker-culture Matter of Britain chronicling the heroic exploits of the Knights of the Lab" (Raymond 1991, 6). They intend the Dictionary to demonstrate that they are witty and playful, creative, both in and about the medium, and deeply committed and important to the development of this transformative technology, even as they internalize and transvalue negative stereotypes:

computer geek n.

1. One who eats (computer) bugs for a living. One who fulfills all the dreariest negative stereotypes about hackers: an asocial, malodorous, pasty-faced monomaniac with all the personality of a cheese grater. Cannot be used by outsiders without implied insult to all hackers; compare black-on-black usage of 'nigger'. A computer geek may be either a fundamentally clueless individual or a proto-hacker in larval stage. Also called 'turbo nerd', 'turbo geek'. See also propeller head, clustergeeking, geek out, wannabee, terminal junkie, spod, weenie.

2. Some self-described computer geeks use this term in a positive sense and protest sense 1 (this seems to be a post 1990 development). (Jargon File 3.1.0, October 15, 1994)

They, and organizations like EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundation), are at the forefront of opposing legislation that would commercialize cyberspace and restrict access to it, and to government policy and legislation that would infringe on free speech, privacy, property, and related issues.

Folklore is a term that hackers use with pride and one that they understand in light of their reading of Jan Harold Brunvand's collections of urban legends. See, for example, the Dictionary entry for FOAF:

FOAF // [USENET] n. Acronym for 'Friend Of A Friend'. The source of an unverified, possibly untrue story. This was not originated by hackers (it is used in Jan Brunvand's books on urban folklore), but it is much better recognized on USENET and elsewhere than in mainstream English. (Raymond 1991, 162)

The reference to USENET is noteworthy, for it is here, within a loosely structured system of newsgroups, that alt.folklore.urban, identified as "urban legends, ala [sic] Jan Harold Brunvand," serves as the address for those fascinated by the tales. Legends and fables that elucidate lexicon entries appear in "Appendix A: Hacker Folklore" of the Dictionary. "They have the characteristics of what Jan Brunvand has called 'urban folklore' (see FOAF)," which includes the often dubious claim to their historical veracity (Raymond 1991, 399).

The electronic medium is ideally suited for a collaborative project of this kind not only because of networked interaction but also because of automatic archiving and distributed storage (the dictionary can be physically stored at multiple sites and accessed from anywhere). The print snapshots of the "live" online Jargon File, an open text if there ever was one, are specially interesting for the way they bring the problem of forgetting into focus. Karl Mannheim's essay (1952) on generations is useful here. He postulates two extremes: first, a society in which each generation starts from scratch with absolutely no memory of what the previous generation remembered, and second, a society in which every generation forgets absolutely nothing and remembers everything from time immemorial. Each is an immobilizing nightmare in its own right, but illuminating of the constitutive relationship of remembering and forgetting, particularly in a context where generations are short--the case of hackers and the rapidly changing technologies with which they work.

What the Dictionary reveals is how deliberate forgetting must be in a medium that accumulates and stores, that forgets nothing, except in the event of a disaster. The makers of the Dictionary use sifting and editing as a mode of forgetting. The little history of the project that appears in the Dictionary urges the reader to ignore earlier versions of the file in favor of this new and improved version, and in the process reveals how they 'un-wrote' (my term) the history of hacker culture by expunging obsolete terms and usages. Their record of the history of the project, proceeding as it does through versions, simultaneously erases the history of its subject. This dictionary, combining as it does the features of manual, reference work, manifesto, ethnography, archive, and history, resembles software--it exists in numbered and dated versions, whose sequence and changes are carefully recorded. Casting a wider net, the current version of the Jargon File extends to "all the technical computing cultures wherein the true hacker-nature is manifested," with the result that "More than half of the entries now derive from USENET."

IRC (Internet Relay Chat)

The examples discussed thus far are instances of asynchronous communication, more like the mail than the telephone or a conversation in a room. But there are also cases of synchronous communication in which as few as two or as many as 50 people are logged on and conversing in real time in the medium. The conversation appears on the screen, a turn at a time, producing something that is neither playscript nor transcript. Such conversations are something between talking and writing.

