Cyberspace Innkeeping: Building Online Community
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Cyberspace Innkeeping: Building Online Community Copyright 1992,93 by John Coate Revised November, 1993 [email protected] I. Something Old, Something New When you log into an online service, you use new tools for an ancient activity. Even with all the screens and wires and chips and lines it still comes down to people talking to each other. The immense potential of this partnership of computer technology and human language is in this blending of the old and the new. Language is so ancient a currency of communication that people of the Northern Hemisphere, from Europe to India, know of their common tribal roots mostly just by the remnant commonalities of the languages. Through all these thousands of years (sign language excepted), language has been either spoken or written. But online conversation is a new hybrid that is both talking and writing yet isn't completely either one. It's talking by writing. It's writing because you type it on a keyboard and people read it. But because of the ephemeral nature of luminescent letters on a screen, and because it has such a quick - sometimes instant - turnaround, it's more like talking. And this is where the online scene is such an adventure. The act of conversing over computers is such a new twist that the lasting term for what it is has not yet been coined. The new with the old. It is also new because you often feel a real sense of place while logged in, though it exists "virtually" in each person's imagination while they stare into a CRT screen. It's old because even if the village is virtual, when it's working right it fulfills for people their need for a commons, a neutral space away from work or home where they can conduct their personal and professional affairs. My work with online services such as the WELL in Sausalito and 101 Online in SF, is about building an online version of what Ray Oldenburg calls "the Third Place." In _The Great Good Place_ he calls home the First Place and work the Second Place. "Third places," he says, "exist on neutral ground and serve to level their guests to a condition of social equality. Within these places, conversation is the primary activity and the major vehicle for the display and appreciation of human personality and individuality. Third places are taken for granted and most have a low profile. Since the formal institutions of society make stronger claims on the individual, third places are normally open in the off hours, as well as at other times. Though a radically different kind of setting from the home, the third place is remarkable similar to a good home in the psychological comfort and support that it extends." I'll say right up front that my love for online interaction is because it brings people together. At the personal level it helps people find their kindred spirits and at the larger social level it serves as a conduit for the horizontal flow of information through the population. In this piece, I will first describe some of the elements that can combine to create a village-like quality in an electronic environment along with some of the social dynamics at play in there. I'll go into some of the basic Constitutional and legal issues that confront us and then I'll offer a little advice for anyone who is, or wants to be, the innkeeper, so to speak, of their own online service. And, finally, I'll reflect a bit on some of my concerns for the future. II. The Virtual Village Who does it attract? Online systems attract independent-minded people. People who think for themselves and many people who work for themselves. Logging in is like a social coffee break for home office workers. Freelancers, contractors, entrepreneurs, and others who, because they are always looking ahead to that next job, need to have their shingle hung out. With so much "downsizing" happening in the corporate world and so many people moving from one job to another, online public forums are good places to run into others who may lead you to your next work opportunity. Electronic mail is especially useful for maintaining and enlarging a personal network because, in practical terms, it allows you to conduct a larger volume of personal correspondence over a given period of time than any other media, such as writing paper letters and talking on the telephone. The text display that still dominates online systems appeals to people who love wordplay, language and writing. And it appeals to people with active minds. The classic couch potato just isn't going to be that interested. Good conversation can be a hard commodity to find these days. If you love stimulating conversation - what I like to call an "intellectual massage" - where would you go, say, after work, to find some people to do it with, especially if they weren't already your friends? So many people have commented on how they haven't been able to enjoy such great conversation in so long. Often not since their days of hanging out at the college coffee shop, talking till the wee hours about anything that came to mind. A place to debate, joke, schmooze, argue and gossip. Many people have fairly specialized interests and to find people with similar interests, you often need the opportunity to interact with a larger base of people rather than just the few in your physical neighborhood. And it appeals to people who have numerous interests because you don't have to go from club to club all over town to hang out and talk with people interested in specific things like boating or books. You can get around town without getting up. And of course they are used by private groups to conduct ongoing meetings. It's an efficient way for a group to stay in touch, collaborate on documents, or plan other meetings and events. One of the great strengths of online conferencing is how you can switch from a relaxing and playful kind of conversation to something serious or businesslike with just a few keystrokes. And then there are people who just have unfulfilled social needs and want to meet some people. Expensive toy, cheap tool Some people sign up, look around, decide a system isn't for them, and cancel their account after a few months. But many stay on for years. What keeps them logging in as a regular part of their routine? Because there is a benefit to the person that makes a real difference in their lives. Otherwise it wouldn't be worth the money. If you are just finding a degree of entertainment in the various conversations, then it could fascinate you for a long time or it might get old pretty soon at two or more bucks an hour. But if it helps you find your next job, or connects you with a new friend, or fulfills that need to have good conversation with a bunch of bright people, then it becomes a real bargain. And that is the method behind the madness, so to speak. Behind all the screens of sentences are real people making real connections that make a real difference to them. The mind pool Ask a question about almost anything and you'll likely get an answer or a reference to an answer very quickly. It's a bit like fishing. Throw in your line and see what you catch. Everyone picks each other's brains. The informal nature of online conversation encourages people's amazing generosity in sharing the things that they know. It's a potluck for the mind. However, you may not have time or inclination for this rather serendipitous method of gathering information. Cruising around the various topics looking for this or that nugget of information can be like panning for gold: you have to move a lot of rock. Sometimes you just want to go in there, find what you need and get out. Good search tools are essential to a fully-realized conferencing package. A challenge in designing online systems is making it easy to use the system either way. The truly successful design accommodates both approaches so that they may not only co-exist, but are interchangeable at any time. Hang out and shoot the breeze over in this forum, then go over to another area and quickly zero in on the info you need. Related to this is the need to have a simple beginner's interface that allows you to self-graduate to a command-driven "power user mode" at any time. Beginners aren't dumb, they're busy. Usually they don't have the time to deal with yet another learning curve. This is why most people don't learn to program their VCRs. Also essential is some kind of "bookmark" function that allows you to automatically see new comments since the last time you logged in. The