Inhabiting the virtual city
Judith S. Donath
This chapter addresses questions about the nature of identity and community in an on-line society. My focus will be on identity, but the two concepts are closely interrelated: one establishes an identity as a member of a community (or communities) and it is the evolution of social meanings within the community that provides the vocabulary for one's self-representation.
Contemporary on-line systems provide the focus of the discussion. Although these systems are relatively primitive - often text-based, asynchronous, and with a minimal interface - there is a great deal to be learned by observing at how people use them. Both Usenet news and the Web were initially designed for exchanging data within a technical and scientific community, yet have been adopted - and adapted - for social and recreational use by a much wider population. Some on-line communities have developed their own vocabularies, often in response to the expression-deprived medium. Text-based conversational systems in particular have developed whole sets of interactional social cues and the use of smiley faces, acronyms, or MUD-specific locutions marks the writer as a member of particular on-line communities( Cherny 1995; Donath n.d.; Marvin n.d.; Reid 1991).
Champions of the virtual world have long claimed that the features of true community - affiliation, support, a sense of belong - could be found on-line (Rheingold 1993). Many social scientists are now in agreement. They point to the support found in sympathetic newsgroups (Sproull and Faraj 1993), the many opportunities to establish and maintain social ties (Turkle 1995), and the evolution of cooperative strategies (Kollock and Smith 1995) as evidence that real and significant social structures exist in the on-line world.
As Wellman & Gulia discuss, the on-line world supports a wide variety of community structures (Wellman and Gulia 1996). Some are purely virtual: the members have never met in real life and interact solely on-line. Others, such as mailing lists of friends or co-workers, are electronic supplements to real world communities. Some are public communities, ``social networks'' of people who interact regularly, such as the members of a discussion list, MUD or newsgroup. Others are personal communities, consisting of one's friends and colleagues.
The community types cut across technology usage: email is used for communication between strangers and between spouses; discussion lists can be a forum for a virtual group or a set of co-workers. The designer of on-line environments needs to be aware of this range, for the inclusion or absence of features can have quite varying effects. A simple example is a picture: for those who know the subject in real life, it serves merely as a reminder or as a quickly recognized representation. For virtual acquaintances, a picture may serve as the sole - and possibly unreliable - provider of key social cues, not only obvious ones such as age or gender, but also subtle hints about political beliefs, social status, etc.
Identity plays a key role in virtual communities. In communication, which is the primary activity, knowing the identity of those with whom you communicate is essential for understanding and evaluating an interaction. Yet in the disembodied world of the virtual community, identity is also ambiguous. Many of the basic cues about personality and social role we are accustomed to in the physical world are absent. A great deal has been written about the nature of identity in the on-line world (see, for example Curtis 1992, Dibbell 1993, Kilger 1994, Rheingold 1993, Donath n.d.). Some claim that the ability to establish an independent and disembodied identity is one of the most valuable aspects of on-line culture - that it allows people to explore roles and relationships that would otherwise be closed to them ( Stone 1992a, Turkle 1995). Others claim that anonymity encourages irresponsible, hostile behavior - and that an anonymous community is an oxymoron.
The relationship between an on-line persona and a physical self is handled differently in various on-line environments, often as a result of interface decisions built into the system technology. Some systems make it impossible to trace a participant's real-life name; others try to ensure that messages are ascribed to their author's physical being - and the cultures that evolve are strikingly different. Social conventions also play a role. In some environments, people sign messages with not only their full names, but also their place of employment, job title, and phone number. Elsewhere, virtual identities are not only anonymous, but ephemeral: names are taken temporarily, characteristics have little or no persistence. Even the most seemingly simple design decisions, such as how prominently a writer's name is displayed, influence the ambience of an on-line community.
