Considering the possibilities for facilitating
social services through textual worlds
Heather J. Kelley
Dr. Sharon Strover
The mind--the associative, cooperative mind--its extension in culture and realization in technique, is the most important means of production. The most important product of the mind is a produced and sustained reality. (Carey 1988)
For a long time I resisted the temptation to enter the worlds of textual virtual realities known as M*s. I was first shown them in 1992, and naturally turned up my nose at the socially-questionable ''virtual" life of my geekier friends at the technical institute where I worked. I had a real life, I didn't need an electronically-mediated one. And then MediaMOO came along.
3Cyberconf will never end...virtually! exclaimed the headline of the brochure. It was 1993, and Amy Bruckman had just opened MediaMOO, billed as a virtual space where cyber-colleagues could socialize, network, and perhaps even do research. I was looking for a career change and trying to get into graduate school. It was a tempting idea to meet on neutral and casual grounds with knowledgeable professors and graduate students who shared my newfound interest in technology and gender. I logged on as a guest and used what minimal help information I had to begin communicating and navigating within the scrolling ASCII universe. My first interactions were not with other characters but with research tools provided in the main entrance room. I then struck up a few conversations with characters, who gladly introduced me to their virtual colleagues and helped me navigate the world.
Soon I had found a few people who shared some of my interests and decided to get a full-fledged character; in a few hours, Hawthorne was born. She was a player-object with filled descriptions, functional verbs, and a programmer's bit. Hawthorne met more people...then she built the free-standing porch of a deteriorated Southern plantation mansion and connected it to the homes of her friends...then she built a perpetually autumn-struck tree in the front yard...then she joined a second MOO devoted to education, where her best MOO friend was an administrator...then she fell in love with him...then she learned how to program...then she built an on-line interactive art exhibition...then she....
Similarly anecdotal and equally frivolous elaborations are easy to come by and perhaps even too plentiful in the ever-increasing writing about M*s. While most writing has been superficial and journalistic, plenty of this output has emanated from the universities. It seems that academicians are predictably susceptible to the experiential seduction of living in and through text.
To some degree, this paper will be no exception to that academic self-reflexivity. My interest in promoting the use of M*s is a direct outgrowth of my intimate experience with them; I too was seduced by living in the words. Yet I hope to take thought about M*s, especially the variety known as MOOs, one more step away from the usual explorations, and at least two from their original purposes. I'd like to consider whether my experiences in MOOs are generalizable to groups and individuals less like myself; I hope that the text-world is, if not universal, at least multivalent.
These networked ASCII spaces began as MUDs, the fantastical playgrounds for the machine-immersed computer hackers at various universities around the world. Now, the M*s current vogue with educators can be largely attributed to scholars' realization that, despite their technologically-mediated format, M*s are fulfilling a timeless attraction to the written word and its creative manipulation. As useful as M*s are for fostering and nurturing educational and social activity, they are under-utilized if they stay within the school, more particularly university, setting. I want to explore how or indeed if the qualities of MOOs could be useful for achieving goals outside of the academe.
However, my inquiry will be even more restrictive. While investigations are currently underway to explore how M*s might be useful in business no one has yet explored how real-time textual worlds might support the activities of social service and not-for-profit organizations. It is my thesis that, while not appropriate to all groups, MOOs provide a way of communicating, socializing, and information-sharing from which many service and activist organizations could benefit. According to Willard Uncapher, one of the most important elements in attracting alternative groups to use new forms of technology is to provide a compelling reason to do so. A medium must provide features which are not available elsewhere; I will assert that real-time, situated, constructable MOOspaces are such a medium. Yet in the case of computerized text, those who wish to involve disenfranchised cultures need to proceed with caution, as best supported perhaps by James Carey:
Computer information systems are not merely objective information-recording devices. They are emanations of attitudes and hopes. The subjective location of such attitudes and hopes remains vested in the servants of the institutional monopoly of foreknowledge--for instance, the Rand Corporation. The "idea of information" is another way past the real political factors of class, status, and power, but these formidable realities cannot be dissolved into a future where they are presumed not to exist because they have been absorbed and transformed by the computational machinery.(Carey 1988)
In this paper I shall discuss aspects of the M* medium, particularly the MOO derivative, in order to elaborate their structural and conceptual advantages and failings, and point towards changes which would need to take place in order to accommodate a wider variety of users. Throughout, I shall refer to Carey and others who have spoken on the cultural implications of new communications technologies, in order to proactively consider the effects that MOO interaction might have on American social groups which are not founded on the hierarchical, militaristic, and Western value system which engendered the Internet.