A particularly lively environment for this activity is IRC (Internet Relay Chat), a synchronous talk program written in Finland in 1988 by Jarkko Oikarinen. A form of teleconferencing, IRC operates for the most part like a partyline. Growing rapidly, IRC now includes over 60 countries in the Americas, Europe (specially Scandinavia), and Asia, as well as Africa (Sierra Leone and South Africa), Australia, and New Zealand. As many as 5000 users are logged on at the same time during peak hours and activate several hundred channels (conversations on particular topics) in as many as 14 languages, including Esperanto. IRC has long been the preserve of undergraduate students in computer science, mostly male, in the United States, Europe, Israel, Australia, Japan, and Taiwan, though its constituency is diversifying. (See Graham 1995; Pioch 1993; Rose 1994.)

Interactivity is what intensifies presence. Interlocutors therefore take short turns in order to speed up the pace of conversations that writing tends to slow down. Since short turns are better suited to playful repartee than serious business, IRC conversations tend toward pure sociability verging at times on artful or outrageous nonsense as students take a break from their labors and come here to play--a kind of busman's holiday. (See Reid 1991.) Brenda Danet and her colleagues at the Hebrew University and New York University have been studying language, play, and performance on IRC, which, while it shares many conventions with other types of electronic communication and pre-electronic forms of writing (comics and graffiti, for example), also produces its own distinctive modes of interaction. (See Danet, Ruedenberg, and Rosenbaum-Tamari, in press.) They reveal how reflexive users are about the medium and life in it. Indeed, metacommunication, which is a prominent feature of email communication both to address problems and as a source of pleasure in its own right, achieves an apotheosis of sorts when people are at play.

In times of crisis, however, the electronic sandbox becomes a vital communications center operating outside of official government and media channels--there are IRC logs dealing with the 1994 California earthquake, the turmoil in Russia in 1992 and 1993, the 1992 presidential election, and the 1991 Gulf War ( chats.html). IRC becomes the place to get the most recent information from the scene and the way to reach people when phone lines are tied up and even ground transportation is out of the question. Almost instantly, people start providing live reports of what they are actually experiencing or witnessing. They relate news from local radio and television stations and they relay information and messages to family and friends that cannot otherwise reach each other. As many as 50 people at a time gathered on the "Earthquake" channel to get news directly from Los Angeles. IRC has demonstrated the robustness of the Internet to function, as originally intended, in a time of disaster, even with the loss of some links. (XXX, 1994)

Increasingly, new chat channels are dedicated to serious conversation or sustained artistic collaboration. Chefsplace is the place to go. So, "if you love to talk about cooking, or just love good conversation devoid of the usual meaningless and often offensive drabble often seen on irc, you'll love Chefsplace" (Andrew Brock,, posting to, March 29, 1995). The Hamnet Players studied by Danet convene on an IRC channel at a set time, each one having received in advance only his or her own lines, to participate in what she characterizes as a "collective, virtual puzzle game, in which the full script, with spontaneously added improvisation, unfolds on their screens." (Danet 1994) Their productions of Hamnet and PCbeth, and more recently, "An IRC Channel Named #Desire" (after Tennessee Williams), confounds even further the question of performativity, when actors/players "perform" their lines by writing/talking them in the special conventions of IRC discourse, which uses speedwriting devices, rebus conventions, emoticons, expressions of affect derived from comic books and cartoons, ascii art, and orthographic play more generally.


MUDS (Multi-User Dungeons, Dimensions, Domains, or Dialogues) are distributed communication environments in which players collaboratively produce a text-based virtual world. The structure, style, and ethos of these online places derive from their programming and script language, database, universe rules, and premises for what kind of world the players will sustain--some operate with a class or guild system, almighty wizards or gods, and the possibility of building the world, not just interacting within it.