The presentation of self in the virtual world is often a conscious and deliberate endeavor: from the role-playing MUDs to the resume-style home-pages, people are consciously attempting to create a particular persona. Goffman's observations in The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life are thus particularly apt for looking at on-line identity. His theatre metaphor highlights the role-playing aspects of daily communication - he describes behavior in social situations as ``performances'' designed in part to guide the impression others have of the performer and which require the performer to act ``in character'' with the projected self. The construction of self-presentation is also investigated in the field of material culture studies. The objects (e.g. clothing, souvenirs, furnishings, etc.) used in creating a public persona are cultural productions: their symbolic meanings have developed through use and custom. Analyses of this process provide a useful framework for thinking about the similar process in the creation of one's virtual persona ( Appadurai 1986; Csikszentmihalyi 1991; Davis-F. 1992; Hall J.R. 1992; Halle 1992; McCracken 1988; Miller 1987).
In this section I examine how identity is established in three different contemporary on-line environments: MUDs, Usenet news and World Wide Web home pages. My focus in the analyses is on identity - on how self-presentation and social comprehension vary among different on-line communities today.The latter is how I found it - clicking randomly here and there among the 50,000 or so home pages alphabetically listed there. But I am a researcher looking specifically for home pages of people who are trying to get others to see them - I am not sure how much traffic a page receives from being on this immense list.
Researchers interested in on-line identity have often turned to MUDs, for their role-playing culture provides a novel environment for exploring gender and other identity issues ( Curtis 1992; Dibbell 1993; Turkle 1995; O'Brien n.d.; Reid 1994). Many MUDs are primarily fantasy playgrounds for identity experimentations where players take on an imaginary persona and interact with each other in the virtual world's equivalent of the masked ball. Conversations here are live (synchronous) and ephemeral, their function primarily social. Thought identity is a major focus of MUD culture, it is identity as theatrical role, both highly mannered and expendable.
Unlike the fantasy world of MUDs, most of Usenet is meant to be non-fiction; the basic premise is that the users are who they claim to be. There is, however, a significant variance between newsgroups as to what constitutes a real or legitimate identity. And there are numerous cases of identity deception. Compared with MUDs, relatively little has been written about identity in Usenet newsgroups. Sproull and Faraj (Sproull and Faraj 1993) wrote about group affiliation and the establishment of trust in their discussion of newsgroups as affiliative, social environments; identity is also discussed in Kollock & Smiths' analysis of social control in Usenet (Kollock and Smith 1995). Much of the following discussion is drawn from my study of identity deception in Usenet (Donath n.d.); this work used anthropological methods and game-theoretical analysis to look at identity and identity deception.
Home pages on the Web are somewhat different. MUDs and Usenet are communicative environments in which identity is established within the context of a social interaction. Home pages are more like self-portraits; they are declarations of identity. Home pages are a recent phenomenon (the Web itself is only a few years old) and both the technology of the Web and the social structure of home page self-presentations are evolving rapidly. The following analysis is therefore a snapshot, based on the state of the world in the late summer of 1996; it is likely that the near future will see a very different Web environment. Relatively little has been written about home pages as a social phenomenon (at least within the academic community) and I will thus go into somewhat greater depth here.
3.2.1 MUDsThe opportunity to explore novel self-presentations is, for many participants, one of the main features of MUDs and other real-time conversation systems such as chat rooms. The appeal is both that alternative roles can be explored (gender swapping is a very common activity on almost all MUDs and chat environments) and that the identities can be abandoned at will.
In Life on the Screen, Turkle examines identity experimentation from a psychoanalytic perspective (Turkle 1995). She sees the net as ``a significant social laboratory for experimentation with the constructions and reconstructions of self that characterize postmodern life''; her interest is not only in how people establish identity and relationships on-line, but also in how the virtual activities affect the real world personality of the participants. Turkle's account emphasizes the psychological significance to the participant of being able to act out behaviors, such as gender swapping and sexual experimentation, that are difficult and risky in the real world.
Other researchers, pointing to the ease with which these transformations and experimentations are effected on-line, are more skeptical about how enlightening these behaviors are. O'Brien argues that the roles played out on MUDs are projections of the player's existing fantasies, that a man playing a woman on-line is not learning about what it is like to be female, but reaffirming his existing ``categorical assumptions'' (O'Brien n.d.). ``Disembodiment, far from being an occasion for stretching these gendered forms, may in fact result in more stringent attempts to (re)mark that which we have come to rely on as a primary basis for structuring interaction.'' In this interpretation, the sparseness of cues in a the on-line world leads to a highly stylized and stereotypical self-representation.
