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Conversation and Community: Chat in a Virtual World

Author: Lynn Cherny
Publisher: Stanford, CA: CSLI Publications, 1999
Review Published: October 2001

 REVIEW 1: Art Jipson

For many of us, the Internet has become a networking tool without equal. Within minutes (or even less) one can establish contact with like-minded individuals and discuss interesting (and non-interesting) topics. One can write letters, coordinate activities, plan future events, and then publicize all of these activities among comrades in a common space. It is exactly this near ubiquity and effectiveness of the Internet as a means of communication that makes it such a powerful tool in the lives of ever increasing numbers of people (Pew 1995, 2000). However, like all tools, the purpose of a tool and the usefulness of a tool are very different qualities. Simply using a tool -- any tool for that matter -- does not mean that humanity will benefit progressively. Communicative tools must conform to human interests and needs. And the need to belong to primary groups that give one's life meaning is among the most important of social needs. We all require social contact. Prisoners forced to remain in solitary confinement for long periods of time will shatter their personalities to create "people" with whom they can communicate while so imprisoned. Human beings require contact. Building a stable community assures that contact, of some kind, will occur. Communication is necessary for community but what is it that makes a human community such a unique entity? The debate on what makes and perpetuates a community is a vast literature in sociology and anthropology among other fields. One common element to all communities is mutually understood communication.

One useful interpretation on communication and community is that of Jurgen Habermas. Habermas has given a great deal of thought to human speech communication and the problems that stem from social inequity. Habermas (1971) believes that all forms of social inequality are premised on the lack of being understood while communicating. According to Habermas, if human communication could reach a situation where everything discussed was perfectly understood then deception would disappear and inequality would be impossible. We would perfectly understand each other. In Habermas' (1979, 1987) criticism of Karl Marx's critique of capitalism, he contends that we should devote more of our attention to the mode of communication rather than the mode of production. What we say and how we say it are important to understanding speech of whatever form. For Habermas, whether we understand each other is also critically related to the material and ideal conditions of social life. The nature of community, talk, and meaning are the central features of Lynn Cherny's book, Conversation and Community. Lynn Cherny is a well known researcher of online life and community who has written several other texts on electronic communication. In her discussion of computer-mediated communication, the Habermasian issue of forming community through communication is investigated online.

If we talk to each other in a disembodied form, can we construct a meaningful social community? This question raises important concerns within itself. Can one develop close social relationships with people that you do not meet in the physical world? How are communities formed and maintained where you do not know the other participants? I believe that it is possible to create non-physical communities where meaningful and important social contact occurs to and for the participants. Cherny demonstrates the answer to this debate with her examination of one online community. This kind of research remains important today. Researchers need to attempt to understand what different communities are comprised of and how these communities define themselves and others. This is why it is important for researchers to study different Internet communities and compare their findings.

Cherny's analysis of online community is interesting -- and I mean to use that word in a positive sense. As readers, we learn about the personal and community politics involved within online communities. The reader finds the description of the social world of MUDs, MOOs, and chatting informative. Cherny makes compelling points for the establishment of social relationships in these Internet activities where strangers come together and forge a common bond from similar interests. The act of "talking" with one another via chat creates bonds among participants. I contend that the same can occur via message boards, Listserv lists, and email correspondence as well. This particular case study was conducted from 1993 until 1995 on computer-mediated communication in an online community called ElseMOO.

ElseMOO was an online community that grew from a previous and continuing online community known as LambdaMOO. As Cherny notes, much has been written about LambdaMOO and a handful of other MOOs and MUDs (including several articles by Cherny 1995a, 1995b). ElseMOO was one of several spinoff communities after the LambdaMOO community fractured over personal politics and the incredibly high levels of participation that overwhelmed the LambdaMOO servers. Communities -- physical or Internet based -- are captives to the number of participants. Similar to LambdaMoo, the story of ElseMOO was complicated by design decisions, programming constraints, and debates over whether (and how) to extend the online environment.

In order to gather additional information about ElseMoo, Cherny participated in the community and conducted a survey in the fall of 1994. The participants of ElseMOO tended to be young (median age was 22), participated consistently, and were mostly experienced Internet users. As Cherny notes: "On a normal day there are between twenty and thirty people connected to EM [ElseMOO], although more than half may be idle (40). More than twenty-five percent of the users were female and a majority of the participants were undergraduate or graduate students. The participants of ElseMOO were known via characters that they selected and maintained in the online environment. These avatars become electronic representations of the individuals within the community and, more importantly, become expressions of an individual's identity. Among long time participants, characters become representations of their creator's personality.

