Hanging Out in the Virtual Pub: Masculinities and Relationships Online
Author: Lori Kendall
Publisher: Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2002
Review Published: October 2007
Hanging Out in the Virtual Pub is an ethnographic account of a Multi-User Dungeon (MUD) that the author, Lori Kendall, calls BlueSky. BlueSky participants do not see their MUD as an alternative virtual reality. Rather, participants see BlueSky as a communication medium that, like a pub, allows them to "hang out" with each other. Kendall "hung out" in BlueSky for four years, and this book is an account of how performances of gender, race, and class were exhibited within this online community.
Researchers such as Sherry Turkle (1995) have argued that virtual spaces such as MUDs can highlight the multiplicity and fracturing of identity. For example, people can experience what it is like to be the opposite gender online and, as a result, Turkle claims they can discover that gender is both a social construction and a performance. This is possible because, when all interaction is text based, the physical body disappears. Kendall's study highlights the problematic nature of this contention, however. Indeed, Kendall found that people's offline identity is quite intact when they enter the online world of BlueSky.
Online interactions in BlueSky are not anonymous and because participants often meet each other offline they know a lot about each other's "real" lives and identities. While some may be able to maintain a fictional character, Kendall contends that few can do so long-term successfully. Those in BlueSky are interested in maintaining personal and trustful relationships within this public space. As a result, they perform -- and expect others to perform -- consistent, stable, and singular identities. Outsiders, unless known by a current BlueSky member, are not trusted and one of the ways participants ensure group cohesiveness is through hazing. Kendall writes that BlueSky's "defense against potential hostile obnoxiousness and grossness is preemptive obnoxiousness and grossness" (128). Newcomers rarely last in BlueSky and the hazing they experience tells them that if they're to belong, they must be able to stomach some aggression.
BlueSky participants are predominantly white, middle class, college educated, and male. The world that emerges is, perhaps not surprisingly, competitive and sexist. For status within the BlueSky male hierarchy, participants must exhibit power over technology, such as programming knowledge, and demonstrate wit. Self-instruction and the ability to figure things out are highly valued. Women outside of BlueSky are depicted as sexual objects and referred to as "babes." Technical problems such as bugs that participants encounter at work are feminized and situated as something to overpower.
Women are accepted into the group if they share an interest in computers and are technically proficient. In this way, women in BlueSky must perform masculinities to fit into the community -- and Kendall is no exception. Like other female participants, she finds herself adopting masculine behaviors for group acceptance. For example, the initial hazing she experiences when she enters BlueSky causes her, in defense, to choose a masculine and aggressive pseudonym, Copperhead. Because participants cannot see each other, Kendall contends that the members of marginalized groups may be able to join online interactions more easily than offline interactions. However, because race, class, and gender are much more then physical manifestations, they can do so only as long as they "pass" and conform to the norms of the dominant online culture (108).
Interestingly, while BlueSky members participate in hegemonic masculinity, they also critique it. For example, at one point participants discuss Male Answer Syndrome, or MAS. This they define as male participants' tendency to answer any question asked, whether that person has any knowledge of the subject or not (76). This critique of male posturing, Kendall asserts, calls attention to the norms of masculinity. Because of their computer expertise, many of the participants are self-proclaimed "nerds"; they know they don�t meet the standards of hegemonic masculinity. In fact, strong bonds between BlueSky participants develop as they empathize over each other's pathetic romantic lives. A consistent narrative that allows for support and intimacy among participants centers on the ways nice guys (male BlueSky members) get victimized by heterosexual relationships.
While participants may have some self-awareness about gender expectations, Kendall writes that they lack this awareness when it comes to race. Kendall points out that ninety percent of participants are white, and because whiteness is an "unmarked" category, most participants neglect to think of themselves in these terms. They certainly do not believe race has any influence on their online interactions. Participants do, however, think of their historic ethnicities, and differentiate themselves from each other in this way. For example, this focus on ethnicity, rather than race, Kendall contends, allows them to negate their common white identity. Eluding racial classification allows members to escape from a categorization that implies power over others. The internet may provide a forum where physical differences can be hidden, but it does not eliminate racism. Instead, online forums can "provide people with class and race privilege a place in which they can pretend that their privilege doesn't matter" (215).
Kendall's observations and assertions about race and gender within BlueSky are quite compelling. Less remarkable, however, is her discussion of class. Here, her observations are limited to the fact that most of the participants are in professional, managerial, or technical jobs. Class obviously affects people's ability to acquire the skills and equipment for BlueSky participation and job networking provides resources through which privileged groups can increase their earning power and social position. I would have liked to see more discussion on how class specifically affects interactions within this MUD. In particular, how class affects the use of language, the type of humor, and the subjects discussed in BlueSky would deepen her analysis.
Moreover, while Kendall considers "nerd" culture and its relationship to masculinity, the connection between "nerdiness" and race could be explored further. Mary Bucholz (2001), for example, uses the term "hyperwhite" to describe the linguistic conventions of high school nerds; she argues that their use of superstandard English distances them from the African American underpinnings of current youth culture. A similar examination of BlueSky discourse would, I think, prove worthy.
Perhaps the most striking limitation of Hanging out in the Virtual Pub for today's reader is that it speaks only to the identity of BlueSky participants. BlueSky makes a good case study, but MUDs are a narrow form of online identity production. Additional studies could discuss how Kendall's findings could apply to other digital environments such as blogs and social networking websites. By addressing other, more popular and mainstream digital cultures, future researchers could significantly deepen Kendall's argument by revealing how race, class, and gender may play out differently in a variety of online spaces.
Ultimately, however, Kendall's study is convincing. She calls upon us to reexamine claims that online interaction is somehow more egalitarian than offline interaction. Kendall debates the technologically determinist view "that online interaction significantly changes either participants' experiences and understandings of identity or the power structures based on identities such as race, gender, and class" (224). Kendall reminds us that, for the most part, online spaces have been constructed by people from a relatively homogenous background. Even if more diverse populations can dwell in this world, the rules they must play by are still made by those with power.
Bucholtz, Mary. 2001. "The Whiteness of Nerds: Superstandard English and Racial Markedness." Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 11(1): 84-108.
Turkle, Sherry. 1995. Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Molly Swiger is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication and Theatre at Baldwin-Wallace College. <firstname.lastname@example.org>
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