Both may be right. The role-player may be making a highly stylized mask out of the stereotypes of the real world, but over time this mask may develop into a complex alter-ego. The characteristics and reputation of this alter-ego are drawn not only from the real-world characteristics it references, but from its history within the virtual community. The player may learn quite a bit from the experience of constructing an alternate, bodiless, textual persona, but that knowledge may be about social roles and institution, rather than specific insights about the psychology of others.
The key element is that in order for the alter-ego to matter, it must be an established persona, not simply a lightly made claim. While identity experimentation is one of the great attractions of MUDs, the stability of these constructed identities is what makes MUDs flourish (Reid 1994). They are the key to the community's creativity and also to the maintenance of social order (Reid 1994). The desire to be popular and influential within the MUD encourages the participants to do things that enhance their character's reputation, such as creating unusual rooms and useful objects and being friendly and helpful to other players (Reid 1994). By developing a well-known and liked reputation, a player gains status and power within in the community.
In the virtual world, with no body to detain, no tangible being to hold responsible, reputation becomes the primary source of social control. Goffman ( Goffman 1955) said concern for reputation (or `face' in his terminology) ``make[s] of every man his own jailer''; it is the maintenance and enhancement of reputation that induces people to uphold the social order. He pointed out that in encounters with people with whom one will not see again, these constraints are loosened, and one is ``free to take a high line that the future will discredit, or free to suffer humiliations that would make future dealings with them an embarrassing thing to have to face''. In the MUD world, such constraint-free encounters are common. The player who is ejected for breaking the rules can jettison the offending character and return as a new one (Dibbell 1993); if the cast-off character had no real value to the player this forfeiture has little cost and is thus no deterrent. Cherny corroborates this analysis (Cherny 1995). ``Guests'', she says ``are a troublesome category''. Guests are visitors who enter with no character of their own. Sometimes they are simply new players, or they may be established players seeking to do something destructive while in a disposable guise. Having no long term commitment to the guest character, their actions are unconstrained by any concern for its reputation.
3.2.2 Usenet newsIdentity is not the ostensible topic of most Usenet discussion, though it is often the subtext. People participate in Usenet newsgroups for a variety of reasons. They may be seeking information or companionship, advocating an operating system or a religion. As in the real world, their motivations may be complex: both the desire to be helpful and the desire to be noticed may prompt the writing of a lengthy exposition. With any of these goals identity - both the establishment of one's own reputation and the recognition of others - plays a vital role.
For example, for the information seeking reader knowing the identity of those giving advice is useful: is there reason to think they have the requisite knowledge? are they sincere - or do they have some ulterior motive? If a writer has established a reputation within the group, this may provide sufficient information for the reader's evaluation. However, newsgroups are open territories, and many postings are from occasional or unknown contributors. Though identity cues are sparse in these discussions, the participants have learned to infer quite a bit, both from writing style and from clues hidden in the posting data. For instance, participants in the rec.motorcycles newsgroup decided that one contributor was a ``troll'', in part because he claimed to be a college junior at Tulane yet was posting from an America On-Line (AOL) account: a real college junior, they reasoned, would have a school account and furthermore, AOL users have a reputation of being the perpetrators of pranks  (Donath n.d.).
Participants also make an effort to establish their identity. Here, as in MUDs, reputation building is the motivation behind much of the effort put in by contributors. Signatures, which can be extensive, are useful both for immediate recognition (they provide a common visual pattern to all of one's postings) and for connecting one to an outside institute or to a net subculture. Signature styles vary significantly from newsgroup to newsgroup, reflecting the aspects of identity that are salient to the group. In many of the comp groups, which are technical discussions about computers, networks, etc., writers include detailed information about where they work, how to reach them, their title, etc. This is both a claim of expertise (I know this material because it is my profession) and an authentication of identity (if you don't believe my claims, you have the means to check up on me). Signatures are also used to establish one's ties to on-line groups, often using inside jokes and puns to make references that are comprehensible only by insiders.