sysops don't create the information and sell it to everyone so much as the people themselves create the information and share it with each other. In a way we who manage online services are like operators of a picnic ground. We provide the tables and the people bring the food. Unlike network TV or mass market magazines or even parts of other large online services, the information doesn't flow in a top-down manner, but rather horizontally among the peer group of the participants. I like to call it a People's Think Tank. People join online systems because they are useful personal tools. The horizontal information flow is really a by-product of this, but it has, I believe, a deep and abiding importance to all of us. Because the free flow of information among the people is essential to the health of a democratic society. The sense of place But something more is going on here. Dry terms like "think tank", "information exchange" and "conferencing network" are too flat, too monodimensional. They don't convey the reality that while you and the other people logged in are separated by miles of phone lines looking at CRT screens that just display written words, it feels like a real place in there. And those terms don't show that it's just about the easiest, lowest risk way to meet new people that there is. Nor do they describe how, via all this online talk, people form and sustain relationships. This is when it crosses over into something else, something fuller, something more like a community. In attempts to accurately describe this we conjure up familiar images like village, town, neighborhood, saloon, salon, coffee shop, inn. It's as if it is all of these things, yet isn't really any of them because it's a new kind of gathering. It just helps to hang something familiar onto it so we can picture it. The tangible and the intangible The tangible part is the hardware and the software - the physical network. Obviously you have to have that, and it has to work reliably. The intangible - the people part - is just as important because a system is as much defined and shaped by everyone's collective imagination as it is by the computers, discs and software tools. All of this descriptive imaging about community comes from real people meeting there. But it goes much farther than that because travelling through the chips and wires, as a kind of subcarrier to the words themselves, is real human emotion and feeling. The spectrum of the "vibes" is just about as wide as it is when people meet face to face. It's sometimes harder to interpret them because there isn't any facial expression or body english, but they are there just the same and people feel them and react to them. Furthermore, the quality of the vibes - the atmosphere, the ambience - largely determines whether or not the people involved will develop any affection for the system at all. Forums and hosts It's important for public forums to have hosts who welcome the newcomers, try to keep the conversations reasonably on track and do basic housekeeping so there isn't too much clutter and confusion. They are responsible for maintaining some civilized degree of order in the conference. Old extinct discussions are pruned out like tree branches. When people argue too heatedly and start tossing out the ad hominems, the host blows the whistle. Every host has his or her own style and some forums allow a lot more tumbling than others. Conferencing is, by its very nature, a mix of organization and chaos. This hybrid of talking by writing presents some interesting new challenges. Both talking and writing have their unique strengths. With writing, organization and a high concentration of usable information are desired. Online it's very useful to have labels for each discussion so you can get to the information you seek with efficiency. It's pretty difficult at a party to stand at the doorway of a crowded room where everyone is talking and determine which conversation is most interesting to you. In such cases, the benefits of the written word are strong. When talking, the whims of the people take the discussion off on any number of tangents. We have come to call this process of meandering "topic drift" and it often leads to the most delightful illuminations. So much so that many people find this to be one of the most appealing aspects of the whole online scene. But it can conflict with other peoples' expectations that a conversation will consist of material that is truly in keeping with the theme of the topic. Once again, this is where good searching tools are necessary so that finding information isn't like something out of Where's Waldo? Seeing who else is logged in Typing a command that shows you who else is logged in at the same time lets you get off quick email to someone or engage them in a real time conversation. But beyond that, it enhances the sense of "usness." Seeing who is logged in at the same time as you is like opening the window and looking out to see who's on the street. Some people check to see who else is around as soon as they log in. Anonymity or your real name? Both are valid and both can coexist. But they don't mix well. If people don't have to take responsibility for what they say, then some of them will say a lot of irresponsible things. My problem with this is that, in an open group discussion, the signal to noise ratio develops a poor balance. Fortunately, it doesn't really behoove most people to use false names anyway, since that would defeat their networking goals. But I'm speaking here about the public arenas. I recently worked with a French-designed system. I designed it so you can't be anonymous in the open public forums but the live chat lines and electronic mail can be anonymous or not, depending on how you prefer to do it. It can be a way of playing games, or it can be a form of personal protection. A wide variety of topics It's important to have variety. And if you don't see a topic covering what you want to talk about, you should be able to open up your own line of conversation. What happens then is that you see the same people in different places and in different contexts, and fuller pictures of the people emerge as they reveal more dimensions of themselves. The relationship of public and private conversation Being able to converse privately in email or in a live chat with someone alongside a public discussion helps people form all kinds of relationships. It often starts with something like, "Hey, I liked what you said over in that discussion and I have a similar interest. Maybe we could talk more about it on the side." In the heat of debate, people use email to form alliances, and when people are moved by a touching story or feel agreement with a particular statement, they use email to lend support. A variation on this private/public dynamic is the special-interest private conference. In a private forum or meeting, email messages are like going out into the hallway for a more personal caucus. An online system should be designed so that it is easy to move between one form of conversation and another, and then back again. It shouldn't require a lot of keystrokes which is the computers equivalent of walking to, for example, read a public comment then quickly send that person a private message or see if they are online at that moment so they can engage them in a real-time chat. Encouragement of free speech While system managers or hosts usually have the ability to remove or "censor" a given comment, I generally discourage it as a practice. And I especially dislike the approach where there are paid censors who prescreen everything to make sure it conforms to their standards. Better for people to speak freely and frankly to each other because when each individual knows that he or she may speak freely and that they in fact take full responsibility for what they say, then it improves the content of the system. When it's working right, people wrestle with tough questions, and that corner of the larger society evolves that much more. I encourage all online systems to be places where controversial subjects may be discussed in a civilized way. Of course, how you defines "civilized" determines what you will allow. I frown on ad hominems, personal harassment, and threats but otherwise give wide berth to the variety of tastes and styles found wherever individuals gather. The face-to-face factor Members of many online services like to see each other socially. A lot of online services host parties and get-togethers. The WELL has sponsored an open house pot luck party