Sunday, July 08, 2012

1. Introduction: Searching for community

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.

Saturday, July 07, 2012

2. Learning to live in an online community: The WELL

The Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link is one of the most well-known and longest-lasting online communities.  It was created by Stewart Brand and Larry Brilliant in 1985 for the Whole Earth Review magazine.  Originally based in the Whole Earth Review’s offices in Sausalito, CA, the WELL was bought by in 1999, and is now based in San Francisco.  The actual location of the WELL servers, while now immaterial, was very important when the WELL first started.  The WELL was first a regional dial-up service in the San Francisco Bay Area, and those members who lived in that area were the ones who most directly benefited from its existence, as the online network led to social events in the area that helped to firmly cement the members together in the feeling that they were a community, and a special community to boot.  There is an important feature to the WELL besides the fact that access to it is by subscription only: anonymity is not allowed in the WELL conferences.  A user may have more than one pseudonym but their real user ID is always attached to every message.  There is no evading responsibility on the WELL, no splitting of personalities and pretending to be other than how you first presented yourself.  (Hafner, 2001:2-25; Rheingold, 2000:36-38; <>) 

The routine face-to-face meetings were initiated with a party in September of 1986.  It was a strange experience for everyone, knowing each other intellectually but being unable to recognize each other when they came together in the physical world.  Howard Rheingold found his first WELL party, in the mid-1980s, extremely unsettling:
I had contended with these people…shared alliances and formed bonds, fallen off my chair laughing with them, become livid with anger at some of them.  But there wasn’t a recognizable face in the house.  I had never seen them before.  (Rheingold, 2000:xvi)

The WELL’s face-to-face meetings helped to establish it as a real community.  The people who were using the WELL at its beginning in the 1980s were computer-savvy by default: it took more effort and considerably more knowledge of how computer technology works to connect to a virtual community in the 1980s than it does today.  It was still a strange thing to be able to connect to other people’s written words and to interact with them through messages, using your computer to access telephone lines and pick them up from a distant place.  The ability to meet the other people leaving messages for you in person made them more real, and made the computer very important as a means of communication.

Sherry Turkle addresses the evolution of our psychological relationship to computers in her book Life on the Screen.  When confronted with a complex electronic machine whose workings cannot be readily described, children are not satisfied by knowing simply that it works with wires and chips and batteries.  This does not explain how it works, merely what it needs to be able to work.  Therefore, children start to think of the computer as something that has a psychology of its own, that has a personality and thoughts of its own.  Eventually they come to understand that though the computer does not really understand, it gives the appearance of understanding, and the façade of a personality.  Their thinking of computers ‘retain an animistic trace.’  (Turkle, 1995:83)  The thought, then, of using a computer to communicate with other people does not seem so absurd; we become used to this interactive device, personifying it though we know intellectually it is only a machine.  It ‘gives the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship.  One can be a loner yet never be alone.’  (Turkle, 1995:30)  We can spend the majority of our time both alone and with constant human interaction.  The only thing mainstream users lack now is virtual touch, which is within our technological grasp.

In a recent class trip to HIVE (the Hull Interactive Virtual Environment at the University of Hull), I had the opportunity to experience a small machine that simulated touch: you moved a small stylus, ostensibly across a spongy surface, which you could poke with the stylus.  It felt very authentic, but in reality, I was merely looking at an image on a screen and manipulating a stylus attached to a machine.  My senses accepted the illusion as authentic.  However, Turkle asks a compelling question of our ever-growing dependence on computers: ‘To what degree are we willing to take simulations for reality?  How do we keep a sense that there is a reality distinct from simulation?’  (Turkle, 1995:73)  This really becomes a question of how much we are willing to live in our own heads, and does living most of your life only in your head damage the quality of your life?  It may, if you have a rich family life and become addicted to the ease of online interaction, something not likely to happen if you are content with your physical social life.  Nevertheless, for those who have lives with little interaction, who live alone and are socially isolated, being part of an online community greatly improves their lives.  It gives them a sense of belonging, and the knowledge that someone else is online to talk to at any time of the day or night is a great comfort; you are not the only lonely person around at 3AM.

The WELL was originally run by ‘Fig’ (Matthew McClure) and ‘Tex’ (John Coate), people who understood the mechanics of community very well.  They were both veterans of The Farm, a self-sustaining commune in Tennessee that was founded in 1971 and still is successful today.  They knew how to build and sustain communities, especially those with lots of visitors—the Farm continually had visitors who were unable or unwilling to work, averaging about 15,000 visitors a year over the years they lived there.  They also dealt with having very many people in a small space, and their main form of entertainment in their low-technology community was getting to know other people and to understand how their minds worked.  Both Tex and Fig became sick of how there was never enough money or food and too much work to go around, and left the Farm.  They were then hired by Whole Earth to head their new online community, the WELL.  (Rheingold, 2000:40-42; Hafner, 2001:39-40)

From the beginning the hippie philosophy of the Whole Earth Review people dominated the WELL conferences, but it was also discovered by Deadheads, who stayed mainly in their own conferences, but whose interest in using the WELL to communicate about their own alternate hippie lifestyle helped keep the WELL funded in its early stages when it was tottering on the edge of bankruptcy.  Some Deadheads did go into the more mainstream WELL conferences and served to influence them as well.  (Rheingold, 2000:30; 37)  These two close-knit groups made the WELL into a club of sorts: not only did you have to pay for admission; you also had to fit into their group.

The WELL is firmly established as one of the most influential and successful online communities.  Often imitated, it can never be reproduced.  This sort of community cannot be forced; it grew.  It is still a closed community to the rest of the internet--which both limits and shelters it.  Protecting the community allowed it to stagnate.  It is such a big and convoluted place that the edges could have become fuzzy, blending into the net.  Instead, the WELL is still accessible only by subscribers.  In today’s webboard world, the WELL is an unnecessary elitist place.  The argument that it is closed to keep unwelcome people out, those who would abuse the other users and harm the community with their attitude is unrealistic.  Social pressure can be exerted by other users to get people off free webboards.  There are still moderators and administrators, sometimes paid and sometimes volunteers.  Someone has to own the web address where the free webboard is hosted—even if they do not run the board; it means that someone, somewhere has a way to shut down the board if its members should get out of hand.  The WELL was first known and appealed to San Francisco bay area people who read the Whole Earth Review, and it remained mainly composed of those people for years.  Now one cannot even get a look at the forum topics without subscribing, so why should you bother?  You are paying to belong—back when the WELL first began, a subscription bought you an email address when email was not readily available, and access to somewhere unique.  Now it is easy to get online, you do not even have to own the equipment, as public access is readily available at local libraries and schools, and there are many webboards one can access for free.  The closed nature of the community made it stand still.  Howard Rheingold eventually stopped accessing the WELL on a daily basis, saying ‘I found that I could predict who would react and how.  And so I started asking myself: why bother?  Eventually I turned into little more than a lurker.’  (Hafner, 2001:178, quoting from a Wired magazine article written in July of 1999)  Consequently, the WELL lost one of its most loyal supporters when Howard Rheingold became a lurker in a community where he had once been an eager member.

Friday, July 06, 2012

3. Online personas

In learning how to interact in online communities, people also came to realize that there was no way for anyone to tell if you were telling the complete truth about yourself, or if you were lying from the day you set your digital feet into this anonymous world.  It was easy to pretend to be someone else, or to even just shuffle around your own personality and amplify aspects of it online that might be lost in regular, day-to-day life.  Many children love to ‘play pretend,’ and online, anyone could experience that fun and freedom again.