MUDS and their successors have proliferated and diversified. One can now join a MOO (MUD, Object-Oriented), MUSE (Multi-User Simulation Environment), MUSH (Multi-User Shared Hallucination), MUCK, MESH, MUG (Multi-User Game), MUTT (Multi-User Trivial Terminal), and many others. At last count (April 1, 1995), there were 517 MUDS in operation in seven languages (English, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, and Swedish). The list is updated every Friday (Url: As the MUD FAQ (Smith 1995) explains, MUDS fall into several overlapping general categories. Inspired by Dungeons and Dragons, the earliest are fantasy role-playing games oriented to adventure and combat. Richard Bartle and Roy Trubshaw at the University of Essex wrote the prototype MUD, no longer operating, in 1978, and by 1988 MUDS had made their way to North America (s.v. MUD, Jargon File 3.1.0, 1994). The LPMUD is the most popular of this type today. Some of the largest and most active MUDs are social places, for example, TinyMUDS, and they may operate with or without role-playing and combat. Lastly, there are MUDS like MicroMUSE, self-defined as an educational MUD. Its charter expresses the concern that MIT and its taxpayer dollars not support "activities of a questionable or objectionable nature" ("The MicroMUSE Charter, Version 6, November 1994 Update, FTP: The formal charter and bylaws and elaborate administrative structure are consistent with these concerns ("The MicroMUSE Bylaws, Version 6, November 1994 Update). The intention is that adults and children, in exploring Cyberion City II "sometime in the 24th century AD," will develop programming, writing, and communication skills and explore the visionary promise of this virtual world (To reach MicroMUSE, telnet to 4201). MOO technology is also being extended to new applications. A release just went out over the Internet (April 3, 1995, http://bug.village. announcing Waxweb 2.0, an experiment in "public virtual reality cinema" that combines the possibilities of MOO and WWW technologies "to dynamically serve hyperlinked 3D VRML objects/scenes" in the form of "an Internet-based, distributed, interactive, and intercommunicative 3-D narrative environment." Waxweb uses a soundtrack in English, French, German, and Japanese. VRML refers to Virtual Reality Modelling Language.

What are MUDs and MOOs like? PMC-MOO (telnet: 7777), an offshoot of Postmodern Culture (PMC), an online journal that is also now appearing in print, describes itself as "a virtual space designed to promote the exploration of postmodern theory and practice," though when I just visited it there was a lot of waving and hugging going on, just like in other MUDS. The message continues:

This virtual world is governed by a principle of radical consent. This means that you have the right to consent, and to remain consenting, to any activities in which you choose to participate. Conversely, you may not involve other players in activities to which they do not consent. By logging on, *you* consent to this as a central governing principle. Finally, by participating, you consent to learn about and contribute to the theme of this MOO: postmodernism.

LamdaMOO (telnet: 8888) asks guests to type "help manners" so they can behave in accordance with "two basic principles of friendly MOOing: let the MOO function and don't abuse other players" by "Spamming (filling their screen with unwanted text); Teleporting them or their objects without consent; Emoted violence or obscenities; Shouting (sending a message to all connected players)...; Spoofing (causing messages to appear that are not attributed to your character)...; Spying...; Sexual harassment (particularly involving unsolicited acts which simulate rape against unwilling participants)....A single incidence of such an act may, as a consequence of due process, result in permanent explusion from LambdaMOO." Players are asked not to tinker with the system or take advantage of loopholes or bugs, whether in the core or in the social arrangements, that might undermine the MOO itself. They are asked to respect the privacy, autonomy, and sensibility of other players: "MOO inhabitants and visitors come from a wide range of cultural backgrounds both in the U.S. and abroad, and have varying ideas of what constitutes offensive speech or descriptions." FurryMUCK (telnet: 888, HTTP:// requires that players read their AUP (Acceptable Use Policy), Principles, and Policies documents, which clearly enunciate where the MUCK stands on privacy, harassment, and permission. It is in this spirit that players are asked to restrict sexual activities to private areas, or be subject to a ban or suspension of character. To protect the hosts (and players) from being prosecuted, the AUP prohibits "Transmission or solicitation for reception of material which violates US Federal or Wisconsin State Law," including anything legally obscene or libelous, a Pandora's box of first amendment issues endemic to the medium more generally.

Of special importance is the reminder that FurryMUCKers are after all engaged in a game, while recognizing that players vary in how they negotiate VR (Virtual Reality), RL (Real Life)--and the space between them, which is the primary location for some dedicated players. The limits and excesses of role playing have been tested more than once and have prompted the formulation of such policies as "Proven harassment of malicious intent i.e. intended to cause mental harm such as rape, threats of RL harm, severe emotional manipulation, will NOT be tolerated. Malicious harassment may result in immediate suspension."