every month for over six years. Sometimes there is a special event like a picnic or a beach party. A few times we had some real big blowout bashes over in a big loft in San Francisco. We even entertained at a couple of them with a band formed from WELL members. Once, we organized a group visit to the local art museum to view a special exhibit of Tibetan painting and sculpture. We collected $10 in advance from everyone and they opened up the museum for us an hour early. On a smaller scale you can encounter someone online, start something up in email, and then take them to lunch, get up a card game, go to a movie, or meet them about a business project. When a number of the participants in a discussion have met offline, the overall sense of familiarity in the online atmosphere increases. And this increases the sense of place for everyone, including those who either can't or don't want to meet anyone outside the online environment. Professional and personal interactions overlap This is where things really get interesting. Ultimately, any network is about relationships. I like to say that, rather than being in the computer business, I am in the relationship business. Some are ad hoc, some are long term, some are for business and some are social. Get online for business or for pleasure. While you can just do one or the other, many people use it for both. I know people who got online just for fun but made contacts that led to a new job. I also know people who joined for business reasons such as getting help on a computer application or doing research and made some new friends through conversing in other non-technical forums. Or maybe you are thinking of hiring someone you met online because of their technical expertise and by seeing their comments in other conferences you find that you also like their sense of humor. Or perhaps you don't care for their dogmatic attitude and that influences your decision the other way. The variations are endless. One person who comes to mind is the radio producer who uses the WELL to talk shop with others in his field all around the country. When his two year old daughter became deathly ill, he would log in from way out on Cape Cod and would report, diary style, in the WELL Parents Conference about what they were going through. He would give the details and describe his emotional state and people would lend their support. It comforted him and it touched all of us who read it. And I doubt that this guy has ever met any of the other people face to face. Furthermore, this experience greatly increased his enthusiasm for what this kind of network can do and that spread to his business related activities online. Another described, over the course of a few years, his search for his biological parents. When he finally found them many of us rejoiced with him after reading his eloquent account. This guy works the same online crowd for his consulting business. For the term "village" (as in "electronic village" or "virtual village") be applied to an online scene with any accuracy at all this blending of business and pleasure must be present. Because that's what a village is: a place where you go down to the butcher or the blacksmith and transact your business, and at night meet those same neighbors down at the local tavern or the Friday night dance. III. Social Dynamics Making communities out of individualists A lot of why the online realm is characterized with the image of the frontier, comes from trying to forge a community out of people who are not, by their nature, team players. Back in the pioneer days, the rugged individuals went west. These days the uncharted, unsettled territory is the realm of electronic group communications that is becoming known as the "virtual world" or "cyberspace." Here online we have people with a new sort of pioneer outlook. Let me give you my thumbnail impression of what they have in common: Many work for themselves at home or in a private office. They possess great awareness and concern about their rights as individuals. They are often outspoken and articulate. And, on top of this, they are now doing a lot of relating to other people compared to what they were doing before, and in some cases compared to what they have ever done, certainly since their college or military days. This is all more intensified by most people not really knowing each other before they got involved. So this pioneer image also comes to mind because it isn't just new technologically, it's new for those involved at the personal/social level. Use of the word "community" here doesn't imply that an online scene is one monolithic community. Rather, I use the word to suggest a commons that is made up of a bundle of smaller "communities of interest" that also have a common interest in the health of the overall system. Commonalities and differences One of life's great paradoxes is that we are all the same and we are all different. One of the ironies of online interaction both public and private, is that, in developing relationships, people seek commonalities while displaying and discussing their differences. When people gather, much of what takes place as they develop these relationships and bonds, is a process of mutual discovery. This discovery produces a lot of the "aha! moments" that give online life its kick. These moments, in which many talk back to the computer screen can range from empathetic tears, to "I feel like that too" to "oh, neat!" to "what a bozo" to "if he says that again I'm gonna scream!" The level playing field The great equalizing factor, of course, is that nobody can see each other online so the ideas are what really matter. You can't discern age, race, complexion, hair color, body shape, vocal tone or any of the other attributes that we all incorporate into our impressions of people. This, of course, will change as audio and video become common along with the written word. But, even then, a lot of people will play their sounds and show their video but won't show themselves. If the balance tips to anyone's advantage, it's in favor of those who are better at articulating their views. Some people are amazingly skilled at debating. Other people feel shyness around their own forensic or expressive skills. Posting a comment is "stepping out," so to speak, putting yourself "out there" to people you might not know. And many of them aren't going to reveal themselves because they are just "lurking" (reading without participating). Still, the demographic makeup of the online population is one area that needs improvement, in my view. Every PC-based online net I know of has 80% or more men. And most of these are white men. PC systems are not exclusionary. But most of the population don't have the necessary equipment. Few people buy a PC and modem just to join an online service. And many who would otherwise enjoy the interaction can't hack the still engineer-oriented design of most computer systems. The meeting place I said earlier that an online community is one of the easiest ways to meet new people. Certainly it is very low-risk. I think this is mainly due to the essential informality of online conversation. Rather than being required to sustain a single conversation with one or more people, relationships usually form out of numerous, often short exchanges. In a way, it reminds me of commuters who take the bus or ferry. They see each other frequently but each encounter is of a fairly short duration. In situations like this the pressure is minimal. If you'd rather read the paper than chat then you just do it and don't worry about it. But, over time, many people form enduring relationships this way. The "hot" medium In the online environment, just like any other social situation, the basic currency is human attention. In the public forums, you communicate with groups that may have as many as several hundred people involved - even if they don't all make comments. Nobody comments on everything (although some people can be quite verbose!), but many people don't say anything at all. In fact, most people who use online services don't post any comments. They lurk. In the world of online services theory the lurker/poster ratio is one of the indicators. Ten or more lurkers for every poster is common. Many people who do post comments are aware of this fact and orate at times as if they are addressing the Roman Senate, the online Continental Congress, or the lunchtime crowd at Hyde Park. I have heard online discussion called, "writing as a performing art." It sometimes reminds me of Amateur Night at