For years, one's sense of the other participants in Usenet was rather spotty. People who frequently posted to groups one read grew to seem familiar, but it was often a very one-dimensional familiarity. You might know them as the person on comp.lang.c++ who adamantly fought against removing templates from the C++ language spec or the person on rec.pets.cats with the Persian tabby that only ate sushi grade tuna. You were unlikely to know of any other sides of their personality - their other interests or marital status or even what other newsgroups they participated in. Unless someone was unusually voluble about themselves, one's impression of other Usenet participants was quite sketchy.
Two current developments - searchable Usenet archives and the Web - are changing this.
Until recently, Usenet postings were ephemera, remaining available for only days or weeks before they disappeared from the net. Starting in 1995, several news archives have become available. These extend the lifetime of a posting indefinitely; more significantly, they are searchable. One can request a listing of someone's entire Usenet oeuvre. Without such a search mechanism, finding all of someone's postings was nearly impossible: you might know that they were a frequent contributor to, say, the nutrition and medical groups, but have no idea that they spent their evenings as a verbal warrior in the ethnic disputes on soc.culture.turkey or writing baby-talk ``meow-chat'' postings to rec.pets.cats. The archives bring forth all of one's contributions for public examination, removed from the social context for which they were written. It involves a paradigm shift, from perceiving Usenet as a series of effectively private areas, bounded not by technical means but by their sheer numbers and parochial focus, to seeing it as a public repository of neatly cross-referenced postings.
This is not necessarily a harmful development for the Usenet community. One of the drawbacks of the virtual world has been that one's view of others is sketchy and one-sided. Being able to gather a more complex image of one's fellow participants can deepen the social ties as the users see each other as more fully-rounded individuals (Sproull and Kiesler 1991). But prediction is tricky. As awareness of the new paradigm increases, people may become far more concerned with managing their on-line reputation, resulting in widespread use of multiple pseudonyms - and an even murkier view of who's who on-line.
The Usenet reader's picture of the other participants is also being filled in by the Web. Postings are now often signed with a pointer to the writer's home page. Whereas the archives present a documentary recording, the Web-based home page presents a crafted self-presentation, showing how one wishes to appear. The home page may reveal the writer's age, profession, race, hobbies, family life, religious affiliation, etc. - a great deal of social information that was, for the most part, previously unknown in the Usenet community.
Knowing with whom one is communicating - knowing their social identity - is not only an important part of interpreting the text they write, it is also basic to establishing the framework of the conversation ( Tannen 1994; Goffman 1959; Goffman 1979a). Participants in a conversation play certain roles and conversely, their actions are interpreted in light of the role others believe them to be enacting. Tannen (94) shows how the actions of all the participants in a conversation shift according to the composition of the group, with gender and relative status shaping the interactions. A repetition of the identical conversation, but with the roles reversed, is, she says ``the stuff of comic theater''. The point is not that people should act these roles, but that they do and that part of our understanding of the social situation has to do with our knowledge of the participants' social roles and our resulting expectations.
This ``comic theater'' - the result of mistakes in identity cues - happens easily on-line. For example, it is very common for people to assume that anyone, unless they have evidence to the contrary, is a man. Assuming a woman to be a man, they are likely to misinterpret the tone and sense of her remarks, for they will be interpreted as if ``performed'' by a man. As the Web and Usenet become integrated, social framing information such as gender will be easily available to the participants in a conversation.
And, while it will alleviate misunderstandings and help the discussion flow smoothly within the cultural norms, it is not entirely beneficial. The same information that provides social framing is at the root of many of our most intractable stereotypes ( Aronson 1995). For many, the appeal of the net has been than others did not ``know'' how to treat them - in a more anonymous world, they could be judged by what they said, rather than who they were.
3.2.3 Home pagesThe Web did not start out as a social technology: it started as a way to distribute physics papers. It has swiftly evolved far beyond its original academic domain: today, there are pages that represent giant corporations and pages that represent grade-school children. The Web contains short stories, reference manuals, price lists, pornographic pictures, classroom assignments - the list is growing to encompass every aspect of human endeavor. Its emergence as a social technology is marked by two phenomena: the rise of the personal home page as a necessary part of on-line presence and the ongoing attempts to introduce interpersonal communication to the Web's publication-only model. The latter is the focus of Chapter 4; here, I will look at the home page as a sociological phenomenon.
