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My Tiny Life: Crime and Passion in a Virtual World

Author: Julian Dibbell
Publisher: New York: Henry Holt, 1998
Review Published: February 1999

 REVIEW 1: Kalí Tal

Though its terrain is virtual, there is no mistaking Julian Dibbell's My Tiny Life (hereafter MTL) for anything except travel literature -- a genre overtly invoked by the book's subtitle: "Being a true account of the infamous Mr. Bungle and of the Author's journey, in consequence thereof, to the heart of a half-real world called LambdaMOO," and underlined by Cultural Studies scholar Andrew Ross, whose back cover blurb labels the book "a classic travelogue of virtual life." MTL is, first and foremost, a good read, an engrossing book that'll suck you in and hold your attention from start to finish, providing over three-hundred pages of vicarious thrills for cyber-adventurers of all sorts, from the techno-savvy to the clueless newbie. Travel literature, however, is not an unproblematic genre and a close look at Dibbell's work has led me to believe that there is less in it than meets the eye.

Dibbell's style wanders between the hyped-up hipness of the gonzo journalist -- keen on slang and heavy on ramped-up metaphors--and the curious stiffness of the Victorian gentleman explorer-author, rather as if he'd been unable to choose between adopting as his model either Michael Herr's Dispatches or David Livingstone's Missionary Travels, and instead resolved the problem by filtering both through the same lens Coppola used when revising Conrad's Heart Of Darkness into Apocalypse Now. The result is an uneasy blend of styles, sharply observant and witty enough to keep the reader hooked into the tale, but dogged by an air of moral piety and sermonizing. Like the writings of many other explorers, this one is a quest-romance which takes the hero-author "through enchanted or bedeviled lands toward a goal" which includes, in addition to mapping uncharted territory, a struggle for "survival and the return home, to the regions of light." [1]

Mary Louise Pratt describes sentimental travel literature in the following terms: "The traveler is the protagonist of the journey and the primary focus of the account. It narrates the journey as an epic-style series of trials and challenges, of various kinds of encounters-often erotic ones-where indigenous inhabitants occupy the stage alongside the European. [This discourse] should be called experiential. It constitutes its authority by anchoring itself not in informational orders but in situated human subjects, notably (but not always) the European protagonist" [2].

MTL certainly fits this description. The trials and challenges Dibbell face include immersion in the world of LambdaMOO via the incident Dibbell describes as "A Virtual Rape," exploration and mapping of the territory of LambdaMOO, an acquaintance with a cyber-revolutionary, Dibbell's own experience as a homesteader on the virtual frontier, participation in the MOO's justice system, and voyeuristic or firsthand involvement in various sexual escapades.

While strange to those unacquainted with the Internet, the territory through which Dibbell passes is well known to many inhabitants of cyberspace. LambdaMOO, like other MOOs "is a kind of database especially designed to give users the vivid impression of moving through a physical space that in reality exists only as words filed away on a hard drive. When users log in to LambdaMOO, for instance, the program immediately presents them with a brief textual description of one of the rooms of the database's fictional mansion (the coat closet, say). If the user wants to leave this room, she can enter a command to move in a particular direction and the database will replace the original description with a new one corresponding to the room located in the direction she chose" (14).

When users are logged into the MOO, they can interact in real-time with other characters, travel around the MOO, look at their surroundings, and even alter the environment by building new rooms. Sophisticated users can program new "objects" with which they and other users can interact (for example, a box which may be opened, containing cakes which can be "eaten" by the user).

Dibbell was the first mainstream journalist to bring MOOing in general, and LambdaMOO in particular, to the attention of the Great Unwired when the Village Voice published his article "A Rape in Cyberspace" in December of 1993. In fact, a reworked version of the article is the first substantial chapter in the book, and MTL suggests that it was his experience researching the piece that impelled him to "move in" to cyberspace and write an in-depth study.

