First Monday

Self without Body: Textual Self-Representation in an Electronic Community by Mark Giese

This paper examines how a textual mode of communication has combined with the new technologies of computer-mediated communication (cmc) to produce interesting new opportunities for social interaction and presentation of self. These opportunities are in turn used in ways that promote the process of community in a text-based electronic environment. This paper first examines some of the common textual adaptations this electronic communications environment engenders. It then examines how one Internet newsgroup, alt.cyberpunk, developed a cooperative narrative in which participants made presentations of self that, in other venues, might be considered "fictional" but must be accepted at face value in a way similar to the manner in which presentations of self are accepted within physical environments. The paper concludes that these new opportunities for self-presentation are engendered by the tightened feedback loop that cmc technologies bring to a textual mode of communication. "Real-time" textual interaction engenders a novel new social environment.



Text as Ghetto: Communication vs. Expression
Textual Adaptations: "Making Do" in an Impoverished Environment
Text as Body: Self-Presentation in a "Real Time " Textual Environment
Along the Interface: Where Cyberspace and RL Touch


Text as Ghetto: Communication vs. Expression

Many scholars have documented the effects of various new communication technologies have on how societies order themselves. Usually these studies have a historical focus on a particular technology such as writing or printing (Goody, 1986; Eisenstein, 1983) or more modern electronic media such as the telegraph, telephone or television (Carey, 1989; de Sola Pool, 1977, 1990; Marvin, 1988; Meyrowitz, 1985). The advent of computer-mediated communication (cmc) has provided communication scholars with an unprecedented opportunity to examine the social uses of a new suite of electronic communication technologies but until recently seems to have engendered studies that focus on the more instrumental or administrative aspects of these technologies using experimental or statistical methodologies (cf. Gallupe & McKeen, 1990; Hiltz & Johnson, 1989; Hiltz & Johnson, 1990; Lea & Spears, 1991; Olaniran, 1994; Smilowitz, Compton & Flint, 1988, Walther, 1993; Walther, 1994; Walther, Anderson & Park, 1994; Walther & Burgoon, 1992). Others have focused on more technical aspects of the computer network (Giese, 1996; Hart, Reed & Bar, 1992; Hauben, 1993; Hepworth 1990; Quarterman, 1990; Rutkowski, 1993; Staple, 1993). Recently research into cmc and its social impact has taken a more qualitative and theoretical turn (Benedikt, 1991; Heim, 1993; Reid, 1991) that acknowledges the phenomenal growth of the Internet, and perhaps more importantly, the sense that the Internet is more a cultural phenomena than a technological one.

We tend to think of the electronic communication environment, especially computer-mediated communication (cmc) using spatial and geographical metaphors. It is also satisfying to think of the presentation of self in these environments as somehow physical despite the fact there is neither a physical body nor physical proximity in these presentations. In study after study on cmc virtually every one, whether survey or experimental, uses as a comparison f2f (face-to-face) interaction rather than with some other form of electronically mediated communication. What is it about cmc that makes this type of comparison seem so appropriate and even "natural"? There is no physical "presence", in fact it could be argued that there is less "presence" in cmc than in either telephone communication, which provides the sound of a person's voice, or a medium like television which present moving images. Both have, in Internet parlance, much wider bandwidth, yet there is something lacking in these media that is somehow present in social interaction on the Net. How does one constitute one's identity in a text-based environment? In newsgroups, the constitution of identity and the presentation of self is done through text-based discourse and, in some cases narratives of self. These presentations of self, these declarations of identity are constituted as both text and context in a textual world.

Joshua Meyrowitz (1985) argues that the advent of electronic media have drastically altered social interaction by reducing the physical isolation of various groups and communities and by blurring the lines between public and private "spaces". He claims that because of electronic media (principally television) people no longer have a "sense of place". This argument can be extended to the realm of cyberspace in that it is literally no place. An Internet newsgroup, alt.cyberpunk, has overcome this "problem" by using a cooperative narrative to create a virtual space that is literally nowhere where they can "stand" as a community. However a space, even a virtual space, does not become a community until it is occupied by individuals. In a place that has no physicality, that occupation must occur in the form of discourse and narrative. Meyrowitz revisits Goffman's separation of communication and expression. According to Goffman, expression refers to gestures, facial expressions, vocalizations among others as produced by "mere presence" and communication as the use of language or language-like symbols for the intentional transmission of a "message" [1]. The distinction between expression and communication is important for Meyrowitz because most electronic media convey expression along with communication. In order to make the distinction clear he says, "One can stop communicating at will, but one cannot stop expressing. Communications are consciously given, but expressions are 'given off'," [2]. He argues that what most electronic media have done is to reunite Goffman's dual presentations of expression and communication:

One of the major differences between print media and electronic media is that print media contain only communications, while most electronic media also convey personal expressions. Electronic media make public a whole spectrum of information once confined to private interactions. Electronic media reveal information once exchanged only among people under each other's direct and close observation [3].

Television presents expressions that are hidden in print. Newsgroups have a problem because they inhabit a medium that has only communication, as defined by Goffman, and no expression. Meyrowitz argues that electronic media have made distant and once inaccessible expression available to people who, in a print culture, would have to make judgments about politicians and other public figures based solely on their communication. This complicates and changes certain kinds of social relations, political discourse in particular. The fact that computer networks make it possible to form close associations from a distance presents a different problem to the members of text-based newsgroups. They may want to gain the sort of expressive intimacy available to them in proximate personal relationships but are denied it by the text-based environment. Instead of having perhaps complicating and unwanted expressions imported from a distance members of newsgroups are faced with the difficulty of attempting to export expressiveness in a strictly communicative environment. In this case text is deprived of context. Personal discourse is unaccompanied by personal expression.

Figure 1

Some of the adaptations that have occurred to compensate for this lack of expression include the reconfiguration of typographical symbols in particular ways and the use of new textual conventions to replace some of the expression that is lost with the absence of physical proximity. These new conventions are still a far cry from the rich repertoire available to people who communicate face-to-face. If members of a newsgroup want to get to know each other better they must rely solely on textual presentations and representations of self. Meyrowitz argues that this type of presentation can never be the same as self-presentation in media that allow expression as well as communication:

One can choose, of course to write about very personal matters, - as in Augustine's Confessions or in letters to Penthouse magazine - but unlike presentational media, one's physical self is completely absent. Even when printed words are about intimate matters, the form in which the message is conveyed is impersonal and abstract. Relatively little about the flesh and bones person is ever revealed in print. On television, in contrast, one can speak about very impersonal matters, and yet be unable to escape sending, along with the abstract "topic," a broad range of personal cues.

Much more than print media, television thrusts the personal, private realm into the public arena. Television provides the type of information we are accustomed to responding to when we are with family members and friends. Compared to print, television provides a rich personal profile of the communicator. The separation between private emotion and public communication is blurred [4].

The blurred nature of the public and the private is a problem to be contended with in newsgroups as well but more often than not the problem is reversed. The communicators find themselves in a text-only environment yet are desirous of the expressive intimacy that is available to people in proximity. It may be premature to assume a causal link between the textual strategies and a desire to have more intimate relationships. However, it is clear that people who employ these strategies are increasing the range of their communications, and the increase is concentrated in Goffman's formally defined area of expression. The non-proximate and textual constitution of electronic communities has consequences that effect both the way individuals interact with one another and how these individuals perceive the communities they inhabit.