For these and other reasons, MUDS are extraordinary social laboratories. (See Curtis 1992, Reid 1994.) Players deliberately fabricate what is variously called a universe, world, society, or community built on role playing. They use a mode of governance based upon consent. Though MUDS are particularly open zones and though players are anonymous, anyone who violates the consent principle is subject to sanctions--after several crisis, LambdaMOO introduced a petition and ballot system to allow members of the community to raise issues and vote on how best to address them. The potential result is absorption in an environment of such vividness that distinctions between saying and doing become moot. If IRC produces something between a playscript and a transcript--that is, a dialogue that is and was at the same time--the screen during a MOO session looks more like something between a set of instructions for what to do and a description of what has just been done. But, the utterances are the doing. They are neither prior nor subsequent to it.

In an insightful account of rape in LamdaMOO in 1993, Julian Dibbell examines the consequences of such ambiguity, which he takes as constitutive of the MUD world: "For while the facts attached to any event born of a MUD's strange ethereal universe may march in straight, tandem lines separated nearly into the virtual and the real, its meaning lies always in that gap." It is the mark of a newbie to insist on the distinction and to mistake the MOO as a place where anything goes and without consequences, It is the mark of a veteran "to make the critical passage from anonymity to pseudonymity, developing the concern for their character's reputation." To know better and do otherwise is the mark of a "sociopath." A primary site for defining the issue is "netsex, tinysex, virtual sex--however you name it." That it is a textual encounter, rather than visual, audio, or tactile, does not necessarily diminish its power to stir the passions. Dibbell argues to the contrary, citing the power of anonymity, suggestiveness, and fantasy to produce experiences that are, in his terms, full-bodied, profound, compelling, and emotionally meaningful. How else to explain the social drama that unfolded in response to Mr. Bungle's sexual violence, his rape of legba and Starsinger?

The corrective rituals touch on several important issues. First, how are the premises of freedom of speech challenged in a medium where acting and speaking, between real (deed) and symbolic (word) is ambiguous? (Dibbell 1993) Second, when a crisis arises, what is the nature of the social entity that is mobilized to deal with it? The two are linked, as suggested both by the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that what counts as obscene is a matter of local community standards and the various MUD policies on consent and harassment. A crisis brings the issues of community and governance into the foreground in the particular terms of a MUD world, terms that go to its very ontology. Those concerns run all the way through the networks. Discussion of location, community, governance, free speech, and crime, in a medium that seems to confound them, are recurrent topics, both daily in postings and in the more extended discussion of net advocates. What gets discussed within the medium illuminates what has been assumed outside of it. (See Stone 1991.)

Email, Discussion Lists, Newsgroups

In the less heady setting of electronic mail and discussion lists, the fundamentals of the interaction order are being worked out in ways that are no less interesting. Television scholar Robert J. Thompson has observed that "We have really have returned here, in spite of the centralization of technology, to the old-fashioned definition of what folk culture used to be....We have these jokes and stories that will never see the printed page, that exist only as glowing dots of phosphorous. It's not word-of-mouth folk culture but word-of-modem folk culture" (Grimes 1992, C14). But, what do terms like group or community mean in a medium where dispersed strangers are not physically present to one another? They do not gather in one physical place at one time, though the instantaneity of transmission makes it feel like that way.

In a medium where time is indicated only by date and time of transmission and the weather is always the same, the seasons come and go in the form of distinctive genres of greetings--"I love you" in every conceivable language for Valentine's Day, including Mohawk, Tagalog, and Yiddish, and a graphic in the form of a Hanukkah lamp, sent on eight successive days, each time with one more candle lit--graphics are created using only the characters on the keyboard and are known as ASCII art or boxology. These greetings are widely circulated, not only to everyone one a particular list, but also they are crossposted to everyone else on many of the other lists to which individuals belong. For the most part, however, those who interact in the electronic medium remain "strangers" to each other.

Some have commented that electronic lists, bulletin boards, IRC channels, and MUDS are like entering a virtual room where several conversations are taking place, an image that suggests intimacy. For others, it is like wandering around a virtual town square, plaza, commons, or agora, or hanging out at the listening post--in other words, a public forum. Ray Oldenburg's notion of a "third place" has been invoked more than once as a metaphor for the place of online communities--this is the place of conviviality, like the salons and saloons, beauty and barber shops, pubs and cafes, and common rooms IRL (Oldenburg 1989, 14-19). Coate calls up images of a lunchtime crowd at Hyde Park, amateur night at the Apollo, and the Gong Show.

