Chapter One: The Heart of the WELL
Chapter Two: Daily Life in Cyberspace: How the Computerized Counterculture Built a New Kind of Place
Chapter Three: Visionaries and Convergences: The Accidental History of the Net
Chapter Four: Grassroots Groupminds
Chapter Five: Multi-user Dungeons and Alternate Identities
Chapter Six: Real-time Tribes
Chapter Seven: Japan and the Net
Chapter Eight: Telematique and Messageries Rose: A Tale of Two Virtual Communities
Chapter Nine: Electronic Frontiers and Online Activists
Chapter Ten: Disinformocracy
The first of Paris's two virtual cities I encountered was CalvaCom, the oldest surviving enclave of French virtual communitarians who use systems like the WELL or COARA to attempt a relatively high level of discourse and conviviality. The other virtual city is much larger--the six million Minitel users who created by themselves an enormously lucrative chat culture in an information system that was originally designed to be a telephone directory and database. The way small-scale virtual communities have failed to catch on among the personal computer users of France, and the way the Minitel-using population subverted the medium to uses not envisioned in the planning of the multi-billion-dollar system, are key case histories for future virtual community designers on local or national scale. Although my four visits to Paris and the interviews I conducted there can only touch on the most prominent landmarks of French online culture, the importance of France's ten-year Teletel project, the world's largest national CMC network, is another critical uncertainty in the evolution of Worldnet, too important to be left out of anyone's mental model of the Net.
I found my Parisian friends the same way Izumi Aizu had found me--through mutual friends on the Net. I had heard of the Minitel and the notorious messageries rose --the "pink" sex-chat services that overloaded the entire French national network during their first surge of popularity. I couldn't believe that sex chat of the most unsubtle kind is the most important French contribution to Worldnet. It wasn't easy at first to find virtual communities in France from my location in California--they didn't show themselves prominently on Usenet or MUDs or IRC. I was curious about other kinds of CMC in France, but didn't have any direct contacts at first. The Net led me through two intermediate steps, the Electronic Networking Association and a member of it who lived in Paris, to Lumbroso and Morel, two Parisians who had been active members of the oldest virtual community in Paris.
CalvaCom is a dial-up system like the WELL that connects personal computer users into group discussions via their modems and a central computer. This is now a technical minority in France, because the Minitel terminals distributed for free by the French government plug directly into the telephone system without a computer or modem. CalvaCom's population of several thousand is equivalent to that of the WELL or COARA or TWICS a few years back, although the original system, known first as Calvados, went into operation before any of the other pioneering virtual communities I had visited. CalvaCom was already in existence when France Telecom, the government-operated telecommunications company, decided to give away millions of Minitel terminals to French citizens in a conscious effort to bring the population into the information age all at once.
I had met Annick Morel face-to-face on a previous visit to Paris, but Lionel Lumbroso and I exchanged e-mail about twice a week for several months before we met. I had seen him in my mind's eye as a portly fellow in his mid-fifties and was shocked to discover he was slim and in his late thirties. We found that we shared the same history, values, and concerns that I had found in common with Aizu and Hattori.
In 1968, as a college war protester and counterculture activist myself, I remember feeling that the students who were challenging the French government on the streets of Paris and the Japanese students challenging their own authorities in Tokyo were, in some sense, members of the same global cohort as I and my American companions were. We were all saying, in our own ways, that the injustices of the old ways of doing things were not going to get us through the rest of the century. When I met Aizu and Hattori, they told me that they had felt exactly the same way back then; and here we were, more than two decades later, intersecting in cyberspace, excited about a new tool for making the world work better than it does. Lumbroso, Morel, and I went through an almost identical conversation at first; just like my first encounter with my Tokyo friends, we talked late into the night from the moment we first met face-to-face in Paris, like old cronies who hadn't seen each other in years.
Lionel Lumbroso lives in an apartment on one of those hidden Parisian blocks of high-ceilinged apartments arranged around a little private square off the main street, behind a wooden door, long ago converted from the stables of Napoleonic officers. Lumbroso's living room, where much of the offline socializing for CalvaCom takes place, and the bistro around the corner that specializes in steak tartare, are the images I see in my mind's eye when I think of CalvaCom.
Lumbroso was one of the founders of Calvados, in the early 1980s. In the late 1970s, Lumbroso started working as an interpreter in technical fields, which led to some interest in computers. In 1981, he met an American woman, Gena, who later became his wife. Through Gena he became involved with Steve Plummer, the dean of students at the American University of Paris. Plummer and another partner wanted to give personal computer users remote access to advanced programming languages. At that time, most PC users in France used the Apple II, a laughably puny antique by today's standards, with modems that transmitted information at 300 bits per second. But they had high hopes that the hardware would become more powerful in the future and they would have a growing business.
Plummer and his partner needed a technically knowledgeable Parisian. Lumbroso came along, took a crash course in computers, and started to create an online system from scratch, in time for a big computer show. At that time, Apple was just establishing Apple France, and the fellow who took charge of Apple France, Jean-Louis Gassée, thought the Calvados system could become important for Apple users. Apple and the American University were supporting him to create something entirely new.
