This collection of essays is the first volume I have seen that studies empirically and in their wide variety computer-mediated modes of communication in relation to the question of community. The two other books that come to mind, Starr Roxanne Hiltz and Murray Turoff, The Network Nation: Human Communication via Computer (1978) and Linda Harasim, ed., Global Networks: Computers and International Communication (1993), were either, in the former case, more narrowly focused on one f orm of electronic communication (computer conferencing), or, in the latter, more broadly concerned with all aspects of the social implications of computer communications. Cybersociety attempts to look specifically at the kinds of social relat ions formed through these distant, even disembodied communication practices. It raises the question of the relation of such communications to postmodern culture. Jones’s book promises to be the first of many to appear in the near future, for I have seen n umerous studies of electronic communications posted at various ftp sites on the Internet. These studies, including those in the present volume, vary in methodology from quantitative, empirical social science to theoretically inspired “literary” readings. The most interesting combine aspects of both strategies.
Cybersociety cannot possibly answer the urgent questions being raised about the nature of the relationships being formed on the Internet. Electronic communities are still inchoate, in the early phases of formation, and their membership is gro wing so fast and changing so rapidly that the object of study remains evanescent. Judging by the studies included here, however, it is possible to see lines of social formation emerging in this electronic space, to begin to delineate its characteristics, and to draw comparisons with other forms of human interaction. What should be avoided are final judgments about the ultimate impact of electronic community upon “real” community. Several of the essays in Cybersociety contribute significantly toward these goals.
Nancy Baym’s “The Emergence of Community in Computer-Mediated Communication” explores the formation of social relations in a Usenet group on soap operas (rec.arts.tv.soaps or “r.a.t.s.”). In numerous ways she shows how participants adapted Usenet technolo gy to form elements of community, imitating yet altering patterns from face-to-face relations. She draws on various theorists of social forms to argue that Usenet relations are indeed a form of community, and she argues convincingly that these Internet fa cilities are becoming important to individuals as loci of identity formation. She wisely avoids technological determinism by indicating how the technology is shaped by users in ways unanticipated by designers or institutors. Elizabeth’s Reid’s equally com pelling “Virtual Worlds: Culture and Imagination” explores the relations emerging on MUDs (Multi-User Dimensions) and MOO (MUDS Object Oriented). Reid’s essay is a much-reduced excerpt from the full study to be found at ftp.eff.org:/pub/Publications/CuD/Papers on the Internet. Her subject involves “real-time” conversations in text, as opposed to the messages found on Usenet, and is so far more engaging and animated. The simulational structure of a MOO is far different from that of a Usenet newsgroup. Here “rooms” are constructed textually and conversations take place within them, with sentences flashing quickly by on one’s screen. Subtlety and logically Reid demonstrates how these electronic flickers may be construed as social space.
Of special interest to Postmodern Culture readers is the concluding essay, “The E-Mail Murders: Reflections on ‘Deal’ Letters,” by Alan Aycock and Norman Buchignani, two anthropologists from Concordia University. Concordia is the University where the disturbing shootings by Valery Fabrikant occurred in 1992, and this event is the focal point of the essay. The authors study the Usenet newsgroup to which Fabrikant posted before the murders, which continued to discuss the events during and aft er their occurrence, and which became implicated in the subsequent trial. The group sci.research.careers received Fabrikant’s complaints and initiated lively discussions of the case. Aycock and Buchignani, well-versed in ethnographic methods and well-read in poststructuralist theory, have a field-day with the ambiguities of e-mail postings in the...