A brief explanation of how Internet newsgroups work may be in order here. Newsgroups (there are currently over five thousand) are forums that are divided by topics where individuals may post articles and comments on the topic at hand. These groups for the most part are not moderated which means that there is no person or agency which monitors all the contributions to the newsgroup and determines the worthiness or appropriateness of individual posts. Contributors simply write their comments and use automated software which routes the post to the newsgroup(s) it is addressed to. These newsgroups are somewhat akin to the kiosks many universities have in public places where all manner of information is posted except that each topic represents a separate kiosk. As you might imagine these "electronic kiosks" soon become cluttered. Automated software "maintains" these kiosks by periodically removing outdated posts. The life span of a typical article is aproximately two weeks, and there are no centrally maintained archives of posts to a particular group. These are are all features of the environment determined by the technology and tend to be more or less transparent to frequent users. These technical features along with the text-only mode of communication and the near- but-not-quite-synchronous temporal flow of communication has given rise to some interesting adaptions and conventions.



Textual Adaptations: "Making Do" in an Impoverished Environment

For most of human history interaction was defined by physical proximity. The relationship between time, physical proximity and human interaction has undergone a metamorphosis that affects the process of communication in electronic communities. A unique aspect of current electronic communities is that they are text based. In the past communication by the written word necessarily involved a considerable delay in the communication loop. The advent and use of computer and telecommunication technologies has made it possible to reduce this delay to one that is comparable to the kinds of communication delays normally found only in face-to-face communication. Although some communication in electronic communities is conducted in "real time" - most notably IRC (Internet Relay Chat, which is divided into "rooms" where people "talk" in real-time), most computer-mediated communication is asynchronous. That is, there is, as in most written communication, some delay in response. The difference in electronic communities is that this delay is measured in minutes and hours rather than weeks or months. The effect of this technologically enabled reduction in response time is dramatic and can also be seen in the way it is conceived by those who participate in these forums. People do not "write" to their friends on the Internet they "talk". By and large people engaged in computer-mediated communication tend to conceptualize their communicative acts as conversation despite the fact that they employ written rather than verbal modes. Because the response delay has been so drastically reduced it is much easier to think of communicative acts in terms of a less formal "conversational" mode rather than "writing" which has traditionally been a more formal and structured mode.

The still asynchronous but more nearly synchronous nature of this communications mode encourages alterations to the textual mode which involve the transformation of common typographical and textual codes and sign systems that have and are being used in other cultural contexts in a "traditional" way. They are the result of the way old sign systems have migrated into a new environment and are directly related to the technologies that enable them. Computer-mediated communication drastically reduces the time lag between textual interactions. This has the effect of making written communication "feel" more like spoken communication. Computer mediated communication, has drastically reduced the kinds of social cues that are normally present in a conversational mode of communication while at the same time drastically tightening the feedback loop of (and thus the interractive nature) of textual communication. The communication interface is impoverished.

Figure 2

In The Network Nation, Hiltz and Turoff describe some of the aspects of this "narrowing of communication channels" by subdividing communications channels into audible channels and visual channels in relation to each other.

In face-to-face communication, a person simultaneously receives information through many channels which may be broken down into the audible channels and the visual channels. In turn, the audio channels contain both the actual words and their arrangements, as well as what might be called "vocalizations". The visual channels may be broken down into facial expressions, clothes, and other aspects of general "appearance" that give cues, body movements and psychophysiological responses [5].

In the visual channels some of the most basic cues are absent, including of course gender, class, age and ethnicity, but they also note many that are so subtle and normally so casually used that they are often overlooked or forgotten. These include facial expressions that indicate sincerity, amusement, trust or dislike. Cues like blushing, yawning rapid breathing or blinking; body language that indicates shyness, distrust or nervousness; gestures like hand motions or nods and headshakes that indicate simple agreement or dissent are all normal parts of the face-to-face communication equation. These are absent in computer mediated communication.

These cues are all deeply associated with the physical body. Dependence on these kinds of cues during face-to-face communication has been culturally determined from time immemorial. Michael Heim in "The Erotic Ontology of Cyberspace" writes about how this deeply ingrained sense of body is affected by the transference of the communication sphere into cyberspace.

Our bodily existence stands at the forefront of personal identity and individuality. Both law and morality recognize the physical body as something of a fence, an absolute boundary, establishing and protecting our privacy. Now, the computer network simply brackets the physical presence of the participants, either by omitting or by simulating corporeal immediacy [6].

This indicates the paradoxical nature of computer mediated communication. On one hand it can be a very democratizing environment. Individuals who have been marginalized in physical communities have the opportunity to approach the communication process without the stigma that caused them to be marginalized. There is no way for participants to pre-judge the quality of an individual's statements based on physical social cues. In cyberspace it is impossible to determine the race of a speaker by looking at her skin. It is impossible to make a judgment about a community member's sexual orientation based on dress or body movement. On the other hand it is also impossible to determine whether the participant is joking or angry based on the tone of his voice. One cannot determine whether one's statement has caused hurt feelings by examining a facial expression.

The features of the system that narrow the available bandwidth and impoverish the communication environment tend to level the social playing field and make it less dependent on traditional markers of social status. It is also easy to see that the system effaces much of the diversity and color that make up ordinary social communicative situations and provide flavor, zest and joy to social interaction. This paradoxical situation is caused by juxtaposing a communications environment that is immediate and conversational with a communication interface that denies the communicators the signs and symbols they have grown used to using in such an immediate and conversational environment.

Traditional written signifying systems have undergone modifications that make them more suitable to the new environment. Old symbols have been appropriated and put to new uses. Neither the gregariousness nor the inventiveness that make human beings unique have been left behind as they enter the new social environment of cyberspace.

One of the first manifestations of these modifications to the typographical sign system is directly related to the immediacy of the communications environment. In computer newsgroups writing is much less formal. Messages tend to be much shorter - one or two paragraphs usually - than in more formal and more asynchronous forms of writing. Another distinctive manifestation of a more conversational mode is that writing in the newsgroups is much less grammatically correct. Spelling and punctuation are not considered nearly as important in computer-mediated communication as they are in more formal venues. Perhaps an example would be illustrative. The following is one of the first letters ever I received in my electronic mailbox:

well, hi, mark... 

my name's heath michael rezabek, and i'm embarking 

  as well on a project (my little angle is the study of "VIRTUAL CULTURE.")... 

  i'm an undergraduate at the University of Northern Iowa (of all places), and 

  expect to take this into graduate work, eventually towards the establishment 

  of the study of VIRTUAL CULTURE as an important field in the humanities (my 

  major; the project is an INDEPENDANT STUDY project under the auspices of our 

  humanities dept.) 


my approach may be a bit different from yours... i'm trying several things at once. 1: the entirety of the work will be logged into a simple HyperCard system (simple, but HyperText nonetheless...!) which should run on any Mac. no thesis papers; developmental work will be done for the proffs, but the project itself will end up being an expandable HyperCard system. 2: i'm working on an approach which i GUESS i'd call one of "scientific SUBjectivity." i'm not exactly trying to remain DEtached from virtuality or the Net... i don't feel that the environment rewards such an approach.