Lumbroso wrote programming code, he went out to visit Apple dealers, he met with the business managers. "I was a jack of all trades. It was quite exciting," Lumbroso recalled, ten years later. "At the time we started, in 1982-83, Minitel was still an experiment confined to one suburb of Paris, Velizy, where France Telecom was testing the idea. Our models at Calvados were the big American online services. The Source was big at that time; CompuServe was not that big yet."
It started out as a community of Apple users and Apple dealers, and people still exchanged information about Apple computers and argued about different kinds of Apple software, but they also started chatting, in groups of twenty or thirty, for no particular purpose other than to make each other fall off the chair laughing, every day. "We would shoot phrases at each other, carry on multiple conversations. All the fun came from the mingling of different conversations. You could see the transcript on your screen. We would do it for hours on end." The word began to get around the French Apple community, and by 1985, Calvados had grown to about three thousand users, and income was about $100,000 a month. In 1986, Steve Plummer found $2 million to finance the system outside the American University. They bought more powerful hardware, rewrote the software, and targeted the service not just to Apple II users but to all PC users.
They designed the new version of their online service, which they renamed CalvaCom, using the metaphor of different "cities" to represent different forums. The Macintosh city, The PC city, and the Atari city were the major discussion areas. Like the first BBSs in the United States, CalvaCom was still frequented mostly by computer enthusiasts or people in the computer business, talking mostly about computing. "We deliberately created cities that weren't linked to computer-related topics," Lumbroso recalled. "For example, one we called `free expression.'" It was a catchall term for arguments about political issues, discussions about cinema or video, philosophy--whatever people wanted to talk about in a forum. A forum was different from the group chat service that was still popular when CalvaCom started; in a chat, there is no record or structure to the conversation, but in a forum, there is a structured record of comments that are all supposed to be related to a specific topic--a conferencing system.
One of Lumbroso's strategies for keeping their service lively and growing was to identify those users that were the most active, the most stimulating, and hire them as animateurs --the paid equivalent of the WELL's hosts. That is where he met Annick Morel, who also helped me meet the architects of Telematique, as well as the sysops of pink chat services. I asked Lumbroso what the most vexing social problems had been, from his position. "The conflict between the need to keep the atmosphere convivial, and the temptation to censor people," he replied.
For a couple of years, Lumbroso noted, there has been a vocal group of people online in the Macintosh city who hate the products of Microsoft, and whenever people in public forums try to exchange information about how to use Microsoft products, the discussions are derailed by familiar, tiresome tirades about the evils of Microsoft. "I think that online is a stage for some people who don't have opportunities to express themselves in real life." Whenever a system manager tries to curb expressions that probably drive away all but the thick-skinned, the system seems to get embroiled in a debate about censorship and the free expression of ideas. I've seen the same debates on the WELL and on TWICS, and according to Lumbroso, they continue on Calvacom.
In recent years, since he has not been working for CalvaCom, Lumbroso has cut back on his online time. He and Gena have two young children they didn't have when he started, which now take up his time, and he told me that he has grown weary of the constant argument online. He said that, after the exchange of information, wisecracks, and casual humor, argument was the single most frequent online activity. I described the WELL's and COARA's Parenting conference, and he said that nothing resembling that kind of community existed on CalvaCom, although a core group of CalvaCom users met socially. Funny chat was common. Brainstorming was uncommon. Barn raising was unheard of.
Nina Popravka, a computer professional who chose Calvados instead of Minitel because of the quality of the technical conversation, showed up at Lumbroso's house, together with several other old friends who had met through CalvaCom. She came into our conversation when Lumbroso and I were talking about the kind of communion represented by a Parenting conference in America or Japan, and why it isn't common on either CalvaCom or the larger Minitel services. Popravka theorized that there really isn't a market for communion-type CMC services, or they would have proliferated on Minitel. "In France," she insisted, "people put fences between their houses. They don't want to socialize with their neighbors. If they want to meet with their friends, they go to a café." Truly, if a city can be said to remain rich in the kind of informal public spaces that Oldenburg called "great good places," it's Paris.
Perhaps the public conviviality that Paris is famous for is the real thing that others seek, and for which they find only a substitute, a simulacrum, in virtual communities. The question naturally arises, as Popravka pointed out, whether the communion kind of virtual community has the same potential in a place where people commune in the still-vital heart of their city, or whether the suburbanized, urban-decayed, paved, and malled environment of modern America is a necessary condition for the proliferation of virtual communities. Certainly, that is the implication of the theories of the French philosopher and social critic Baudrillard, who sees electronic communication as part of the whole web of hyperrealistic illusion we've turned to, in our technologically stimulated flight from the breakdown of human communities.