the Apollo or the Gong Show, because you don't know what reaction people may have to the comment you make. Maybe you won't get any reaction. Maybe you'll get email voicing support or dissent, maybe someone will take you on in the discussion, or maybe you will have said something good enough to warrant a string of online "amens." At any rate, many are reticent to say anything at all because of this version of stage fright, while others take to it like Vaudeville troupers. An online system is a place where you have to give yourself permission to step out and participate. Of course if you talk too much people may tend to ignore your comments after awhile. Most services charge by the hour like a parking meter. Combining this expense with the cost of the phone call can add up to real money for extended participation in the scene. There are ways to cut the time spent online by "downloading" the material and reading it offline through your word processor. You can compose your responses and then "upload" them to the appropriate topics. But there are some people who don't want to do this, even though it saves them money, because the medium feels "hotter" to them if they are interacting directly online. It's as if being online in the moment is reading the magazine and the downloads are like reading photocopies of the articles. It just isn't as appealing to some people, even if it is cheaper. The personality you project Each person holds his or her own mental image of what the online society is and how it is structured. The corollary to this is the personality each person projects to everyone else. What you find here is that some people, viewing this as just another communication tool or social environment, try to make their online personality be as similar as possible to their personality everywhere else. Other people change their personalities once they get online. This may come from the sense of safety and empowerment they feel in the sanctity of their room or office talking with people that they know can't deck them if they say the wrong thing. The online world might be where words can break your bones but sticks and stones can never hurt you. Others may be self-conscious about their appearance or some other handicap and, knowing that it isn't a factor in the interactions, simply feel more confident than they do elsewhere. For some others, the online environment seems to promote in them a certain kind of functional schizophrenia as if logging in was like Clark Kent stepping into the phone booth. Having an alternate persona is part of the game and much of what makes it fun for them. I know some people who are much more bristly online than they are in person. And they enjoy the contentious nature of many of the conversations. They sometimes even agitate it to be more that way, as if it was a kind of "sport hassling." They like the ferment for its own sake. Ferment By its very nature, online discussion is going to involve disagreement. In our reach for analogies we often ask "is it a salon or is it a saloon?" Once again it's a hybrid. It's a salon, certainly, in the classic image of gathering for spirited, bright conversation where people of different backgrounds and disciplines come together for that intellectual massage that feels so good. But it's also like this Wild West saloon where you never know who's going to come in the swinging doors and try out their stuff on everybody. Somewhere on the system at all times there is some sort of ferment going on. Ferment is a necessary part of the recipe. Part of the scene will always be in flux. At times it will be argumentative and contentious. As a host or a manager, you accept that, and work with it. There is concern amongst some participants that a topic or a forum won't feel "safe" to them. This elusive quality of safety depends on a few factors. The size of the group, the nature of the subject matter, the personalities of the people who happen to be in there talking, and the way that forum is hosted. A forum environment that has a hostile atmosphere will discourage participation by those who have less aggressive tendencies. The hosting is important because in overseeing the discussion, you don't want things to sink down too far but setting too high of a standard for "niceness" can also kill off a discussion before anything worthwhile gets figured out. That means that some temperatures will rise some of the time. There will always be some rough spots whenever a group works to define itself. Without any ferment at all, the "brew" will quickly go flat. "Flaming", in Net Talk, means to torch someone with your verbal flame thrower. One gets the feeling that flaming gets to be even more of a sport over in the Unix net world than it does on a place like the WELL. They even have social protocols for it like saying <Flame On> before you launch your missles. In my view, it is easy enough to misunderstand someone online without having to lay it on even thicker. Some of the arguments and debates we've had over the years have been pointless personal hassles, but many have led us to a fuller understanding of what we were as an entity, or what we thought we ought to be. It is important to note that policy and custom has been shaped at times by arguments and hassles that were often quite personal in nature. Like everything else in a scene there is a lot of blending of different elements. Disagreement about a point or a matter of principle can get complicated when mixed in with dislike for the other person's style or personality. The other side of this coin is the overt effort of people to lend affirmation and support to others. This may be something as simple as complimenting them on something they said or wishing them good luck in one way or another. It's like sending an electronic "get well" card. Newcomers Many of the regulars and old-timers know each other pretty well. To a newcomer it can seem, as Alice Kahn once described it, like being a new kid in a high school. When the face-to-face factor comes into the picture, things can get thicker still. People who haven't or don't see others "in person" may wonder if in-group tendencies get reinforced at social gatherings. In reality, the opposite is true for many people such as Carol Gould. She says, "My own experience at the WELL parties has been very positive. I was somewhat nervous about walking up to the group of people, none of whom I knew, but I was able to enter a conversation or two and before long I felt fairly at ease. People were curious as to who I was and, surprisingly, claimed they'd 'seen me around' on the WELL. At any rate, my sense was that people were curious and friendly, and it encouraged me to come to the next event. And I would have to say that I have never felt excluded or rebuffed by anyone." Perhaps it's just a clique in which everyone is a member. As SF Chronicle columnist Jon Carroll observed, "I had a great experience at Howard's book- signing, which was my first Well event. I met all these folks for the first time, and the air was filled with, 'You mean you're onezie' and 'I think that's rabar over there' and glad cries and furious conversation and the other people in the bookstore were like, 'Who are these people?' In other words, I was member of a clique totally composed of people I had never met before." There is, however, always a challenge for the regulars to remember what it is like for a newcomer. It must be remembered by all that newcomers are essential to the survival of the group because they refresh the place, strengthen its vitality and replace the people who move on. Without new viewpoints and personalities the place becomes stagnant. Opting out I like to say that if you think you are in a community you probably are, and if you don't, you aren't. Online, this sense of community is far less obvious than it would be in a small town or a church community. In fact, it only exists as a commonly-held, ongoing agreement of the participants who make it be true *for them.