my thesis is 3-fold in approach (why am i blabberring this all to you? well, perhaps because you're doing a similar study? ok, got it. :) ) 1: study the Net as an emergent cultural paradigm, in the context of the percieved "technocultural crisis" (ie, too much info too fast is killing the soul) and see how the actual Net does and does NOT answer to that charge. 2: apply the metaphor/approach of MEMETICS (any references on this topic would be appreciated...) to model HOW that environment changes and HOW it thus might be affected/nudged from the inside. 3: (eventually; highly hypothetical...) theorise on how the Net resembles (or does not resemble) the emergence of a sort of "GAIA" global "nervous system-in-the-making." again, this last is HIGHLY speculative.

i'd be willing to compile a list of source stuff and what-not -- anything you can tell me about YOUR approach would be *TREMENDOUSLY* appreciated. i guess an exchange of info is in order! this was quite serendipidous, it seems! :)

'til then,

- - - - - - - - - -
"If I cannot bring a smile, a flower, and a cloud into cyberspace, I will not enter.
I will simply put it down, as I would any other clunky tool."
- Tim McFadden, Notes on the Structure of Cyberspace and the Ballistic Actors Model.

(private e-mail correspondence)

There are several features of this note that are common to much of the writing I have seen on the Internet. Note the lack of capitalization of the personal pronoun. This is fairly typical and seems to be a direct result of the immediacy of the computer mediated communications environment. This "artifact" of rez's writing is probably due to a sense of urgency that is not usually present in a writing mode coupled with a medium that takes much longer to compose a message in. Capitalization is something he just does not want to bother with - it takes too much time and destroys the flow of his "speech". The same is true of spelling errors and other typographical blunders. The written word on the net is built for speed, not for show. If, in the opinion of the writer, the meaning is more or less clear there is no social need to go back and correct such blunders. This is due, in part, to the clumsy text editing interfaces that dominated the early development of computer-mediated communication which made it difficult to correct such errors easily. They are passed off in the same manner verbal errors in speech are dealt with in a face-to-face conversation. Notice also the extravagant use of all caps, parentheses, asterisks, ellipses and other infrequently used writing devices and how this affects the tone of the message. This communication is much more like a hall-way conversation than it is a letter.

Figure 3

In addition to these general features, there are some other things to note. Both rez's refusal to capitalize his proper name and his "signature" (the quote at the end of the message) are common features of messages on the network. These are typographical devices that rez uses to construct his identity on the network. These devices are used to present one's self to the community. They might constitute something that is analogous to clothes and body language in ordinary face-to-face conversation. Common network software makes these devices easy to use and easy to change as one's mood changes. Here are some other examples (names have been deleted):


Xxxxx Xxxxxxx		   *MY GOD* "Good thing we

Research Assistant/       *WHAT*    we're wearing our

Undergraduate F*ck-up     *HAVE I*  extra thick socks."

UC Berkeley		  *DONE?!*     -Dangermouse,

					after falling off a cliff.


Xxxx Xxx             |  "Thinking is more interesting than |  knowing, but less interesting than

			         |  looking." --Goethe


From: ahawks (k-rad d00d!!!)

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -fold here- - - - - - - - -

Sebastian Hassinger,    |  "well we had to

Ha!sSinge  #		    |  drown the gat, but we saved you dehabiltated

net.lurker:             |  two gittens"

				        | "run, run as fast as you can, you		    |  can't catch me, I'm the

                        |  gingerbread man!"

New fresh-scented ** (150% real fruit juices!)


| Juggler                     |I'd like to thank you for  |

| IH23@utep.BITNET            |lettin me be mice elf again|

|   |-Sly and the Family Stone- |


| Sysop of Three Ring Circus |


 My school doesn't have opinions....

These signatures (or "sigs") serve to produce and project an identity in an environment that lacks "normal" social cues. For instance, the address lines of ahawks and rez change frequently - a more recent line from ahawks reads: "ahawks (likkered up & horny)," and a past line from rez read: "will be president for food rez."

There is also an entire lexicon of acronyms that have evolved in response to the inherent slowness of typing at a keyboard when coupled with the immediacy of a conversational mode. A few examples include: BTW (by the way), BRB (be right back), IMHO (in my humble opinion), RL (real life), and f2f (face-to-face). These acronyms are commonly understood and serve to save time. In addition to these Internet-wide abbreviations there are many idiosyncratic abbreviations that may be indigenous to a particular newsgroup or even a particular conversation within a newsgroup such as alt.cyberpunk.

Other signifying practices have evolved in order to cope with the "impoverished" communication interface. For instance TYPING IN ALL CAPS CONSTITUTES SHOUTING on the net and in most cases is not considered polite. Another innovative practice involves the use of punctuation and other typographical symbols. These symbols have been turned to the task of displaying some of the emotional cues that have been lost due to the narrowing of the communication channels. These symbols are called "emoticons." Emoticons are constructed using punctuation characters available on a standard keyboard but are not read as punctuation symbols but rather emotional icons. They must be read sideways. For instance a colon and a close parentheses typed together form a "smiley": :). Emoticons are known generically as smileys but can display a surprisingly wide array of emotional states.

Many newsreader software packages allow quoting. The formal denotation of quotes from previous texts are carets. It is not uncommon to see double, triple and quadruple sets of carets indicating quotes from previous posts. The asynchronous nature of newsgroups and the vagaries of various systems' posting policies may cause posts to be delayed, posted out of sequence, or automatically deleted. This automatic quoting serves to keep things "straight" in the conversation. It is considered very impolite to reply to a post without quoting it directly. It is also considered impolite to quote voraciously and only add one or two lines of comments. In addition to these rather standard, Internet-wide conventions, many of the regulars in alt.cyberpunk and other newsgroups use aliases, handles or avatars that are gender-neutral. One definitely gets a sense of gender from their posts but there is no way to assign a gender to them for certain.

These are just a few of the adaptations that have evolved within the newsgroups to compensate for the impoverished nature of the communication interface in computer-mediated communication. Electronic communities are formed in a communication environment that denies them many of the signifying practices that have become so common and seemingly "natural" that they are not even noticed in the communication process in physical communities. They only became apparent in their absence. Electronic communities do not and cannot formulate new cultures from the whole cloth. Instead they borrow, re-invent and re-configure symbolic tools already at hand to fashion symbolic systems that fit the environment they find themselves in. The technology of cmc provides both new constraints and new opportunities for human interaction.


Text as Body: Self-Presentation in a "Real Time " Textual Environment

While electronic communities are enabled by new technologies, the mere presence and use of these technologies do not necessarily ensure community formation. This is, in part, one of the differences between the two newsgroups I chose to study: rec.arts.startrek and alt.cyberpunk. The cyberpunk group is much more involved in using the technologies in what James Carey might characterize as a "ritual" mode while the startrek group seems to be using the technologies in a much less self-conscious "transmission" mode (Carey, 1989).

Personal identity and community are intimately intertwined. The communities individuals find themselves in play a large role in identity formation. In essence identity and community are text and context and are mutually defining. Thomas Fitzgerald notes the interconnectedness of identity and community.

The social confirmation of identity may be a necessary part of personhood, but no particular social identity is essential. Each culture has its own concept of "the person," determined by the individual's perceived place in the society; and defining personhood is surely not an easy task for individuals or cultural and social groups [7].