Two other CalvaCom users I met at Lumbroso's house, Jean-Marc and Jean-David, reminded me of very similar young men I had met in the United States and Japan. They became interested in computers at age eleven or twelve, started exploring online systems with their modems, and found ways to use those systems without paying any bills--"cracking" the system. One day, one of them made a verbal slip in a public forum, revealing that he wasn't the person he had led CalvaCom to believe he was. Lumbroso, on discovering that this fellow and a friend had cracked the system, instinctively made the brilliant move of giving them free accounts and putting them in charge of system security.
A young woman who now works for the trendy alternative French television channel Canal Plus, Chine Lanzmann, was another legendary animateur from Calvacom. She was notorious in France for having written an erotic autobiography of a high-school girl, and found that she had both a talent and a weakness for keeping an online group chat session going. "Finally, I realized it was taking up too many hours of my real life. It was an addiction. I quit cold turkey." I learned more about chat addiction on Minitel when I tracked down the person responsible for loosing the chat hack on the rest of the French online world.
Something much larger than CalvaCom came along in the middle of that community's evolution--Minitel. It's no mystery why modem dial-up services for PC users in Paris did not grow explosively, when the government was handing out free terminals (with built-in modems) by the millions. And Minitel was part of something even larger, a French national information technology policy specifically formulated to leap into the CMC era on a national level. And that national information technology policy was based on a vision that emerged from a study conducted by the nation's best scholars. The most amazing part of this futuristic vision is that it all started in the 1970s and that the driving force was a notoriously bad telephone system.
From Telematique to Pink Messages: The Surprises of Minitel
Only 60 percent of French households were equipped with telephones in 1968. The distribution of telephone lines was closer to third world countries than a nation that made its own nuclear weapons. The state of French telecommunications was seen as a national crisis. The French government has a long history of taking direct action to guide the development of the arts and sciences. The word dirigiste refers specifically to a political regime like the French government, which actively promotes, regulates, controls, and influences cultural or technological developments deemed vital to the public good. In the early 1970s, the Direction Générale des Telecommunications (DGT) was charged with creating a plan to modernize the telephone system.
By the mid-1970s, French industries were frightened of IBM and worried about the British experiments in
videotext--the (failed) experiment in selling information services to British subjects via their television screens and telephone touchpads. French intellectuals and scientists were beginning to write about the significance of the coming information age. Pressure was mounting on the government and industry to do something more than modernize an antiquated telephone system. The DGT obtained a superministerial budget in 1975 to develop a megaproject. In 1978,Simon Nora and Alain Minc submitted a decisive report, requested by the president of the French Republic, Valery Giscard d'Estaing, on "the computerization of society."
The Nora-Minc report, as it is still known, was bold in its forecasts: "A massive social computerization will take place in the future, flowing through society like electricity. . . . The debate will focus on interconnectability. . . . The breakdown of power will be determined between the people who create networks and those who control the satellites. . . ." The report concluded that the advent of cheap computers and powerful global communications media was leading to "an uncertain society, the place of uncountable decentralized conflicts, a computerized society in which values will be object of numerous rivalries stemming from uncertain causes, bringing an infinite amount of lateral communication." To continue to compete in the first rank of nations, Nora and Minc exhorted, France would have to mount a full-scale national effort in the new field they named
Telematique(merging the French words Telecommunications and informatique). They didn't fail to note that "Telematique, unlike electricity, does not carry an inert current, but rather information, that is to say, power" and that "mastering the network is therefore an essential goal. This requires that its framework be conceived in the spirit of a public service."
The cost of distributing the paper directory for the new, upgraded, expanded French telephone system was becoming a significant factor. The DGT estimated twenty thousand tons of paper needed by 1979, and one hundred thousand tons annually by 1985. The notion of a national videotex system to replace the paper telephone book provided one more crucial but unexpected trigger for the creation of the Teletelsystem, the massive overall project of connecting computer centers all over the country into a high-speed data communication network. By the summer of 1980, the DGT was able to demonstrate a Teleteltest in the Presidential Palace. The first experiments in electronic directory services began in Saint-Malo.
Soon thereafter, one of those decentralized conflicts and numerous rivalries began to break out: the privately owned newspapers reacted quite strongly to the idea of distributing words on screens instead of sheets of paper. Some of the newspaper owners denounced the whole idea: Le Monde, on September 27, predicted that Telematique was "digging the grave of the written press." Other newspapers decided to get into the Teletelbusiness themselves. In the summer of 1981, the crucial experiment took place. Twenty-five hundred households in Velizy were equipped with electronic decoders that would enable them to use approximately twenty different services on their home television screens. By the fall of 1981, three key municipal projects were set up around the country. The one in Strasbourg, Grétel, was sponsored by a newspaper, DerniŐres Nouvelles d'Alsace. Grétel, according to Minitel mythology, is where users hacked the database service to enable themselves to communicate in real time.