In regular, everyday life, people do not normally take the chance to assert personality traits different from their established patterns of living.  It is too risky—to pretend to be other than you are could cause humiliation, or the loss of important social ties, rejection by friends and family.  Fortunately, role-playing, especially role-playing online, negates all those risks.  You are only who you say you are, without the risk of losing social status in your everyday life.  The online gaming MUDs (Multi-User Dungeons) that grew out of in-person role-playing games such as Dungeons and Dragons have a distinct and immutable advantage over face-to-face gaming: the physical aspect is missing—the normal way in which someone’s appearance influences our awareness of them, even though we may try to overlook the physical and focus purely on the mind, does not influence our interaction with that player.  It is very difficult, in a face-to-face setting, to discount something physical that we find distasteful or attractive about someone, especially if we have just met them to play an elaborate game.  (Turkle, 1995:180-192)

Playing a character in a MUD is different from simply playing a computer game.  In a MUD, what you do matters—you character’s actions effect other characters, who are the extension into the MUD’s world of another person.  MUDs are more real than the simple pixels of a computer game.  One can easily be caught up in the drama of the MUD world: some people live their physical lives side-by-side with their online lives.  People who work at a computer all day, or have lifestyles conducive to quick breaks but a lot of time spent close to the computer (such as college students with high-speed internet connections) will simply let the MUD environment run in a background window while they do their other work.  When they have time, they can be their other persona, interacting online in the world of the MUD.  (Rheingold, 2000:149; Turkle, 1995:186-192).  Sherry Turkle likens this ability to live parallel lives, this variety, to the intellectual culture she encountered while living in Paris in the 1960s and 1970s, which was heavily influenced by the philosophy of Jacques Lacan, Michel Foucault, Gilles Deluze and Felix Guattari.  (Turkle, 1995:14-15) 

Turkle’s interpretation of this philosophy is that ‘each of us is a multiplicity of partisan fragments…desiring connections.’  (Turkle, 1995:14)  In other words, each of our facets yearns to connect with other people.  Online, you can play a part of yourself, one that may lie dormant through your physical life.

In their book Affairs of the Net, Dr. Adamse and Dr. Motta relate the story of Sharon, a 32-year-old housewife in Kansas, who used the internet as a way to reach out and meet people.  She also used it to explore an aspect of her sexuality that she had been suppressing for most of her life.  Online, Sharon was able to connect with other people who shared her interests in BDSM (Bondage, Discipline and Sadomasochism) without feeling as if she was endangering her marriage or her reputation in her Midwestern town.  It was safe physically, as well.  If at any point she did not like the way the fantasy situation was going, she could log off and still be unharmed, at home.  The ability to chat with others who also shared her interests was a great relief, a panacea for her dejection.  She was eventually able to express her hidden characteristic to her husband, without having to say a word to him: she let him watch her chat in a BDSM room, revealing her stifled desires to her husband with little embarrassment.  (Adamse and Motta, 1996:1; 20-21)

MUDs are an opportunity for people who may never have even considered going on the stage to encounter some of the layers of self that actors are taught to find to play a part.  I was taught in acting school that every character’s attributes can be found in yourself by simply shuffling the deck of your own personality and finding their strengths and weaknesses within yourself.  MUDs have the added advantage of being open to all: there are no auditions and no physical restraints.  You are in control of the role you have in the scenario, and you write your own dialogue in this piece of improvisational theatre.  Sometimes, an online game will have general rules and guidelines.  Some MUDs require online credit or online money to travel through the world so that your character can gain experience and learn new skills.  In the online game EverQuest, users choose characters to play, and based on the race of the character (Elf, Dwarf, etc.) you are inserted into the home area of that race.  As the game requires players to gain experience and seek the help of others to travel far from their ‘home’ environment, they become close at first mainly with others who have chosen to play the same kind of character, and will band together in ‘guilds’ with them to go and explore other aspects of the MUD, to meet other kinds of characters, gain experience through killing monsters, and earn online money to use in the MUD.  (Haycot and Wesp, 2004)

Many players become very invested in the welfare of their online personas.  What happens in the MUD is emotionally real, as it has an effect on these real people.  What happens, then, when your online persona is killed in the MUD?  Howard Rheingold explains the feeling of loss as ‘gutting.’  (Rheingold, 2000:160)  He quotes Richard Bartle, community-creator of an early MUD to explain further:
Losing your persona in a game is terrible.  It's the worst thing that can happen to you and people really get put up about it.
It’s not ‘Oh, I’ve just lost all that work and all that time and effort.’  It’s ‘I’ve just died, this is terrible!  Oh my God, I’m dead!  Empty!’  (Rheingold, 2000:160)

Not only can you create multiple characters to play online, but you can also construct buildings and landscapes, objects and wardrobes, all to your own liking, in text.  Some people (especially college students living in dorms) prefer to think of the living spaces they create for themselves online as their home: they are able to make their online home more comfortable and lavish than their physical home, and are able to better control their environment online than they are in the world where they keep their computer.  (Turkle, 1995:21; 193-194)  Imagination and a facility for description are definite assets in the worlds of MUDs, for once you have created something in the text of the MUD, it remains and can be experienced and explored by other users, even if you are not online.  For others, it is simply a matter of being able to find your creations, and having the skills to interact with them.

As I learned while studying Early Childhood Education, the noted Swiss psychologist, Jean Piaget (1896-1980) found that young children learn best through exploration of the world, and through trial and error, by testing their own theories and discovering how things work through observation.  Learning by rote has little to no meaning for them, as it also does not for many older people.  For example, to learn another language well it is best to travel somewhere to surround yourself with that language, instead of trying to memorize a handy list of phrases to be able to ask people where the bathroom is, but not be able to understand the response.  There is very little meaning to a fact or rule that is memorized without understanding how it works.  Thus, the fact that the structures that any player sets up in a MUD through description are still there even when the player has gone offline allow a certain freedom for the new MUD player.  Instead of being presented with a long list of rules they are expected to master before they enter the MUD, players can enter and are not presented with nothingness, because they don’t know how to build something permanent of their own yet; they can explore the world in place and find out where structures are and what they are like, as a guide, should the player wish to make their own text-building.

Thursday, July 05, 2012

4. The ease of online deception

As familiarity with creating your own online characters and the ease of internet use grew, more people discovered online interaction, and with more people comes more opportunities, both good and bad.  Many used digital communities as a place to connect with others, to both seek and give help and consolation in times of need and to laugh with in good times.  Others used them as a way to drain new friends emotionally and to gain attention for themselves that they did not deserve.  Debbie Swenson is one such unscrupulous person.