Fitzgerald defines identity as "an academic metaphor for self-in-context." In the case of text-based Internet newsgroups the "text" of identity and the "context" of community are both literally text.

In essence, Goffman's "expression," which is "given off" by individuals in physical proximity must be consciously and literally expressed in online communities. Despite the fact that it must be consciously constructed and "situated," these declared expressions bear real connections to the persons who construct them. They become "the person" to the other members of the group, and "the person" may be unique to a particular group. Comparing an individual's presentation in one group with the same individual's presentation in another group may yield entirely different "pictures" of that individual. For instance one might tend to use more formal and more grammatical text in an academic conference on postmoderism than one would use in a forum devoted to jokes about bald people and yet another set of textual expressions in a forum for singles seeking companionship. This may pose problems for people intent on discovering the "real" person behind these self-presentations.

In actuality, there is little difference between multiple presentations of self that individuals make at various moments and in particular social contexts in RL (real life). For instance one does not wear a suit and tie to a beach party nor a Hawaiian shirt and shorts to the office. These examples of Goffman's expressions are indeed "given off," but they are as consciously constructed as any online text-based self-presentation. Indeed, if one stops to think about it, there is very little that is not consciously constructed about these "given off" expressions. Hair styles, clothing and personal jewelry, facial expressions and body language are all part of a repertoire of non-verbal communicative behavior that go into complex calculations about how to "place" individuals when they interact with one another in f2f situations. Very few, however, are not under conscious control of the individual "giving off" these expressions. Gender and ethnicity are two that come to mind quickly, though even these can be altered and manipulated convincingly if an individual cares to devote the time and energy needed to do so [8]. Certain facial expressions such as smiles and frowns have meanings that might be considered "universal" yet they are rarely outside of the control of the individual "giving them off." Most other aspects of Goffman's expressions are not only under conscious control of the individual but determined by social context as well, as the above example of "dress codes" reveals. An individual may chose to violate these codes for various reasons or special dispensations for not conforming to these codes may be granted to groups or individuals at various times.

In RL the way an individual interprets and uses the social codes of self-presentation constitute a large part of that individual's identity within the context of particular social moments. It is a part of that individual's definition of "self." It also becomes part of the group's definition of that individual's self as well. In RL, nearly instantaneous judgments of how personal interactions should be structured can be made in a largely automatic way based simply on the way a person "looks." Gender and race relations are excellent examples, but many are much more subtle. As an example recall the transformation of Melanie Griffin's character in the film Working Girl from (gum chewing, flashy jewelry bedecked, Brooklyn accented miniskirted) secretary to (modestly suited, non-chewing, jewelry and accent free) executive. Note that the change in dress signaled a change in context that structured others actions and reactions to her character. There are countless other examples from mass media and RL of how an individual's appearance and self-presentation structure identity, group membership and social relations with others.

It might seem that there is a large difference between self-presentation in RL and online communities, but in fact these differences are far less divergent than might be expected. The difference is not that social contexts have changed but that the communicative environment and tools for self-presentation and context-building have changed. They are, as a general rule, neither more nor less consciously constructed despite the fact that much has been made of the fact that the electronic environment's lack of bandwidth allows individuals to present only those aspects of self which will be most likely to generate acceptance. Text-based constructions of personal identity are governed in much the same way as self-presentation is in RL. These self-presentations are used dynamically for structuring on-going social relations. They must be taken at "face value" in the same way they are in RL. Except in rare instances, these self-presentations are extensions of the "real" person into a different social environment [9].

In many instances, especially in Internet newsgroups, presentation of self is highly restricted by the social context. These restrictions can be thought of as analogous to the way presentations of self are restricted in the workplace. People participating in the community get a particular sense of the other members of the group but in many ways it is a very narrow "view" of the individuals.

Perhaps you missed its subtleties? You need to be able go beyond simply
seeing things the way they are and see the way things COULD be. ST is
one such vision of the future in which racial equality is a prime component.

>And even more to the point is that Star Trek has mirrored this
>philosophy to the point that it seems to be "in your face" and thus an
>actual distraction sometimes.

so you saying that racial equality is your face interesting.>
Perhaps this is a distraction for you, but this says more about you than
the show. It appears from your comments that race is an overriding
factor for you.

>Star Trek is in some very tangible
>ways PC.

What evidence do you have for this?


(article posted to rec.arts.startrek.current 3/18/95)

Note the use of personal pronouns in this post and how it is addressed to the individual Carmen is responding to. There is a definite sense of "conversation" and personal address here yet it is still very removed from what might be called a presentation of self except as it relates to the topic at hand and the "conversational" approach. This post illustrates the conversational nature of these debates but it also illustrates how narrowly defined the topic is. In an interaction such as this we see people conversing about a topic but there seems to be very little sense of context beyond the participants common knowledge of Star Trek. These conversations resemble the kinds of conversations that spring up in the stands at athletic events in which the participants feel free to discuss their views on the competing teams. Permissible topics are restricted to a very narrow social context. Each participant is free to express personal opinions about the contestants and disagree with the other participants but there is no sense of personhood beyond the narrow context of fandom, despite the prevalent personal and familiar forms of address.

In contrast to the severely restricted modes of self-presentation typical of the startrek group and many other groups as well, the regulars at alt.cyberpunk place a premium on self-presentation in a wider and more communal context. What follows are exerpts from a post from SweetPoly to Polecat in a thread that had developed into a battle between the two. Poly had defended a female poster whom Polecat had taken to task. Poly posted this and her comments are those without carets. Single carets are Polecat's to which she is replying, the double carets are Poly's and the triple carets are Polecat's.

<snip>...a nasty thicket of noise between the two of them.

>>>Yes, i don't like Sourcerer (well, more accutarely, i don't like his
>>>style) so the thought of similarities beween us isn't a nice thought.
>>>Do you find that strange ?
>>So, if only Sourcerer would change his style to meet with your
>>approval, your standards, you would grace us with your friendship?
>>Where have I heard this complaint before? It's, it's like deja vu all
>>over again... <g>
>No, no, no. You put words in my mouth (as ursual).
>I haven't said that he *should* change his style.

That's true, you don't say: "Sourcerer should be less *". However,
thisis the way I interpreted your statement above:

you said: "i don't like his style", and go on to state that that this
is the cause of your distress at the idea of any similarities between
you. Correct? So I made the deduction that if his style is the
problem, the changing of his style will eliminate the problem...
eliminating the cause of your dislike.

>He is free to be any way he choose, that's his right.
>And i am free to disapprove, that's my right.
>You got a problem with that ? No, not really. Although I think I would rather use the term "disagree"
rather than "disapprove", wouldn't you? If we can agree on that, we
might actually be able to move past this noise, and concentrate on what
we're both more interested in elsewhere in the newsgroup.

>I think you're the one complaining.

Possibly. <g> And so are you. You have pointed out some things I wrote
that I think you have the right to complain about. I'm basically
complaining about your (self-admitted) sneering, and I think I'm
justified in that as much as you are justified about your own bitching
at me.

>>>>>Please allow me to suggest that if people don't understand your
>>>>>sense of humor, perhaps it is because they are not amused by your
>>>Yeah, well, could be, because those that do appriciate my sense of
>>>humor do not take every chance they get of insulting me, thereby
>>>making me hostile. So i spose it figures.