In early 1992, I caught up with Michel Landaret, the man responsible for Grétel, when he was changing airplane flights at San Francisco International Airport. We talked for about an hour in the quietest cocktail lounge we could find. He confirmed that the first chat system was a user's hack:
We were running an experiment with a very small number of users, to determine whether professional associations and institutions would use data banks. The DGT had not focused on Minitel's communication functions. What happened with Grétel altered the users' relationship to the service in a crucial way. We had only a few dozen users who called into the service. For research purposes, we monitored their usage. We could see how people new to the system could get confused and enter a series of ineffective commands. So we designed a system to communicate
with those users by sending a message directly to their screen, and receive messages back from them, to help them learn how to use the system. One of our users just cracked that part of the system and used it to talk with friends. As soon as we found out what was happening, we made improvements on the service and made it a legitimate part of the system. They loved it.
Six months later, the system was totaling seven hundred hours of connection time per day, compared to the total of one hundred to three hundred in the Velizy experiment, where people had access to information but not person-to-person communications. When I next visited Paris, I followed leads provided by Landaret and my other friends who had been involved in French telecommunications, and talked with some of the people who were involved in the fateful decision to adopt the chat services that surfaced in Grétel to the national Minitel system. Landaret, however, had more to say about the significance of what they had learned over the past ten years.
"Because our system was set up to study the way people use these services, we could perform social experiments," Landaret explained. As the system evolved, it became a very loosely coupled collection of different information services and communications forums. Many people stayed in only one or two different domains, Landaret and his colleagues discovered, but a small number of people seemed to move ideas very swiftly from one group to another. "We found that we could feed a small piece of deliberately false information to one of these people, and it spread throughout all the different groups, to as many as four thousand people within two days." The public and private communication channels, in the hands of a core group of cross-pollinators, served to distribute certain kinds of ephemeral information very quickly.
Landaret confirmed what many have noted about CMC--that it breaks down certain traditional social barriers. He cited an early user, an eighty-five-year-old woman who took great pleasure in talking with very young people: "Nobody knew she was eighty-five, and when we interviewed her, she said she would never address in public any of the young men she conversed with online." He talked about a lonely young man who found the only social life he had ever known in chat sessions, and who plunged into depression when access was cut off due to nonpayment. Landaret became most serious when he began talking about the way their research turned up the potential for addiction from the very earliest days of the medium.
"In 30 days, there are 720 hours. How many hours would you say our first addict spent online in 30 days?" Landaret asked me. I figured that a truly obsessive user could devote about half that time to chatting online, given time for meals and normal sleep.
"520 hours," he finally declared grimly.
"What is the maximum number of hours that a single person can spend in front of a terminal without leaving it to drink, eat, or sleep?" was Landaret's next question. I guessed a few hours, five or six maximum.
"The maximum we recorded was seventy-four. What do you think the maximum bill for a period of two months might be?" I guessed $1,000 or more. Landaret came back with another stunning figure--more than $25,000.
Indeed, when Minitel terminals were distributed and the messageries, as the chat services are called, became popular, there were abundant tales of chat addicts, but that phase was short-lived, for the most part, because the people who spent all their money and credit lost their access to the expensive services. People still get into trouble with Minitel addiction, but the ability to continue to pay high monthly bills is a limiting factor that isn't built into inexpensive systems such as BBSs or Internet.
The most obvious factor contributing to Minitel's success was the government's decision to distribute small terminals free to the population. Each unit included a small screen, a small keyboard, and a telecommunications connection that required nothing more complicated than plugging the unit into a standard telephone jack. The major opposition force in French society, the newspapers, reached an accommodation with the DGT; newspaper owners accepted the opening of online information services other than telephone directories, and the DGT financed the foundation of services for daily newspapers and magazines. This deal turned out to have an unexpected twist in 1986, when a national student strike was organized through the messaging service of the newspaper Libération.
I talked with Henri de Maublanc, one of the former executives for France Telecom, the government-owned telecommunications company that administers Teletel. Maublanc now operates one of the most successful (nonpink) messagerie services. He told me that the whole fuss about Minitel replacing newspapers was an illusion that only a few within France Telecom recognized at the time. The Minitel screens are tiny and fuzzy, and people will prefer reading their newspapers the traditional way until future mass-produced screens can rival their readability. "By 1984, a few people like me and others thought that videotext is not the point of this network. The point is to know what kind of service through the network and screen we can provide that is competitive with their other sources of information." They started with stock exchange information and designed all kinds of services for providing other timely information. Then the infectious notion of the messagerie came out of Strasbourg. Maublanc and his colleagues designed the user interface of systemwide chat service and presented the idea to France Telecom.
According to Maublanc, when he tried to explain to the architects of the Teletelsystem that their giant distributed database could best be sold as a communications system, "they said I was crazy, it would never work, the entire idea is to deliver good information, not to deliver chat lines. In fact, it turned out that as soon as we opened communication services, they very quickly became the largest ones."
Maublanc and others I queried pointed to one key economic factor that unleashed the potential in the convergence of chat services and a national telecommunications infrastructure. France Telecom started the kiosque system in 1984 that enabled the national telephone company to take over individual billing for different services, collecting money from users via telephone bills and paying out to service providers, for a percentage of revenues. The sex-chat services quickly became the most popular and most controversial of these new, unexpected uses people were finding for Teletel. By the summer of 1986, there were more than one thousand different services. In 1985-1987, as the number of terminals in use reached into the millions, chat services drove Minitel usage to initial success--crashing the entire system at least once because so many people were trying to type at each other at the same time.