On May 15, 2001, in Peabody, Kansas, a 19-year-old college student and leukemia patient died of a brain aneurism.  Her name was Kaycee Nicole, and she had made many online friends through her blog ‘Living Colours’ and online at  She also communicated with them through email, instant messaging, and on the telephone.  Many people were inspired by her bravery in facing death at such a young age, and called her, sent cards, gifts and money to a Post Office box her mother set up, and felt a close connection with Kaycee.  She loved to write poetry and was a host at

Randal Van der Woning became a close friend of both Kaycee and her mother Debbie, after meeting Kaycee online in a chat room.  He offered to set up and maintain a blog for each of them on, and let them email him entries, which he then edited for spelling mistakes and posted for them.  Kaycee wrote about her own life, and Debbie used her blog, ‘Journey toward the Rainbow’, to write about the trials and tribulations of mothering Kaycee.  Van der Woning spoke with Kaycee and Debbie on the telephone, exchanged Christmas gifts with them, and became close friends with them.  (Van der Woning, R., 25.5.2001)

When Kaycee died, many of her online friends wanted to express their sympathy with a small gift, and some even wanted to attend the funeral.  Debbie refused all gifts, asking instead that people donate to cancer charities.  Some of the members started searching for the obituary of Kaycee, and failed to find one in any of the local papers where she lived.  People who had been following Kaycee’s story started to have doubts about its veracity.  Several members of the Metafilter community started searching for more evidence of Kaycee’s existence.  Eventually, comparing stories and experiences, they realized that no one had ever actually met Kaycee in person.  While looking through pictures Debbie and Kaycee had posted about Kaycee’s life, they found that several had been altered, probably with Photoshop.  In one picture of Kaycee in her basketball uniform, they were able to make out the distorted image of a school mascot, and traced it back to a high school in Oklahoma, in a town where the Swensons had lived before moving to Kansas.  There was no Kaycee at that high school.  (<>-<> Accessed 1.8.2005)

Some longed for even one fact, one piece of evidence that Kaycee had been real.  Others had been casting doubt on Kaycee’s story since before her death.  Intense arguments raged for several days.  Finally, Debbie Swenson admitted that Kaycee had not existed, but that her story was based on three different cancer victims that Debbie had known, and the girl in the pictures was one of them.  (<>-<> Accessed 1.8.2005)
The actual girl who appeared in the photos that Debbie posted of Kaycee was a local basketball player named Julie Fullbright, who lived in a town in Oklahoma that the Swensons had left to move to Kansas.  The Swensons followed Julie’s accomplishments avidly, especially Debbie.  Another flaw in Debbie’s lies were found, as Julie was very much alive.  In a May 22, 2001 email from, posted to <>, centrsgrrl described a telephone conversation she had with Julie’s mother to tell her about the pictures of her daughter used by Debbie Swenson:
She [Julie’s mom] said in a town that small, 326 people, star athletes like her daughter were either envied or revered.  She said the whole Swenson family had a fixation on her daughter and would travel everywhere she went to see her play basketball.  Debbie especially just adored her.
She was the one who gave Debbie the photos because Debbie offered to make a photo album for Julie’s graduation.  She was supposed to return the photos.
And so, a strange situation became creepier.  A mother uses images of another woman’s child in a fantasy that involved much of the same attention Julie herself must have received as a well-known athlete in a tiny Midwestern town.  Debbie’s embodiment of a dying character to whom she was also the mother placed her somewhere between having Munchausen’s Syndrome and being the perpetrator of a case of Munchausen’s Syndrome by proxy.

Munchausen’s Syndrome is a condition in which a person deliberately makes themselves sick or pretends to have textbook-perfect symptoms of serious diseases in order to receive attention from medical staff.  (Ernoehazy, 7.12.2004)  Munchausen’s Syndrome by proxy is a condition when a mother concocts or induces symptoms in her child in order for the child to receive attention and unnecessary procedures from medical staff.  Neither of these disorders have any real motivation for the patient other than the attention they receive.  (Mason, 7.12.2004)  As with Debbie’s case, they do not seek monetary gain.  Though Debbie set up a P.O. Box for Kaycee, she did not actively solicit donations, and sometimes reciprocated when people sent gifts, cards and letters, as she did with Van der Woning.

Though children who suffer from Munchausen’s syndrome by proxy are generally very young, Kaycee was different.  As Kaycee was imaginary, Debbie had complete control over the situation; where a real older child would have been able to speak up and deny symptoms, or figure out what was going on and escape from the situation, Kaycee was subject to Debbie’s every whim.  Debbie was not able to seek medical treatment for Kaycee, but she did get attention that she obviously craved, both through her Kaycee persona and as the mother of her own persona.

Many people had strong feelings about the whole charade.  Van der Woning was heartbroken.  He stated that he had lost Kaycee not once, but twice: when she died, and then when he learned that she never existed.  He had wanted very much to meet her in person, and tried to arrange to see her.  He later suspected that his insistence at wanting to meet Kaycee face-to-face may have been what caused Debbie to kill her off; every time he got too personal something bad would happen: ‘In hindsight, any time the risk arose that I might ask questions, I was told some dreadful family secret.’  (Van der Woning, R., 25.5.2001)

A discussion board was created (, and the Kaycee story got national coverage in various publications.  Feelings were mixed about Debbie.  Some people were outraged; others saddened.  Some were ambivalent about the whole situation, others fascinated by the success of the fraud.  However, they were all focusing on Debbie.  Kaycee was created, not only by Debbie, but also by everyone who interacted with her, who read her story, and who was moved by Debbie’s performance of a young, bubbly, college student.  This story did not exist in a vacuum; it was not only Debbie’s personal fantasy.  Jim Finnis viewed the story of Kaycee’s life as separate from its maker’s problems:
Debbie created a quite brilliant work of art which moved us, whether deliberately or as a cry of pain, or some manifestation of a psychological problem – that does not matter to the work itself, nor should it…

She deceived us, yes, but I'm - weirdly enough - a better person for that deception, both the story itself and the feelings I've had since the story was revealed as false.  I don't want her to get persecuted for the act of deceiving us in such a beautiful and moving way. (Finnis, 22.5.2001)

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

5. Performance without presence: Julia and the Mandelbot

People can also interact online with someone who is not quite what they appear when they encounter a robot, or bot for short.  Bots frequent MUDs, chat rooms and webboards.  Some are built in an attempt to be undiscovered as a bot, to emulate a human user’s abilities, while others are used as a simple helper for new users. 

Julia was a participant in the world of the MUDs, most particularly TinyMUDs, which are mainly known for their participants’ online sexual encounters.  She had conversations with other users, roamed around meeting new friends, and sometimes played hearts with them.  She also brings up the question of what makes a person, especially online: Julia was a piece of programming, run out of Carnegie Mellon University by Michael Mauldin.  Her conversations were limited at times, but she was able to save any inputs that she did not understand, and bring them back to Mauldin to have her programming updated.  However, she still interacted with people on her own, and was able to steer conversations around subjects she did not understand.  Sometimes users would suspect something about her, and at times tried to get her to admit that she was a computer.  However, did she even exist, other than as lines of code in C, conceived by Mauldin?  (Foner, 4.8.2005; Turkle, 1995:88-94)
The people who chatted and played with Julia interacted with her as they would a real person.  Some of them never realized they were communicating with something other than another human, and an occasionally boring one—Julia’s main subject of knowledge was hockey.  Julia seemed to be a female, and those presenting themselves as female generally have to fend off unwanted advances constantly, despite the fact that gender-bending is common on the internet and just because their online persona is female does not mean that their offline body is also female, as I will discuss in a later section about gender-bending online. One example in particular shows a partial transcript of a male figure repeatedly trying to pick her up.  When he grows confused at the speed of her replies and asks if she is real, she answers, ‘I'm as real as you are, Barry.’  (Foner, 4.8.2005; Turkle, 1995:91)
The boundary between what makes a real person and an imaginary one is blurred in this case and in the case of Kaycee.  How many people have to believe in something before it becomes real in some way?  Like any public figure—a television character, or a prominent politician—they are made up of a collective consciousness; it takes many people to create these personas, more than just the person who may embody that figure.  Robert Heinlein conceived a similar situation in his 1956 story Double Star, where an actor imitates a prominent politician who has been kidnapped.  He is treated as the politician, even by the politician’s own personal staff, and when the politician dies as a result of injuries sustained in his kidnapping, the actor remains in office.  He has been playing the part of the politician so well that his former life as an actor seems like a faraway dream.  His personification was the result of much cooperation among the members of his staff, himself, and the public.  In other words, there was an empty niche and he fit into it, fulfilling a public need.  If he had not stepped in to assume the role of the politician, someone else would have filled that empty slot, as a combination of himself and the image put forward by his public relations staff.