The discussion of online behavior expresses the ways in which characters engage in a host of mimicked physical human behavior -- talking, kissing, hitting, even sexual relations. Thus, the terms TinyLIFE, TinySEX, etc. . . refer to human organic behavior that is represented via discourse online. Regardless of the nature of the social behavior, the community itself engaged in normative constructions around appropriate and unacceptable behavior. Mechanisms of social control were established that ranged from shaming ceremonies to forced departure from the community if the offense was serious. Crises within ElseMOO developed over norms of behavior and the changing composition of participants. For example, great consternation followed an episode where the norms of openness and democracy were violated when some of the characters created a private social space for select individuals to utilize. Online communities are reflections of organic communities with all of the frailty and personality conflicts of the physical world.

One of the benefits of Cherny's discussion is the introduction to MUDs, MOOs, TinyMUDs, MUSHs, and basic online community behaviors. Those readers unfamiliar with the architecture of online communities could certainly use the information contained in the book about these different online organizations as well as the conversational culture and hierarchical power structures within them.

Another important and useful aspect to Conversation and Community is the linguistic analysis of online discourse. Cherny examines the syntax, grammar, morphology, and linguistic expressions of electronic writing. For anyone who has used emoticons or abbreviations (e.g., imho, lol) in their Internet correspondence, these terms simply become time saving actions that convey emotion. In an online community like ElseMOO, however, abbreviations, clipped phrases, and symbols do more than save the typist from carpal tunnel syndrome; they become a discourse system intelligible only to the community members. They become a speech community. Cherny understands this distinction and explores the meaningfulness of online language for a tight knit group of comrades who do not necessarily know each other in the physical world.

As much as, I found to like about the information contained in Cherny's analysis of the ElseMOO community, I found the structure of the book to be daunting. First, the writing is pedantic, causing the reader (even an interested one such as myself) to fall asleep at times. Paragraphs go on far too long. The material is dense much of the time. In my opinion, major portions of this book would have been helped if they had been rewritten or given to a technical writer who could have suggested ways to improve both the connotative and denotative content. To be sure, description is meant to hold a lot of details. However, at times I found myself physically running out of breath as I read the material. There were several moments while reading Conversation and Community where I was simply overwhelmed with detail because of the repeated use of acronyms and descriptive behavior. While trying to follow excerpted conversations or the social unrest in ElseMOO, one can be overwhelmed with all of the various names, character names, and descriptions. I applaud Cherny's effort in analyzing online communication in an Internet community, but I found the writing awkward. While reading this book, I felt as though I was reading intense social theory.

Therefore, I recommend Lynn Cherny's Conversation and Community with reservation because of the writing and presentation style. However, the reader -- the patient reader -- can learn about the nature of one Internet community, social construction of self, and the possibilities and limitations of online communities in transcending the social hierarchies of the physical world. The constraining elements of speech that define community members are as true for the Internet as the organic social milieu.

Cherny, Lynn. "The Modal Complexity of Speech Events in a Social MUD." Electronic Journal of Communication 5(4), 1995.

___. The MUD Register: Conversational Modes of Action in a Text-based Virtual Reality. Dissertation, Stanford University, 1995.

Habermas, Jurgen. Knowledge and Human Interests. Boston: Beacon Press, 1971.

___. Communication and the Evolution of Society. Boston: Beacon Press, 1979.

___. Theory of Communicative Action. Volume Two. Lifeworld and System. Boston: Beacon Press, 1987.

Pew Center for the People and the Press. Technology in the American Household. Washington, D.C., 1995.

Pew Internet and American Life Project. Tracking Online Life: How Women Use the Internet to Cultivate Relationships with Family and Friends. Washington, D.C., 2000.

Art Jipson:
Art Jipson is an assistant professor in the department of sociology, anthropology, and social work at the University of Dayton. He is also an affiliate in the Criminal Justice program. His research focuses on white racial extremism, social change, Internet community, and corporate and organizational crime.  <Arthur.Jipson@notes.udayton.edu>

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