The proliferation of images of conviviality goes to the "fragility of trust" and a concern about commitment in self-defined virtual communities, whether they are made up of pseudonymous characters in elaborated fantasy worlds or identified persons in an ongoing conversation. A circumstance known within ordinary conversations as YMMV (Your Mileage May Vary) refers to "an indeterminacy of shared context" that results in part from differing notions of "what kind of place cyberspace is" (Rheingold 1992). Rheingold continues, "In a virtual community, idle talk is context-setting. Idle talk is where people learn what kind of person you are, why you should be trusted or mistrusted, what interests you. An agora is more than a site of transactions; it is also a place where people meet and size one another up." The agora of online communities, in Rheingold's view, operates more like a gift economy than a market one, "more like barn-raising than horse-trading," an ideal that is consistent with Rheingold's projects, including the Whole Earth Catalogue and its successors. As for trust, even the word phony carries traces of its etymology in the early days of telephone when people were less savvy about the medium. Trust is fragile in this medium, and for good reason, considering the surveillance power of the medium and "the looming spectre of collusion between large cable companies and telcos leading to domination of electronic media by mostly one-way communications and entertainment at the expense of the interactive and user-created activities necessary to foster community" (Rheingold 1992). This statement signals the heterogeneous nature of the social world of the medium, which can be roughly divided into suits (those employed by the industry), hackers (mavericks, some of them engaged in criminal activity, most of them ingenious and playful devotees of the medium), and users (those, like myself, who are ordinary users of the medium), though within the various sectors of the net, the distinctions vary as does the internal organization of "space," in the case of MUDS, for example.

Reflecting on his experience in the WELL, Rheingold notes that users navigate the net in ways that give a sense of "neighborhood," particularly as the route becomes routinized: he structures his "online time by going from conference to specified conference at regular intervals, reading and perhaps responding in several ongoing threads in several difference places. That's the part of the art of discourse where I have the computer adds value to the intellectual activity of discussing formally distinct subjects asynchronously, from different parts of the world, over extended periods, by enabling groups to structure conversations by topic, over time" (Rheingold 1992).

What is meant by observations like, "It feels like a real place in there"? (Coate 1992) Where exactly are they? The electronic list WORDS-L answered this question on their t-shirt, by printing the network of mainframe computers that routes their messages, complete with the node of every person on the list. However, unlike navigating a car on the nation's freeways, with the help of a map, listers are usually oblivious to the transmission network, which they never see except when messages, in a VAX/VMS environment, appear on the screen indicating that their posting is blipping through the ether from one mainframe to another round the country and across the globe. Trolling and surfing the Internet, locating sites with the help of gopher, webworm, or webcrawler, browsing with the help of Mosaic or Netscape, spelunking in regions as yet unknown, cybernauts navigate by topic. Because topic is the basis for choosing with whom to communicate, topic is of the utmost importance in structuring and navigating the vast electronic net. As one lister remarked, the lively exchange about superstitions on Words-L was so similar to what she encountered on Belief-L, that she "did not know where she was."

Indeed, the thousands of bulletin boards and electronic lists are the result of "semantic zoning," where as Rheingold notes, "the topic is the address." Topic control is of such burning interest precisely because topic is place--from topos, the Greek word for place. And virtual places are defined not just by the designated topic, be it jazz or sourdough, but also by the attitude to topic control. The designated topic may be the address, but the attitude to topic control helps to give the place its distinctive social character. Indeed, topic control might be seen as cartographic. In defining the limits of the topic, interlocutors chart the space of their copresence.

Some lists, like the DOROTHY-L list, named for Dorothy Sayres and devoted to mystery stories, enforce strict topic control. The hundreds of listers on DOROTHY-L, in an exquisite ensemble performance, keep their beloved topic in the air, and are quick to slap the virtual wrists of anyone who lets it drop. To ensure tight topic control, some lists are moderated by someone who filters postings, sometimes gathering related ones together, before distributing them. The charter for USENET newsgroup stipulates that "recipes and recipes only will be posted to the newsgroup....No discussion of any kind is allowed" ("Administrivia: Posting Guidelines for [moderated]," March 6, 1995, URL: Other discussion lists, like Words-L, tolerate, indeed encourage to discuss whatever they please.