Home pages are deliberate self-presentations, places where people present their credentials, whether as established research scientists with impressive vitae and selected bibliographies, or as electronic trend-setters with eclectic web links and obscure lists of outrageous bands. Pages, like individuals, vary greatly. Some are elaborate creations, others simply a few links and an apology for the meager offerings. Some are stiffly formal, reading like the cover letter to a resume. Others are almost embarrassingly personal, detailing the owner's emotional states and family psychodramas. A common home page format contains a bit of personal information about the subject, a bit about work, and then a list of favorite links. The choice of personal information is often shaped by what one can say with links: ``I like coffee'' with a link to an on-line coffeepot or ``I was born in Wisconsin'' with a link to the state's page. Still, even the blandest self-description can be revealing. From graduation dates the reader can infer age, tone of voice can be heard through even the briefest sentence, and photographs show gender, race, hairstyle, facial expression - the basic clues of first impressions. The list of links is particularly revealing. Good Web citizens provide links to the Perl info page, the beginner's guide to HTML and a search engine or two: they want to help and encourage their fellow page builders. The distinctive Blue Ribbon Campaign for Free Speech graphical link - one of the 10 most common links on the Web - shows a political stand. Teenagers on the Web have the electronic equivalent of the black concert T-shirt: links to Wired, to Anime galleries and to their favorite chat sites. For the home-page builder seeking to create a self-portrait in hypertext links, the Web provides a vast and varied selection.
Goffman, in his classic work The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, distinguished between the ``expressions given'' and the ``expressions given off'' (Goffman 1959). The former are the deliberately stated messages indicating how the one wishes to be perceived; the latter are the much more subtle, and sometimes unintentional, messages communicated via action and nuance. His use of a theater metaphor - interactions as performances - to describe daily life is very useful here because it emphasizes that people are always playing some sort of deliberate role. Our impression of others, whether face to face or on the Web, is an interpretation of the face they have chosen to present. Certainly, in a setting such as the Web, in which the presentation is carefully and self-consciously manufactured, control over one's self-presentation is greater; still, there is often enough material so that the viewers may read into it more than the writer intended - the ``expression given off''. The choice of links, the tone of the text, the contents of photographs, etc. provide cues that resonate with our real-world knowledge.
Self-presentation in the physical world is not limited to one's immediate personal appearance. The home, for instance, is another arena in which cultural categories are expressed and status claims made (McCracken 1988). Indeed, the metaphor of ``home'' in ``home page'' is a useful one. Though a home page provides little in the way of shelter, it is, like the home, a site for constructing an expression of identity through an array of objects, both self-made and acquired, decorative and functional.
Csikszentmihaly studied which objects in their homes people cared most about.
[W]e found that each home contained a symbolic ecology, a network of objects that referred to meaning that gave sense to the lives of those who dwelt there... to be effective in conveying meanings, the owner had to be personally involved with the artifact... the owner had to enter into an active symbolic relationship with it. ( Csikszentmihalyi 1991)Some objects, he found, have value for their subject matter, such as photos and home made items; others, for the personal events they represent., such as souvenirs. Some consumer goods such chairs, tables, posters may become meaningful to their owners through long use; others are valued because they represent a goal or ideal - they express who the owner would like to be ( McCracken 1988; Leiss et al. 1990).
The objects on a home page represent a similar span of meaning. There are personal objects, such as photos and text written by (and about) the author. Links to external sites are very often presented in the context of their personal meaning: the author's university or favorite TV show or hobby. And, like the home, some items are there for the owner's use: 8 out of the top 25 most linked to sites on the Web are to search engines (GNN 1996). (An interesting note is that while some pages present these as links the author uses often and keeps there for references, others politely present these utilities on the home page as being for the convenience of the visitor, much as a host offers his own chair to a guest.)
