The kerfuffle re: Kathy Sierra's decision not to attend ETech because of (real and perceived) online threats reminds me of something.
The summer after my sophomore year of high school, in 1995, I took a class at Johns Hopkins called 'Explorations in Text-Based Virtual Reality'; I didn't know what 'media studies' was then, but that was my first exposure to it. We read Mark Dery, Scott Bukatman, William Gibson, Howard Rheingold, Pavel Curtis - important names in the growing academic recognition of virtual and computer-mediated community in the mid-90's. That was the class that introduced me to MUD's and MOO's - and led pretty much directly to my tendonitis, as I became (frankly) addicted to the peculiar stew of satisfactions that virtual communities and digital communication could offer.
That summer was when I first read Julian Dibbell's notorious Village Voice article, 'A Rape in Cyberspace', later to serve as the first chapter of his overwrought but riveting book, My TinyLife.
If you're not familiar with the article, it's a description of a 'rape' that took place in an online forum, LambdaMOO, in the early 1990's. The event consisted of exchanges of text in real-time: immersive collective real-time fantasy messaging. (My favourite variant of MUD is 'MUSH': Multi-User Shared Hallucination.) I've had a character on Lambda for a long, long time; Dibbell's description of virtual life there was what drew me (along with a certain rubbernecking impulse of which I'm admittedly ashamed). In retrospect the 'Bungle affair' seems tame and utterly childish; at the time, at age 16, I thought Dibbell's article was a letter from a fantasyland, an ethnographic description of a Utopia where your social status depending on how quickly and how cleverly you could write. LambdaMOO is where I learned how to 'speak' in 'public,' and I can't read Dibbell's description of the events without a weird melancholy. Maybe it's missed opportunity, or lost innocence, or the very same stymied-copresence that made the MOO compelling in the first place:
"Mostly voodoo dolls are amusing," wrote legba on the evening after Bungle's rampage, posting a public statement to the widely read in-MOO mailing list called *social-issues, a forum for debate on matters of import to the entire populace. "And mostly I tend to think that restrictive measures around here cause more trouble than they prevent. But I also think that Mr. Bungle was being a vicious, vile fuckhead, and I...want his sorry ass scattered from #17 to the Cinder Pile. I'm not calling for policies, trials, or better jails. I'm not sure what I'm calling for. Virtual castration, if I could manage it. Mostly, [this type of thing] doesn't happen here. Mostly, perhaps I thought it wouldn't happen to me. Mostly, I trust people to conduct themselves with some veneer of civility. Mostly, I want his ass."
Months later, the woman in Seattle would confide to me that as she wrote those words posttraumatic tears were streaming down her face -- a real-life fact that should suffice to prove that the words' emotional content was no mere playacting. The precise tenor of that content, however, its mingling of murderous rage and eyeball-rolling annoyance, was a curious amalgam that neither the RL nor the VR facts alone can quite account for. Where virtual reality and its conventions would have us believe that legba and Starsinger were brutally raped in their own living room, here was the victim legba scolding Mr. Bungle for a breach of "civility." Where real life, on the other hand, insists the incident was only an episode in a free-form version of Dungeons and Dragons, confined to the realm of the symbolic and at no point threatening any player's life, limb, or material well-being, here now was the player legba issuing aggrieved and heartfelt calls for Mr. Bungle's dismemberment. Ludicrously excessive by RL's lights, woefully understated by VR's, the tone of legba's response made sense only in the buzzing, dissonant gap between them.
At one point we (on Lambda) thought the entire world would change because of virtual communities. I got the same feeling playing Ackanomic, and again actively participating in Usenet newsgroups. I'm sure I wasn't alone.
Those braying back and forth about crimes of online harrassment and the limits of identity and anonymity would benefit from a little bit of history. To the extent that online community-builders were ever 'pioneers,' those heady days are gone. Few enough lessons have been learned, it would seem. Fault lies, at least in part, with those whose responsibility is to teach.
Well, others will take responsibility. Let's hope anyhow.