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The Vacuum - Issue 13 - Wonking with the Community spacer The Vacuum - Issue 13 - Wonking with the Community
Online Communities
by Belfast Gonzo
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THE first point and click device was not the mouse - it was the crossbow. So it should come as no surprise that the military was the driving force behind the internet, as an attempt to maintain command and control in the event of war.
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But scientists develop technology, not generals. While the purpose of the internet had originally been defence related, scientists at various academic sites recognised the potential the internet had for speeding up the process of sharing information.
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The internet writer Howard Rheingold (http://www.rheingold.com/index.html) points out that when many users are sharing the same central computer there is "the potential for a community". This potential was realised in 1971 by Ray Tomlinson, a researcher for a Cambridge think tank. He designed electronic mail (email) for a distributed network and later it was integrated into time-sharing software. Whatever that means.
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Technology had once again been adapted, this time for social needs. Both research and relationships were benefiting from email. Users now had the ability to send and receive messages in everyday English to one another. Notes, news, research, information and gossip could all be sent 'down the line' and received by another. Accounts were set up to specifically handle e-mail. Communication at this early stage was one-to-one. This changed shortly after with the advent of the mailing list, which allowed the same message to be transmitted to all those on the list. Broadcasting had arrived.
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My own first experience with a virtual community was almost 10 years ago at the University of Ulster, Coleraine. Telnet bulletin boards were the rage back then, a basic text-only system of communication. Messages could be left and real time chat was possible, although lag was a problem for the users of 'The Hive' and 'Room 101', which had many users with Northern Irish connections.
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Today, having abandoned Telnet for the graphical delights of the world wide web, you'll find those with local links on such sites as Slugger O'Toole (www.sluggerotoole.com), Debate Central (http://www.westwindnet.com/ireland/debatcen/postlist.php?Cat=&Board=ndebcen ) or Free the Eritrean One (http://clix.to/eritrea). The interface might be prettier, but the system of posting messages is much the same.
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But what makes such websites 'communities'? I guess various things. When the message board was a new medium, it required new rules to be agreed. Expressing emotions in conversation is done through body language, but since this is impossible to convey in text, new methods were needed. 'Smilies' :o) became the convention, and other standards evolved and are still alive because of mobile text messaging. Message boards all have people who play certain roles. The newbie might not be aware that TYPING IN CAPITALS is the textual equivalent of shouting, but the webmaster will usually set them straight. Or chuck them out.
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So communities online and elsewhere have norms and rules and gather regularly in a common space. Newsgroups and message boards mainly consist of messages which are 'posted' to distributed databases and stored there under subject headings.
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There's also the chat program, which allows live communication with one or more other users. Like conventional conversation, it goes unrecorded, it is ephemeral.
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Very often both the above, and often a form of email or one-to-one messaging, are offered to a distributed audience by one database, for example the bulletin board system. It is almost inevitable at this point that communities evolve. Regular users return to the site and relationships develop. The internet becomes not just a medium for conveying information, but a site for communication.
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CMC is not however, the utopian democracy it is often portrayed as. It quickly becomes apparent that they are subject to the same power structures most other social groupings are subject to. Therefore, a small number of people maintain a large amount of control in certain groups.
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However, virtually all opinions carry equal weight, due to the high degree of anonymity provided. Those who find themselves inferiorised in the offline world start off on the same level as all newcomers. Race, religion, nationality, age, gender or appearance count for very little online maybe a good thing in Belfast. The playing field may be level, but it is elevated. Users used to tend to come from more privileged social backgrounds, since access was more limited in Northern Ireland up until fairly recently. Consequently there always been a high presence from the academic and business communities. But that is changing.
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Online communities are elitist in other senses. Because traditional methods of expression are impossible, members of these communities have established their own rules, codes and conventions.
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You can see this in the initiation process. Entrance to certain communities demands the sacrifice of personal details. Often users are given a key or password and they are expected to read and abide by that community's rules to stay part of it.
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Once access has been granted to the newcomer (or 'newbie') it is usual for them to 'lurk' for a while. This involves simply watching or reading what others are saying without contributing. As the author Elizabeth Herz wrote: "Lurking is a larval phase in the nethead life cycle. It's that spooky, voyeuristic time when you haven't got your bearings yet, but you're fascinated enough to browse with bovine contentment on the grassy pastures of online discourse".