The book is divided into RL (Real Life) and VR (Virtual Reality) chapters, with RL segments beginning and ending the book. The bulk of the story takes place in VR, while RL episodes serve as punctuating interludes, underlining the author's main points, just in case we've managed to miss them in the text. In an initially charming, though ultimately annoying reversal, Dibbell frames the RL segments in MOO formatted text, and pens the VR chapters in a smooth narrative stream. The conceit fails for two reasons. First, Dibbell fails to keep within the paradigm he establishes at the outset and the MOO formatted sections inconsistantly reproduce the feel and texture of on-line prose (rather like an American stage actor who can't maintain a consistent Irish accent). Second, it creates a sense of a "real life" so thin and artfully constructed that virtual existence is made richer by comparison, a tactic which sidesteps a great deal of Dibbell's responsibility to provide the reader with a sense of the differences between real and virtual realities.

Publisher Henry Holt's marketing department categorizes the volume as "Memoir/Technology," an unusual -- indeed possibly oxymoronic -- pairing where subjectivity and objectivity are both invoked. However, as the previous two paragraphs note, Dibbell's participant-observer viewpoint is anything but objective. In the manner characteristic of travel literature, Dibbell's possibly objective analyses of "historical" events are embedded in larger narrative frames that support an essentially conservative and normative world view. Despite Dibbell's claims to the contrary, it is hard to read MTL as anything other than a classic moral tale in which a young man is tempted by the exotic -- the potential for limitless possibility -- and discovers after a series of trials and tribulations, that there is, in fact No Place Like Home.

When faced with memoir, it's always difficult to measure "truth" and "accuracy," particularly when little or no documentation is offered to substantiate the author's claims. The verification challenge faced by readers of MTL is further complicated by the fact that Dibbell has created pseudonyms for already pseudonymic characters, so that it's impossible for all but the most informed to fact-check. Since I have a character on LambdaMOO myself, and am acquainted with some of the characters Dibbell has chosen to represent in his text, I did a bit of research of my own -- enough to tell me that while Dibbell may indeed have written a narrative which is "as true to life, and to the facts, as [he] could bear to make it" (ix), it is not nearly as true to life or to the facts as a historian could wish, particularly in regards to the details of his personal experience. (Most of my informants note that they find Dibbell's book quite accurate in its description of certain events which preceded his own MOO-experience, such as the "Schmoo Wars" described in Chapter Six.)

No one, of course, is required to detail experiences of personal and intimate encounters or to serve them up for public consumption. Still, the decision to write a memoir (and especially one that purports to truthfully represent the nature of the erotic in the virtual world) places one's personal life under a different sort of scrutiny than that endured by the general public. I've got no desire to attempt to "out" Dibbell on any of these matters -- surely it must have been difficult to navigate permissions from everyone whose virtual and real lives, actions, and thoughts he wished to represent, and I have no reason to think that any omissions were less than consensual compromises; indeed, the characters I spoke with state that he was scrupulous about receiving consent for his quotes and representations. Instead, what I'd like to suggest is that MTL is best read as fiction (perhaps as a brand of historical fiction) and that for critics it is more useful in assisting us to understand the ways in which cyberspace is currently represented than it is in assisting us to understand what goes on in cyberspace itself.

MTL is mostly about sexual temptation. Early in the book Dibbell announces that his problem with his current real life relationship is that he can't seem to make a commitment to his lover. His MOO adventures take place in a sort of liminal state -- the space between boyhood and manhood, irresponsibility and assumption of duty. His progress (like any pilgrim's) is interrupted by a series of temptations including the thrill of gender-swapping and netsex. And, in order to take up his responsibilities as a man in his real life relationship, he must renounce the virtual world -- MTL ends with his almost complete withdrawal from LambdaMOO, about which he waxes nostalgic (as an 18th Century gentleman might look back fondly on his years in the Raj) but to which he cannot, in this postliminal state, ever fully return. It's an odd form of virtual Orientalism in which Dibbell indulges, and one which might be profitable for cyberculture scholars to study in depth.