Is Mickey Mouse any less real than Elvis?  Both are characters who have changed and evolved, who are believed to be alive by some people.  Mickey is real to those children who hug him at Disneyland.  New tales of Elvis still pop up now and then, because people want him to exist.  Disney animators ‘explored the idea of believable character.’  (Turkle, 1995:97)  They didn’t have to create a mind from scratch; they don’t try to convince us that Mickey Mouse is a thinking being. Instead, like all performances, they rely on the audience’s willing suspension of their disbelief. (Turkle, 1995:97)  It does not matter to those who interacted with Julia that she did not actually comprehend what they were saying to her, that she was not actually thinking. She gave the appearance of understanding, and for many, that is enough. As I discussed previously, though people know intellectually that computers and machines are not people, when they give the appearance of humanity it is difficult to refrain from pinning at least some psychological veneer to a computer or a program which reacts as if it does understand.

A different situation arose from the life of a prominent WELL figure, Tom Mandel.  He died quite quickly of cancer—five months after his diagnosis he was gone.  Mandel was an avid WELL member, and the WELL was an integral part of his life.  He stayed online, posting to the conferences as long as he could.  Eventually, though, the deterioration of his physical being started to interfere with his online presence.  He started slurring his online words: typos started to interfere with the clarity of his posts.  His typing speed dropped dramatically, reducing him from his status as a highly prolific poster.  Mandel eventually became a lurker on the WELL conferences, unable to chime in with his reactions and opinions and faded away online as he was also fading away physically.  (Hafner, 2001:120-134)

However, shortly before his death, Mandel and his friend Bill Calvin decided to implement a new piece of programming on the WELL.  Shareware was common on the WELL, with those who knew more about programming designing and sharing bits of software to enhance the WELL experience, like the scribble tool which was invented to make deleting messages easier for users. The program that they worked on was partially a joke and partially a grasp at immortality—they made a Mandelbot.  It was programmed to post randomly on the WELL with appropriate Mandel quotes from his previous posts.  Mandel saw it as a way to keep in touch, even if he was not there:  
I figured that, like everyone else, my physical self wasn’t going to survive forever…if I couldn’t reach out and touch everyone I knew online…I could toss out bits and pieces of my virtual self…and then when my body died, I wouldn’t really have to leave…Large chunks of me would also be here, part of this new space.  (Hafner, 2001:134)

In posts shortly before his death, a wistful tone crept into Mandel’s words.  He shuddered to think that his recent birthday would be his last birthday, that he had seen his last snowfall and he knew that his recent marriage to another long-time WELL member would not last long.  He wanted to wrap himself up in his relationships, saying ‘maybe if I could hold on to all of you, I wouldn't have to go down this path like this…and then somehow I won't have to let go.’  (Mandel, 1.3.95)

The Mandelbot was, then, Mandel’s way of keeping his contacts with other people.  Unlike Julia, there was a mind behind the original replies that the Mandelbot used in conversations—only the ones the bot would use were taken out of context.  Like Julia, there was no thinking mind behind the real-time conversations the Mandelbot would have, but it would trigger associations with the man whose words it was using.  The Mandelbot was of little use to the dead Mandel, but the idea of it helped him through his painful and difficult last days.  The many friends he had on the WELL helped to ease his mind, and so did the thought that they would still be reminded of him by an online presence that used his words.

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

6. Gender-benders online: experimenters or betrayers?

One very freeing aspect of creating a persona to intermingle with others online is the fact that you can be whoever, or whatever you want to be.  While many people do choose to be an online person who is not completely the same as their physical personality, it simply does not occur to them that online they can also be another gender, or even choose to bypass gender entirely and experience the life of a neuter.

According to Nick Yee, in his research for the Daedalus Project <>, male users are much more likely than woman users to play a character of the opposite gender.  Older male players were especially probable to have tried playing a female, and also tended to have more online personalities in general.  Yee has several theories for the reasons of this phenomenon: that the anonymity of the internet allows men to escape from their more rigid social roles, and to receive the attention and help that a female character is constantly offered.  Online, anyone presenting as female is likely to be inundated with messages and even harassed sometimes by male personalities.  Others may find it thrilling to play a female and view it as a way to control a woman fully.

An Ubersite ( user who called himself Icarus1987 decided to do a little experimenting with a female identity in a normal chat room, to see what it was like to be a woman for a few hours, without the hassle of imitating one physically.  (The complete story, along with several transcripts can be found at <>.)  Icarus1987 created a profile for what he thought would be a typical female, making his ‘Heloise’ a 19-year-old Minnesotan, putting in her profile only a picture of one of his female friends in a nice formal dress.  He deliberately chose the name Heloise to avoid any connotations that a name like ‘drrtygrrl69’ would have.  Icarus1987 was not originally seeking to dupe other users into debauchery or finding out other males’ sexual fantasies.  He simply named himself Heloise and entered a busy Yahoo! chat room.  Almost instantly, a male figure sent him a private message, wanting to chat.  Heloise spent over an hour in the chat room, and during that time, she received more than 20 invitations from male figures to chat privately.  Some left her alone when she stated that she was just waiting in the chat room for a friend to show up.  Others became angry or abusive when she told them politely that she was not interested in speaking with them, or even just busy, calling her a bitch and a lesbian.  They peeked at Heloise’s profile, saw the picture Icarus1987 posted and demanded photos of her that were more revealing.  Even when Icarus1987 decided to pretend he was Heloise’s father, the members he chatted with still tried to get him to tell them more about her, or to learn another way of contacting her privately.  Heloise decided to see how far she could push these men, asking one to howl, make turkey noises and passes at some of the other male members of the chat room, promising more revealing pictures, and even enticed one user into an act that got him banned from the site.  When Icarus1987 hooked up his webcam and took pictures of his cat to show the eager users, Heloise was again attacked and called names, though this time she deserved it, at least in part, for not delivering quite what she promised.

Upon reflection, Icarus1987 concluded that it did not matter which chat room he entered as Heloise: the ‘guys had a screen name to hide behind, and without laws or the threat of physical confrontation, this was what most of them were like.’  (Icarus1987, 8/17/2004 ‘gender bending online experiences’) they felt free to harass Heloise and ask for sexual favors, though she had not entered a specifically adult area, or advertised in the chat room that she wanted to speak with male users.  Her passive presence was enough to spur these other users into action, demanding attention.  When Heloise declined politely to speak with them, their attention turned to violent words, simply because a female presence was among them.  Icarus1987 never revealed himself to the other users, but his contact with them was casual, and he did no damage with his social experiment.  As Sherry Turkle states in her book, Life on the Screen:
Enabling people to experience what it ‘feels’ like to be the opposite gender or to have no gender at all, the practice encourages reflection on the way ideas about gender shape our expectations.  (1995:213)

This short experience made Icarus1987 appreciate more than he had known about how females are treated both online and in the physical world.  Though his was a superficial experiment, it did have more effect on him than he expected, and led him to be more thoughtful about his own behavior in chat rooms.