At their peak, the messaging services, the chat lines, represented about 4 million hours a month, according to Maublanc, and have dropped since then to about 1.5 million hours per month. "And in my opinion, about a million of those hours every month are through the chat services that create `false persons.'" The "false persons," to whom Maublanc attributes the decline of popularity in chat services, are the animateurs that the sex-chat services hired to keep conversations going. Almost all of the animateurs are young men whose job is to pretend they are young women.
My friend Annick knew a young fellow named Denis, an actor whose day job was to pretend to be several women at a time, via Minitel, from 8:00
p.m. to 2:00 a.m. , three days a week, plus all weekend from 8:00 p.m. to 4:00 a.m. for thirty francs an hour. I met Denis at Annick's house, and he used her Minitel terminal to show me what he did for all those hours. He explained that it was a fun job for an actor, to try to create four or five different women at once, and keep up four or five conversations with credulous men, preventing them from guessing the duplicity as long as possible. Denis was cynically gleeful about his performance: "This fool still believes I'm a woman!"
Even the people who aren't paid to pretend to be someone else are obviously pretending to be somewhat different from their real-life identity. Like the usual sex BBSs everywhere else, every man is a stud, every woman is a beauty. The conversation level, to put it mildly, is direct. Here is a very brief excerpt, with translations, of the kind of dialogue that characterizes a pink messagerie:
JF: Jeune fille $SI young girl or young woman
JH: Jeune homme: young man
H: Homme: man
F: femme $SI woman
CH: cherche: looking for
LISTE DE TOUS LES CONNECTES (list of all people connected)
1 JF PLUTOT AUTORIT. POUR JF DOCIL (rather authoritarian young girl looking for docile girl)
4 FRANCK95 (95 means the area where he lives)
6 *TENDRE CH.F.COMPLICE (tender man looking for woman same type)
14 COQUINE (naughty)
15 LEZE 74
(* $SI pseudo certifi, registered pseudo nobody else can use)
Suite de la liste Suite (list continued, type Continued)
Les connect$RIs de votre r$RIgion R + Envoi (To get the list of people connected from the same area as yours, type R + Return)
Changer de pseudo P + Envoi (To change your pseudo :P + Return)
Guide G + Envoi (Guide : G + Return)
(What happens now is that someone has sent a message to Denis, who pretended to be Elodie, a twenty-three-year-old girl living in the 16th arrondissement of Paris.)
Message pour vous (message for you) de H TENDRE PR FEMME TENDRE (from tender man looking for tender woman)
TU AS ENVIE DE FAIRE L AMOUR?
(Do you feel like making love?)
--Votre response---------sinon RETOUR-- (Your answer --If not, Return)
tout de suite comme ca en fin d'apres midi sans se connaitre?
(Right away, at this time of the day, without knowing each other?)
Message pour vous de BOSTON 87 H
--Votre response---------si non RETOUR--
oui mon chou
Message pour vous de BEL H 36ANS CH F AU TEL DE QUAL
QUE RECHERCHEZ VOUS? SI JE NE SUIS PAS INDISCRET
What are you looking for? if I'm not too indiscreet to ask you?)
VOTRE-REPONSE--(Vous lui avez dit:GUIDE)
vous n'etes pas indiscret tres cher je recherche une compagnie pour le moment apres on verra
(You're not indiscreet, my dear, I'm looking for some company for the moment, and I'll see what I'll do afterwards)
And that's about it. As Denis explained the way he saw it, it was a case of intermittent reinforcement, the same quirk of human behavior that makes slot machines work. "If you maybe try five hundred times, you might actually get laid" was the way he put it. Those are very low odds, but when you compare them with the odds of making actual sexual contact with another person if you are home alone, it's enough reality to keep people wading through all the fantasy. More important, noted Denis, was that most people, in his opinion, were in it for nothing but the fantasy. It was a chance to step out of their normal identity and be superman or a beautiful woman and say all the things that they only think about in their most secret fantasies. You are a nobody at work. You have to fight a commute to work and back. You are lonely, or you are married. Indulging in an hour of sex chat is a crude but effective way of creating a different self.
Watching Denis in action was like watching the theories of sociologist Erving Goffman come to life. In his Presentation of Self in Every Day Life, which long predated the age of Telematique, Goffman theorized that people are always onstage in a sense, always creating a persona that they project to one audience or another. Much of our lives, seen from Goffman's perspective, consist of constructing responses in public that paint a certain public persona, and taking actions that live up to the image of the persona we present. Denis was what you get if you combine McLuhan and Goffman and plunk them down in the regular working population. Messageries are a particularly successful variety of the participatory soap operas of CMC that include MUDs and IRC.