Modern computer enthusiasts may be willing to share their data with anybody. What they are not willing to relinquish as readily is the entire technocratic world view that determines what qualifies as an acceptable or valuable fact. What they monopolize is not the body of data itself but the approved, certified, sanctioned, official mode of thought--indeed the definition of what it means to be reasonable. And this is possible because of a persistent confusion between information and knowledge. (Carey 1988)
The Internet has been much touted as a cure for some of what ails society, especially in America. Its proponents have argued that the Net democratizes and equalizes. They claim that alternative voices are more likely to be heard in widespread person-to-person networked communication systems than ever before was possible through one-to-many broadcast media systems. Various detractors, or at least cautionary types, have countered that the predominant format of the Internet, keyboarded ASCII characters, is inherently exclusive of most of the world's cultures. They point out that the Internet's origins in the cold war techno-military enterprise predisposes it to a certain type of discourse regardless of the medium's possibilities. Additionally, they argue that access inequity divides the information haves and have-nots down already too-familiar socio-economic lines. I believe that nowhere are the possibilities and limitations of the networked typewritten word more evident than in the virtual textual realities known collectively as M*s.
Before going on to examine the characteristic attributes of M*s, I will give a brief account of what M*s do, what some are like to interact with and within, and give a short account of the more recent changes they have gone through since their creation. This discussion will include an explanation of the MOO version of M*, because the MOO variant is the model taken up by almost every educational and professional M*, and would, for reasons which I will discuss, be the best foundation for a service-oriented and decentralized textual world.
M*s began as MUDs, or Multi-User Dungeons, on-line versions of the popular Dungeons and Dragons role-playing games. They are self-contained (though sometimes linked) textual 'worlds' in which remotely-located participants can interact through a software program and the database which that program manipulates. When users connect to these computers, they enter 'characters', virtual personas through whom they navigate the textual spaces. Characters are self-determined; a user generally has no obligation to describe themselves accurately, though norms on this matter vary between M*s. Role-playing games absolutely necessitate fictional representations, most social and subject-oriented M*s allow for a wide variety of representational types, and some professional M*s request that users describe themselves 'realistically'. Many M*s have a 'theme' to which characters must adhere.
Once within a M*, characters navigate and communicate with other characters using special commands particular to the programming code of the M*. At this point I will elaborate on the distinctions between M*s in general and the M* version known as MOO, because the programming code of this variation makes it particularly appropriate for the implementation of more egalitarian, educational, user-created virtual spaces.
MOO code is the most powerful and versatile of M* languages. It is written in C to mimic many of the operations of the Unix operating system which supports it, using an object-oriented data structure. This means that each person, place, or thing in a MOO is a unique 'object', distinguished by its 'object number'. Objects contain 'verbs' and 'properties' which determine how they appear and how they interact with other objects. Since every person is an object, these verbs shape all of the interpersonal relationships in textual worlds. Perhaps the most important element of the MOO coding language is that it is designed to be written from within the MOO itself: "[Both] Unix and MOO function as command interpreters and as programming environments. It is this...more than any other single feature, that unites MOOcode with Unix and distinguishes it from other forms of gaming and/or virtual-reality environments" (Unsworth 1994). Users create the objects and write code while inhabiting both; in MOOs, users literally build themselves and their surroundings.
The MOOcode is usually made available to any user who cares to learn it. Few MOOs allow unlimited use of programming and database resources, because of sheer space limitations on the machines which host the MOO databases. In most cases, however, users can increase their access to limited resources if they demonstrate a knowledge of the environment by adding useful artifacts to the community. Exemplifying the constructivist theory that innovations and learning come from giving individuals access to tools and allowing them to play, MOO structure is not as rigid or arbitrary as other M*s regarding who can or cannot acquire access to the power to build the world. This feature makes the MOO format more amenable to textual realities which would support less hierarchical organizations.