* Ultimately, all communities are a set of agreements among the people and in any community (and especially these days when many neighbors hardly know each other), one can always have strong or weak involvement with the group. But the online environment lends itself well to a person who wants to interact online, follow rules, observe protocol and etiquette, and still being completely disengaged from any sense of belonging to a community. There will always be people who will say, "uh-uh, not me. I'm just here for the info. I'm not part of any community, thank you very much." And I think that's healthy. Indeed, some of these people speak up at times when there seems to be an excess of "groupthink" taking place. IV. Rights, Responsibility, and the Constitution These are the early days The image of the Continental Congress isn't really too far-fetched because the many discussions regarding rules, policies and customs of this new online environment are pioneering in nature. Nobody really knows what the future holds, except that electronic communication will be a lot more common and ways of interacting in virtual space will have a lot more variety. But it isn't known what social conventions, if any, people will observe as they try to get along with each other and conduct business in the electronic environment. It's all being debated and figured out as we go along. Things determined now will surely have long-term influence in the future, when they are more common to the whole population. So that the best minds may be applied to the task of figuring out the social and legal issues of electronic interaction, we need as open a forum as we can put together. Without the goal of improved communication throughout the citizenry, regardless of their opinion or station in life, writers and sociologists who express the fear that electronic technology will widen the gap between the rich and poor - rather than narrow it - may be proved right. Allowing maximum freedom of expression for each person or institution represented is the only way that enough collective intelligence can be gathered so that these matters can be figured out for the common good. Hackers and law enforcement There are those who view their words as strict intellectual property and those who regard their online writing as so much ephemeral conversation and give it away as soon as they type it out. Then there's the phone company and those who would bypass the phone company. There are software companies and independent programmers. There are those who believe in uninhibited free speech and those who seek a degree of control over what can and can't be said and to whom you can say it, especially regarding minors. And all are really necessary in this widening national debate, because freedoms in the electronic meeting space have to be established by the people actually using the services. Outside lawmakers or groups shouldn't be the ones to determine what happens in the virtual world. If we don't establish the rules and customs for ourselves, then larger, more impersonal institutions with far less sensitivity to the subtler elements of this endeavor will have their way and we will be compelled to play by their rules. As it is now, there isn't much case law regarding these various issues, lending still more credence to the image of the "electronic frontier." In a small system like the WELL or a huge one like Prodigy, issues are worked out by making some rules and then seeing what happens. Some things work and some don't. In a way, it's hard to make many generalizations because the electronic meeting places are very much a bundle of individuals. Every case is unique. Larger patterns will emerge producing more clarity over time. Still, there are a few general categories into which most of these issues fall. Free speech Is electronic conversation talking or writing? Or is it a hybrid of these two that is unique and new? And is this activity protected by the United States Constitution just like freedom of speech? If this is a kind of meeting place, is it then an assembly of people that is also protected by the First Amendment? I say that these are rights that must be protected. But if it isn't in writing anywhere, are the safeguards actually in place? In 1987 a bill was introduced in the California State Assembly to amend the California Constitution to include electronic speech in the guaranteed protections of the First Amendment. The bill died in committee because it was felt that the protection was built into the existing wording. I hope that it is true. Privacy Do your electronic files have the same Fourth Amendment protections from unreasonable search and seizure as your personal effects in your home? Is your private email on a subscription-based service truly private? What rights do you have, what are the responsibilities of the operators of a system and what are the limits placed on the government if they should want to look through your electronic files and correspondence? In 1986, Congress passed the Electronics Communication Privacy Act which provides for some protection for the individual and defines the responsibilities of the system administrators. Recent history (especially in regard to the Jackson Games case where government agents seized and kept a company's files and records without making an arrest, or more recently the seized "Amateur Action" BBS in San Jose that had downloadable risque GIF files that were apparently available to clever minors who somehow would be more corrupted by them than a copy of Playboy hidden under their mattress) shows that the Government is testing its powers. And the placement of limits on those powers is in dispute right now in the courts. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has been created by concerned individuals to help shape these policies and to help protect and defend people that they feel were treated unjustly by the Government. The ECPA made it a crime for someone to gain unauthorized entrance into an online system. It also requires system operators to inform their customers about how much privacy they should expect and then insure that that privacy is not invaded. Most system operators have unlimited "root" privileges that include the ability to examine anyone's mail. On the WELL, and on 101 Online, we let people know that our system administrator has that power, but they do not read anyone's mail without their permission. If an operator surreptitiously examined someone's mail outside the regular stated duties of system maintenance, then it would be a violation of the ECPA and hence, a Federal crime. But what if the FBI came to our office and ordered us to give them a copy of everyone's email? Would we have to do it? What if they wanted to confiscate our equipment so they could comb through the files? Could they do it? According to the ECPA the answer is yes if they have a search warrant, but only if the material is more recent than six months. If it's been on a system longer than six months, then only a subpoena is required. What this means in terms of Government power is that while they are limited by certain procedures, if they really want to, they can shut down your operation, possibly throw you in jail and otherwise wreak havoc in your life. This balance between the user, the system operator and the Government is one that is being defined a little more every day. My feeling is that unchecked and unopposed power will seek to extend that power into new areas whenever they appear. Ownership of words and intellectual property Is it publishing or is it just conversation that happens to be in writing? The WELL User Agreement says "You own your own words." This simple phrase gets to the heart of the matter of intellectual property as applied in the online world, but, like all of these other issues, is fraught with ambiguity and is subject to myriad personal interpretation. "You own your own words" was intended to mean that you, and not the system operators or management, are responsible for what you say. You take the heat, but you get the credit. But does getting the credit mean that your every utterance is a standalone piece of copyrighted intellectual property that requires your express permission for reproduction? Does the fact that anything you say in an online system can be downloaded and printed out by anyone who happens to read it create a different class of reproduction than quoting without permission for a commercial publication? If a journalist quotes something from an online system and they don't obtain permission, did they steal it, or did they overhear it in a conversation? We can't lose sight of the concept of fair use here. Like a publishing agent told me once, "if you think it's fair use, then it probably is." While I don't like to see people get too maniacal about what happens to things they type into a system because actual control is already just about impossible, and getting worse, I do think that good manners and consideration of others' wishes are critically important, even into the far reaches of cyberspace. Censorship