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Living on Cybermind: Categories, Communications, and Control

Author: Jonathan Paul Marshall
Publisher: New York: Peter Lang, 2007
Review Published: February 2009

 REVIEW 1: Alan Sondheim
 AUTHOR RESPONSE: Jonathan Paul Marshall

Disclaimer: Or rather this review as disclaimer; Cybermind is an email list started by Michael Current and myself in 1994. Michael died shortly after the list's creation, and I have generally worked with other co-moderators since. One of the earliest participants/contributors to the list was Jon Marshall, who has recently completed an ethnography of Cybermind -- one of the first (if not the only) extremely detailed study of an email list and the community it may engender.

Disclaimer: My graphics "enliven" front and back covers of the paperback; how could I not like the it? It's also interesting (to me alone) that I am now part of an ethnographic subject; what we did with the list -- governance, advertisement, moving from one ISP to another (Cybermind currently runs on AOL) -- is analyzed through phenomenological-critical methodologies.

Disclaimer: All of that said and accounted for (not to mention that I know Jon personally, have stayed with him in Sydney, Australia, and participated with him among others at an early Cybermind conference in Perth), Living on Cybermind: Categories, Communications, and Control is wonderful and important, with implications reaching far beyond Cybermind. While there have been endless studies of virtual environments, and some of newsgroups, there has been very little on email lists. (For that matter, I can't think of any full-length treatment of a newsgroup either.) Email lists provide one of the few forums for open discussion (a good moderator rarely appears) without the framework of a blog, for example. They're also "thin" in terms of bandwidth -- anyone who receives email can receive and participate in them. (This isn't true, for example, of Second Life -- where meetings and discussions are held as well -- which older machines and dialup connections have difficulties with.) Furthermore, like newsgroups, email lists have the advantage that you're not bound to real-time, but instead to a "spread" of time, as threads (subject matter) come and go.

The book ranges widely, both theoretically and phenomenologically. It gives a detailed history of Cybermind itself, then ranges across a number of topics whose root, I think, lies in both language and governance. Marshall develops, for example, the concept of asence, a neologism based on both absence and presence -- between posts and lags on email lists.

Quote: "Analyses are descriptions which selectively delete; often, the more elegant the analysis, the more is deleted" (3). Think of elegance as a (mathematical) form of integration, and perhaps tawdry heuristics as differentiation. The list operates on the plane of text, constructing a culture of presence and absence which exists as a membrane in relation to other events in the real world: it's more intimate perhaps than a club, it often occurs in the home, surrounded by the home (or cafe or university, etc.), it's affected by unstated content (I'm sick, someone died, my husband is screaming at me), and it's fragile in relation to membership. Marshall has the difficult task of presenting the list as culture, as symptom, as community, as partial community, as communication whose basis is online or elsewhere. Other than the virtual/physical archives, the list forms only a series of missives of imminence.

And Marshall proceeds by unraveling, working frames and shifts, defocusing when necessary. Communication is considered (as it is within second-order cybernetics) a framework process itself: "If communication is not 'transfer,' then it can be regarded as a process in which people interpret the responses of those with whom they are communicating, and check whether these interpretations match with their expectations" (17). Expectation is of course critical in list behavior -- on Cybermind it creates a cohesion or semblance of community. This is very different from the "conduit metaphor" based, as Marshall points out, on a transfer of information. The conduit emphasizes the particulation of the communicative act among individuals -- the expectation model may assume a commons which plays into community. (The Net, surprisingly enough, fosters community more than anything else -- open up a space for communication and fairly soon community forms -- one need only examine technical forums for an example of this.)

The first chapter of Living on Cybermind, "Toward an Analysis of Communication," works through the above in tremendous detail; framing is analyzed, for example, in terms of the following features: Locale, Mood, Exchange, Redundancy, Etiquette, Conflict, Public/Private, and "Mytheme": "I use the term "mytheme" to include theories, myths, and stories about the world irrespective of their claims to truth" (22). The chapter goes on to discuss groups, identities, norms, and categories, using "a variant of the identity theory developed by John Turner, who proposes that self-identity arises in relationship with others, as an act of categorization, and as a mode of framing which helps people interpret others" (23).