Well, I laughed at something you wrote in another thread (about people
here breaking 'little' laws), and once you pointed it out, I could see
your intended humor in some of these posts with me. I guess I missed it
because, well, you came on pretty heavy (still are, actually) with your
sneering at "the regulars". So in that context, you'll admit, it was
possible to misinterpret your humor. I would suggest using the
'emoticons', but I didn't see it when you did before, so I don't know
what the solution is. @:) Except to maybe relax a little?

>>Um, so how do you explain your attack on April in another thread on
>>fashion? She certainly didn't insult you, and yet look at what you
>>wrote. Saying it was a dirty job but somebody had to do it. (I
>>actually agreed with some of the things you wrote in that, btw, but I
>>had reasons of my own for taking a light, "cute" tone there. I guess
you have reasons of your own for your sledgehammer approach.) >
>Ok, first of all the "dirty job" thing. That was a sarcastic *joke*
>directed at those complaining that i'm hostile.... you for example.
>Don't take *everything* i write so damn seriously.

I'll try not to, if you'll cut me some slack in turn.

>I don't think i "attacked" April. I really don't.
>And yes, i had my own reasons for being a bit hard.

My own reasons were just to try to keep another girl around for a bit.
They're so rare, that even though I simply cringed at the "cyberpreppie"
thing, I replied as I did. I am aware that in doing so I was hovering
on the edge of being patronizing, but I did think the issue of costume
has some relevance to cyberpunk, and was trying to keep the discussion
going along those lines.

<more noise snipped>

>>>You take offense at the drop of a hat, and stand there and say it's
>>because you're in a hostile environment. I have tried to draw you
>>into play *repeatedly*, and you won't have anything to do with it.
>If that was the porch-teaparty thing... i didn't wanna "have anything
>to do with it" because it wasn't my... er... cup of tea. I gotta chose
>forms of expression that i can relate to.

I can appreciate that. Nobody was more suprised than I at the response
to that post. I simply wrote a 'space' in which to interact with Omar
in a way that could be constructive. I was warned at the time that it
would not be appreciated by everybody, and I am beginning to understand
that, now. It was so much fun for me personally, that I couldn't see
how anyone could not care for it. You certainly have that right,
Polecat, and I will not try to "draw you in" any longer (although I will
probably continue to write you in on occasion, just because I can't help
tweaking you <g><).

>>I thought that maybe it was because you had an ugly experience at some
>>point, and you told me to fuck off for "pitying" you.
>I interpret what i read. So do you and everybody else. Text is a 2D
>media. I interpreted what you wrote as pity, nothing pisses me off like
>that. So I got pissed off. >
>>Dammit, I'm a *woman*, you big idiot. *I* am wired to try to get
>>along, to include everybody...

>And that instinct clashes when it is confronted with somebody who
>doesn't care about being included. Deal with it.

I will manage somehow. Just as you're going to have to manage to deal
with the fact that you are a 'regular' in these parts,Polecat. You
post. As I said, I will no longer try to pull you in, but you are "in"
anyway -- you are an established persona here in the alley. Deal with

>>Is it a turn-on for you to be such a prick to me when you know what
>>I'm trying to accomplish here? A matter of honor? Pride? Of not
>>letting that *girl* pull you into her silly sicky sweet *cute* games?
>>Because *Real men*(TM) don't go to tea parties?
>None of the above.
>It's like this:
>I'm not here to fight with you (pl.) but i am not here to make friends
>or to find me a "pack" to belong to either. I'm here because i find
>the newsgroup interresting, because i relate to what's being discussed
>(well, some of it) and because i feel that the average level is higher
>than a lot of places. Unfortunately i've been caught up in this
>fucking fight up 'til >now...
>...the last few posts i read tells me it's not over.

I considered asking you just how you think the group got to be the way
it is, but I think that's another thread. This fight is over. If you
are interested in being here, and are writing, that - as we've said here
over and over - is all that's asked, basically. If we could find a
'comfort level' of interaction that will allow us to write back and
forth, that would be nice, but given the dynamic at work here, I don't
know if it's
possible. I guess we'll find out.

>>>>I am saddened and depressed by this entire exchange, actually.
>>>Kinda depressing but mostly boring.
>>For you, maybe it is boring. I'm close to tears. Mea culpa.
>Why ? (forget it, why would you tell me that, what basis of mutual
trust or respect... etc, etc)

Frustration? Depressed at my own contribution? I'd filed my divorce
papers the day before?

>>>I'm guilty of sneering, though. At times.
>>Didn't your mother ever tell you that your face will freeze in that
>>expression if you use it too much?

Well, it will. <g>

If you've truly been reading this newsgroup as long as you say you have,
you know that that is the way I write. My personal style, which suits

>Isn't my *style* exactly what *you* have been critisizing me for all
>along ? My style being to "hostile".

No, what I object to is your hostility. (Or what appeared to be
hostility) Not your hostile "style". There is plenty of rough,
hostile,vicious, caustic stuff written here -- and we all roll with it.

>(Once again you give me the opportunity to throw your words back in
>your face)

Not quite. It may be that you don't see how your words come across, and
there is more hostility there than intended -- but people are
consistently missing your intended humor, which should tell you
something... Your command of english is so good, I hesitate to point my
finger at the second language thing, but language can be a slippery
thing, especially humor, because of all the layers of meaning in the

>Here we are back at the style thingy. You want me to frame my
>arguments in a style more to your liking, huh ? Fuck you.


A---T           Sweet Poly


 C-G            "Make weapons of your imperfections.

  G              Everything is grist for the mill."

 G-C                                            Sourcerer

(article posted in alt.cyberpunk 9/7/95)

While this doesn't seem on the surface to be that different from the post from the startrek group, there are number of interesting features that seem to indicate a qualitative difference in the combatants presentation of self. First, note the emphasis on trying to separate a person's "style" from the "content" of the post. In a physically proximate conversation or relationship this attempt to separate a person's style from the "content" of their identity might reach some sort of mutually agreed closure. However when person's "style" is literally their conversation rather than an amalgam of conversational "content" and other physical "non-verbal" references this closure is difficult to reach. For instance , in a physically proximate conversation I might disagree with a person's statement but agree with their "style" (dress, hairstyle, gestures, tone of voice etc.). In a text-based venue there is no accepted way to separate "style" from "content". Second, note Poly's repeated emphasis on what might constitute "polite" behavior and Polecat's contention that he has not been impolite and, even if he had been, this does not constitute a social breach in this group. A third difference between this post and the post from the startrek group is the focus of the conversation is on the social relations of the group rather than a canonical discussion. It is explicitly about social interaction and self-presentation in relation the group.

We find interesting tidbits scattered throughout the post. We learn that Poly has filed for a divorce and a rationale for the creation of the cooperative narrative of community centered around the virtual space the punks have dubbed Rancho Deluxe. What this post represents is a complex negotiation of personal relationship in which the two "speakers" are discussing their relationship to each other and how they constitute themselves in relation to other members of the group. In addition to self-revelation about her personal life, Poly also attempts to articulate some of the social norms of the group. This includes her opinions of what constitutes "hostility" as opposed to the normal rough-and-tumble discourse of the group - something she obviously feels Polecat is indulging in and a distinction that Polecat either won't or doesn't understand. Poly explains, "No, what I object to is your hostility. (Or what appeared to be hostility) Not your hostile "style." There is plenty of rough, hostile, vicious, caustic stuff written here -- and we all roll with it". Poly is speaking as an "insider" and Polecat as an "outsider" but it is important to note that the subject of this thread is very narrowly focused on the conduct of social relations in the group and has nothing to do with the nominal topic area of cyberpunk.