Neither the structure of the bildungsroman nor of the pilgrim's progress allow much room for the development of female characters as anything other than the objects of desire. This places Dibbell in a difficult position since his chief informant is a character he renames "exu" -- a female person irl (in real life), and one of the liveliest voices in the book despite Dibbell's tendency to paraphrase rather than quote her comments, and to talk about her rather than to let her speak herself. Exu becomes Dibbell's second voice, serving, in terms of the plot, more as his foil and conscience than as a character in her own right. Every chapter in the book is told from a male perspective even though Dibbell freely represents the viewpoints of several male characters and could as easily have done the same with the women.

Dibbell's gender gap becomes most obvious in his relation of the story of the conflict between "HortonWho" and several women characters (including Dibbell's good friend exu) who claimed to have been harassed (both virtually and irl) by HortonWho's male typist. This conflict seemed to me to be so poorly represented on its face that I went back and read the logs of the dispute on which Dibbell's analysis was based. In contrast to Dibbell's description, I found that there was almost no controversy about the vicious nature of HortonWho's character and there was close to general acceptance of the fact that the women who had joined in complaint had indeed been harassed by him, and that many others (male and female) had been harassed by him as well. Nor was there a lack of evidence documenting the harassment, though it was available only to the arbitrator and not the general MOO public. Despite the weight of testimony (much of it from sources Dibbell acknowledges as reliable), Dibbell maintains a friendly posture towards HortonWho and presents his story in remarkably sympathetic terms -- more sympathetic and more detailed terms than he presents the viewpoint of any of the women involved, including his chief informant, exu.

Of course, one could expect no less of Dibbell, whose original foray into the world of MOO journalism was based on his analysis of the "Mr. Bungle incident" on LambdaMOO, a so-called "virtual rape" in which exu's character (among others) was hijacked for a period of time and forced by Mr. Bungle to publicly perform various degrading and violent sexual acts. Dibbell notes he befriended exu when he was covering this incident for the Village Voice, but he simultaneously developed a fascination with Mr. Bungle and his subsequent character, Dr. Jest, haunting Dr. Jest's abandoned home and waiting for the character to log on so that he might converse with him. This identification with the boys -- especially with the bad boys -- is in keeping with the moral nature of Dibbell's tale. It's a kind of temptation, a recognition that he is saved from becoming a Mr. Bungle or a HortonWho only by his better nature, accepting his real world responsibilities rather than being seduced by the lure of the eternally liminal.

Unforgivably absent in any book that purports to discuss virtual sexuality, is an analysis of gender and representation beyond the titillation of virtual cross-dressing. Though he devotes an entire chapter to "Samantha," the female character whose textual body he created specifically for the purpose of playing virtual identity-tourist, he never goes much beyond marveling at how "pretty" and "feminine" his role-playing made him feel and wondering at the power of gender stereotyping (while never going beyond it). His preoccupation with drag and his fascination with the rl male typist whose character "Niacin" took on multiple (and multiply gendered) morphs and second characters again underlines his interest in male appropriation of the female gender while ignoring what those "adventures" might mean for RL women and the characters they create. Once again, he gives exu short shrift, waxing eloquent about (and admiring) Niacin's gender-swapping and granting far less space to exu's own explorations which, ironically enough, were carried out in tandem with Niacin, since the two were involved in an intense virtual relationship in which gender-bending was the main theme.