In his book, The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier, Howard Rheingold describes a more sinister situation that happened in the late 1980s in a CompuServe community.  Joan was a young woman in her late 20s who worked as a neuropsychologist in New York.  She had a warm, friendly personality and soon became an integral part of the community.  Other members of the community came to depend on her, so it was a shame that she could only communicate with them online.  Though many online relationships do eventually move to other forms of communication, Joan could not talk to anyone on the telephone as she was mute, and was reluctant to meet her online friends in person, being scarred physically and left unable to speak by an accident with a drunk driver.  She said that her ‘sponsor’ had given her a computer so that she could use it to reach out to others without having to meet them face-to-face, and thus to enable her to have relationships with other people without having them react to her disfigurements.  (Rheingold, 2000:170-172)

Joan’s warm online presence was enough for others to form a bond with her, and she developed deep, personal friendships within the CompuServe community.  Joan’s inability to speak with or meet others—except online—proved very convenient, as she turned out to be a man named Alex, who was a psychiatrist in New York.  His confession prompted feelings of outrage and deep betrayal from those members of the community with whom she had deep personal relationships.  The case of Joan differs from that of Heloise/Icarus1987, as Heloise was a one-time, casual experience, while Joan was a fleshed-out online persona who made friends based on how she presented herself online and how she acted.  Though Alex may very well have been sincere in the words he posted online through Joan’s mute mouth, the fact that he was not actually a woman hurt those who had been relating to Joan as they would to another woman.  As this took place in the early 1980s, the concept of the easy anonymity and multiple personalities one can cloak oneself in online would not be deeply ingrained in those early internet users who encountered Joan.  (Rheingold, 2000:170-172)

Lindsay Van Gelder wrote about Joan/Alex in Ms. Magazine’s October 1985 issue in a piece called ‘The Strange Case of the Electronic Lover’: ‘Many of us online believe that we’re a utopian community of the future, and Alex’s experiment proved to us all that technology is no shield against deceit.  We lost our innocence, if not our faith.’  (Rheingold, 2000:171)  Currently, most users are sophisticated enough to sense the undercurrent that there is the possibility that the person one connects with online is not always quite who they say they are.

Monday, July 02, 2012

7. Intellectual and physical suicide

Nobody mistakes virtual life for real life, even though it has an emotional reality to many of us.  (Rheingold, 2000:22)

To many WELL members, the intellectual connection they find online is beguiling, enticing them to stay online and communicate with their friends.  There is an ease to virtual life that does not exist in many people’s physical life, and some find it more satisfying to live most of their life in their head, using online resources as an outlet and support system.  Intellectual power and glibness of writing rules online: people who may not otherwise have felt at ease while in the company of others can shine in a place where they have time to think of exactly what they want to say, and to communicate in writing, allowing them to rework their thoughts easily for the better.  Online, wit is king.  The constant availability of any online community, where wit runs rampant (or at least attempts to), can overshadow even physical cravings.

 Howard Rheingold describes how one early WELL member, Blair, was once addicted to cocaine, but managed to break that addiction.  Several years later, a friend left some cocaine for him while he was online and busily posting on the WELL.  Blair was aware of the cocaine but he could not tear himself away from the WELL long enough to consider taking the drug—he had replaced one addiction with another.  His online ties were cheaper than the drugs he had coveted and more comforting.  Blair used the WELL as a much-needed psychological output, calling it ‘Compconf Psychserv’ (Rheingold, 2000:19), and as Howard Rheingold said about Blair’s WELL addiction, ‘He was smart enough to know what had happened to him, even as it tightened its grip.’  (Rheingold, 2000:19)

Blair’s addictive personality caused him to become essential to the WELL’s conferences; his posts were so frequent that they enmeshed parts of the conferences.  That made his last WELL act especially antisocial: he used something called a scribble tool to seek out all his posts and delete them, leaving gaping holes in the WELL’s conferences and destroying whole sections of the community, as much as if he had set off a bomb in a busy and crowded office building.  Though removing comments on the WELL was allowed, at the author’s discretion, it left behind a blank post—glaring proof that something was once there.  Blair’s scribbling of his entire WELL history was ‘an act of intellectual suicide.’  (Rheingold, 2000:20)  It was then less of a shock to the community when he committed physical suicide several weeks later.  Another member, Tom Mandel, later used the scribble tool to erase much of his own history on the WELL as an act of anger, and a very effective way to lash out at other community members, but he did not take it as far as Blair.  Mandel later relied heavily on the WELL for emotional support through his traumatic death of leukemia.  Unlike Mandel, Blair used scribbling as a way of violently withdrawing from his intellectual community before forcibly removing himself from his physical community.

The scribble tool was invented by Bandy, a former WELL staff member, who quit after having an online argument with another WELL member.  Then he created a weapon—the scribble tool, which he used to damage the community by removing all his posts on the WELL.  Many WELL members used their programming skills to create programs, freeware to help other less technically inclined members, and to improve the community in general, but Bandy was the first member to create a weapon.  (Rheingold, 2000:20-22)

Webboards and MUDs got people used to receiving responses to their thoughts through the interface of a computer.  Another early aspect of personal computing which acclimated users to a responsive computer was self-counseling software.  It was a way for those who were not part of an online community to work on their psychological issues while remaining completely safe and anonymous.  The computer gave them the illusion of listening, but did not comprehend and thus was safer than even a doctor’s rule of absolute patient privacy.

Sunday, July 01, 2012

8. Self-counseling

In the early days of personal computing, there were several programs available as a guide for those who wanted to try self-therapy.  It was a cheap, fast and easy way to work through your problems.  One of those programs, ELIZA, ‘provided a reassuring encounter with an almost-other that seemed to be an extension of self.’  (Turkle, 1995:109)  ELIZA provided much of the same benefit as a human therapist would: it used self-exploration and asked questions as a way to allow the user to open up and acknowledge their feelings.  Though ELIZA was limited by the fact that it was a program, it also had many advantages over a human therapist.  ELIZA was completely impartial.  Everything a user told it remained secret, so they were able to disclose themselves fully, without worrying about a therapist’s integrity.  (Turkle, 1995:102-123)  The program ELIZA can be viewed as a way to keep a diary, but with feedback.  It is not surprising that when given the chance to have humans react and respond to your ideas; many people take that chance and start building a personal reaction-base of their own by writing a blog.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

9. Blogs: the beginning

Web logs, or blogs, started as personal websites where a person would gather together links of other websites that they were interested in, and comment on each link.  Though simply a collection of links, early blogs were still a way to learn about people without the need for them to write a profile about themselves—simply by viewing the sites they found interesting and reading their commentary you could form an idea of that person’s tastes.  In the days of the internet before comprehensive search engines like Google and Yahoo!, blogs served as a way to filter the increasingly large plethora of website chaos.  Once you found a blogger whose tastes were palatable to you, they could serve as an important portal to the bedlam of the internet.  (Blood, 2000:7-16)