Both Poly and Polecat mention specifically how these relations are connected to the textual environment the relationship is taking shape in. Polecat mentions that "text is 2-D" and Poly encourages Polecat to make more use of textual adaptations such as "emoticons" as indicators of tone and mood. In addition both indicate rationales for their presence beyond "mere" discussion of the nominal topic for the group.

Another aspect of identity illuminated in this post is how gender is constituted. Many of the regulars in alt.cyberpunk use gender neutral nom-de-nets. Poly's entire name is SweetPoly Peptide. There is no indication of gender in this appellation yet in previous posts Poly's "voice" is distinctly feminine. She explicitly declares her gender. Although Polecat doesn't indicate his gender, his voice is distinctly male. In fact, the reason the argument is taking place has to do with the rude (in Poly's opinion) manner in which Polecat replied to another female poster. Despite the fact that Poly's voice is feminine, there is no "real" way to determine if she is indeed female in this environment. This is why she feels it is necessary to declare her gender in the course of the argument. It advances the point she is trying to make but it also reveals identity connections between Poly's net.identity and her RL identity.

Constructing an identity in a community such as alt.cyberpunk is a very conscious and deliberate enterprise. I carried on an e-mail correspondence with an individual who had recently ceased posting to alt.cyberpunk. Her words help explain both the deliberatness of this type of identity construction and how some people "read" them.

Some people use their real names in posting to the Usenet; others don't.
I'm in the latter category. For me, it has to do with leaving an aura
of mystery around the author. A great example of this is Andrea Chen ... who seems to be the object of everyone's
speculation about what her/his true identity is. Some people think that
Chen and I are the same person, which I decline to confirm or deny. In
any event, it's plain from her I'net address that Andrea Chen is a
pseudonym. Yet people, me included, visualize her as a Chinese American

Only three people in alt.cyberspace know my real name and gender. Which
is to say I'll interview for you, but I won't give you that info. I
guard it closely. Gender liquescence is a key part of Chalons' persona
(her alter ego is Mahatmahow, who is presumed male).

Kisses, Chalons

(private email, 6/29/95)

Chalons is not only very forthright in acknowledging the "liquiescence" of her gender construction but some of the overt purposes such a construction serves for the individual. Note also that she has constructed a male gendered identity as well. Her remark that "people, me included, visualize her [Andrea Chen] as a Chinese American woman" indicates to some degree how these personas are perceived. Not only is it easy to visualize "dbennett" as a Chinese American woman, it is also easy to imagine Chalons as a woman and her alter ego (especially when encountering the persona in the context of discourse within the group) as male. It is interesting that both Chen and Chalons' alter ego, Mahatmahow, have ethnic identities as well that are inferred from the names people give their avatars.

The textual choices people make in their interactions in the group are complex and multi-faceted. They are deliberate and conscious choices made in an attempt to present themselves in a particular way and be perceived in a particular way. These choices are not limited to choosing to be gendered or not gendered or assuming a particular ethnicity. In alt.cyberpunk some members have chosen to give physical descriptions of themselves for various reasons. However physical descriptions of self in alt. cyberpunk in general should not be confused with "true" descriptions of what the poster actually looks like in RL but are rather textual devices that aid members of the group in assessing the identity and personality of an individual. These descriptions might be more analogous to putting on a particular set of clothes in order to fit into a particular social situation.

Even when textual descriptions of appearance are not part of an individual's persona, one definitely gets some "sense" of who is "talking" and who they "really" are. Alt.cyberpunk regulars, Sourcerer and Nesta, for instance rarely make self-presentations in terms of physical self-descriptions. Instead, they depend on their various "voices" in the threads they participate in as a way to present themselves. Both participate in the ranch threads and adhere to the conversational protocols of that cooperative narrative, however they participate by adding to the narrative as active characters rather than adding to the narrative as "construction workers" building the textual "space" of the ranch. They inhabit the space and rely on others' descriptions of them and the environment. Their contributions to the cooperative narrative accept these presentations of themselves by others and operate as if they were "accurate" representations of their "physical" identity both at the ranch and in the wider arena of alt.cyberpunk. Witness this contribution by a relatively new member, whose avatar is a little girl with some twisted adult sensibilities. In this thread, the punks are decorating the ranch for Christmas and Julia is a new arrival. There are three voices represented in this post: SweetPoly, who originated the thread (double carets), Sourcerer, in a rare fit of self-description (single carets), and Julia, the little girl/newcomer and author of this post (no carets).

> On 13 Dec 1995, Sweet Poly wrote:

>> The place quiets down again after the excitement of receiving a
>>visiter, a *grrrl*, too -- very rare. In the half-light of winter
>>twilight, snow begins to fall, building up quickly, covering the lawn
>>and flamethrower turrets, and any gargoyles sitting still too long on
>>the roof...
>> Inside, all is warm and bright.

> Suddenly the fire in the fireplace turns black and cold in a fury of
>soot that billows out into the room, driving them back beyond their
>chairs. And from the swirling murk emerges a tall blackened figure
>carrying a large squirming, chittering sack.
> "Santa?", the little girl gasps dismayed.
> "Sourcerer!" Poly stamps her foot. "What are you doing to my
>house?" He stomps forward, pure carbon black except for glistening
>blue eyes and white teeth showing his grin, and extends the wiggling
>sack to her...
> "What you said. Snagging all my beemice and batcats from the walls
>and woodwork..."

> Then he notices the little stranger, and distracted, lets the sack
>loose not quite in Poly's grip..."Hello. Who are you?" He grins
>wildly, no doubt thinking he's put on a friendly and inviting face...

The little girl looks up, and up, and up. There are silvery egdes to
this spectre; looks like a snowed-on crow fallen down the chimney, same
blue-white eyes as the crow-relatives she knew in Ireland; but they,
remembers the little girl, were much smaller, and had no teeth.

> The sooty apparation towers over her grinning, and the little girl
>takes a step back and raises her arm defensively, "I...I'm..."
> "Soucerer!" It's almost too much for Poly to bear! Her lovely quiet
>parlour swirling in soot, and her new friend completly terrified by his
>barbaric uncouthness...and now that dropped sack and the batcats are
>loose, as sooty as their creator, flapping crazily around the room
>shedding showers of soot like moth dust.
> One batcat notices the little girl's outstretched arm, takes it for a
>likely perch, and flaps down, digging it's claws into her wrist. Slowly
>it begins to rock back and forth, setting it's claws like a cat
>kneading a rug. The little girl winces from the pain but is too
>astonished and scared to move. Then, it's eyes droop and slowly close,
>and in one final swooping swing, hangs upsidedown from her wrist like a
>pendant, it's batwings folded, and begins to softly purr itself asleep.

The girl slowly cranes her neck around, slowly slowly turns her head
upside-down, and gets a few seconds to study the batcat's little face.
The eyes are slits and the nose is drawn up and wrinkled: a sleeping
kitten with a furled snout. She decides she likes the squinty
expression, and after they take the batcat away, starts practicing with
her own face.

