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                          BE HOME BY MIDNIGHT
 
                                 OR
          HOW WILL WE KEEP THEM IN THE LOCAL FREE DIALING ZONE,
                     AFTER THEY'VE SEEN COMMUNET?
 
Here are three thoughts on how computer mediated communications contribute to
the emergence of community in cyberspace.  By "community" I mean any self
identified body of individuals that incorporates over time.  This may be a
community of the mind as much as of a place.  I do not mean to say that any
network sustained by computer mediated communications is automatically a
community.  I do mean to say that a sense of community can emerge in a
group of people connected  by computer mediated communications:
 
   a. A conscious sense of locality (or home base) is essential to balance
      local / global dualities in cyberspace communities.
 
   b. If you break text into metatext, surface text and subtext you can see
      how it shapes a social structure.
 
   c. The process of acculturation affects cybernauts as much as it does
       immigrants and travellers.
 
         a. LOCAL / GLOBAL DUALITY IN CYBERSPACE COMMUNITIES
In a recent discussion on the National Capital FreeNet, Ottawa, we had two
neatly opposing views on the purpose of FreeNet - community computing, or
gateway out of town.
 
Russell McOrmond ([log in to unmask]) said:
        "While some people look at Freenet as segregationist "community
         computing where we can reach others in the community," it has
         become obvious to myself that many more people are looking at
         this as the  larger 'gateway outside of the community.'  That I feel
         is the more productive attitude."
 
Dan L'Ecuyer ([log in to unmask]) said:
        "My own participation in FreeNet is based on my belief that
         people DO view it as a local service.  When it degenerates into
         a mere gateway, I'm out of here."
 
In essence, the subject of this discussion thread was, "When we've
built FreeNet, will people stay home or leave?" In the Canadian North, when
"Roads to Resources" built highways to communities that did not have them
before, the chief socio-economic impact was that everyone left town.
Is this the chief consequence of an "electronic highway?"  Perhaps, but
there is a middle ground that can encompass both of what seem to be opposing
views.  We can accept the local / global duality inherent in any community
sustained by computer mediated communications.
 
Our participation in the global Net has a price of admission.  At home, we
are the local Reality Inference Point (RIP).  Each of us learns our personal
identity, in part, as the experience of place.  But now we have a civic
responsibility to provide global pathways to local experience as we
interconnect it, and to the local knowledge base as we develop it.  People
working in international development refer to local knowledge as indigenous
information.  The targets of development hear the word "indigenous" as a
derogatory judgement on their lack of modernity.  But what we view
as our normal backward existence is really quite unusual from the
perspective of a visitor.  Whatever makes our community unique is
precisely our most relevant commodity for barter in an Information
Society.  And nobody can take it away from us.
 
Then, into the discussion came the Chairperson of the National Capital FreeNet
Board, laughing Dave Sutherland, launching FreeNets wherever he goes.  He
said, "Wow, take a look at culist.communet!"...and everybody did leave town.
The local discussion of the future of Freenets in Canada went flat as everyone
logged into the global discussion.  I hope they come home to help polish
the local / globaltheory.  But I have to confess I'm guilty of the same sin.
If you are interested in the sociology of cyberspace, falling into communet
is like getting hit with a firehose while drowning in a whirlpool.
 
                      b. THE SOCIAL STRUCTURE OF TEXT
 
Does a sustained on-line discussion build a community? It sure feels like
it . A community that communicates only by text still has lots of social
structure.  As outlined below, social actions at the levels of metatext,
surface text and subtext are all different, and they therefore mediate the
shape of outcomes in different ways.  Every concern or alarm in the
discussion, every thread,  has its expression in nested shells of
significance:
 
   Metatext
       - Everybody is somebody's subsystem.  The metatext is where the sysops
         and moderators plot their exploitations of the locals.
 
   Surface text
      - Dialogues and Diatribes that create factions of opinion, as the
        threads of conversation knit and unravel.  I like the idea
        of topics or issues as "strange attractors" of conversational pattern.
 
   Subtext
      - Where gossip, the real glue of social control,  operates by e-mail to
        reinforce factions.
 
           c. DYNAMIC ACCULTURATION IN CYBERSPACE COMMUNITIES
 
When you go to new places you learn things, especially about yourself.
When you participate in on-line discussions, you confront strange people in a
strange place,cyberspace.  In effect, you are opting in and out of many
communities, with many different norms and values.  Occupying each of them
requires personal adjustments similar to those experienced  by immigrants
and travellers.  This process of adjustment is called acculturation.
 
For example, the word "Newbie," describes those new to the Internet.  In small
town meetings, speakers often state, "I've been here ten years and I
say..." The next speaker will begin with, "I've been here twenty years..."
These are value statements.  They qualify the expressed opinion as
authoritative.  Posting the word "newbie" implies an assumption by the
poster of agreement on the inclusive value of experience in defining a
community structure of insiders and outsiders.  A newbie must expect to
acculturate to the norms and values of the discussion before saying the
right words in the right way.
 
Does computer mediated communications qualify the process of acculturation in
any way?  It does allow for a wider latitude in social experiment because the
culture of a network community evolves rapidly and is more readily subject to
manipulation.  Persona, the face we prepare to meet the faces that we
meet,  is not the only dimension of social presence that is optional.  To some
degree, so is the emergent social structure of any on-line discussion.  The
values that set the limits of inclusion and exclusion become explicit in
the three levels of the text. Everyone there has chosen to participate.
But now, because they can see what happens as a consequence of their
participation, they also have more choice over how the structure of
discussion evolves.  Choices, perhaps unconsciously, are made
about the shape of the group.  In other words, even how it feels, its
physicality, is,to a certain degree, self selected.  One model of how
computer mediated communications structures community might look is as
follows:
 
 
                              PROCESS AXIS
                       sustaining inclusiveness
                   via attention to emotional needs
 
                                  |
                                  |
     maintains self identified    |      diffuses or questions
       community affiliation      |     the validity of continuing
                                  |        community affiliation
CONTEXT AXIS                      |
  local   ________________________|_____________________  global
 issues                           |                       issues
                                  |
         causes community         |        larger context defines
         oriented action          |     or dissolves community
                                  |
                                  |
                       sustaining inclusiveness
                      by actions related to tasks
 
The context continuum of local to global issues is concerned with
questions of defining and maintaining the boundaries of a related set of
concepts.  Some issues are within the context of the conceptual set and are
therefore local.  Some issues transcend the conceptual set, and therefore
establish the context that "situates" the local set.  The process continuum
measures whether time is spent on maintaining social dynamics or performing
tasks.  The point where the two axes intersect is an attractor, or
equilibrium point around which the dynamics of the discussion oscillate.
If there's no equilibrium then the discussion threads diminish
and community starts to dissolve.
 
Of course this model describes any informal discussion.  How does locating
it in cyberspace make a difference?  Computer mediated conversations are self
referential.  There's the discussion itself.  Then there's the embedded
model of the discussion that emerges as it unfolds.  We all see what's
going on.  The dynamic nature of the structure of a self organizing
community becomes explicit.  It is shared as common knowledge as it occurs.
 as Terry Winograde and Fernando Flores said, "networks of recurrent
conversations are the core of organization."  (Understanding computers and
cognition: a new foundation for design. p158.)  The difference between
hosting an on-line discussion and hosting a cocktail party with intense
conversation is that the level of available feedback in the on-line
discussion is substantially more immediate.  Also everyone supplies their own
beer.
 
--
          Garth Graham                    [log in to unmask]
      <<< NGL/CANIS (Community Access Network Information Services) >>>
          Box 86, Ashton, Ont., K0A 1B0                613-253-3497