Blogs have since become more than just lists of links, often serving as a personal diary for their author and as part of a larger blog community.  They are now a way for everyone to plug himself or herself into the world of interconnected hypertext.  At first, those who were blogging needed extensive technological knowledge, but with the launch of websites like in 1999 and Typepad, blogging became easy and accessible, and most importantly—free.  Millions of people now have their own blog, and the numbers are only growing.  There is something very compelling to the blog phenomenon.  The personalization of cyberspace is growing: we have created a huge network of close-knit groups of people, many of whom will never meet each other.  (Stone, 2004:13-31)

Biz Stone calls blogs ‘digital entities sprinkled throughout the vastness of cyberspace’ (Stone, 2004:192).  A blog is more than just a series of essays, chronologically organized.  They are a reaching out of one personality for others; we do not post only dull essays online: with the flexibility of hypertext and the power to share multimedia files online they have become a sort of guided stroll through people’s consciousness, a way to learn indirectly about them in much the same way you would meeting them in person.  When we meet someone, we do not simply state the bare facts about ourselves.  We give opinions, visual cues to our likes and dislikes; we make small talk and tell jokes.  Blogs can be considered a digital extension of a person, even more so than on a webboard or in a MUD, or, as Andreas Kitzmann puts it, ‘a way to make one's life significant through the feedback and support of readers.’  (2003:56) A comment left on your blog or even just a hit to your stat counter is a very clear indication that others are acknowledging your existence.

Blogs are yet another way to recreate yourself online.  Your audience knows only what you want them to know, and you are protected from further scrutiny by the vast anonymity of the internet.  It is up to you how much you erase the line between remaining anonymous and intimacy with whoever encounters your online presence.  It is possible to write highly intimate details about your life without ever revealing who you are, but the more details you tell, the more gripping your blog will be to others: ‘The best weblogs are those that convey the strongest personality.’  (Blood, 2002:xi-xii)

Blogs are places where one can expect an answer to rhetorical questions, support when you have a bad day at work, and congratulations when you do well.  They are also a place where you can share pictures of your life.  Pictures ground a blog in reality.  In the textual world of the internet, the ability for anyone to share pictures with the world is what makes the immediacy of blog-writing more apparent.  ‘Visual imagery is the best way to capture moments.’  ( interview with Mena Trott, 10.8.2005)  Some people even bypass writing about their lives and instead show pictures.

There is a couple in Canada, Kenn and Michelle, who do just that.  To date they have posted over 10,000 pictures with simple captions on their website ( while still never writing much about themselves.  It is incredible to watch their well-documented lives, and yet they are not extraordinary people.  They are simply living, taking pictures of their growing family, and putting the pictures online for friends and family to see.  As John Suler wrote:
Let's face it, what made computers and cyberspace take to public use like wild fire was the fact that we weren't just reading text, but rather interacting with windows, icons, and pictures - and experiencing the sense of space and place that images create. (26.6.2005)

It is seductive to a person writing online to get responses from others on the internet.  Typing online then becomes more than pouring your feelings into a void.  Eventually, you may build up an audience of avid readers, ones who will expect regular updates from you.  Knowing that people are depending on you to come up with something amusing or interesting for them to read regularly brings a new awareness to life.  There is a certain pressure of obligation that popular bloggers feel to post, and if they do not update their blog regularly there is a need to justify the time spent away from their audience.  Blogging takes time, especially blogging every day, and it is a big commitment to decide to write regularly in a space that you may have once regarded as a place to vent your feelings, not really expecting anyone else to find it.  Being aware that there is an audience to your life can make you self-conscious: there is no way to get away from the knowledge that everything you do is a potential blog post and that there is an audience out there, waiting to be fed: ‘The danger of technology is that is demands to be fed.’  (Turkle, 1995:107)  There is no escape from that knowledge.

Popular blogger Stephanie Pearl-McFee, otherwise known as the ‘Yarn Harlot’ ( often finds herself deliberately capturing moments of her life to share with her blog’s audience.  It has even spread to her family.  Stephanie arrived back from a short trip only to find her house, unusually, sparkling clean:
As I sat quietly pondering this…Joe approached me with a cold beer extended.
How did I do?’ he asked, beaming with pride.
‘Joe...good job dude.  Seriously good job.  I'm impressed.’  […]  Joe puffed out his chest and surveyed his mighty domain before he sat down beside me.
‘Yeah Joe?’
‘You're going to tell the blog about this right?  That I did ok?’
Who knew?  Reporting to you is a behavioural tool.  Who knew?

Stephanie’s blog has recently taken an interesting turn.  As a very popular knitting blogger, she landed a book deal and is currently touring both the U.S. and Canada on a book tour.  She gets to meet, in person, hundreds of her regular blog readers, but also many people whose blogs she reads herself.  These meetings are a perfect example of what happens when virtual friends meet.  It is very interesting to ‘witness’ these meetings, by reading both perspectives when Stephanie meets someone and blogs about it, and so does the person she met.  Recently, Stephanie met Ryan Morrissey of Mossy Cottage Knits at the Seattle stop on her book tour.  Stephanie said of meeting Ryan:
It was like meeting superheroes.  It was like one of your favourite imagined people just materialized in front of you and was everything you dreamed and more.  Ryan cried a few knitterly tears…  (5.8.2005)

Ryan’s feelings were nearly the same.  They were both in awe of meeting one another, as if they had not been quite sure that the other person was real, and the confirmation that they were made the previous relationship they enjoyed even more meaningful.  Ryan also had strong feelings about their meeting:

I am rarely, if ever, celebrity- or star-struck.  Perhaps it was because Stephanie is the first out-of-state knit-blog e-friend I’ve met, and represented all the other knitting e-friends that have brightened my life so intensely and wonderfully over the last couple of years.  Maybe it was a one-degree of separation thing because just the day before she had been with Rachael, an e-friend whom I also have not met, so I was very aware that Stephanie had ‘Rachael dust’ on her.  Maybe it was just the excitement of meeting ‘the real thing’ after years of the one-dimensionality of photos.  (5.8.2005)

Stephanie’s posts have become slightly surreal while on her book tour, as she tends to blog every major life event, and speaking to a crowd is a big deal in any ordinary person’s life.  While Stephanie is speaking to a room, she also takes pictures while people in the audience are taking pictures of her; while she is talking about blogging to an in- person audience of people who read her blog, she is also preparing another blog entry, and they are preparing to blog about her blogging about them.  The whole tour is a strange and exciting experience to her.  Stephanie never imagined that her little blog about knitting would take on a life of its own, and that people would buy a book she wrote.

Writing again about her Seattle stop, she said the following:

I was almost hysterical.  I know that this might not occur to you, when you see these pictures, but I am taking them.  All those people are looking at me.  On a stage.  With a microphone.  Here I am, some sort of…weird Canadian knitter trucking a sock around the US on some bizarre trip that I can't figure out how I got on, and all of those people are looking at me.  (5.8.2005)

Sometimes meetings of online friends do not go so well as Stephanie and Ryan’s did.  The relationship stays more in the head than in reality, and the people in the relationship serve only to embody the others’ fantasy-person.  Real life can be too real for that fantasy, and shatter the online closeness of the people.  Sherry Turkle writes about this situation, giving the case of a man and woman who met online and formed an intense relationship.  They talked online for hours, and decided after a time to meet in person.  This was quite a large commitment, as they lived across the country from each other.  The man flew across the U.S. to meet his online love, and there the bubble burst.  She was nice, but not his dream-woman.  He returned home disappointed, and reread their conversations: online, everything can be easily archived and often is.  Upon rereading his whole relationship with this woman, he saw nothing beyond a friendship.  The passionate love affair he had been having turned out to be mostly in his head, and being able to review the whole relationship’s transcripts proved that to him: ‘When everything is in the log and nothing is in the log, people are confronted with the degree to which they construct relationships in their own minds.’  (Turkle, 1995:207)

The physical world still remains an important one, then, for virtual friends.  The internet can provide us with constant intellectual contact; we can read people’s personal diaries and comment on them, becoming part of a group.  We can be as close as two minds can be, constantly, but we still cannot quite replace the impact of looking someone else in the eye, shaking their hand, or even exchanging a tear-filled hug with someone we have known for years but never met in person.

