The Virtual Community raises many interesting questions as well as lending historical context to the present global Internet community, which grows exponentially each month. Rheingold counters doubts that online interactions can ever amount to a true community, by presenting himself as a previous disbeliever turned convert. "The idea of a community accessible only via my computer screen sounded cold to me at first, but I learned quickly that people can feel passionately about e-mail and computer conferences," he writes in the introduction. This passion has taken Net communications deep into moral dilemmas, such as whether or not a person participating in email discussion groups has the right to "scribble" (or erase) his or her messages from the archives of the system, thereby committing virtual suicide in the history of that community.
Rheingold raises other moral questions about the world of CMC, such as those relating to impersonation or electronic gender crossing; he cites as an example the uproar caused when a disabled female neuropsychologist who had established intimate friendships with women online was revealed to be a male psychologist experimenting with female friendship. The question of gender crossing is taken up further in Rheingold's discussion of MUDs and MOOs (Multi-User Dimensions, and Multi-user dimensions, Object-Oriented). He cites Pavel Curtis, founder of LambdaMOO, who commented in 1992 that gender crossing in MOOs was prevalent, particularly regarding female-presenting characters. At that time (if not also today), the majority of MOO users were male, which meant that many of the female characters were in fact creations of male players.
Rheingold closes with a consideration of the potential of the Net to be a valuable community-building tool, able to help people make connections with others from cultures and countries they could not possibly meet otherwise. However, he also presents the ugly alternative of the technology's potential to be used against people, as an electronic version of Foucault's Panopticon. The technology alone does not a democratic community make, he warns; people must get involved to make sure that it is put to use wisely.
I found this book a very thought-provoking history of where we have been and what lies ahead on the information superhighway. (Kim Surkan.)
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Michael Hancher Department of English, University of Minnesota URL: http://umn.edu/home/mh/ebibks2.html Comments to: firstname.lastname@example.org Created 13 June 1995 Last revised 17 September 1996