The social forms and relations technology makes possible are themselves imagined in and anticipated by the technology. Technique is vectoral and not merely neutral in the historical process. A building, its precise architecture, anticipates and imagines the social relations that it permits and desires. So does a television signal. Social relations of class, status, and power demand both a conceptual structure of persons and a technology to effectuate them. Conceptual structures, in turn, never float free of the expressive forms that realize them or the social relations that make them active agents. (Carey 1988)
The origins and current direction of the Internet-as-a-whole set the tone for limiting broad participation by disenfranchised groups. Established as a robust communications system for the military as ARPANet and DARPANet, the Internet soon connected scientific and academic research institutions. The Internet's growth since (over the last five years, especially) has increased the number of non-technologists participating, but the Net retains some of the cultural attributes of the social segment which nurtured it. There is still a residue of arcane exclusivity clinging to the most powerful and versatile Internet tools like Archie and ftp. Limited Internet services are available only to those non-academics who can afford to purchase them from one of the national services like America OnLine; more extensive access, offset by cruder interfaces is available through smaller companies like Austin's Illuminati OnLine. Many of the most aggressive recent Internet joiners are businesses, eager to utilize a new means of distribution for their products and services now that the distributed hypermedia application known as the WorldWideWeb has made the Internet a more visual and auditory medium. While some organizations and individuals are seeking to offset this trend toward commercialization by giving financial and political support to open-access community networks, the Net remains the playground of its privileged, highly-educated incipient users.
Despite this movement toward more commercial participation, the Internet is also increasingly being seen as a useful communications tool by a wide variety of non-profit and community-minded groups. Among the variety of social service organizations which have used the various channels of the Internet, almost none have employed MOOs to further their ends. This is most likely because the history of M*s has followed a path contrary to those of most other Internet tools. While services such as email, Usenet, and gopher were conceived as government or business tools, only later applied to recreational or non-official purposes, the M*s were created as explicitly recreational and then social spaces, and later adapted to more utilitarian purposes by users who saw their unique and useful characteristics.
Because of this reverse use-development, the M*s are still trying to overcome a certain reputation for frivolity. Additionally, M*s continue to be much noted and usually berated for their addictive, immersive qualities. M*s are the only variety of Internet tool to be categorically banned from some academic systems, under the pretense of their detrimental affect on users who drop all other activities, including schoolwork, to spend countless hours immersed in a shared hallucinatory fantasy. But the development of MOOs away from the sheerly escapist game of most M*s and toward a more open-ended, participatory, and constructivist mode of operation has attracted the Internet-savvy professors and graduate colleagues of those game-addicted undergraduates.
Thus the great majority of non-game M*s, are confined to academic and educational uses. Many M*s exist to link researchers and practitioners in a specific field; there are special M*s for physicists, biologists, and writers. Other M*s embody the next logical step that real-time networked interaction suggests: distance education. At least three independent educational organizations are currently operating on the Internet, and all incorporate MOOs as important elements.
In our time reality is scarce because of access: so few command the machinery for its determination. Some get to speak and some to listen, some to write and some to read, some to film and some to view. It is fine to be told we are the species that actively creates the world and then simultaneously to be told that we are part of the subspecies denied access to the machinery by which that miracle is pulled off.(Carey 1988)
Despite increasing use in the academy, M*s are one of the most arcane and invisible Internet services. Of the multiplying M* appearances in the media, most are sensationalist, highlighting M*s disadvantages, tensions, or eccentricities while avoiding discussion of their potential uses, short of the masturbatory. But M*s' invisibility is of an even more substantial nature than that provided by misrepresentation in the press. They are simply not provided as an Internet service in themselves to the large part of Internet users. Schools that readily offer email, gopher, FTP, WorldWideWeb, newsgroups, and other more explicitly information-retrieval tools, often with sophisticated interfaces and help information, do not offer M* interfaces or even suggest M*s as valuable activities. Most users find out from friends, from the few newsgroups dedicated to M*dom, or from print sources such as Wired or, now, more mainstream magazines like Newsweek. And in many commercial services as they currently stand, users do not have access to telnet, the most basic requirement for accessing M* worlds. Local Internet account providers are the most amenable to M*s; some even sponsor their own textual worlds.