If he hadn't been so focused on all the myriad ways a guy can get laid in cyberspace, Dibbell might also have noticed that there is a strong connection between Mr. Bungle's "voodoo doll" (which took over characters' bodies and made them perform actions against their will) and the "puppet" which exu alleged that HortonWho had constructed to resemble her and which HortonWho took to public rooms and used to masquerade as exu. And he might have noticed the connection between both the aforementioned events and the hacker-attack on the character of Minnie, a political gadfly whose character and objects were wiped out by a malicious MOO-er and had to be completely recreated. A theorist paying real attention to gender and representation might have been able to discuss on-line harassment of female characters (and of characters known to be created by female typists) in a sensible fashion, instead of in the ultimately dismissive tone Dibbell adopts. In fact, he might have noticed that women tend to claim to be harassed not when other characters say things about them, but when other characters appropriate their virtual/textual bodies and manipulate them against their will, thus suggesting that the issue is not one of "freedom of speech" (the common justification for allowing harassment to go unchecked on the MOO), but of copyright violation -- a proprietary interest in the characters which one has created and whichrepresent one publicly.

What Dibbell's real-life Jessica thinks of the book is anybody's guess, but the literary construct of Jessica-the-character is also very much Jessica-the-object. Her role in the book is to be a civilizing and normalizing influence acting against the exotic pull of the MOO. She "resents his lengthening hours on Lambda"... and feels "there is a strange world plugged into the wall just outside their bedroom, and she's no longer part of it" (75). Her connection to the earth ("a body shaped like ocean waves" [76]) contrasts starkly with exu's embeddedness in the MOO (as in his dream of "text shaking violently on a computer screen, an angry goddess" (121). And, in the end, Dibbell comes home to her, confessing that when he left LamdaMOO, he "did it for love...Of all the possible motivations I have subsequently sifted through the only one that really sticks is that I left because my love for Jessica required it" (300). He notes: "But ultimately, I think, the distractions I needed most to leave behind were deeper ones. They were the seductions natural to any world built from the stuff of books and maps: the siren song of possibility, the vivid presence of the half-imagined, the freedom of words and thought to fly beyond the here and now and trace the shape of every road not taken...Jessica was here, and now, and beautiful, and I would lose her if I didn't here and now shake off my chronic homesickness for all those half-imagined, siren-singing roads untaken" (300-301).

I am notably unsentimental, but I don't think I'd be unfair in saying that Dibbell's conclusion here has a distinctly purplish tinge, an over-the-top, home-from-Oz quality that is likely to play well in Peoria as well as in his own home.

There is much of value in MTL, just as there is much to be learned from early travel writings and romantic tales of adventure, though I suggest one might best approach all such tales with a certain caution and a shaker of salt. When an author confesses that attraction to the exotic is his motive for exploration, it's a pretty sure bet that his perceptions will be tainted by his desires and it's unlikely that he'll be able to cross the boundaries of the categories he already uses to separate Us/Other. In fact, it is the moment when those categories begin to break down, when exoticism pales, that most such travelers set out for home: "But now the novelty was wearing off. The MOO no longer felt exotic to me, and there was little left for me to learn from it except, day by day, whatever I might need to know to keep on living in it" (297).

The best analyses of virtual life might well come from the folks who live in VR on a continuing basis, rather than those who -- like Columbus -- think they are "discovering" lands inhabited and settled long ago.


1. Patrick Brantlinger, "Victorians and Africans: The Genealogy of the Myth of the Dark Continent," in "Race," Writing, and Difference, Henry Louis Gates, ed. Chicago: Univ of Chicago, 1986: 196.

2. Mary Louise Pratt, "Scratches on the Face of the Country: or, What Mr. Barrow Saw in the Land of the Bushmen," in "Race," Writing, and Difference, Henry Louis Gates, ed. Chicago: Univ of Chicago, 1986: 150.

Kalí Tal:
Kalí Tal is the author of Worlds of Hurt: Reading the Literatures of Trauma (Cambridge U Press, 1996) and at work on a new book titled No Body Here: Cyberculture Studies, Race, Gender and Class. She currently teaches at the University of Arizona in the Comparative Literatures and Cultures program. Kalí would like to thank Shannon McRae for the ideas she shared with me during several discussions of gender issues on the MOO. Thanks also to the LambdaMOO and "Interzone" characters who shared information and opinions. 

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