If a system is privately owned, what are the rights of the individual verses the right of the owner to remove someone's comment? Does a user of an online system waive certain absolute rights when they join a given network? Are the owners of a system responsible to their customers and the right of those customers to express themselves freely, or is the system responsible for making sure that some kind of community standards must apply to the electronic dialogue? Some of it is easy to answer because certain activities such as posting an illegally obtained credit card number or offering to sell controlled substances are clearly illegal and must be removed. But what about "community standards?" Current obscenity law refers to "local community standards" having jurisdiction in deciding what constitutes obscenity. But in the online world, where people meet in virtual space even though the participants may be located anywhere in the world, are there any local standards that even can apply? Does the physical location of the system matter? If the WELL were located in Dothan Alabama instead of Sausalito California, would it have to alter its method of managing the online society? The question can be posed: do you bring the service to them (in which case their local community standards would apply) or did they come to you to get it (in which case your community standards would apply)? To me, the latter of these makes more sense. 101 Online bills its customers through the Pacific Bell phone bill. This gives them more say regarding content than I think they ought to have, but recent California law won't allow them to bill if public access areas qualify as "obscene." Obscenity is defined as appealing to prurient interests with no redeeming social, political, scientific, or artistic merit. Before we launched 101, I got Pac Bell to agree to a standard similar to an "R" rated movie. I can live with that because you can get away with quite a lot at the R rating these days. Anything past that and you can take it to a private area. Whenever it is possible, I advocate giving access controls to the parents themselves, as we did at 101 Online where a parent can create a sub-ID for their kid and then control where the kid goes on the system. If you don't want your kid to go into the chat area then you can shut off access. Same with the Forum. I feel this is far better than trying to make everything conform to a so-called "family" standard maintained by paid censors, as on Prodigy. V. Keeping it Running Your primary job As manager of an online service, everything you do boils down to one thing: keep the dialogue going. In this sense it's like running a railroad or a cruise ship. In those kinds of businesses there is the need to keep the motors running or, in our case, the modems running. But the customers must also be pleased aesthetically as well as other ways that are not so tangible as making schedules and keeping the restrooms clean. We have to have good quality conversations and the atmosphere has to be warm enough that it encourages people to open up. You can't have just one of these things going for you; it has to run right and people have to like it. Being a service business means that success brings increased pressure to deliver a high standard to the growing number of people. A service business isn't like doing a painting or making a record. It's more like an airline that upgrades its planes as the technology moves forward. The basic product needs to be constantly refined and made more efficient. Furthermore, large sizes of people involved in the same conversation changes the dynamics of the conversation. Growth means the potential for more good minds and hearts meeting and relating and sharing what they know. But size could cause the conversation to deteriorate by becoming cumbersome and complicated. The real fuel that drives the engine of online interaction is enthusiasm. And you work to build and preserve that just as much as you work to keep the equipment together. An informal atmosphere You need to have rules and policies, but leave a lot of room for judgement calls. I like to run it similar to the way they referee NBA basketball games. There actually is a certain amount of body contact that goes on, but at some point you decide to blow the whistle and call a foul. While I believe that it is important to have wide acceptance of various personal codes of conduct, I do like to cultivate a social atmosphere where it's basically not OK to be a jerk. What that means in practical terms is rightfully a hot, ongoing discussion topic that helps a group arrive at its social equilibrium. My feeling is that informality is essential to the healthy growth of an online community. According to Ray Oldenburg in _The Great Good Place_, "the activity that goes on in third places is largely unplanned, unscheduled, unorganized and unstructured. Here, however, is the charm. It is just these deviations from the middle-class penchant for organization that give the third place much of its character and allure and that allow it to offer a radical departure from the routines of home and work." Hence, I favor just enough rules to get us by and no more. Whoever's there: those are your people You can target and you can recruit and you can bring in your friends, but a lot of the population of the scene is self-selected. And these people whom you, too, will be meeting for the first time are going to be your customers and, hopefully, your allies, especially if they are part of your host group. The trick is to make your alliances with the best qualities in a person. Then, help introduce that good part of someone to the good part of someone else. They aren't going to all agree and you don't want them to all agree. If everyone agreed on everything, the place would get dull fast. And they aren't going to all like each other either. While it would be lovely if everyone got along, even if they disagree about a lot of things, it's a pretty unrealistic expectation. So, you have to be diplomatic. You will have to perform all sorts of little mediations between people, even if it's just to say, "aw, he's not so bad, really." The flip side of this is that when someone really special comes along, find a place for them so that the whole scene will benefit. The big suggestion box Suggestions and advice happen at one time or another in just about every area of a system. In that sense the whole thing is like one huge suggestion box. While you don't have to do everything that everyone tells you, and ultimately you make the decisions, it is essential that people know that you are listening and that you not only listen to advice and suggestion, you welcome it. You need a big fuse If you want to manage an online system that is devoted to the free exchange of ideas and opinions, then you need to have your tolerances set very high so that you don't melt down when the disagreement gets too thick. There will always be people who disagree with your views or your approach and sometimes they may even be right. This is your opportunity to show what you mean by tolerance, because you have to expect a certain amount of criticism and you can't freak out when you get it. Use a light touch Computers and and other high-tech gadgets call to mind images of Orwell's 1984 and other scary visions of people droning away at terminals while Big Brother determines their destiny and even their everyday actions. Ironically, among those most concerned about such possibilities are computer professionals themselves. As manager of an online environment you have a lot of clout, should you choose to wield it, so you need to be almost reassuring to people that you aren't interested in such heavy-handed control practices. Try to use a light touch in your actions and in the way you communicate to people both publicly and privately. Even if you are refusing to take a suggested action. People like to know that their views are respected and considered and that they won't be treated in an arbitrary manner as if they were a number instead of a person. "Innkeeping" for an online scene is a balance between setting policy rules based on your own vision of things, and finding the "sense of the group" so that you may incorporate it into whatever decision you make. Different online systems deal with these matters in different ways. Some won't allow any real controversy at all, to the point that they kick you off the system if you try to continue talking about controversial things. Another has a set of words that, if