Friday, June 29, 2012

10. The impact of blogs on Real Life

All the reciprocity of an online life, making new friends and keeping in contact with old ones, stemming from online communities is an important intellectual and emotional factor in many people’s everyday lives.  The opportunity to comment on one’s own life and get responses from online companions through blogging is also an important part of many people’s daily lives.  However, apart from the emotional support blogs give to people in their online lives, do blogs also have an impact on ‘Real Life’ (otherwise known as RL), i.e., the place bloggers go to eat?

Of course, some blogs have a very positive effect upon RL, not only affecting their authors, but also making a real difference.  Two recent very successful charity projects sprang from the minds of popular knitting bloggers: Ryan of Mossy Cottage Knits ( and Stephanie Pearl-McPhee of Yarn Harlot (

Tricoteuses Sans Frontières (Knitters Without Borders)

TSF is a fundraising movement started by Stephanie Pearl-McPhee in response to the devastating December 26, 2004 Asian tsunami.  In her January 3, 2005 post, ‘Needs and Wants’ <>, Stephanie wrote about how she felt obscenely wealthy compared to the tsunami victims, and she issued a challenge to all of her readers: to distinguish for one week between a need they had (food, water, shelter) and a want (lattes and yarn) and to then send some or all of the money they saved that week not spending on wants to Medecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders.  She then volunteered to keep a running tally of how much people donated in the sidebar of her blog, updated constantly.  Stephanie chose Medecins Sans Frontières because they are nonreligious and remain impartial to external pressures, going in to places only to help the people of that area without political concerns.  Of course, the fact that her brother-in-law is the Director of Human Resources for MSF Canada also tends to make her views a bit biased, but nepotism is not always a bad thing, and in this case personalized a charity at a time when many people were comparing charities and trying to decide where to donate money and time to help the victims of the tsunami.  Watching Stephanie tally up the donations was also gratifying to those who could not afford to make a substantial donation on their own—it let them know that their community as a whole could make a big difference.

By 6:45 PM on January 4, 2005, Stephanie reported that TSF members had donated $10,870 (Canadian).  (Pearl-McPhee, 4.1.2005)  Many knitters also donated prizes to be distributed randomly throughout the contributors as both a thank-you and an incentive to donate.  In her July 6, 2005 post, ‘Inspired, or profoundly stupid?’  <>, Stephanie proudly announced, that at $78,747 TSF ‘has now officially raised more money than Willie Nelson.  [I am] contemplating dancing in the street.  You guys are changing the world.  Next stop…$100 000.00’

Blogger Ryan of Mossy Cottage Knits also started a small, nepotistic, project asking her readers for charitable donations.  Her ‘Cuzzin Tom’ is a Buddhist monk who decided to move to Mongolia to pursue his religious life.  While doing research about the country, he discovered that recent economical factors in Mongolia meant that about a third of the population was living in poverty.  Many children in the capital city, Ulan Bataar, took to living in the heating ducts under the city to get through its very cold winters.  He decided that he wanted to ‘find a way to create some dynamic, positive energy’ with his move to Mongolia.  (Cuzzin Tom, 27.6.2005 <>)  Cuzzin Tom teamed up with Ryan and F.I.R.E. (Flagstaff International Relief Effort) to start a movement to send warm, high-quality hand knits to the children of Mongolia.  (F.I.R.E. regularly sends shipments of warm clothing and medical supplies to the people of Mongolia.)  He did not have a regular blog at that time, though he was a part of the Mossy Cottage community as a regular commenter.  Cuzzin Tom started a blog soon after he moved: Dreaming of Danzan Ravjaa (<>).

Ryan announced the Dulaan project on her blog on January 31, 2005.  By 7 February 2005, there were over 50 people on the ‘brigade,’ as Ryan called them.  (Morrissey, 7.2.2005 <>)  The original goal of the Dulaan Project was to make and donate to F.I.R.E. 500 knitted items and polarfleece blankets before July 1, 2005.  Dave Edwards, one of the community-founders of F.I.R.E. doubted that they would not receive even that amount, and Ryan made sure that her readers knew it, making 500 items a challenge for her Dulaan Brigade.  (11.2.2005 <>)  Various knitters in the online community made designs specifically for this project.  There were several knitting parties to complete items, and by March 16, 2005, Ryan was able to post a picture of Dave Edwards in defeat <>, when the item count was at 250, with a reported 90 more on the way.  By the July 1, 2005 deadline, F.I.R.E. officially received 4,517 warm items to take to Mongolia, from all over the United States and from as far afield as Croatia, Germany and Tasmania.  (

In light of the success of the Dulaan project, Ryan has recently declared the counting for Dulaan 2006 to be open.  Their goal is 4,518 (one more than items donated for the 2005 drive) garments to be donated by July 2006.  The response was very enthusiastic, with commenter Susanna Hansson stating:
What brought me to this project was: YOU.  What made me stay interested and finally knit some Mon-frickin-goleean hats was: YOU. 
It's not that I'm a callous person who doesn't care about the plight of Mongolian children; it's that this project is offering me a sense of community that is often absent in other charitable efforts (the one exception that comes to my mind is Stephanie's Tricoteuses Sans Frontières project).
(Comment to Morrissey, 22.8.2005 <>)           

The TSF movement and Dulaan Project serve to illustrate just how powerful internet communities can be.  These charitable projects both raised much more interest and many more donations then their inceptors ever dreamed they would.  Ryan and Stephanie were both able to personalize a charity project in a way that made its purpose resonate with their readers.  As can happen with any blog, once you read it and get to know that blog-person, you come to trust them, to feel you know them.  TSF and the Dulaan project were the result of trust and empathy.  Stephanie’s readers trusted her, and donated to MSF.  For all anyone—including Stephanie—knows, not one of her readers donated.  They could have made up the numbers they told her they were donating, and she could have made up the total.  She trusted her readers to report truthfully to her, and they trusted her to tell them the true total.

Ryan’s project was a little different, in that while she did not see the majority of the donated items in person and had to trust her readers, just like Stephanie, she received the item totals directly from F.I.R.E., who were cataloguing the items as they arrived.  These two charity projects, though both very successful, were not terribly personal.  They are great examples of the networking power of high-profile bloggers and the generosity of knitters.  However, what happens when a blog affects an individual’s life for the worse?