On FOLKLORE-L, listers who get sick of reading yet again about the same urban legend complain vociferously, urge those who want to continue that thread to do so privately, withdraw from the list if the problem persists, or start a new list for the disgruntled. Seemingly endless posting about the $250 recipe for the Neiman Marcus cookie tried the patience of many posters. Those on argued about whether jazz and blues belong on one list or should be separated into two different lists--a data dream come true for those interested in "native" categories and the processes by which they are negotiated.

Even those who are more patient with threads (series of postings on a topic) that persist beyond the threshold of their interest lose their patience when they see topic drift. Because a reply to a posting carries a header that references the subject of the original message, a subject header commonly persists long after the topic has drifted far away from it and is misleading for those trying to follow a discussion thread or delete messages on topics they do not choose to track. For others, as Coate (1992) notes, topic drift "often leads to the most delightful illuminations. So much so that many people find this to be one of the most appealing aspects of the whole online scene."

A hallmark of electronic communication, whether in newsgroups, discussion lists, IRC, or MUDS, is the simultaneity of numerous conversational "threads". It is as if you were in a large hotel lobby, during a cocktail reception, where hundreds of conversations were underway, each one of them entirely audible. But not as such. You do not hear each thread, with its turns in sequence, the way you would if you went from one cluster of people to another. Rather, you actually "hear" all of the conversations all at the same time, with one speaker from one conversation taking a turn, followed by a speaker from another conversation taking a turn. As a listener, you can follow all the threads, interwoven as they are with one another. Or you can ignore those that do not interest you and just follow the ones that do. The result is not the cacophony of the cocktail part but a conversational tapestry that is a physical impossibility in face-to-face situations and unimaginable by phone due to the limits of audibility (how many conversations can you hear, let alone follow, at a time) and of aural processing (the limits of voice mail menus). Depending on your perspective the result is a constantly interrupted series of simultaneous conversation or several long continuous ones. Furthermore, because volatile and highly interactive chat and MUD/MOO environments operate in real time, rather than in a store and forward mode, the interaction is not automatically archived. It is therefore particularly ephemeral, unless steps are taken at the outset of a session to log it.

Though interlocutors operate under the conditions of disembodied presence and immateriality of place, fluid membership and emphemeral existence, there is a strong sense of presence and performativity in the medium. Operating between speech and writing, between word and deed, prompted listers on X-CULT-X to dub this kind of talk putation, and to speak of puting or putating. One often has the feeling of talking, rather than writing--"I'll talk to you on e-mail." Coate reports hearing online discussion called "writing as a performing art." The performativity of the medium, its "hotness," is expressed in various ways. People prefer to interact directly online, in the medium, even when so doing costs more than composing messages on the computer and uploading them or downloading mail before reading it. Presence in the medium is a function of interactivity--the more interaction, the more people are present to each other, and most of all in real-time (synchronous) chat. When logging on, some people first find out who else is "there"--I type "show users" to get a list of everyone logged into the NYU system when I am online, an action that "enhances the sense of 'usness,'" according to Coate (1992), who relates this gesture to opening the window to see who is on the street. In a medium where "the basic currency is attention," visibility (and the power to make invisible) is at a premium. There are tools--kill files such as Anathema, also known as bozo filters--by means of which "people can remove one another, or even entire topics of discussion from visibility" (Rheingold 1992). A list manager can drop unruly participants and block the list from their messages. More subtle however is the invisibility created through the inattention in the gendered patterning of online conferencing. Women report that their postings are ignored, that topics they initiate are not picked up, and that men on the lists essentially talk to each other and dominate the conversation, a situation that is exacerbated by the demographics (men generally outnumber women) and gendered differences in communicative style. (See Taylor, Kramarae, and Ebben 1993.)

In asynchronous e-mail, there are common routines for intensifying the conversational feel of the medium by transforming even a single message that has been stored and forwarded into a retroactively interactive conversation in which the interlocutors "take turns," just as they would in a face-to-face conversation. I can virtually cut up the sender's message to me and insert my comments in the spaces thus created. I thereby make the sender's single turn into a whole conversation by segmenting the message and inserting my responses. In this way, I produce microconversational turntaking retroactively but in way that is different both from referencing each point, as one would in an exchange of letters, and from face-to-face conversational exchange.

