In a world where our societies have evolved rapidly from close-knit, small communities to large, teeming places full of strangers we are not supposed to trust, there still exists a need in people to belong to some kind of group where they feel comfortable and safe. Online communities can replace those aspects of small communities that we have lost in the myriad of strange faces we have to cope with every day. Howard Rheingold claims ‘whenever CMC [computer-mediated communication] becomes available to people anywhere, they inevitably build virtual communities with it’ (2000:xx)
These communities offer people a place to meet new people with no danger, a chance to try new ideas and new identities. The internet has opened up a vast field for performance and interaction throughout the whole world. It is a giant arena, always open, and always full of fellow improvisers. Every time someone logs on to the internet, they are sure of having a different experience than anyone else, due to the configuration of their computer, the setting in which they are physically sitting, and what they choose to look at online. Thus every internet experience captures the instantaneous nature of live performance: every experience slips away as it happens, but, like any performance, it is built out of much effort and previous thought: it took a century and massive amounts of money to wire the world, but now you can use those connections to instantaneously have a presence anywhere in the world. There is a ‘hunger for community’ (Rheingold, 2000:xx) in many people, because so many real social outlets have been cut off to us as our doors close to strangers and we insulate ourselves from the world, avoiding eye contact, even shunning the voices of others by focusing only on music that we beam directly into our ears. Online interaction allows us a way to mingle with others, on our terms: every experience is personalized and firmly controlled by the user. If you do not like what is happening, you can remove yourself by simply walking away from the computer. (Rheingold, 2000:xv-xxxii; Turkle, 1995:102-124)
This paper explores several aspects of the evolution of experimenting with identity online. In a brief study of an early and major webboard community, the WELL, we see the beginning of how people learned to think of online interaction as a viable way to cooperate in a community setting, built and administered by people who were experts in community—the first designers and moderators of the WELL were long-time members of a self-supporting commune.
Once people learned about online interaction, they also discovered how easy it was to play a part, and how the lack of physical interaction allowed them to reveal only what they wanted to about themselves. People who loved fantasy role-playing games such as Dungeons and Dragons soon became enamored of online text-based worlds. They could easily assume any character they wished, even that of another gender or neuter, without going to the bother of trying to dress for the part. Eventually, they constructed whole text worlds online, where people could explore structures and objects left behind by previous users.
The ease of playing a part online also contributed to the ease of deception. Some internet users found it very easy to get attention by tugging on people’s heartstrings, or by pretending to be other than who they are, for purposes other than a role-playing game. In examining the case of Kaycee Nicole Swenson, we find that some characters become part of the social consciousness of the online world: they are created in much the same way that the MUD worlds were created, and are authored by many people, not just their original creator, in the same way that ‘Derrida emphasized that writing is constructed by the audience as well as by the author’ (Turkle, 1995:17). One such instance is the life of Kaycee, one in which a created character is thought to be real for several years, and deeply affects the lives of some people who become very close to her. Less successful, but also interesting, are bots, found in chat rooms. They are programs that interact with real users and are able to have limited conversations. Bots also act as helpers and confidantes to new users, so that there is less need for constant human assistance to be available. (Foner, 4.8.2005)
The next step in the evolution of online communities is the blog. Starting as filters for the ever-increasing chaos of the internet, blogs have grown into personal diaries with the ability to share multimedia with the world. They serve as the hub of new communities and, through hypertext linking, illustrate the phenomenon of weak links, which are also known as degrees of separation. As in the game the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, trying to link actors through their movie work to the actor Kevin Bacon, weak ties happen when people are connected via another person to a community they would not ordinarily have access to. Those in the linked community are more likely to be able to help in finding work or a mate than the person’s original community, because they have ties to people you have never met, who ‘represent opportunities you’ve never explored.’ (Stone, 2004:97)
Blogs are a way for people to create a home for themselves online, digital extensions of a person’s consciousness, which allow interaction with that person. Like any internet persona, there is very little way to tell if the blog-person is real, or an imagined aspect of someone’s perception, or of a collaborative character conceived by several initial authors. I say initial authors, as the interactivity of blogs allows anyone who comes across it to leave comments (if the blog owner allows it), and so get the attention of the blog’s creator. Many blog owners do read the comments, answer questions and give responses, sometimes in the public forum of the blog, and sometimes via email. Friendships and enmities develop, as people discover one another’s blogs and either leave them a nice note, a nasty one, or comment about that person’s ideas on their blog. Blogrings develop (a series of blogs with similar themes that are linked together), moderated by one or several ring owners, who decide in which order the blogs are linked. Many people who have similar blog themes tend to read each other’s entries, link to each other, and create an intricate and interconnected social sphere that rivals the intimacy of a small village.