Before not-for-profits and social service organizations can participate in a widely-distributed computer communications medium, certain minimal requirements must be met. Each user must have access to a computer, a modem, a telephone link to the outside world, and to the Internet. The first three requirements are the simplest to meet, although some parts of the world still lack even reliable telephone communications. In America, rural areas are more easily served than comparable locations in many other countries because of the universal telephony policy here, though calling rates can be higher for residents of a dispersed countryside than those for urban dwellers.
Because the technical hardware requirements are so low for navigating the textual interface of M*s, most organizations will be able to use the hardware they already own or can most easily acquire. Many organizations receive used or new computer equipment from businesses who donate to charitable organizations to receive tax credits. Consultants now advise not-for-profits to treat computer equipment as they would any non-cash donation, assessing its value and determining its usefulness before accepting it (Buchholz 1994). Yet almost any donated equipment is useful for the purposes of connecting to the textual realms of the Internet, including M*s. The user's simple terminal can become in essence an input/output device to access certain computing resources of a powerful workstation which houses the M* database and programming language.
The histories of currently successful asynchronous grassroots computer networks could offer possible routes for MOOs and their would-be social service users to take in the search for financial support. Most alternative computer networks rely on subscriptions if they are national, like Peacenet, or public support through government funding if they are local, like the many regional freenets. In some cases, networks are able to acquire startup grants. Big Sky Telegraph in western Montana began with two grants of 50,000 each, from MJ Murdoch Charitable Trust and Mountain Bell Foundation. The latter is associated with the national company US West, and according to Uncapher, the acquisition of that grant can be attributed in large part to the previous corporate contacts of the BST's founders (Uncapher 1994). More official means for acquiring funding must develop before less "connected" organizations can afford to form the structures needed to begin interacting on-line.
Due to the current configuration of the Internet, it would be unrealistic to expect underfunded agencies to establish their own Internet nodes and hire support people to maintain them. Some undoubtedly will be able to take on this labor-intensive task, yet other avenues must be explored if a significant number of organizations are to acquire access. One way would be the donation of connections by previously-established Internet providers. What sorts of access providers could afford to donate connections to non-profits? Universities might, but their highly departmentalized and bureaucratic structures would make such activities cumbersome, and probably dependent on the individual initiative of someone employed within a particular institution. An encouraging exception to this explanation is CapAccess, the District of Columbia community network, which is sponsored by George Washington University and houses the M* ViBES--the Virtual Interactive Blair Environment System, as well as a collection of publications about textual worlds.
Service-providing companies are in a better position to donate access, since they operate with a pay-per-user scheme and can simply donate what they would usually sell. Tax credits for such donations, as with equipment and cash donations, might be incentive enough to motivate corporations' charitable behavior. Otherwise, the simple fact of positive public relations might be a sufficient enticement.
Until more providers begin offering basic Internet services like Telnet, however, such donations would not be useful for the purposes which this paper addresses. Many localized providers offer full Internet gateways, but due to their small size, may be restricted in the amount of resources they could spare for charitable purposes. Of course, their local emphasis could also translate into such companies becoming vital community resources, providing access to or even housing MOO databases which serve a particular local constituency; an environmental MOO based in Eugene, Oregon is a hypothetical example. Yet currently non-university, non-government Internet access provision is spread inconsistently across the United States. Some towns, like Austin, have a number of independent providers, while most US. cities, including many with major universities, have none (Uncapher 1995). An increase in the sheer numbers as well as in the community responsibility of such providers would be a step towards improving the chances that social service MOOs could exist.
The major on-line service providers offer different challenges to the non-profit organization hoping to acquire access to MOOs. Most are reluctant to widen their Internet gateways from fear of outside competition for their similar but generally inferior in-house services. In addition, mainstream on-line services carefully design their user interfaces to make on-line activity simple, using icons, windows and menus. While asynchronous services like email can be provided in this manner quite easily, the more powerful but raw tools like Telnet must be controlled using line commands, and would create more telephone traffic to their call-in technical assistance centers than such companies are willing to tolerate. Telnet access, which is in essence direct access to a remotely-located computer, also poses security risks that major corporations are not willing to assume (Kastner 1995). But while commercially-sponsored chat lines and public forums mimic some of the MOOs' more superficial features, they cannot substitute for the more rich interactivity and temporal persistence of MOOs.