Throughout all of this, the terms are both clearly defined and open -- which is what makes the work so useful; communications theory is put at the service of a specific analysis in a way that could only be done, I believe, by someone who had for a very long time been a participant on (in, within) the Cybermind list itself. The list community possesses what might be called "social inertia" -- there's more than a core of irreducibility about it. Marshall presents this in the next chapter, which is a detailed history of Cybermind which proceeds from its 1994 beginnings through the early 2000s, when a list-member died (there have been deaths, illnesses, marriages, etc. on the list). The last line indicates the complexity of the analysis: "Jim wrote in response: 'Yes, we're the case
study'" (46).

The third chapter, "The Internet and the World," begins the analysis proper; the chapter presents comments from list participants concerned with politics, social processes, and the like. Part of the book's strength lies in these comments, which form the basis for the ethnography. I found myself performing a "double reading" -- the quotes on the one hand as theoretical "evidence," and on the other as dramatic play.

Chapters four through six continue the analysis of community in this practico-theoretical strain. Chapter four, "Structures of Communication and Internet Groups," looks at MOOs and MUDs among other things (these are or were text-based virtual worlds). Marshall points out the permeability of these worlds, and what constitutes public and private spaces within them. Chapter five, "The Virtual Life: Asence and Experience," introduces the term "asence" as indicating the "uncertainty" of presence and/or absence online. This is an important point -- if someone stops posting for a while on an email list, there's an uncertainty whether or not "something has happened." For active participants, posting has to be somewhat continuous as a result. The analysis of asence leads to an analysis of lurking, flaming, and so forth. These things still occur even in visual virtual worlds such as Second Life -- if a friend "disappears" for a while, I worry. In chapter six, "The Reign of Authenticity," issues of identity are considered -- these seemed more crucial in the early days of online community when we heard far too often "On the Internet, no one knows if you're a dog," etc. This isn't an issue on academic lists, but on community-oriented ones, it still is an important focus. With lists becoming less and less visible on the Net as a whole, trolling and other forms of fakery seem to have dropped off, only to emerge, perhaps, in Second Life and online gaming.

Chapter seven, "Bounding the Body: Moods, Intensities, and the Haunting," is critical for an understanding of not only email lists, but also of the Net in general; among other things, it deals with the asence of bodies and netsex. The latter has been at the core of Internet development -- as soon as something like the early video CuSeeMe sites appeared, they were used for netsex and pornography in general. The same held true for Internet Relay Chat (IRC), newsgroups, chatrooms, and so forth. Along with netsex, real life events bring forth body issues -- such as the early death of Michael Current, or the death of Rose Mulvale, who was considered, rightly so, the "heart" of the list. Marshall discusses death and grief here.

Chapter eight is on "Existence and Exchange," and Internet community is considered in relation to gift-giving within the space of the community -- the gift most often being text itself, and textual exchange. Chapters nine and ten deal with issues of list invasion, dissent, convulsion, "spamming," trolling, disruption, and so forth; I play a slightly larger role in them since as list moderator I had the ability to "take action," i.e. remove someone from the subscriber list. In reading these over again, the role of ethnographic subject comes up: I'm extremely uncomfortable with my reported behavior, but it seems accurate and points to the imminence of any email list -- things arrive "in your face," almost immediately, with an odd sense of asence about them -- here's a post, but there's no one to be seen. Marshall is an expert in writing about this; on list he was always cool, never lost his temper as far as I remember, always observed of course, and never called on his ethnicity (as I unfortunately did on a number of occasions) as some sort of signifier of authenticity. These chapters -- "Control and Crisis" and "Invasions, Fragmentations, and the Mobilization of Gender and Politics" -- work through a number of specific cases, including the formation of an alternative list, "emma," which was gender-based. And these chapters are difficult for me to read, since Cybermind always appeared to be a place where homophobia, racism, etc. had no place (I was always naive about this, even after revising the initial advertisement with Michael Current to take hatred into account), and yet there were periods where flaming occurred far too often, leading people to permanently unsubscribe. (During one lengthy period, where the list discussed unsubscribing someone, and the discussion grew heated, about a third of list members left.) This would lead to discussions whether those who unsubscribed were valuable members in the first place, and so forth.