included in a posting, automatically gets that posting censored. Some just knock out all the irrelevant comments as if they were a butcher whacking the fat off the edge of the steak. Just about anything that smacks of heavy-handed administration has a kind of chilling effect on a scene that is based on the free flow of ideas. People won't stick around if it isn't any fun or if they feel they are being squelched. Dealing with the dark side The upbeat tone of this essay is not intended to deny the reality that there is a dark side to online interaction. This is an arena of real life, as valid and dynamic as any other. This means that there is both opportunity and risk. Especially now in these early days when there is so much excitement about this wonderful new meetingplace, a newcomer can have the illusion that the intentions of everyone they encounter in the online population are as good as they may appear from their words or tone of their conversation. It isn't always so. Some aspects of how much privacy you have and how much control you have over what people know or can find out about you varies according to the design of each online system and some are common to all systems. Common dangers to all include: "Cracking" (breaking into someone's account, usually by guessing or obtaining their password); the system operator's ability to read you email and files without being detected; email that moves through the Internet can be read by the postmaster of every site it passes through; material you have erased and believe to be gone may be stored and retrieved on backup tapes at the system location. Some Unix-based systems, like the WELL, provide abundant opportunity for someone to check on the doings of others. You can see if someone is online, you can find out what they are doing, you can sometimes read their files and you can see when they log in and log out. It's a double-edged sword because the tools that allow people a lot of freedom and variety in how they communicate also provide better opportunity to snoop and harass. As the manager of an online scene, you have a responsibility to inform people that there is danger and risk as well as opportunity. Think of yourself, perhaps, as the proprietor of a swimming pool or a beach resort. There is abundant opportunity for people to have fun, but if you aren't careful and aware, you could drown. Of course, you can't drown or get physically hurt from an online encounter or relationship, but you can get emotionally hurt and those wounds are just as real as they are anywhere else. This is tricky stuff for everyone. How do you develop trust? Do you assume good intentions on someone's part unless they show you otherwise? Do you watch guardedly and only open up when someone earns it? The process of arriving at a sane balance is a journey that the group takes towards self- definition. Censor, ban and boot: the heavy artillery The hosts of the conferences and forums have their own challenge in keeping things moving and energetic without it getting out of hand to the point that people feel intimidated or hurt. The atmosphere definitely varies from place to place based on how the host handles things. There are different tolerances for topic drift or what one person can say to another. Ad hominem statements are discouraged just about everywhere, but one host may, upon reading a comment that attacks the person more than the statement, censor the comment outright. Another may just get into the conversation at that point and say something regarding ad hominem statements. Another may just let the fur fly. The balance is tricky when you want to build traffic because some people will want things quite polite or they won't say anything at all, and some people won't participate if they think there's too much control going on. My own preference for censoring or removing a comment is that if someone says something that is outright illegal such as, "hey everybody, I just found this credit card. Here's the number!" then you remove it. But if it's something controversial or personally offensive, then I prefer to let the comment stay there and perhaps make a comment after it, saying something like, "here is an example of a truly offensive comment which says a lot more about the person making it than the person to whom it is directed." The second instrument of power available to a host is "banning." This means that a user can be denied the privilege of commenting in a given conference if that person has sufficiently violated the guidelines of that conference. This is a more serious action and one that engenders even more controversy and discussion than censoring. Finally there is the most extreme action: booting someone off of the system. In the six years I was at the WELL, we did this only three times. I feel booting should be limited almost soley to deep and repeated harassment by one person to another. Harassment, which means "intent to annoy," does happen online. To keep it to a minimum and to let the one who feels harassed make the determination, online systems should have user controls in email and in real-time interaction (like chatting) that allow you to block incoming messages from any given person. However, in each of these cases mentioned above, the boot wasn't permanent. Rather than treating it like being exiled from a country, never to return, it is more like being told to step outside of the saloon until you cool down. Because the point isn't to get rid of people. The point is to try to make it so everyone wants to stay and talk. The Management as part of the community For many years I have been the manager of an interactive online environment. The people, the discussions they have, and the relationships that weave into the fabric of community are the main products of my business. But those of us who manage these products can also be a part of it. We too contribute to the discussions, joke and argue and tell stories about ourselves and the adventures we've had. We don't hold ourselves separate from the folks. We understand that it involves the heart as well as the mind. In that way we are akin to the innkeepers of old where the proprietor hangs out around the table and fireplace, sharing a cup with the guests. The whole place feels cozier because of it. But trust is not something easily granted by people; it has to be built. Particularly when the people involved are so independent minded. For a long time I had the very strong impression that if I acted too capriciously or with a heavy authoritarian hand that a bunch of people would sort of turn and say, "oh, gee I didn't know you were really the Brain Police. I guess I was wrong." That used to hang over me like a Sword of Damacles. Sometimes it still does, especially when there is some sort of crisis. And the trust has to be maintained. Can't ever take it for granted. VI. The Future The Internet is growing so fast it can barely keep track of itself. Computerized communications reach more people all the time. Surveillance is refined now to the point that satellites can track individual vehicles from space. Photo images can be altered undetectably. Laptops are more powerful than computers that once filled entire rooms. Virtual reality. Genetic engineering. We've been hearing it all our lives, but it still holds that never before has technology had the potential to do more good or more harm. I might sound like someone back in the early part of the century when I say this but I'm going to say it anyway because it is the essence of everything I have learned about communication in cyberspace: humanity must dominate technology and never the other way around. Above all else, I want these communication tools to help; to be part of the solution and not more of the problem. To this end, I want to sound a warning about five areas of great concern to me. First, the cost of the phone call to an online service is prohibitively expensive for people outside of the local urban calling areas. Even the big packet- switching nets don't go to cities with populations below about 100,000. This means that many of the people who could most benefit from being in touch online are priced right out of the market. And we all suffer from not having the input and views of people who live out in the country. I urge that we press for national information highways that are affordable to everyone. Second, our society has computer users and non-computer users. While hundreds of thousands of enthusiasts dial into online nets around the country, the general population is