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While lurking is considered somewhat anti-social because of the implicit voyeurism (as one use put it "like someone tapping a phone call") it is generally accepted in order for the new userto acclimatise. It is at this stage they will learn the social conventions of 'netiquette' and acceptable modes of expression. Those who abide by the rules may be rewarded in the form of greater responsibility or privileges. Those who do not may be expelled from the community or have privileges removed.
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The recent explosion of interest in the internet has served to attract a host of newcomers to online communities. Like most sub-cultures, they are gradually becoming absorbed into mainstream culture. So perhaps the initiation is necessary, as it filters out those with no prior knowledge of computer mediated communication. Some communities develop quite strong ties, and newbies can be subject to hazing in order to test their acceptablity. It's the digital equivalent of walking into a Western saloon and as the doors swing closed, the regulars all go silent, put down their electronic pints, eye you up and inevitably someone says "You ain't from round here, are you?" in some form or other.
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Since message boards cannot remain closed communities, new strategies have emerged for coping with increased capacity. Integration of new users sometimes replaces protectionism. Newcomers are educated and expected to pass the knowledge they gain on in turn. Established users sometimes take on a 'newbie' to look after, teach and answer questions to. This benefits all parties and assists that particular community in becoming Alvin Toffler's 'third place' - where we gather for social purposes (as opposed to where we live or work). Now you know where Sony got their Playstation advert's catchline.
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Online communities also throw up questions about identity. This is probably first encountered when new users are asked to choose a nickname, which is usually a unique identifier to others. Appropriation of another's nickname is frowned upon since it causes confusion.
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A lack of physical cues can encourage users to accentuate certain aspects of their personality or even design a new one. It can be positive when a shy person contributes or negative if it is taken to an extreme. Abuse can be easier than responsibility. In a similar way, it is easy to switch one's gender. Exploration of alternate identities is undoubtedly a fascinating attraction for many. Without physical consequences for actions, non-serious play proliferates.
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Message boards provide a new space an online meeting place for socialising and internet communities can throw up some pleasant surprises. Peek into 'Free the Eritrean One' (don't ask) and you'll find a lot of 'cliquey' in jokes and unimportant gossip, but where else would you find a PSNI officer chatting with a transsexual American IRSP supporter? As in every other form of community, we've had our share of births, deaths and marriages. There might be few common interests amongst regular users, but what really connects such diverse people is a sense of belonging to their imagined community.
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Slugger O'Toole is Northern Ireland's most famous blog ('web log'). Myself and a couple of others post stories that users then comment on. It was designed to create a space where politics could be discussed between people who would otherwise have no contact. It has attracted politicians, journalists, activists and others with an interest in what passes for politics here, and has even broken a few stories before the mainstream media. Sometimes they just nick our stories. While Slugger is a useful way for people to see different perspectives, there is rarely much agreement between the loyalists, unionists, republican and nationalists that inhabit the site. DUP supporters and republicans may be sharing a common space for the first time, but views are more likely to be reinforced than to change.
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On Ireland Uncensored's message board, Debate Central, the rules are more lax and discussions quickly degenerate into sectarian slanging matches. I find that online opinion is even more polarized than in reality, as there are no real consequences for expressing extreme views. You'll find hardline republicans hanging out at Ireland's Own here http://b4.boards2go.com/boards/board.cgi?user=irelandsOWN.
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But what happens when virtual reality intrudes into real life? The 'Eritrean' website has been going for a few years now, and many of the denizens have met up. Afterwards, without the cloak of anonymity, a lot of the extreme language became more moderate. You discover that some people are acting out other characters while online. Some of the magic disappears when you discover just how ordinary other users are and how different they are from what you had imagined.
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It would be all too easy to buy into the view that message boards are inhabited by dysfunctional nerds with nothing to fill their dreary lives. Some are definitely addicted, but as internet use increases, so the stereotype fits fewer and fewer people. Online communities reflect life in many ways. There's roleplaying and debate, gossip and politics. People play, fight and fall in love on that little box right in front of your keyboard. Click enter to start.
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