The unpredicted economic success of the chat services set off another one of those clashes of values that the Nora-Minc reportedly had warned about. A small medical service decided to call their service
for "Service Medical," but so many Minitel users confused this with the acronym for sadomasochism that the service was flooded with kinky queries. The churches and many citizens looked on in horror as the explicit services began plastering Paris with huge erotic posters advertising their Minitel access numbers. The minister responsible for DGT publicly responded to calls for censorship on the grounds of moral pollution (one prominent figure called the messageries "electronic urinals") by saying that "the postman does not open envelopes." Electronic messages were considered private communications between sender and receiver, and thus sacrosanct. The guardians of traditional morality put pressure on other political fronts, succeeding in passing taxes on the sex-chat services. In October 1991, as the controversy continued to rage, a Harris France opinion poll showed that 89 percent of the French people polled were against banning the messageries roses.
Andrew Feenberg, himself a CMC pioneer, points out that the uproar over the sexual content of the first popular services in the new medium is nothing new. In his article "From Information to Communication: The French Experience with Videotext," he writes:
Curiously, those who introduced the telephone a century ago fought a similar battle with users over the definition of the instrument. The parallel is instructive. At first the telephone was compared to the telegraph, and advertised primarily as an aid to commerce. Early resistance to social uses of the telephone was widespread and an attempt was made to define it as a serious instrument of business. . . . In France erotic connotations clustered around these early social uses of the telephone. It was worrisome that outsiders could intrude in the home while the husband and father were away at work. . . . So concerned was the phone company for the virtue of its female operators that it replaced them at night with males, presumably proof against temptation.
Sex chat might prove to be a passing phase. Sex is the first thing people often do with a new medium. It is common folk wisdom in the video industry that the VCR boom was initially fueled primarily by x-rated videos. The deeper underlying point, Feenberg claims, is that the emergence of chat services was the outcome of a clash of values concerning the use of a new technology: "Teletelwas caught up in a dispute over which sort of modern experience would be projected technologically through domestic computing. The definition of interactivity in terms of a rationalistic technical code encountered immediate resistance from users, who redirected the emphasis away from the distribution of information toward anonymous human communication and fantastic encounters."
Feenberg's ultimate point is that this user rebellion irrevocably changed the way large information infrastructure projects can be conceived: "But beyond the particulars of this example, a larger picture looms. In every case, the human dimension of communication technology only emerges gradually from behind the cultural assumptions of those who originate it. . . ."
The challenge now confronting France, after more than a decade of this experiment, has some of the same elements of the challenge that faces Japan. Because of Japanese restrictions on their own telecommunications market, they were late to develop; now they are faced with the growth of Internet and the cultural conflicts that full Internet access would precipitate. France closely guards against cultural intrusion, as in its dirigiste attempts to control the French language through the Academie. Fear of American competition and distrust of the Internet experiment colored the decisions that went into the original Teleteldesign. The tiny screens and almost unworkable keyboards of the millions of Minitels now in use are clearly inadequate in the age of high-bandwidth communications and powerful desktop computers. Will France redesign its user interface, and thus leap forward again, or will it be chained to the investment in crude terminals that was revolutionary ten years ago? And if France leaps ahead with a user interface to what has already proved to be a successful national network, will that French network wall itself off from the Net, the way it has done in the past? Or will it join the Net and give it more of a French flavor--and, inevitably, discover that the Net has changed French culture, in ways that are not all pleasant?
Other national experiments are brewing. Singapore is in the process of implementing a national telecommunications plan, as is Taiwan. What will happen when these authoritarian governments meet the same challenges--to hook up to the Net and benefit from the new kind of wealth it makes possible, and at the same time accept unpredictable cultural changes that accompany the introduction of the new medium? But for now, the more immediate comparison lies just across the channel.
Virtual Communities in England
A friend in England sent me a newsclipping about an unusual fellow named Dave Winder who was part of a London-area virtual community known as CIX. I sent e-mail to the postmaster at CIX (a standard e-mail address that gets you an answer from the system operator) and began an electronic correspondence with Winder. Soon, a British virtual community, a whole new set of friends with a whole new, distinctly un-American outlook, came tumbling out of cyberspace, acting like every other virtual communitarian I've met thus far.
Dave Winder's story was an unusual one to start with--a crippling disease had changed his life, and the virtual community he found online turned out to be a way out of the psychological depression that had engulfed him. I ended up staying with Winder and his friends on two different visits to England and participated online in their public and private conferences for months, before and between physical visits. Again, we seemed to have a peculiar running start on our relationship, from the weeks and months of online discussion that preceded our first face-to-face meeting. The CIX gatherings I attended had a familiar feel. People began to tell me stories about their online adventures that sounded remarkably similar to stories I had heard in California and Japan and France.
Dave Winder and his friends went through a high-speed version of what has become a familiar evolutionary cycle: disparate characters meet online, find that they can discover depths of communication and deep personal disclosures with each other online, form equally intense friendships offline, and when the inevitable conflict occurs, it is sharp and schismatic, spawning splinter subgroups.
