As I interpreted it, the central point of A Rape in Cyberspace is that the distinction between what is real and what is virtual becomes difficult to define as we live more and more of our lives in online spaces. So this post is going to be an exploration of what exactly our online lives mean to us; lives that can be lived out over Facebook, or massive-miltiplayer games, or even on blogs.
The idea of a life lived in cyberspace isn't really a new one. It's featured heavily in Neuromancer, William Gibson's 1984 novel in which he basically foretold the existence of the Internet. (Interestingly, that article points out that the cyberspace Gibson's characters jack into shares certain similarities with Second Life). Neuromancer is a fantastic book, if you haven't read it yet--it both introduced the world to the word "cyberspace" and popularized the cyberpunk genre (which in turn, has lead to all kinds of wonderful spin-offs: cybergoth, biopunk, and my personal favorite, steampunk. I'd love to devote an entire post to steampunk, but really, it has nothing to do what we're talking about, so that's out. Hit up that link or check out the Wikipedia article if you're interested).
Anyway, Neuromancer is highly relevant to what we've been talking about lately. For one, it offers a very literal example of "identity tourism," as the protagonist (a rogue hacker named Case) is able to piggyback on the consciousness of his partner at several points. For another, Case is openly contemptuous of his body, preferring the freedom of the net. Here's a quote for you: “In the bars he’d frequented as a cowboy hotshot, the elite stance involved a certain relaxed contempt for the flesh. The body was meat. Case fell into the prison of his own flesh." Case despises the urges and weaknesses of his body. When a rival deprives him of the ability to jack into the network, he becomes a hopeless drug addict, trying to find a fix that can replace the sensation of surfing cyberspace. He fails. There is nothing that can match the experience of the net. There is nothing that can match the feeling of limitless realms of information, rolling away to infinity...
Ever have that feeling?
A Rape In Cyberspace also talks about the attraction of leaving the body behind. I'm thinking specifically of the paragraph of cybersex, which ends with this intriguing line regarding sex via MUD: "And...who knows? The heart may engage as well, stirring up passions as strong as many that bind lovers who observe the formality of trysting in the flesh." This idea that love may not be dependent on physical contact--or even on any sort of real-world connection at all--may be an uncomfortable notion for some people, but it does raise an interesting question about what the people we know online can mean to us.
In a post a while ago I mentioned Terrouge, the Redwall fan-site I was an active member of for a couple of years (eighth and ninth grade, I believe). I was at least as involved in Terrouge as Julian Dibbell was in the world of Lambda MOO--it may not have been a virtual world, but it was most definetly a society, with it's own customs and relationships and participants. Maylin, Randag, Ashen Fox, Lord TBT, Silver Rain, Bracken...those user names bring back a lot of memories, even now. I had more than eleven hundred posts at Terrouge, and as you can imagine, that's a lot of discussions and games and debates with a lot of different people. I can still remember the arguments that would crop up from time to time, down to the specific people who participated and the positions they took. I can remember nominating Evil and Vile (yeah, that's a user name) for the "most likely to go on a chainsaw rampage" forum award as a joke, and being surprised when she actually won (probably because no one could resist voting for her; she was one of the nicest people on the forum). I remember people's avatars (Lady Tara Starblade had that dancing cat for a long time; Maylin had various drawings of a blue mouse in profile; Triton had a really creepy one that would display the name of the last person to load the page).
I drifted away from the 'Rouge around the same time as a number of other people. The forum had been down for a solid month, after getting hit by a virus, and when it came back up it was hosted by a different group, with a different layout and color scheme. Some people simply didn't come back at all; and for those of us who did, things seemed different. There was very much a sense that things had changed for the worse; and although there was a brief Renaissance of people looking to "save" Terrouge, people began to just stop posting. Eventually, without most of the people who had made the forums such a cool place back in the day, there didn't seem to be much point in staying. I stopped visiting the sight every day. Eventually, some time in tenth grade, I stopped going at all. I havne't been back since.
Now, I don't know if I can compare my own experiences to A Rape In Cyberspace. There was never any eroticism on the 'Rouge, and I certainly never became romantically attached to anyone there, beyond perhaps the most basic of infatuations (talking to college girls as an eight grader and having them treat you as an equal? It's a heady experience). But I do know that I cared as deeply for the community of Terrouge as I did for most of the friends I had in real life. This was in the pre-Facebook era, of course, so in a way it was easier for me to connect to strangers than to friends online (the only virtual space in which I hung out with classmates at that point in my life was Runescape...but that's a different story). But, really, they weren't strangers to me. Although I had never met them in the physical world, knew next to nothing about their personal lives, and saw only the personalities they chose to project through their user accounts (often named after Redwall characters, for the purpose of role playing), I fully considered them to be friends. It was the most deeply I've ever invested myself in a virtual space, and as I think this post proves, at least a part of that investment has stayed with me.
