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Rheingold, Virtual Reality (abstract) 1994

The Virtual Community, by Howard Rheingold, takes a closer look at the human side of new computer technology, which enables communication between people. Computer-mediated communication (CMC) fosters new virtual communities of people connected only via modem, people who are sometimes thousands of miles away from each other. Rheingold opens with a narration of his own experience as a member of the WELL (Whole Earth Lectronic Link) community, and goes on from there to consider the history of network communication, tracing the evolution of Net communities from the mid-1980s to the present.

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: mh@umn.edu

Created 13 June 1995

Last revised 17 September 1996