I met with Dave Winder and four of the core members of Herestoby (pronounced "Here's Toby"), a virtual community within CompuLink Information Exchange, or CIX, that coalesced around Winder's online personality and soon started meeting physically at Winder's place. I took the train for an hour out of London to Surrey, and walked a few blocks, following e-mailed directions, to Winder's apartment. Even though he had prepared me for his unusual appearance, he was still quite a sight. There was the hefty electric wheelchair, of course, modified to go faster than the legal limit. There was also the black bandanna with white skull print motif that covered his head, the motorcycle jacket and chains, the wraparound shades even indoors, the body piercings. A gentle-voiced if bawdy-tongued fellow, he seemed to have gone through morbidity and black humor about his physical condition and popped out on the other side, into pure theater. Later, I watched him turn on the television, turn the sound way down, and keep half a dozen people in stitches with his dark-humored running commentary, late into the night. Online, he has created a persona to match--known to most of the seven thousand members of CIX as Dwinder and notorious in the wilder neighborhoods of Usenet, such as talk.bizarre, for a more consciously outrageous persona known as Wavy Davey.
The Herestoby group were as motley in person as any WELL or TWICS crew. There were the nerds, the rebels, the cosmopolites, all in one intense cluster. They were from all over England--several regularly drove for hours for the face-to-face gatherings. They were from different class backgrounds. They had different accents--the way people speak out loud is an important cultural identifier in England, and it's striking to be in a small group that exhibits so many different regional accents. They didn't have accents when they met, of course, because of the contextual filtering of text. Adding voice to communications in England is equivalent to adding body language and facial expressions to communications in Japan.
Despite their more obvious differences, they were all either professionally or avocationally wrapped up in computers--computer graphics, computer software, computer journalism. Toby is a programmer and software designer whose new program, a world simulation game, was the main object of excitement when I arrived the first time. Pat, a single mother from the North, is a computer journalist. Matthew is a more cosmopolitan, patrician, British public school type, who was fluent in French and had been a CalvaCom member. Peter talked a lot and reminded me of Blair Newman in that way. He asked where I was staying and I named a hotel. "I stayed in a hotel once," he replied. Their ages range from early twenties to late thirties; more than fifteen years separate the oldest and youngest. Pat was the only woman in the group. By the time we had worked through a couple pints at the pub together, they had inducted me into the family--they even decided to grant me online access to their private conference.
The other thing they had in common was the sense of having found something new and precious--the magical, intensely personal, deeply emotional bonds that the medium had enabled them to forge among themselves. They had questions, the way the TWICSters had questions, about whether people in other parts of the world formed similar bonds, about whether people got into fierce arguments and ended up posting private e-mail in public forums, and whether other people argued about that. We were discovering together that our experiences in virtual communities created a strong shared context in themselves. The Herestoby crowd were all eager to tell how it felt to find others who could reach out to them emotionally as well as intellectually, through their computer screens. We piled into two cars and drove back to London and then across town to a pub where one of their friends was playing in a band. After the pub closed, they drove back to Dave's and talked until dawn. They made me beg to be allowed to crawl off to the guest bedroom at 3:00
a.m. These people party harder than even the COARA crowd--they even do karaoke. Perhaps one of the unintended side effects of CMC is that the Net is a vector for the spread of singing off-key in bars.
A few years ago, Dave Winder was, in almost every way, a different person. At twenty-four, he was a hard-driving, money-motivated businessman, developing land around horse-racing tracks. "We were a three-car family, I worked sixteen hours a day, seven days a week," Winder recalls with an inexplicable grin. "Then I got encephalitis. I spent a year in the hospital, and when I came out my legs were paralyzed and my left arm was paralyzed. My eyes were painfully sensitive. The brain damage scrambled my perceptions. I couldn't read, write, count, or remember my address or telephone number."
A neuropsychologist thought that simple computer drawing programs might give Winder a way to find out if he could "get my brain working again." He started out with simple tracing exercises. "It was something I could be left alone to do." When it started to work, he found he could teach himself to read again, using the "Janet and John" books well known to preschoolers in Britain. Then he started using a word processor, with a spelling checker that forced him through a menu of choices and thus gradually helped him remember how to spell.
After nine months of work, he could read and write, and hold conversations. In 1989, a friend gave Winder a modem. He joined Prestel, a data-communication service similar to CompuServe. Prestel is one of the surviving remnants of the British attempt to leap into the videotext age--the same experiment that partially triggered the French effort in Telematique. The data-communication service for delivering modem users to libraries of information or discussion forums is particularly important in Britain because British Telecom charges by message units that take into account the distance of the call and the amount of time metered. It makes using modems more expensive if the service you are trying to reach isn't in your immediate neighborhood. One of the general results of this policy is that those people who belong to communities like CIX use special software, known as offline readers, that log onto the service and quickly download all the e-mail and new responses in public forums, then quickly logs off the service. Offline reader users can then read and write without the meter running; the software then logs on again automatically, delivers replies to e-mail, and inserts responses in the proper places in public topics.