Knowledge is, after all, paradigmatic. It is not given in experience as data. There is no such thing as "information" about the world devoid of conceptual systems that create and define the world in the act of discovering it. Such paradigms are present in information systems; they are metainformational, contained in computer programs, statistical devices, information storage and retrieval codes, technical theories that predefine information, and perhaps most important in systems of binary opposition, that lingua franca of modern science.... Moreover, as one hopes the history and sociology of science have finally established, paradigms are not independent of exterior biases and purposes; they instead express a value-laden rationale in technical language. (Carey 1988)
There has been some concern over the "cultural amplification characteristics" that computers promote, especially in regard to children now being reared immersed in computer technology. Computers are said to condition the way our culture thinks about proper forms of reasoning and 'truth.' C.A. Bowers argues that this computational model of reality predisposes Westerners to an ecologically unsustainable value system (Bowers 1993).
If this is indeed the case, what are the implications of a completely computer-mediated reality for activist or social service networks, such as those providing birth control or encouraging organic farming, whose explicit goal is to fight non-sustainability? Are such organizations nullifying their work by taking part in an activity which may run contrary to their ideals? Additionally, the explicitly Western values which Bowers says computers promote are situated in opposition to less anthropocentric values and practices --cultures-- of various indigenous groups. Would such cultures be altered by extensive contact with the Western value systems embedded in computer technology?
While most proponents of computer technology would characterize computers as 'empty slates', neutral ground upon which any culture could inscribe its world view, Bowers argues that computers, developed by individuals of a specific (Lockean/Cartesian) mindset, promotes compartmentalization and fragmentation. The latter is certainly true of Unix, the foundational system of all textual worlds, as I will elaborate here. These Western values, says Bowers, stand contrary to the holistic and non-human-centered view of reality required of humans living sustainably with the earth.
MOOcode and the Unix which supports it have culturally-determined characteristics which constrain their appropriateness for non-hierarchical organizations. MOO scholars have pointed to the structure of the MOO environment itself as a determinant towards a particular socio-political relationship amongst characters . The MOO system is a reflection of the UNIX system which houses it, and:
...the constellation of cultural elements gathered together in Unix's basic operating principles seems particularly western and capitalist--not surprisingly, given that its creators were human extensions of one of the largest accumulations of capital in the western world. On the other hand, this tool, shaped though it was by the notions of ownership and exclusivity, spawned a culture of cooperation, of homemade code, of user-contributed modifications and improvements. (Unsworth 1994)
UNIX is the time-sharing operating system which allows multiple individuals to use a central terminal simultaneously; it is the programming environment underlying all Internet commands and services. The UNIX system is based on a hierarchical structure of access to files and commands, which is matched in MOOs by the differing levels of situational control given to 'classes' of characters.
Yet on the other hand, the Unix system was developed explicitly to facilitate point-to-point computer-mediated-communication and mutually-beneficial information sharing as stated here by one of its developers, : "We knew from experience that the essence of communal computing, as supplied by remote-access, time-shared machines, is not just to type programs into a terminal instead of a keypunch, but to encourage close communication. (Ritchie 1984, quoted in Unsworth 1994)
It is from this culture of communally-shared knowledge that computer conferencing and what is now known as Usenet first emerged (Uncapher). MOOs, similarly, are explicitly social and rely on an ethic of mutual player 'inter-assistance' in communicating, navigating, and eventually code-writing. Newcomers to the programming code, or 'newbies,' tend to seek help from other characters rather than manuals or tutorials written for that purpose. Unix's tension between the built-in access hierarchy and the ethic of free sharing of information is mirrored in the MOO code, and thus the MOO society.
When bringing alternatively organized groups into MOOs as with any managed, distributed system, administrators will need to pay close attention from the inception in order to minimize the exclusionary effects of unevenly distributed computational resources. The way that most of the more egalitarian MOOs currently negotiate this division is to allow every character, upon joining the MOO, the ability to both build and program. While some users might not immediately utilize all of the available programming resources, they will be free to do so at any time.