Chapter eleven, "Constructions of Online Community," discusses what constitutes community, what events might create a sense of cohesion, what sort of originary mythemes develop, and so forth. Michael Current's death in 1994 led to a number of online and offline articles. For Cybermind, it transformed online life into an offline "real" (however defined). In other words, online events were potentially just as traumatic as offline ones -- death is death. And chapter twelve, "Intersection of the List with the Offlist and Offline," for me, is quite possibly the heart of the book -- it's concerned with members' contacts, behaviors and so forth, outside the specificity of the list itself. Lists tend to be hothouses with subscription as a (very minor) rite of passage, and social or community-oriented lists (almost all lists possess a sense of community, but for lists like Cybermind, community is primary) develop an intense list "aura": "The 'total communication' which occurs in the background or off the particular Internet social formation it surrounds. For example offlist mail, MOO use, phone calls etc. between members of a mailing list" (301). In this regard, Cybermind led to articles, this book itself, the early conference in Perth, and all sorts of personal changes ranging from divorces, marriages, and a Cybermind MOO to "fleshmeets" with groups of Cybermind subscribers, emotional and sexual liasons, and "technical" offlist meetings dealing with things like the subscriber base, changing service providers, and the above-mentioned issues of disruption. Marshall lists some transactions:
'A' journeyed to meet 'C', 'D', and 'E'.

'F' met 'E' on list and traveled to meet them, but the relationship failed.

I was told that 'G' left their spouse to live with 'D' but it did not work.

'D' had close phone contact with 'H' and an affair.

I was told that 'D' had netsex with 'I'.

It was frequently rumored that 'B' and 'D' had a passionate net affair ended by 'B'. This was denied by both 'B' and 'D'.
and so forth (250-252).

The abbreviations go up to GG -- these interactions are complex to say the least, and involve a large number of people. (I plead guilty here as well.) And these are just the interactions that are reported. Marshall analyzes Cybermind somewhat in the light of all of this -- the chapter ends with a consideration of Cybermind as community -- an issue which was repeatedly taken up on the list itself. The chapter ends with Marshall noting "at least part of the attraction of online society is this very sense of creativity and possibility, and the hope of founding a new world" (264). The last chapter, "Conclusion," deals with the complex issues of framing, community, the "complexity of feedback processes," the problematic of Cybermind's attempts at self-organization and so forth -- and these in relationship to categorization, modes of framing, authenticity, structures of community, boundaries, and so forth. Because email lists are inherently well-defined (the archive as node) and fragile/messy (aura, subbing and unsubbing, etc.), and because they seem to often embody textual virtual communities, even worlds, to the subscribers, they tend towards slippage: in and out of offline and offlist worlds, invisible emotional states and body gestures, governance rules that are often ad hoc and unstated, economic issues "behind the scenes," writing under illness or other duress, dying as if dying onlist -- all of these and others make any sort of axiomatic or definitive categorization impossible. Marshall has done by far the best work I've seen in this area -- work which is backed up by his extensive statistical appendix, which involves surveys, demographics, number-crunching, and careful attention given to analyzing the "active population." My only complaint is the relatively minor one that the book needed a good copy-editor -- there are a number of errors throughout which should have been caught, and which often caught me up.

Disclaimer: Reading through the forests of quotations, I hear voices that I never actually heard -- it's as if I've been casting a play for the past fifteen years, with a script written by everyone (in fact, there actually was a published "Cybermind novel") and no one at all. As ethnographic subject, I submit to a prejudice of ethnicity -- the book mirrors a personal biography involving textual intimacy that situates me in another space and time. It's an odd sensation, one I'm not familiar with, and can't categorize, any more than I can categorize the complexity of structures Marshall discusses. I think this book, which cares for the list it analyzes, critiques, and describes, opens a territory in the form of a deterritorialzation that is prescient in understanding being online, and the present-future of inhabiting virtual worlds, whether textual or visiual or holographic. Sherry Turkle comes to mind -- there's a sense of living through the analysis that couldn't have occurred without Marshall's staying onlist for, I think, at least twelve years.

Conclusion: Do get a copy of this book; it's fantastic. Disclaimer about disclaimer: Cybermind has been written about in a number of texts -- I couldn't recommend them, except for specific analytical points. And I had worried this book wouldn't live up to my expectations, even though I knew the care that Jon (Marshall) had put into it, from the surveys to snippets he would occasionally send out for comment. But it did and will for you as well.

Alan Sondheim:
Alan Sondheim is a writer and "new media" artist who has been working on a Second Life installation and phenomenology for the past year or so. In 2008, he worked at West Virginia University on NSF and New York State Council of the Arts grants. Current research is on "real" and "virtual" as lived intersecting domains that have always been with us.  <sondheim@panix.com>

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