These Things Are Important Things

September 30, 2011 § 3 Comments

Howard Rheingold, “Rethinking Virtual Communities,” The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier (1993; 2000)

Here we are, ten years after this book was first published, and wow the world has changed. As it turns out I was wrong about a few things, which seriously harshes my mellow. Like, if I had it to do over again, I’d substitute “online social networks” for “virtual communities.” Because can a “real” community be virtual? God people got so mad about that! Also there’s this whole deal of dark-sidedness, what I like to call “hellish juvenile flame-zones.” Turns out they’re more common than I thought! And the political side of things, it’s such a bummer, even though I assumed it’d be cupcakes and ASCII hugs forever, democracy online doesn’t work so well, nor has the Internet solved problems of rl civic engagement. Plus community commodification? Who would have thought. And makes everything so much more…complicated. Sigh. But there’s still hope? I think.

Julian Dibbell, “The Noob,” “Tijuana,” Play Money: Or, How I Quit My Day Job and Made Millions While Trading Virtual Loot (2006)

I got my start killing lizard-men and selling their hides, like a normal person. One day I was killed myself and I was like hey! then had an existential crisis. Because lizard-men? I’m better than that. So I decided to go into business. You know what they say, he who logs out with the most toys wins. And there are lots of people logging out with lots of toys — see the massively weird Blacksnow Interactive vs. Mythic Entertainment, Inc. and outsourced gold/loot harvesting generally. Welcome to the global virtual economy! Where economic production melts into play, just like Marxist Christ predicted.

Julian Dibbell, “S*: Or TINYSEX, In the Author’s Experience,” My Tiny Life: Crime and Passion in the Virtual World (1998)

I really wanted to fuck this avatar you guys! Crazy how that happens sometimes! *wicked grin* *awkward silence* *scratches balls* I mean. I’ve wanted to fuck avatars before. Words as presence, see. And as everybody knows, in VR it’s the best writers who get laid. You can quote me on that! Which leads me to virtual infidelity. Is it a thing? Sure, of course it is, except no? Yes. Probably. Anyway, as I was telling my diary saying, my rl gf kind of cheated on me? And other dramz. And I was like, ok S*, let’s fuggin ROLL! I was girl and a bunch of people, whee! Tinysex. “Their more memorable netsexual encounters.”

God, it seems like everything I’ve been reading lately has been all Chris Crocker screamo about the dumb authentic self and the line between the real and the virtual, VERY PRESSING AND DISTURBING QUESTIONS (leave my authentic self alooooooonnnnnne) that have something to do with how we understand ourselves, as humans, because that concept also apparently means something and implies that we could possibly get it wrong? Whatever, these people care which means I have to too.

Oh but I’m being flip. I don’t mean I don’t care. I care that other people care (not really). But as I was saying yesterday, that line I’m told exists between real life and virtual/online experience actually sorta doesn’t. Not for me anyway. Yeah, I have different experiences online than I do on campus, for example (AND HOW), but for me –and I fall into a very particular demographic, there’s no doubt about that– those “differences” are more an issue of location and audience than anything else. I navigate the exact same waters when I transition from a social to a professional situation, for example when I walk the flight of stairs from my office to where I teach. The classroom Whitney is no more and no less “Whitney” than the “Whitney” who spends all day in her office napping and talking shit.

Speaking of that, I just got off the phone with my pal Brucce — I told him about today’s selections and bitched for a few minutes about “reality” and how it’s such a strange thing to talk about, especially in relation to the internet. His response was characteristically…colorful. “Yeah,” he said, “like if I had a giant dildo hooked into my USB, and half my Facebook friend list was on the other end typing in commands, and Howard Rheingold walked in the room and was like ‘is this a virtual community or an online social network’ I’d be like, WHO THE FUCK CARES???” Brucce! He’s a real wordsmith.

But the point is well taken — these are the kinds of questions that don’t tend to come up on their own. The communicative medium might shift, and OMG can shift while still online (FB is a totally different space than Twitter, which is a totally different space than your academic blog, which is a totally different space than your secret heartspace blog, or your school email, or personal email, or wherever else you might go) but the experiences themselves are always…….well, experienced, no matter which bits of you you happen to be, or where you happen put yourself, often simultaneously. Who we’re interacting with, how, why, to what extent the platform restricts or facilitates communication — what the self is really, or what reality is really, doesn’t bring us any closer to understanding what people are really doing. In fact these kinds of ontological and epistemological and metaphysical framings end up posing questions only ontology and epistemology and metaphysics can answer, which again, doesn’t tell us much about the behaviors themselves. And generally speaking I prefer humans and the verbs they do. That’s what I do though, so………


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§ 3 Responses to These Things Are Important Things

  • OMG. I want to make my students read this, so they know it’s not just the crazy bald guy ranting about games theorists and their “fucking fairy forcefields.” Ahem.

    The whole “real/virtual” thing is just batshit.

    Like you said, different platforms privilege or constrain different folks in different kinds of expression. It’s easier for most adults to experiment with different expressions online than off; but most don’t. Some do. Sometimes it’s wonderful, sometimes it’s pathological. That doesn’t make online some sort of disconnected parallel universe.

    This is not complicated, but it seems to be utterly beyond most of the first generation of net-culture researchers. And for this one, we can’t even blame William Gibson – it seems to just be the legacy of Huizinga and post-Victorian European Romantic notions of childhood and play, that got carried online via the games theorists.

    Though, I have to wonder if Sherry Turkle had read any of that stuff, or just reinvented the koolaid. Hmm, interesting research question, actually….

    • lol, yeah, I’ve never understood what these kinds of conversations could possibly accomplish, other than “the computer is not my friend’s face.” Like, yes, it’s really not…….thanks for the reminder? I do think the legacy of those questions is important and interesting — why THESE are the issues the first gen latched onto. Also the fact that at a certain point, at least for a certain generation of internet people (with standard access qualification), these same questions stopped seeming relevant.

      • Oh gods, I need to be able to answer that: what culturally made those the questions then?

        There’s some terrific literature on the takeup of the telephone – really interesting issues on how it was going to be used, but never “who am I in phonespace, and how is this not ‘real’ conversation?”

        I’m *really* going to have to think on that…

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