Alternately, a MOO can establish a board of elected administrators and attempt to recruit a diversity of participants to administrative and technical positions. While 'representative democracy' or even 'true democracy' have both been and are currently being attempted at various textual locations, neither ideology has completely survived upon being transported into the security-driven structure of computer-mediated worlds. There seems to be no alternative at present to at least a two-tiered structure, with a small number individuals performing technical and possibly socially administrative tasks. It is conceptually possible that groups of users could form a mutually technically knowledgeable, and thus even less hierarchical, MOO communities, but such an effort might be a poor use of energies for already over-worked social service providers and activists with extensive real-world responsibilities.
We associate democracy with widespread literacy and a world of knowledge as transcending political units. Yet even though literacy can give rise to a form of democracy, it also makes impossible demands. Literacy produces instability and inconsistency because the written tradition is participated in so unevenly. (Carey 1988)
The most immediately noticeable, consistently fascinating, and ultimately frustrating feature of MOO interaction is that it all takes place within the confines of ASCII text scrolling across a user's screen. It is this fact more than any other which determines who will and will not be able to benefit from occupation of MOO spaces. Firstly, there is reason to question the ability of ASCII textual realities to literally "represent" non-Western and even non-English-speaking individuals and their cultures. Whether they be fantastical or realistic, MOOs purport to represent individuals. Many cultures, including many Native American tribes, rely on verbal, visual, and ceremonial knowledge in a cultural melieu which is not replicable by standardized typewritten characters. Nevertheless, Native Americans have been some of the most active participants in other realms of grassroots computerized telecommunications, a fact which bodes well for the participation of some non-Western societies in textual worlds. A solution which has been tried in relation to Native Americans is to instruct a group of indigenous peoples in the ways of a technology, enabling them to use their knowledge of their own culture to determine the relative appropriateness of different computer uses rather than insisting upon blanket acceptance or rejection of a particular change (Telluride Institute 1993).
Despite the limitations of the English-biased ASCII text system, there exist MOOs in a few other languages; currently there are French, Italian, Spanish and multi-lingual MOOs. However, these spaces are still based on an English programming language, which all MOO administrators must learn. Foreign words are only substituted for the commands that average participants use, in order to minimize the extra processing load on the host computers. And notably, the languages currently represented in MOOs are those which use characters within or closely related to ASCII code. While these variations do provide some diversity, they are far from representative of the world's languages, are under numbered, and seemingly only lightly used, compared to English language MOOs with other purposes. This is hardly surprising given the minimal access to computer communication services available to most of the world's population. But the difficulties of MOO interface go beyond language to the computer hardware and software itself.
The ontology of the M*s rests on a particular trade-off. On one hand, they actually require very little hardware and software for an end-user to participate. Any personal computer connected by modem to a basic Internet account will work; ASCII character transmission requires very little bandwidth compared to other media such as sound and graphics. Many people currently involved in M*s use early model computers and as low as 1200 baud modems to connect from their homes. Slow modems can create frustration, of course, and such users would rarely attempt a daytime connection when the Internet itself was lagged considerably. Regardless, higher baud modems are inexpensive, and organizations hoping to serve underserved communities should attempt to acquire faster connections to assure that their participants can use the M* during a wider expanse of time, whether from home or a public place.
The flipside of M*s' technical simplicity is their operational complexity. Just as reading requires more developed skills than does television-watching, highly-interactive M*ing requires more training than does passive Web-surfing or even newsgroup reading. Even the interfaces currently available to 'simplify' M* interaction do little to ease the necessity of learning a specialized command language. As they stand, M* clients merely make it simpler to view the M* screens and change a command before it is entered. The client interfaces themselves require some familiarization to operate effectively, and some require simple coding to use fully. In the case of TinyFugue, one of the most popular and powerful clients, help information is provided in the form of a difficult on-line system rather than as an accessible external form such as manual or a written tutorial.
In fact, the scarcity of printed documentation in general has led to some of the M*s' most persistent and potentially valuable aspects -- users are expected to teach one another, and to come to know the space through interaction with it. Many MOOs, for example, include programmed on-line tutorials, and MOOcode itself supports a robust help system. There is high toleration by longer-term residents of newbies' errors, and certain M*s provide 'helpful person' information so that new users can easily locate the characters most willing to answer questions. More recent features allow users to provide accessible descriptions of their interests or research, but in many cases, it is still another player (chosen at random) who will instruct a newbie in accessing this more detailed information.
