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Cyberville: Clicks, Culture and the Creation of an Online Town

Author: Stacy Horn
Publisher: New York: Warner Books, 1998
Review Published: October 1998

 REVIEW 1: Martin T. Willis

One way of defining the word Echo, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is as a "close imitation or repetition of something already done." Although Stacy Horn does not explicitly state why her virtual salon of New York City is called Echo it becomes clear that this definition is very much to the fore. Horn firmly believes that her cyberville is an exact replication of human society online and the majority of this book is a defense of such an assumption. Of course the dictionary definition also has pejorative connotations and despite a spirited and aggressive argument, Echo finally appears as little more than an inferior simulation of Manhattan's chattering classes.

In its earlier chapters Cyberville is engaging and fair-minded. Horn is under no illusions about her online town, as she clearly points out in her opening comments: "Cyberspace is just like any small town in the physical world. If you like the place, you either resolve the conflicts or learn to live with them. Online, we rediscover how societies are built and how they hold together. Every virtual community has its town cranks and drunks, psychos and saints, good girls, bad girls, good guys, bad guys - if it's out there, it's in here. I'm not looking for utopia" (10). With this reasonable approach, tracing the rise of Echo - through technical teething-trouble, the coming together of the participants, the online friendships made and broken, and the successes and failures of the author herself - is an informative and imaginative experience. Those Echoids who reappear in subsequent chapters metamorphose into fictional characters who live both through their own dialogues and through Horn's sprightly narration. Understandably there is a certain voyeuristic delight in reading the private discussions of these cyberspace residents: for such an interactive medium to appear only as the written word instills in the reader a sense of alienation from the events and a tendency to see the discussions as no more than a spectacle. The author does seem aware of this, however, and does not disappoint those for whom this angle is all-important. At times sexually explicit or shamelessly thrill-seeking the narrative does, as all good spectator sports should, give its audience what it desires: a fair dose of sensationalism, personality conflict, and violence.

These, though, are but minor irritants in a larger narrative which is more subtly, but more effectively, captivating. Horn's real victory in Cyberville is to capture the expeditionary atmosphere of new world exploration that a journey to the heart of cyberspace parallels. With no map or rule book, and only the template of a similar online town which she dislikes, Horn charts her own progress to the Echo of today with passion and intensity. With a frankness that is always appealing we are told of the moral problems encountered online and of Horn's attempts to solve them fairly. Deciding on whether to allow a transsexual user access to a female-only conference is exemplary of this. Horn's anxiety over the problem is genuine and well portrayed in her writing: "Oh God, now what, I'm thinking. I'm in over my head...I remember wishing that she had taken the decision out of my hands...But I knew I was cheating. I had avoided making a real decision. And I can't help feeling that I behaved badly" (83, 90). Success and failure come in equal measure, and reflect the fact that ultimate authority (which Horn has on Echo) is not wielded uncompromisingly. Indeed there are times when running people out of town in the manner of a Western sheriff appears to be the better option, but Horn sees this only as the easy exit and deliberately reigns in her ability to do this at the touch of a few keys. This wrestling with morality and democracy is fascinating in itself, as are Horn's reflections on the unknowability of how an online community functions. Cyberville is attractive because of the hands-on approach that its creator has always taken. Horn is as much a citizen of Echo as its ruler and her prose reflects this split-personality. As readers we are placed in the privileged position of viewing not only the attempts of one participant to come to terms with Echo as a community of individuals but also the different pressures involved in the leadership of this community. Accepting this also means that we must accept a paradox, of course. For while Horn believes that Echo is merely an online version of any real town her own unique position undermines this. The real world would not allow for such easy movement between the lower and upper echelons of society. One cannot be both aristocratic and working-class. As an Echoid Horn occupies these two positions easily and, as far as the narrative suggests, without conflict.

It is when we reach positions, or perhaps questions, like these that Cyberville begins to run into trouble. Although Horn handles practicality well she has many more problems with the philosophical and ideological implications of the online world. Unable to extricate herself from the initial assertion that the real and the digital are indistinguishable, Horn becomes more and more preposterous in her defense of the virtual salon as the real world. She suggests, for example, that gender and racial differences are quite obvious online, that "in time, if you act like yourself, gender is revealed, because we do take our bodies with us" (85). Well, no you don't, and that is the point. The online world is virtual, not physically substantial, a point Horn herself makes that in many ways contradicts her determined attempt to gender the written words of Echoids: "We had all sorts of problems with communication and community to work out. It goes back to the lack of visual clues. Because we couldn't see each other when we were talking, we were projecting all over the place and making incorrect assumptions about who we were" (116-117).

One way Echo tackles this problem is by face to face meetings. As most of the residents are also residents of New York City this is easier to facilitate that it may be in other online communities. However, Horn's understanding of online community becomes entangled by these actual meetings. Faced with various problem members, in particular a Nazi sympathizer, Horn argues that these characters were causing real problems for Echo and its members by threatening intimidation and violence. Phone calls and confrontations in bars and cafes are certainly intimidating but these are in no way a problem of the online community. To suggest otherwise, as Horn does, is to misplace the virtual and the real once more, and to equate the difficulties of dealing with Nazi ideology online with similar problems faced by society at large is insensitive and dangerous. One cannot possibly find a similarity here, for the threat of violence online is always impotent.

It is perhaps Horn's indulgence in Echo that is at the root of these problems. While on the one hand her personal approach has undoubtedly engaged many more members than a distanced organizer would have, at the same time it does make her somewhat blind to criticism, and prone to an 'us and them' attitude to those who speak out against her community. A particular section of the book is exemplary of this myopia. A member of The WELL (a similar online community based in California) joins Echo, does not like it, and leaves. When criticism of Echo begins to appear on The WELL, Horn is outraged. She argues that this criticism unfairly suggests that Echo is inferior whereas it is really only different. Yet the way she argues this point is to suggest that the critic is not like the Echoids and cannot understand them nor make judgments because he is Californian! He is one of 'them'; he is different. As Horn goes on to say, "It looks different from the inside. It's like trying to explain New York City to someone who visited briefly and just doesn't get it. It's different for those of us who live here. People who don't live here miss the subtext of practically every exchange they witness...They don't understand all the relationships, they don't get the jokes, they don't know the history" (145). Such hypocrisy of argument should not go unmentioned, and serves to show that there is a certain claustrophobia and insularity in the online town which is at odds with the general philosophy of openness which Horn is at pains to promote.

Ultimately, then, Cyberville is valuable when read as a historical or social document. As far as furthering our understanding of cyberspace and its effect on culture, the answers to these philosophical questions must be sought elsewhere.

Martin T. Willis:
Martin T. Willis is a Lecturer in English Studies at University College, Worcester, UK. His interests lie broadly in the field of literature and science and more specifically on the exchanges between technology, landscape and the human in nineteenth and twentieth century fiction.  <M.Willis@worc.ac.uk>

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