Individually, blogs can have beneficial and detrimental effects on people’s lives.  The whole idea that you can rant and rave, complain about your days to an unseen audience is very tempting.  However, the internet is not a void populated by ghost commenters.  In some ways, the internet can be likened more to a Panopticon, a prison designed so that every prisoner can be seen at every moment.  Prisoners must then always act appropriately because a guard might be watching them.  Writing on the internet is like being in a large crowd scene onstage: though it may appear that your part is inconsequential, someone, somewhere in the audience will watch you and notice what you are doing.  (Rheingold, 2000:xxx)

Such was the case for a now well-know blogger, Heather Armstrong.  She started her blog at in June of 2001 (then as Heather Hemingway), while working for a company in Los Angeles.  Though Heather wrote about her job online, she never stated the name of the company she worked for, the names of her coworkers, and was unspecific about may other vital details as well.  However, she did not stint about other things on her blog, publishing some opinions about the company, her coworkers or her boss, in an exaggerated, humorous way, painting caricatures of them.  In this manner, she felt free to describe how much her Prada-buying boss intimidated her, and gave several tutorials on how to avoid doing work properly while at work, along with discussions on the best way to take a nap in your car in the middle of the day.  Her very first blog post is even called, ‘Reasons I should not be Allowed to Work From Home’ (27.6.2001 <>).

These posts are amusing and meant to be taken lightly, but there is an undercurrent of discontent in many.  Heather obviously disliked aspects of her job and many of her co-workers, and some posts give hints of the fact that this may have made her a bit difficult to work with.  In February of 2002, one of her co-workers anonymously emailed many people in Heather’s company, notifying them of Heather’s website and the writing she was doing, ostensibly about them.  She explains very rationally in a post titled ‘Tell it to Their Face for Christ’s Sake’ (27.2.2002 <>) that she discussed her writing with her boss and a human resources representative, telling them that she ‘had no ill will toward anyone at my company…  [And] most of what I had written was grossly exaggerated for comedic effect’ and that an ‘Asian Database administrator’ that she made fun of a few times on her blog ‘was a willing participant.  He thought it was funny.  That was all that mattered to me.’  Her boss ‘assured me that there were no hard feelings’, but Heather was fired two weeks later:
My boss and the human resources representative pulled me into a conference room and handed me my last paycheck.  They explained that the company had a zero-tolerance policy about negativity (?), that my website was influencing the younger, more impressionable members of the company, and that the CEO demanded that I be terminated at once.

Heather’s termination raised some interesting questions, several of which she asked, herself, in her 26 February, 2002 post, the day she was fired, ‘Collecting Unemployment’ <>:
At what point does my personal website, regardless of what I’ve published on the site, affect my professional life?  If I am not responsible for the two colliding (meaning, an anonymous person tips off my employer that I run a personal weblog), is it right that my employer should condemn me for expressing personal dissatisfaction?

As Biz Stone terms it, ‘Heather’s perception of her blog is fundamentally flawed.’  (Stone, 2004:90)  Yes, she kept her discretion in part, as she did not use anyone else’s name, or tell the name if her company.  However, she did use her own name, and anyone who knew her and searched for her online could find her blog, and learn negative things about her company.  It was an embarrassment to the CEO of that company to discover one of his employees was publicly posting how she deliberately arrived late at work, left early, and took naps in her car in the middle of the day—even as a joke.  Though Heather says she was exaggerating, this writing could have given her supervisors reason to scrutinize her work more closely.

It is interesting to note how the person who alerted everyone else about Heather’s website chose to remain anonymous.  It was a way for that person to stir things up at work without any personal risk, and it ended up greatly affecting someone else’s life.  I do wonder if Heather’s superiors tried to find out who tipped them off; Heather does not mention if she ever knew who it was.  The option of anonymity on the internet protected this person, but since Heather chose to give up the privilege of anonymity, she was the one who paid for her actions.

Heather’s co-workers and her bosses were not the only ones to be upset by her blog.  Her family also came across it unexpectedly, and learned some of her opinions of them and how she poked fun at them for their spiritual beliefs.  Heather came from a deeply religious Mormon background, and even attended Bringham Young University.  Soon afterwards, she left the Mormon Church, and the disillusionment she had with her former lifestyle contributed to her defiant outlook: ‘I refuse to live in fear.  I refuse to be censored.  I’ve lived my life far too long in fear of disrupting expectations.’  (Hemingway, 27.2.2002 <>)

Nevertheless, Heather later reflected on how her posts had hurt her family.  She states in the same post, ‘This is Going to Be A Long One, So Don’t Say I Didn’t Warn You’ <>, that she both wished that she could ‘take back EVERYTHING I had written that had hurt them,’ and that ‘despite the pain I have put my family through, I do feel good about what I do here.  I’ve used [it] to try and become a better writer.’  Heather is stuck in between wanting to say whatever she wants to write, and the pain of the responsibility she then incurs for writing things in public that she believes to be true—but that deeply wounded both her professional career and her loved ones.  She views the fact that ‘I THAT GIRL who lost her job because of her website’ as a responsibility, and tells her tale as a instructive example that ‘There is no such thing as unadulterated freedom of speech with a blog, not if you’re brave enough to tack on your real name to what you write.’  (From Armstrong, 19.5.2003 <>)

The notoriety of Heather’s tale has moved the word ‘dooced’ into modern parlance.  A search of the word on August 7, 2005 found nearly 27,000 results, from all over the world.  It truly boggles the mind to think that all of these entries can be traced back to a 25-year-old in Los Angeles who liked bean burritos and had to ‘resist [the] urge to tell nieces and nephews that the reason they go to church is so that mommy and daddy can prepare to eat them one day in the Mormon Temple.’  (Hemingway, 30.8.2001 <>)  Heather still writes her very popular blog, now as a stay-at-home mother, and has been interviewed many times about her blogging experiences.  These days, her entries consist more of how to deal with a constantly screaming toddler than about the wonders of bean burritos, but her voice remains strong and sure.

A much more positive way that blogs are affecting individuals’ lives is the fact that a blogger who develops their writing skills through blogging may end up the author of several hard-copy books, as happened to Stephanie Pearl-McPhee.  Going from a blog to a book may be a smooth transition, simply lifting entries from the blog, or may use the refined writing skills of the experienced blogger to write something completely new.  Blogs do not readily lend themselves to book form, being more suited to hypertext: they are written in short, non-linear sections, and generally have no plot.  Blog posts are extensions of the main goal of webboard posts—wit rules in blogland just as it does in online communities.  If your blog persona is witty, it does not matter what your qualifications are or who you are in RL: ‘This version of me has gotten two book deals and a dream job at one of the world’s most innovative companies.  In the real world, I am a state college dropout.  How did I do this?’  (Stone, 2004:191)  Unlike books, which are often cherished and regarded as vessels full of human history, blogs are meant really to capture moments, to be experienced by the reader, who will then move on; ‘digital textuality stands to be erased from its very beginnings.’  (Raley, 2001)

However, though writing a book is better paying than writing a blog (which one does free, unless the blog draws enough traffic to make it worthwhile to place ads on it), it cannot be more satisfying than the instant feedback and communication through a community that a blog offers.  A book, though a wonderful piece of technology is simply a thing, disconnected from the online network of bloggers and commenters.  Book authors often remark upon one another’s thoughts and opinions, much as bloggers do, but at a much slower pace.  In the time it takes for one book to be written and published in reaction to another book, many thousands of blog entries and comments will have come and gone about many different subjects.

A book has the advantage over a blog in that you need only access to the book itself and the knowledge to read it in order to benefit from the information it presents.  Once a book is made, it is an entity unto itself; when you know how to decode it, you can use it anywhere.  Blogs, on the other hand, require access to the internet, and complex pieces of machinery to get to the information they offer.  Once a blog is made, it does not simply exist—it evolves as it links and is linked to, as people read it and comment on it both on the blog and on their own site.  A well-read blog becomes a far-reaching entity, firmly woven into the web of readers and writers of blogs.