>Poly summons the med-daemons, and grabs a handy batcat perch (they're
>scattered throughout the Rancho for just these situations) when Nesta
>and Gene and Nemickol burst into the parlour laughing and shouting,
>not stopped for an instant by the improbable scene before them (it is
>after all Rancho Deluxe where nothing is improbable).
>"Hey Poly! Hiya Source!" they say in chorus.

>"Eyebrown's decorated the flamethrower turrets with holly and
>poinsettas", says Gene.
>"And Zeit's stringing lights on the roof", says Nemickol.
>"And we've been putting red tree lights in the eyesockets of *all* the
>skulls on the borderline", says Nesta.
>"Huey, Louie, and Dewey", thinks Poly, and sighs, and gives up and
>collapses in a fluff of soot in her chair.

(article posted in alt.cyberpunk 12/16/95)

There is a wealth of descriptive detail in this post about the "space" and the "characters," except that this description functions in a very real sense as both self-presentation and re-presentation of the space of the ranch and the people who inhabit it. It is very tempting to read the above passage as fiction, however that would be a mistake. While the passage does follow a conventional fictional narrative mode when presented in this context it is important to remember that this narrative has multiple authors that represent themselves in the narrative. This narrative is both self-presentation of the members and the re-presentation of the community they are a part of. They constitute in a very real way the social relations of the group and of individuals' sense of their place in that group in relation to the other members and in relation to the metaphysical "space" that they interact in. Other, less "fictional" threads constitute additional opportunities for self-presentation in particular modes of conversation that also add to the sense of identity for those involved. These two textual modes ("fictional" and discursive) of self-presentation operate in a concurrent fashion to leave impressions of self in the context of the community.

One of the major differences in this cooperative narrative and a more traditional fictional narrative is the expectation of interaction with the other members of the community. This makes the narrative more fluid. Once written, the text does not assume the stability of a traditional fictional narrative. It is subject to additions, modifications, and negotiations. Despite the fact that the narrative does not become "fixed" in the traditional sense of the word, all those contributing consent to conform to a set of non-codified "rules" for conducting these additions and modifications. These unspoken "rules" include a consensual concession to a sort of traditional linear temporal presentation of "events" occurring at the ranch and an equally consensual agreement to maintain the "space" of the ranch either through quoting of previous descriptive passages, original contributions or a clever weave of both. These consensual agreements on the "rules" provides continuity for the community. In the short-term it provides a sort of local "temporal" continuity for particular "events" such as the scene above. In the long-term it provides a series of "events" that become part of the history of the community.

Conforming to these "rules" has consequences for the individual's self-presentation to the group. Much of what we present to the world and ourselves as our "identity" is constructed of a complex weave of dress, appearance, gender, ethnicity, tone of voice, choice of words and a host of other communicative behaviors. Our self-presentations in RL also depend in a very real way on a sense of continuity in the social relationships we find ourselves on a daily basis. Personal identity is accreted over a period of time and while it continually evolves, it rarely changes drastically from day to day. There are many situations that occur in personal interactions that depend on the individuals involved "staying in character". Presenting oneself in a community such as alt.cyberpunk is no different.

This sense of identity is created in many ways. They include .sigs and other net-adapted textual conventions such as emoticons. They may include descriptions of self but they also include the impressions left in the course of conversation within the group over time. The difference between self-presentation in RL and cyberspace is that one's identity must be literally spelled out. Self-presentation in RL is usually a very deliberate set of activities as well. Who has not agonized over the "correct" tie or skirt to wear for that special occasion. It is no different in cyberspace, except that the rituals of self-presentation in alt.cyberpunk are practiced in a textual mode.

Initially individuals have a great deal of control over the construction of their online identities. In some sense they have control over the presentation of certain aspects of identity that they ordinarily wouldn't have in areas such as gender and ethnicity. This doesn't mean, however, that there are not constraints on self-presentation. As in any social situation, there is a continuum of acceptable ways to present one's self that is defined, in large part, by the group in a consensual manner. In my own case, the choices I made in the construction of my avatar were both tactical and strategic. I chose to present my avatar, Zeitgeyser, as a somewhat humorous figure with some peculiar physical traits including the point on his head, his pith helmet, and his droopy socks. Zeitgeyser is a textual presentation of me that reflects aspects of my personal sense of identity in some real way rather than a purely "fictional" character.

For instance, in my first approach to the ranch Zeit wore a Hawaiian shirt. There was no need for him to "wear" anything. I could have chosen any number of other ways to present myself that did not involve any self-description or self-presentation other than some form of "conversation". However, having chosen to present myself "physically" at the ranch, I was faced with the decision of what to wear. The choice of where and how to present myself was critical in some respects to my acceptance by the group. What Zeitgeyser wore was a personal choice made in part because in RL I am partial Hawaiian shirts when I am not constrained by weather or social factors to wear something more "appropriate". While the costume is whimsical, the choice is not - in either a communal or a personal sense. This description of a piece of personal apparel that has no existence in reality may seem esoteric or trivial or both, but it illustrates both how the community at Rancho Deluxe constrained my self-presentation in particular ways and how I used those constraints to present an aspect of myself that was an intimate part of my own sense of personal identity, regardless of context, and at the same time conform to a set of non-specific and uncodified community standards. There is no dress code at the ranch.

While Zeitgeyser is not "me," he is in a very real sense a representation of myself that pleases me in this context. It is important to note that I could have chosen any number of ways to present myself to the punks at the ranch, but, having made a choice, I am now "stuck" with Zeitgeyser as an avatar. My social relations with other members of the group are governed not just by Zeitgeyser's "aspect" at the moment but by his/my history - my presentations of him across a wide variety of threads involving both threads containing serious discourse as well as my "fictional" presentations of him within the cooperative narrative. For instance, note that my avatar, Zeitgeyser is mentioned in the Christmas decorating post in a particular context. If I had chosen to contribute to that portion of the cooperative narrative at that moment, I would have had to concede my "presence" on the roof stringing lights and, if I wanted to enter the parlor to interact with the group "there," I would have had to write appropriate prose that would move me from the roof to the parlor. This contribution would then become part of the continuum of the ranch. It is important to understand how the imposition of this sort of narrative works to constrain social relations and channel them in particular directions in particular contexts just as the social contexts of RL work to define a continuum of acceptable modes of interaction within those contexts.

I might choose to present myself differently at any time but, I would not "appear" to the group as the same person. In a sense I am "recognized" by a host of personal markers that include my writing style, my .sig, the way I conduct myself with various members of the groups and my contributions to the cooperative narrative. As Chalons indicated in her e-mail, there is nothing preventing an individual from presenting multiple selves or identities to the groups one interacts with. However, in practice, it is very labor intensive and cumbersome to maintain more than one identity, particularly if those identities interact with each other in the same newsgroup. It is labor intensive to create textual avatars and contribute to the descriptive construction and maintenance of the ranch. Just as an individual's presentation of self varies across several contexts in communities one inhabits in RL, an individual's presentation of self also changes in the differing social contexts of the newsgroup. Despite this variation across contexts there is much that overlaps. It is precisely this overlap of self-presentations in vaious social situations that makes possible at least an illusion of continuity of personhood different social contexts in RL. For example one's clothes may change as one moves from the office to the beach but one's identity remains more-or-less constant across these two contexts with appropriate modifications in dress and behavior. These variations of self-presentation are not confined to "looks" such as clothes but can be seen in the differing tones of voice and modes of address used by the same person engaging in conversation at a business meeting and engaging in conversation with the same co-workers at the water cooler or in an employee lounge over coffee. The same is true as one presents oneself in the varying contexts of alt.cyberpunk. For instance, Sourcerer's sig always contains the ascii art of the cow's skull but the quotes he uses vary depending on his mood and the conversation he is participating in. The sig below was appended to a non-Rancho thread but addressed to the "regulars" of the ranch.