largely unaware that such systems even exist, let alone as potentially important to them as their car or their TV. Still, millions of dollars have been and are being spent to bring online communications to the general public in the form of dedicated terminals such as Minitels and smart phones. Moreover, the phone companies and the cable TV companies are preparing to go to war over who will carry video signal to the nation. But for all the talk I have heard and all the reports I have read about hooking up the "global online community" little is happening to create systems where computer users and the general public can meet and talk on a common system. This is incredibly short-sighted, in my view. The real communication breakthrough will occur when those who use computers and those who don't can exchange openly and freely because access to the meetingplace is not confined by the equipment that gets you there. The real system of the people will be one that combines these two worlds in a way that works for both. Third, I feel great alarm at some of the recent raids on hackers and sysops who, in utter disregard of due process, have had their equipment and systems confiscated before any proof or conviction is forthcoming. This is nothing short of tyranny by law enforcement, especially in cases involving morality standards and not actual cracking or file theft. Moreover, I am concerned about some recent government proposals that would only allow encryption schemes that can be read by government authorities. There must be limits to government power in cyberspace. Fourth, ownership of media is becoming more concentrated every day. Fewer corporations own more media outlets all the time. And it's getting worse. Right now the FCC wants to remove the limits on how many radio and TV stations a single corporation can own. Cable companies have almost complete vertical monopolies over the TV industry, from production to network to cable. We watch what they want us to watch. Now some cable companies and phone companies are merging, creating a new class of media giant. For freedom and democracy to survive, we must increase direct communication among ourselves - the people. But that will happen only if we, the people, demand that the structure of this new communications revolution be based on the "open platform" model. This model concedes that private communication industry will prosper mightily, but demands that certain protections be thoroughly built-in. These protections include universal affordable service, free speech, privacy protection, widely available public service applications, and diversity of information sources. Let me pause on this final point for a moment. With this upcoming hybrid of telephone and television, let's make sure that the best of both are openly available to all so that, as in the printed word where everyone can be a writer and publisher as well as a reader, each person can be a broadcaster as well a consumer. If this happens there can be a communications renaissance. If it doesn't, then we may end up with another television "wasteland" with "five hundred channels and nothing on." And finally, cyberspace is wonderful. It has the potential to hook us all up in ways that most of us didn't dream possible only a few decades ago. But the planet's wealth is increasingly concentrated in the hands of the few. And our planetary environment is deteriorating badly. Species are becoming extinct, global warming and ozone depletion aren't just theories anymore, and the planet's ability to sustain huge populations while resources are being plundered at unprecedented rates, is in peril. What I don't want to see is that this virtual world will become a substitute reality that serves to placate a population that accepts a world where it's no longer safe to go outside because the air is too foul, the danger of skin cancer from the sun is too great or the social inequities of the real world are that much easier to ignore. So I say that those of us who develop and use these tools in these still-early days have the responsibility to make sure that our work isn't co-opted into some huge techno-pacifier. Rather, let us build into these networks a pervasive community spirit that invigorates our society at every level, from local to global, with a new democratic awareness. I don't think I was ever more inspired than when I learned that the failed coup in Russia was thwarted in great measure because the resisters, holding out in their various enclaves around Moscow and the rest of Russia, stayed in touch through an online network. Or more recently when the people of Thailand used cellular phones to stay in touch and organized after the military had cut off their phone lines. In both these cases, popular communication was a critical element in beating back military tyranny. Big wheels are turning around the world right now. Let us make sure that we work to help, and not hinder, this great movement toward democracy and self-determination that may be the only hope for a world that, more than ever, needs to talk freely to itself. APPENDIX A: Principles of Cyberspace Innkeeping John Coate The currency is human attention. Work with it. Discourage abuse of it. You are in the relationship business. Welcome newcomers. Help them find their place. Show by example. Strive to influence and persuade. Have a big fuse. Never let the bottom drop out. Use a light touch. Don't be authoritarian. Affirm people. Encourage them to open up. Expect ferment. Allow some tumbling. Leave room in the rules for judgement calls. Think "tolerance." Encourage personal and professional overlap. Don't give in to tyranny by individual or group. Encourage face-to-face encounters. Help it be "woman-friendly." It isn't just you: let the people help shape it. Be part of the community. APPENDIX B: General Advice for the New Online User Hilarie Gardner [email protected] The benefits of being on-line far outweigh the risks, but being aware of the risks, the tools, and the support available better prepares the newcomer for the adventure. 1) that system footprints or tracks may be read to see: *when and where your logins occurred *when and what commands you've executed *even information deleted may be retrieved from backups 2) that your account is only as secure as it's password 3) that sysops or root-holders: *may read mail, files or directories without leaving footprints *may undelete files you've erased *may release your files, etc. under warrant 4) that default file protection may not be secure for newly created files 5) that mail: *may be compromised by each forwarding site *bounces may appear in entirety to the postmaster *is owned by BOTH the sender and the receiver 6) that identifying biographies may be system searched or remotely fingered 7) that other users' identities: *may not be what they appear *may be falsely registered *may have had their own account compromised Be aware of the social dangers possible online: *Harassment, or frequent or unsolicited messages from another user, occasionally sent randomly to women's id's *Stalking, or being watched or followed online, occasionally coupled with physical confrontation *Flaming, or emotional verbal attacks *Addiction, or the need for support/feedback available online outweighing a reasonable budget of time or money. Know how to protect yourself: (privacy begins at home) 1) Protect your password: *Chose a strong password ( a combination of upper and lower case characters, and not a name or a dictionary word). *Do not leave your terminal logged in unattended. *Do not let anyone watch you log in. * Log out cleanly. 2) Protect your files: *Know the default for newly created files. *Occasionally monitor your files. 3) Protect your information: *Never send compromising information (your phone number, password, address, or vacation dates) by chat, sends, mail, or in your bio. *See if encryption is available if necessary. See what education/communication means are available: *Join a support group like the Santa Monica PEN's PEN Femmes, or the online groups BAWiT or SYSTERS. *Attend seminars, classes or study groups. *Make use of private, special interest forums online. *Use peer pressure in public online to settle disputes. *Answer harassment & inappropriate behavior directly and unambiguously, and then post for comment and discussion. *Advocate for grievance procedures, tolerance guidelines and the discouragement of false or anonymous user registrations. *Do not submit to unreasonable pressure. *Speak up for what you want.