When a thread is preserved in tact inside a posting, the result is a cascade. A reply often appends the message to which it is responding. Some replies are so short that by themselves they would be unintelligible. Recipients cannot be expected to remember what prompted the message before them. Rather than going through a laborious process of referencing the prior message, interlocutors simply append all or part of it to their response. Eventually each posting gets longer and longer, as the whole conversation is repeatedly appended. The convention in some systems of marking the prior material with a < at the beginning of each line and adding a < each time the prior material is reappended produces a cascade effect, the number <'s at the beginning of the line indicating how many times the material in question has been appended. While this annoys some posters, who object to any unnecessary material, the Jargon File (3.1.0) notes in its entry for cascade the way in which phenomena distinctive to the medium also have a life of their own: "A chain of USENET followups, each adding some trivial variation or riposte to the text of the previous one, all of which is reproduced in the new message; an include war in which the object is to create a sort of communal graffito" and as long a one as possible. Newsgroup alt.cascade is where specially long cascades are posted and cascading is undertaken as an end in itself, when one posted creates a cascade by repeatedly sending messages to herself and appending the prior one:

From: (jerry johnson)

Newsgroups: alt.cascade

Subject: Re: nothing

Date: 3 Apr 1995 02:41:46 GMT

In article <3lnn6p$>,

jerry johnson <> wrote:

>In article <3lnn4j$>,

>jerry johnson <> wrote:

>>In article <3lnn36$>,

>>jerry johnson <> wrote:

>>>In article <3lnn0l$>,

>>>jerry johnson <> wrote:

>>>>In article <3lnmuh$>,

>>>>jerry johnson <> wrote:

>>>>>In article <3lnmsp$>,

>>>>>jerry johnson <> wrote:

>>>>>>In article <3lnmqp$>,

>>>>>>jerry johnson <> wrote:










Such exercises are also testimony to the recursiveness of the medium. They play with features of the medium in their own right, features that are once useful, but easily extended to the point of annoyance. Indeed, the technical aspects of the medium are often ahead of the uses to which they may be put, as Susan Garfinkel's comment on WWW links suggests: "Surely anyone who cruises the web noticed the proliferation of links to other links--half the time it's like there's no there there, as if someone's demonstrated ability to pick out and discern cool or useful links to other sites stands in for actual content" (Posting to H-AMSTDY, March 29, 1995). As annoying as jumping from link to link and arriving "nowhere" may be, this display and exploration of the WWW's hypertextual structure is a critical step in realizing its "capability of turning the entire entire internet into one hypertextual web" (Unsworth 1994, 2).

WWW creates yet another kind of social space on the net, the perpetual open house. "Come by and visit my home page," their creators now beckon. Once there, I feel like I am walking into the house of someone I have never met. They are away and I find a note on the kitchen table with instructions telling me where everything is. The note issues an open invitation to get comfortable and explore the place. The host introduces himself through a link to a biography page, like family pictures on the mantlepiece. And, a guest book is there for all visitors to sign, with comments.

These homes are under construction. One of their greatest assets is their wiring, their links to other homepages, gopher holes, ftp archives, and newsgroups. Instead of beer in the refrigerator, there is information on the screen, arranged by the host, often with lively personal commentary. Instead of a pile of lumber and bricks in the yard, there are sites waiting to be incorporated into the home page, their arrangement refined, the page itself designed, and features to be added.

Home pages are proudly authored. They are often the creation of identified individuals, small entrepreneurs who set up shop for themselves on the net, and await visitors. Some, like Bianca's Smut Shack, "one of the liveliest house parties in cyberspace," attract many guests and are constantly developing new spaces and features to accomodate them (Wired May 1995, 53; The interactive aspect of Bianca's Smut Shack aligns it with the collaborative, improvisatory, and open ended quality of newsgroups, discussions lists, and MUDs The character of each is determined by the extent to which a moderator, wizard, or landlord administers, rather than authors the enterprise.

Worm and crawlers help one find these sites. They beam the trekker to the topics specified. Once there, movement is by leaps, from link to link, associatively. It is only as you retrace your steps, by tapping the left arrow key (using Lynx, a textual interface), that you discover where you went in the first place. Orientation is retrospective. Long associative links take one out into the vastness of the net. Instead of coming home, after each foray, and setting out again, WWW expeditions move from link to link, improvising an itinerary that circles back on itself, takes off on tangents, hits dead ends, stalls, and takes off again for parts unknown.