 (__)    Sourcerer

/(<>)\ O|O|O|O||O||O  "RL is a story told in cyberspace"

 \../  |OO|||O|||O|O                    -- Sweet Poly

  ||   OO|||OO||O||O


(article posted in alt.cyberpunk 9/21/95)

The following example is reserved for outsiders or for regulars who have irritated him in some way.

 (__)    Sourcerer

/(<>)\ O|O|O|O||O||O  "I'll string my whips with scorpions"

 \../  |OO|||O|||O|O                   -- Webster

  ||   OO|||OO||O||O                   The Duchess of Malfi


Note that, despite the fact that these sigs are slightly different, readers, and more importantly, other members of the group get a sense of the "personal" continuity which, in large part constitutes Sourcerer's online identity. They represent examples of how personal identity "accretes" over time and that these accretions of personal identity are managed and defined by both the creator of the identity and the other members of the community as well.


Along the Interface: Where Cyberspace and RL Touch

Our knowledge of the other individuals we interact with is not complete nor does it come as a single coherent package for us to interpret in one sitting. This knowledge accretes over time but is never complete. Very few people would ask me how I know the "facts" about the individuals I interact with at my university or question their validity. I know these things because they are all facts that have been stated and, in some cases re-stated in the course of their interactions with me and each other. On the other hand, in part because the medium of interaction is new, the "facts" I know about the punks have been questioned because I have never "met" them. In both cases the knowledge I acquired about the punks and about my cohorts and colleagues was gathered in a similar way and my sense of their validity and of the personalities of the individuals involved are similar despite the medium of interaction. I know all of the things detailed above because, over the course of time and a series of personal interactions, people have, for various reasons, told me about themselves or told me about people that they know of.

Until now I have avoided trying to make connections between the online community of Rancho Deluxe and RL despite the fact that I have pointed out similarities in process. It is important to understand how identity and social relations are constructed in this virtual community and how the technology and text-only mode of the communication environment offer both new potentials for and new constraints on the social process, but there are important connections between the conduct of social relations at Rancho Deluxe and the conduct of social relations in RL. Those connections might seem tenuous for several reasons, not the least of which is the quasi- or proto-fictional nature of the narrative that gives it life.

It is important to understand that, despite its resemblance to traditional fictional narratives in form and format, the cooperative narrative is not fiction. Despite the fact that Rancho Deluxe exists only as a stream of ordered alphanumeric symbols transmitted across the physical geography of the planet, it is very real. The people who inhabit the Ranch are real. Their self-descriptions and the participation in "events" that take place at the ranch are also very real and very much a part of the personalities of the people who post them. These textual declarations of identity and communal affiliation are no less sincere for virtual nature. It is unlikely that those who follow the cooperative narrative at Rancho Deluxe know all there is to know about the people who inhabit it, however they know enough about each other to interact at a very intimate level. It is similarly unlikely that you know all there is to know about the people that you come in contact with everyday. Despite this lack of complete knowledge we all manage to conduct social relations with individuals in a varied set of communities that touch tangentially in various ways. The interactions of individuals in alt.cyberpunk constitutes, for the people involved, one of those communities. It does not preclude interactions with other individuals in other online communities or in more traditionally based geographic communities.

As an individual, I interact most closely with a set of individuals in a building we all inhabit at the university I work for. Despite the central locale of this community and its small and homogenous nature, I still present various "faces" to individuals, groups and sub-groups within the community that all have continuous and disconcerting resemblance to the "real" me. I am both a student and a teacher. I am also an employee and a "product" of the school. Certain social obligations and responsibilities are attached to these roles. I also take part in a wide variety of conversations from jokes in the hallway to serious intellectual discourse in graduate seminars. I am very familiar with the geography of my building and the individuals who inhabit it from the Dean to the janitor. My role in alt.cyberpunk is similar in many ways and as communal. The interactions and the friendships I have made there are no less "real" for the fact that I have never met any of these individuals f2f or because the place where I "go" to conduct these interactions has no physical existence.

To the casual observer the narrative that is being constructed at Rancho Deluxe might seem frivolous and the product of people who have too much time on their hands. I would argue that the ranch and the people who inhabit it do have a life, a life where part of it is conducted in cyberspace and many important social relations are conducted in cyberspace. The creation of Rancho Deluxe and its communal maintenance by participating individuals stands as a textbook case of the "social construction of reality." The environment in which this community is built is constrained in many ways. It is constrained by the technology, its population is limited to that subset of individuals who can both afford access and have the technical savvy to use it. It is constrained by the textual mode the technology forces communication into. It is constrained by the very geographical separation of those who use it. It is constrained by the textual mode social relations are forced into by the technological system of cmc. Despite all of these constraints, the individuals who participate in the Rancho Deluxe narrative have managed to find ways present themselves that are similar to and in some ways as satisfying to them as their presentations of self in RL.

The cooperative narrative of Rancho Deluxe is a tribute to the social nature of humans. It also offers some insight into how old modes of communication (in this case text) intertwine with new technologies (computer technology in this case) in new and surprising ways. It is my belief that the key feature of this particular combination is the way it enables individuals to use a text, which has traditionally had a very attenuated feedback loop, in a nearly synchronous mode. This allows participants to conduct social relations in a reconfigured textual environment that is much more interactive. This new textual environment provides new opportunities for social interaction and self-presentation. Both are key features of the process of community [10] End of article .



About the Author

Mark Giese is an Assistant Professor of Communications at the University of Houston. He has written extensively on community formation and identity in electronic environments and explores the adoption and social uses of new technologies. He is a former video producer and director for Texas Instruments and designs electronic corporate communication packages. His e-mail address is:


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2. Meyrowitz, 1985. No Sense of Place, p. 94.

3. Meyrowitz, 1985. No Sense of Place, p. 95.

4. Meyrowitz, 1985. No Sense of Place, p. 99-100, with emphasis in original.

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8. Anthropologists and sociologists, such as Birdwhistell, have indeed identified a number of physical expressions such as pupil dialation during flirtation that are not under conscious control of the individual.

9. For instance much has been made about an individuale's ability to change gender in an on-line environment and it is indeed true that many of the gender markers that accompnay f2f communication are absent or subject to manipulation but "gender-bending" on an on-going basis in electronic communities is almost as time consuming and and difficult to pull off convincingly as it is in RL.

10. This paper was originally presented at the 47th Annual Conference of the Language and Social Interaction Division of the International Communication Association in Montreal, Canada in May 1997.



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Copyright ©1998, ƒ ¡ ® s † - m ¤ ñ d @ ¥

Self without Body: Textual Self-Representation in an Electronic Community by Mark Giese.
First Monday, Volume 3, Number 4 - 6 April 1998