While this modus operandi serves the constructivist purpose of the most recent M*s, it is not yet clear how such a necessity for self-education would impact social service M* users, who might have little time to spend becoming acquainted with arcane commands. It would make sense to provide beginners' manuals for individuals accessing M*s when quicker proficiency has notable value. But such a document is also in danger of changing the attitudes of active users away from the traditional participatory responsibility for all the members of the community, towards a more individualist 'learn it yourself, like I did' mentality, a mindset which is in contrast to the communal potential to which a service organization might be drawn in the first place.
According to one MOO wizard, MOO client interfaces offer the greatest potential for easing textual interactions; powerful clients could smooth the process of online interactions in more graphic and customizable ways, in a manner comparable to the way that different Web clients interpret and present information based on a standard, and indeed arcane, HTML document. Client interfaces will remove the burden of accessibility from the MOOcode itself; externalization will allow for specialized interfaces such as speaking clients for the blind, and graphic interfaces for young children (Kastner 1995).
One of the most obvious yet least explicated constraints of M* use is the significant amount of time in front of a computer terminal required to learn the medium and be able to take full advantage of its features. The learning curve for MOO interaction, along with the attraction of self-creation and textual play, can severely limit the physical life of M* participants. In fact, the immersive qualities of M* interaction could hinder the purported purpose of the organizations which utilize them, depending on the particular use to which a M* is being put; M* users could become so caught up in the political and social relationships which develop on the M* that they spend less time working to accomplish their ostensible goals. Such social entanglements can and usually do arise within any human group, regardless of the means through which they interact. But, for the time being at least, the same events on the M* require that the physical bodies of the participants be situated at keyboards, in front of screens.
This placement is not usually amenable to providing a public service or acting politically. The students, academics, and researchers who developed M* applications already spend significant and necessary time in front of computer terminals, and often use higher-grade machines that allow for multi-tasking and windowing. Agencies which provide directly for human needs, however, can ill afford to spare the time and energy which complete MOO utilization might require of their employees, especially considering that individuals at many such organizations will not be able to perform other computerized tasks while using a donated machine to access the textual world. Clients of some organizations should be better able to afford to spend time on-line, particularly if they are actually recieving assistance through the MOO, such as participating in group therapy or computer literacy training.
[How] do changes in forms of communications technology affect the constructions placed on experience? How does such technology change the forms of community in which experience is apprehended and expressed? What, under the force of history, technology, and society, is thought about , thought with, and to whom is it expressed? ...Advances in our understanding of culture cannot be secured unless they are tied to a vivid sense of technology and social structure. (Carey 1988)
Given this elaboration of what a MOO is and can do, it becomes imperative to explore whether this medium would be able to fulfill an unmet need in the delivery of social services. What would be the advantage for a not-for-profit organization to involve its workers or its clientele in real-time textual worlds? To do so, it is necessary to look at some of the specific qualities of MOO interaction as they have been observed over the relatively few years of the medium's existence.
The primary strength of real-time computer-mediated communications is to facilitate empathetic relationships between remotely-located users. Individuals in similar social situations yet geographically isolated from one another have been using CMC forms like email lists and newsgroups to communicate for almost a decade. CMC is lauded for its ability to create a 'living database' and a circle of emotional support simultaneously (Rheingold 1993). Only recently have M*s been used for such explicit purposes; because of their characteristics, however, they are uniquely suited to perform this communicative role. MOOs are real-time, incorporating a sense of spatiality and an attendant privacy, as such they are ideally suited to facilitate close personal interactions between physically remote participants. Concurrently, the anonymity of M*s encourages lowered social inhibitions to some degree, enabling users to divulge information about themselves that they might otherwise be uncomfortable reporting. Given this quality, MOOs are particularly appropriate to distance counseling or therapy, and might be appropriate for remotely situated 12-step participants or homebound senior citizens.
