Inhabiting the virtual city
Judith S. Donath

Part I: The virtual society

The virtual world is in many ways quite different from the physical. It is a mediated environment: all interactions pass through and are transformed by a communication channel. It is wholly man-made: explicit decisions by the system designers ultimately determine what can be seen, heard, and done within it. And it is immaterial: the on-line world and its inhabitants are without solid physical presence. Such an environment brings very different freedoms - and limitations - to the on-line social world.

Yet the two worlds also share many essential qualities. Real-world and virtual communities are, after all, inhabited by the same people whose underlying interests, needs and motivations are common to both environments (Wellman and Gulia 1996).

In order to design virtual environments that function well and that make use of the possibilities presented by the electronic world's novel capabilities, it is useful to consider the underlying theoretical issues. What are the differences - and the similarities - between a virtual society and a real one? What qualities of the real world do we want to replicate on-line - and can we? What are the potentials of a virtual society, possibilities unrealizable in the physical domain? These are complex and controversial questions. My purpose in addressing them in this section of the thesis is not to attempt a definitive answer, but to provide a basis for the design ideas set forth in the second section.

Chapter 2 begins with an introduction to the metaphor of the city. Because the virtual world is abstract and the directions in which it will develop still highly speculative, it is very useful to have a more concrete way of thinking about it. The city metaphor is pertinent both for thinking about the design of the virtual environments themselves and for understanding the role of the designer/architect.

Real world cities are inhabited by physical beings; virtual cities are not. Arguably, the major difference between real and virtual worlds is the body: it is the lack of physical presence that allows the on-line communities to transcend space - and it is the same lack that can make on-line communication sporadic and affectless. I next discuss the social role of body, looking specifically at expression, presence, recognition and social control. These are fundamental to communication and the formation of a coherent society. For the designer of environments for the disembodied, it is important to be cognizant of these missing features - whether the goal of the design is to replicate their functions or to explore the culture that develops in their absence.

Chapter 3 turns to the contemporary on-line world. Today's systems provide the foundations of what will be built in the future. Not only is there an existing infrastructure, used by millions world-wide, that future systems will be built upon, but there is already a nascent culture on the net, with a growing vocabulary, mythology, and established (though often disputed) social mores. In this chapter I look at three environments - MUDs, Usenet newgroups, and the Web. My focus is on how identity is established in each of these areas.

Identity, both in the guise of personal identity (who you are) and of social identity (whom you are like), is basic to the formation of a society. We need to know each others identity in order to form affiliations, interpret communications, and establish responsibility and reputation. Yet identity on-line is problematic. Cues are missing, it is malleable and ephemeral. The body, which anchors identity in the real world, is absent.

This problem of identity in the on-line world is a theme that runs through the entire thesis. The discussion of the body (Chapter 2) is in essence a discussion of aspects of identity; the review of contemporary environments (Chapter 3) focuses on it; and the designs in the second section of the paper all address the establishment and communication of identity. Yet, as the metaphor of the city and the architect highlights, the construction of identity is not something the designer addresses directly. Rather, the goal is to create an environment in which the inhabitants can develop ways of establishing and expressing identity that are well suited to their evolving society.

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