But what's the point? What have I been trying to prove with this long and boring reflection?
I guess the issue I'm trying to address is whether we can have relationships with people online that are as real or as "deep," if you prefer, as the relationships we have with people IRL. And I'd say that the answer is most definitely yes. But that idea creates all sorts of problems--for one thing, how do you know what the person you've met online is "really" like? Many people act differently online than they do in everyday life; I tend to be more outgoing (and, as this blog proves, much more wordy). I think at least part of the reason why Terrouge appealed to me so much was that it's structure as a forum offered a freedom from the akward pause, and the opportunity to marshal my thoughts into the most coherent possible form before posting them. Maybe that's why I really enjoy posting on this blog, but don't talk nearly this much in class.
If the Internet provides us with the opportunity to subtly change our personalities, however, does this mean that I can ever really be friends with the person I meet online? If we've both adopted different personas, isn't our virtual relationship going to be vastly different (and, potentially, more satisfying) than any we could develop in real life? And if, as A Rape in Cyberspace claims, it is indeed possible to fall in love with someone on the Internet--if, for instance, I fall in love with someone I meet on a message board--what am I really in love with? The idea of a person, as projected through the filter of options that the medium in which we've conversing provides (in the case of a forum, our avatars and signatures and posts)? If I'm only in love with an idea, can it be called love at all? But then again, if I'm in love with someone in real life, aren't I still just in love with the idea of themself that they project through a different set of output devices (touch, expression, clothing, the spoken word)? Are the Internet and our bodies simply two different ways of expressing our personalities? And if so, who are we to decide which expression is the more "true" one?
I just ended every sentence in that last paragraph with a question mark. It must be 4:49 AM or something.
Before I end this post, I'd also like to mention Facebook, which I'm sure most of us are familiar with. Most of our Facebook friends are people we know in real life (at least, most of mine are). And when we interact with them in real life, our view of them as a person comes from the signals we get from them via our five senses (well...maybe not taste. At least not in the majority of social interactions). But when we interact with those same people on Facebook, the view we get of them as a person comes from wall posts, and form comments on other peoples' statuses, and from things that they've "liked," and from groups that they've joined, and from results to quizzes that they've taken, and from the quizzes that they chose to take...In other words, our sense of their identity is built up by an entirely different set of inputs. My question is: do they then become a differnet person? Is their Facebook indentity seperate from their real world identity?
I don't know the answer. If I had to invent one, I guess I'd say that the two identities are separate--they function in different worlds, with different values and social customs (besides which, if I can get my hands on your password, I can manipulate your Facebook identity in any way I choose. As A Rape in Cyberspace shows us, online identities aren't nearly as absolute or as under our control as we would like them to be).
If the identities are separate, however, do they ever begin to intrude on one another? When do the different worlds begin to blur?
Clearly, there is a point at which what happens to us online can affect us very strongly in real life. The reactions to the rape in Lambda MOO clearly demonstrates this. So can we not separate our identities after all? Are the projections of ourselves we use to navigate the Internet still part of "us" to the extent that we take what happens to them personality? I think that the answer depends a lot on how comfortable we become in our virtual worlds. In the case of the Bungle affair, the residents of Lambda MOO had come to see the living room as home--a place where they could feel safe, confident that they were safe from concerns. In this respect, Mr. Bungle exhibits the classic griefer psychology we saw in the other readings for this week: attacking people where they feel the most safe, in order to shake up their assumptions about the nature of the Internet. Ultimately, there is nowhere on the Internet that we should think of as home, or as safe. All of the Internet, however convincing and attractive a facade it may present, is no more than lines of code; and no Second Life, or Terrouge, or Lambda MOO, is free from the threat of digital attack. It's when we forget this--when we start to see the Internet not as a collection of linked information, but as a collection of places--that what happens there begins to be very important to us. It's when we accept the illusion of the Internet as real that the emotional interactions that take place there become real to us as well.
(All that said, I absolutely would not agree that freedom of speech should be restricted to prevent things like virtual rape. If we start to censor some types of the written word (or, in the case of environments like Second Life, some types of what is essentially interactive art), what's to stop us from censoring more? What's to stop us from censoring anything that we find distasteful? And who gets to decide what's distasteful?)
Finally, at the end of this very long post, I remind you to make sure you actually know who you're talking to while online. It can be important :-)
(Hells yeah 2100+ words!) (Apologies for the inevitable spelling/grammar errors. This was written in the middle of the night and I can't be bothered to proofread it that thoroughly. Hope you enjoyed it if you read this far).