This propensity for lowered inhibitions in M*s has its disadvantages, of course. M*s are by no means entirely secure, and examples abound of individuals abusing their knowledge of system code to capture and distribute personal and potentially humiliating information about other characters. In one traumatic incident, involving what was perhaps the first example of M* use for social services, JennyMUSH, a M* dedicated to the counseling and rehabilitation of survivors of sexual trauma was also the first social-service M* to be attacked and damaged by a hostile outsider with technical savvy. An aberrant individual entered the JennyMUSH system legitimately, as a participant, then used knowledge of the M's social tools to become a character named "Daddy". Daddy then proceeded to "shout" violent, abusive exhortations across the entire M*.
The perpetrator was quickly confronted by a number of the system's participants and later was expelled by the administrator of the system, but some users were forced to log off to avoid once again the mental trauma which they had joined this M* to escape. In addition, the incident sparked the fears of non-privacy within the community. What had been a completely anonymous haven became in one sense a less safe space; among other changes, users were required to give references and to provide real names and addresses in order to gain access. My point then is that, while MOOs tend to encourage social freedom of a positive kind, in absence of fear of rejection, it also encourages emotional behaviors of a different sort, in absence of constraints to prevent abuse.
Mediation plays a crucial role in these social technologies. Because M*s are clearly not representing people unerringly as they "are", the textual worlds encourage behavior contrary to that which builds trust. MOO participants need to be aware from the start that M* interactions combine extremes of suspicion and trust. How would a social-service-providing MOO increase the level of respect given to every participant yet inform the 'innocent' that they may be abused?
MOOs are not just a tool for lessening of distances, they also create and adjust notions of self-identity and humanity thanks to their masking qualities. Users are given a far wider choice in self-representation in textual worlds than the physical plane allows. How are those choices informed? Will highly mediated communications bring people out of identity-based distinctions, or create even more sophisticated means of determining 'belongingness'? What happens to services based on a recipient's ethnicity or gender when such identities simply cannot be assessed?
Clearly, not every social goal is served equally by real-time, spatial, semi-private ASCII-textual interaction across potentially vast distances. As good as M*s are at facilitating coordination, communication, serendipity and empathy, they cannot do the bulk of a service which provides for basic needs. For instance, workers in regionally localized movements such as homeless advocacy, low-income housing or meals-on-wheels might benefit from the information-sharing and moral support, yet need to spend significant amounts of time meeting with locals face-to-face in order to raise funding and provide their service. And the needs of social service clients themselves can be best met through MOOs if their needs are based in access to information, conversation, education, and social support.
Given a network of [information] monopolies backed by corporate economic and political power, we reach a stage under the impulse of advanced communication at which there is simultaneously advancing knowledge and declining knowing. We keep waiting to be informed, t o be educated, but lose the capacity to produce knowledge for ourselves in decentralized communities of understanding. (Carey 1988)
If the media hype is to be believed, text-only Internet services are a dying breed. In light of the wider availability and accessibility of graphics, sound, and multimedia on the Internet, it might be presumed that networked textual interactions will cease to be of relevance, and will soon be replaced. However there are not yet any widespread, inexpensive, and robust visual or audio network communications media which provide spatial metaphors and contain the tools for users to control their own surroundings. The textual worlds that the Internet already allows will continue to be the most useful real-time interaction tools, not only because they are the most widely available, but because they will continue to be the least expensive and most easily customized on-line places.
While remaining conscious and cautious, I believe that M*s provide a special kind of interaction unavailable elsewhere from which certain varieties of (underfunded) service organizations could benefit to degree disproportionate to the low cost of participating. While I realize the inability of MOO and Unix code to serve every disadvantaged individual, I see potential for the presence of real-time textual worlds to assist the purposes of social service organizations. The grassroots, home built nature of both Unix and MOOcode leave space for wider, more diverse participation in the virtual community even while the culturally specific origins of the two media suggest otherwise. ASCII, Unix, and MOOcode are not digital blank slates, but their particular characteristics can provide foundational material for organized social change to be enacted by individuals separated by great distances. Most importantly, the real-time virtual presence of physically distant human beings, which only M*s can easily and convincingly provide, can create impetus for oppositional methodologies of on-line activity to develop and come to fruition. Only through direct and multiple person-to-person interactions can the dominant culture's unidirectional ideal of 'information' be abandoned for the challenging but far more equitable "decentralized community of understanding."
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