"Then I heard about CIX," he recalls, grinning even more broadly, "which I was told was more of a community than the forums I found on Prestel."Frank and Sylvia Thornley started the BBS called the CompuLink Information Exchange in 1985, the same year COARA and the WELL started. Most BBSs in England at the time were like most BBSs in the early days in the States--strictly oriented toward downloading software for specific computers, and talking about those computers. CIX started out with an orientation to many-to-many discussion. The Thornleys used a full-blown conferencing system known as COSY that predates the PicoSpan software that the WELL uses and the Caucus software that TWICS uses.
One interesting characteristic of CIX had a powerful influence on the way the community has developed. On the WELL, you have to ask WELL management to start a private conference for you, or you have to prove that your conference idea is worthwhile before they will create a public conference. On CIX, any CIXen, as they call themselves, can start a conference at any time. They can start closed conferences with restricted membership or public conferences or closed and confidential conferences with restricted membership and that don't show up on any public lists.
The first time he logged onto CIX, Winder jumped right into the community. "I saw something that a fellow wrote about the Amiga computer, and I disagreed with him. So I challenged him online. My first night out."
It was a difficult time. Winder's personality had changed along with so much else. He could no longer work at his former profession. His marriage was on the rocks. His disease was so serious that none of his doctors could assure him he would live more than another five years. The social side of CIX came along and "sucked me right in," he says. He started spending hours online, hours writing responses. Soon, he began moderating conferences. He had found more than something to do, and a new way to meet people. A new persona started constructing itself online, and a new Dave Winder seemed to be coming together offline. His online persona was distinctive: flamboyant, argumentative, unafraid of personal disclosure, often outrageously funny. Offline, he had transformed from the three-piece-suit-wearing businessman, through the long phase of hospital gowns and pajamas, directly to heavy-metal motorcycle gear.
He found one very close friend, Kevin Hall, who was often the only other person logged into CIX at 3:00
a.m. Hall invited Winder to join a small group of fellows in their closed and confidential conference--Herestoby. The name was a joke, referring to one of the founders, Toby. Each of the six young men who made up the original group was approaching a crisis in his life just when the group started experimenting with talking about their deepest feelings in a private forum. Dave Winder's health was the most acute problem. Then Toby was devastated when his best friend ran off with his girl. His online friends encouraged him to talk about his feelings with them instead of indulging in self-destructive behavior. That triggered a period of weeks in which people went beyond extending emotional support to make revealing confessions about their own inner lives.
Pat joined the group because one of the originals thought she would be an addition to their enterprise--the collaborative construction of a social arrangement that was more like a group heart than a group mind. Their communications were centered on feelings; their communication protocol was to break taboos against self-disclosure. "We had been involved in a very intense discussion about sex when Pat joined. Pretty personal stuff. And here was this woman joining six men. We didn't know what to expect. As it happened, she was fine. We decided at that point to close the group at seven people."
The initial bonding among the group took place entirely online. They didn't decide to meet face-to-face for six months. Everybody turned up at Dave Winder's place, nervous at first. "We were quaking in our boots because none of us knew what to expect," Winder recalled. "We were actually worried that meeting face-to-face would blow the whole thing apart." But the first get-together quickly became congenial, if not raucous. And then came New Year's Eve 1991, when one of the most beloved members of the group, Kevin Hall, died in a motorcycle accident.
The online funeral of Kevin Hall was a rite of passage for all of CIX, a time when the original members of the group felt closest to each other. My first visit was at the end of that period. In the four months between then and my second visit, the Herestoby group broke out in conflict. Harsh words were exchanged in public conferences among former intimate friends, private e-mail was posted publicly, rival private and public conferences were started. Several months after the shock of the group's breakup, a little more than a year after it started, the various factions began speaking to one another again. With the schism, the idea of creating a small, private place for a small group of friends to share personal experiences and offer support and help solve problems seems to have spread to other parts of CIX.
I wasn't able to visit them personally, but I also corresponded with many others in England involved in spreading the word about CMC: the city of Manchester is experimenting with an electronic city hall, similar to PEN; a group of young radicals in Oxford and London are setting up "fast breeder BBSs" linked into an alternate culture youth network throughout Europe. Greenet is an important partner of Econet and Peacenet and others in the Association for Progressive Communications; Geonet is providing conferencing for nonprofits, CompuMentor style. Commercial Internet sites began to appear in England in 1993, and CIX joined Internet. The British contingent on Internet is already a strong presence. I've received e-mail pointers to networks in Africa and South America. A new mailing list for community networks started in 1993 on Internet, and within a day, people who had been building community networks in Finland, Germany, Colorado, and dozens of other sites surfaced.
Connectivity between networks is achieving a critical mass around the world--the means of jacking in are becoming more affordable every day, and the expertise needed to set up networks is diffusing rapidly. Many countries will soon face the conflict that Japanese and French telecommunications planners must address: to refuse to join the Net in its widest sense and face being left behind, or to join the Net and face social upheaval.
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