An evolving code of netiquette, formally set forth as early as 1985 by the Rand Corporation for the National Science Foundation (Shapiro and Anderson 1985), are intended to ease the rapid influx of new users to a medium where the protocols are not yet well established and peer pressure is harder to exert. Netiquette has since been codified in various manuals, from Minding Your Cyber-Manners (Rose (XXXX) to "Miss Manners' Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Internet Behavior" (Shea 1995), and in parodies of them like Emily Postnews. A new Network Etiquette Mailing List ( is sponsored by the publisher of Virginia Shea's book Netiquette (1994). According to netiquette, subject headers should match the content of the message. Listers should refrain from sending unnecessary messages. Signature blocks should be discrete. Posters should reframe from "flaming," or making inflammatory remarks. Where necessary, use emoticons, smiley faces and variations of them created with ASCII characters to indicate affect that in conversation would be apparent from facial expression, gesture, or tone of voice. (See Sanderson 1993.)

The very indeterminacy of the medium favors forms like the UL (Urban Legend) heard FOAF (From a Friend Of A Friend). According to the FAQ file for alt.folklore.urban, an urban legend "appears mysteriously and spreads spontaneously in varying forms" and "does not have to be false, although most are. ULs often have a basis in fact, but it's their life after-the-fact (particularly in reference to the second and third points) that gives them particular interest" (URL: Not only does the electronic medium intensify the transmission of the legend; people report sitings in newspapers and on other lists, as well as repeat versions they have heard. But also, they enjoy talking about the legends as much as they do telling them. Indeed, they enjoy talking about the talk most of all. The drama of these lists revolves around the humiliation of discovering that a story believed to be true is "just a legend," while the winners are the ones who can tell the difference. It is precisely its ambiguous truth status that suits the urban legend so well to the ontology of this medium.

Chain letters, for their part, are taboo, precisely because they behave like the sorcerer's apprentice in a medium with untold powers of replication. It is the power of the medium to achieve to perfection what chain letters are designed to do, namely to proliferate exponentially, that makes them objectionable. Newcomers to USENET are put on notice: "If your posting was a "MAKE MONEY FAST" note or any other chain letter, it will be reported to the admins at your site" (automatic acknowledgement from The prospect of electronic chain letters is so daunting, their uncontrollable dissemination so terrifying, that such spamming is grounds for rescinding one's network privileges. Indeed, when Martha Siegel and Laurence Canter advertised their legal services--to help illegal immigrants take advantage of the Green Card Lottery--on USENET, they created a widely reported scandal. Not only was commercial exploitation of USENET in this way a flagrant disregard of netiquette, but also, were such random postings to become routine, the system would not be able to withstand the volume. Letting the punishment fit the crime, outraged users spammed them back in ever more ingenious ways.

Usegroups for soap opera and Star Trek fans wed the attributes of television broadcast in serial form to the distributed and interactive medium of the Internet. As Nancy Baym shows in her exemplary study of, a newsgroup that is now more than ten years old, some participants seem to get more pleasure from the discussion than from the programs, to the point of writing their own episodes. Constance Penley's work on fans of Star Trek documents how women create their own version of the Star Trek world. They write erotic episodes for each other, in which the men make love to each other (Penley 1992). For many fans, the electronic list has not displaced other forms of communication--fanzines and conferences--but is added to them.

* * *

Sites of conviviality, fantasy, and play are revelatory of the nature of electronic communication more generally and they are being studied increasingly in social, psychological, and cultural terms--in the medium itself. To study a phenomenon that won't stand still for its portrait is like trying to keep up with a galloping shapeshifter, riding it as one analyzes it. Moments before writing these sentences, I trolled across Seeker1's Cyberanthropology Home Page!, which is a call to action for a virtual anthropology. It announces a new online journal Topothesia: A Virtual Anthropology Information Singularity. It also gathers together resources, including full texts of essays and bibliographies, tips on multimedia, and leads to various sites (BBS, gopher, lists, and Usenet newsgroups) of interest to virtual anthropologists and their cyborg siblings. (See Haraway 1991a, 1991b.) Here, where tools and topics converge, where the medium and social life with in it are mutually constitutive, our accounts are increasingly doing what they are about. Close to home, but oh so far away, new worlds are under construction. What kind of life will be lived there and what repercussions it will have remain to be seen. Now is the time to study it in formation, before its protocols have hardened, and to consider its implications for life offline.

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