Today, there are an increasing number of ``consumer goods'' on home pages: pictures and applications that were not created by the author, but acquired from an outside source. These range from clip art divider lines to applications such as search functions and guest books. One result is that the pages are much more `visual'. Though the result is often a cacophony of graphic links and backgrounds and doodads, the pages are becoming more distinctive, compared to the sedate, unending landscape of grey-backgrounded text of a year or two ago . The growing complexity permits emergence of certain types, such as the ``guy who has to have the latest of everything'' - frames, tables, java applets - the virtual equivalent to the audiophile. As there are more choices, the pages can be more evocative - there is more opportunity to gather an ``expression given off''.
One problem that faces many home page creators - and that highlights one of the big differences between this self-presentation and a real world identity (or even a MUD or newsgroup persona) - is that the home page is static and, initially, disconnected. There is no ``situation'' in which it acts. What will get people to see it - how does it become part of the interlinked network of the Web? The following advice is from a home page in Singapore:
How to make your homepage known:1.telephone as many people as you can and tell them your homepage's address.
They are two ways to make your homepage known. They are,
2. Submit your address to search progams like,''Yahoo!''under the catergory people/entertainment.
The creator of a home page wants other people to link to it. This will happen if the page is outstanding - the definitive site for some esoteric subject or a truly interesting work of art. It will also be linked to if the creator is a member of a group with its own home page. Many such on-line linkages are reflections of real-world groups: all the students in a department are listed on the departmental page; groups of friends link to each other. The latter is an especially interesting phenomenon, for knowing something about someone's social circle is a very important social cue. Your view of a person whose home page seemed fairly neutral - basic links to home town, favorite bands, some friends etc. - may change if you see that many of the friends are involved in say, survivalist and militia activities.
In the future, everybody will
be famous for 15 minutes.
- Andy Warhol
A related phenomenon is the rise of link exchanges. Although somewhat peripheral to the discussion of identity, they sheds some light on the Web's emerging fame economy - and fame is both the transposition of one's personal identity to a larger stage and an important form of status in an information based world.
ILE is a fairly open group, including home pages and many small businesses. Other exchanges are more specialized (if technically simpler): there are link exchanges for christians, for teens, for cats. These ensure that there will be a growing pool of places with links to each participant's site from similar ones.
A common home page accessory is the access counter. This is a little graphic (resembling a automotive mileage counter) that shows how many times a page has been accessed. They are usually implemented through an outside service which not only relieves the page owner from having to implement a script, but also keeps the counting honest: the counters are popular enough to have spawned parody counters, sporting obviously imaginary numbers. For the page owner, it provides a measurement of exposure; for those whose accesses reach into higher numbers, it is often featured as point of pride on the page. It also can provide a sense of the vast scale of the net to realize that hundreds of people have viewed one's small, home-made page.
Another popular accessory is the guestbook, a place for visitors to leave comments and read the comments of others. The guestbook illustrates both ``fame economics'' and status display on the Web. First, the guestbook itself has gone from being a somewhat rarefied commodity to one of mass consumption; second, it's purpose is to display the ``scarce'' resource of attention.
The movement from rarity to item of mass consumption is part of the phenomenon of fashion. At the turn of the century Simmel described what would become known as the ``trickle down'' theory of fashion, stating that the point of fashion is social differentiation and imitation: those at the top are trying to differentiate themselves from the ones below, who are trying to imitate those above in order to ascend ( Simmel 1971; McCracken 1988). While this theory has been elaborated on and modified - in particular, the single path of class-linked status has been refuted and replaced by a heterogeneous view of many trajectories of status ( McCracken 1988; Hall J.R. 1992) and identity formation (Davis-F. 1992)- the basic model of distinction and imitation remains.
In the progress-oriented technical world of the Web, one such trajectory points to the forefront of technology. While a guestbook is not a technological marvel, the early ones, possible only for those with access and technical ability, were more interactive than almost anything else on the Web; they were at the front of the technological status chain. Shareware copies of guestbook scripts were soon put on-line, the barriers to having a guestbook were lowered, and they ceased being noteworthy. They became a mass-market item when they were implemented as an external service, require little more of the page author than adding a link. While people who see themselves as leaders in the technological fashion may still have guest books, they are no longer featured as a symbol of cool; there role is now just functional.
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