Social MUSHES and the Anxiety of Communication

Christopher N. Larsen, Ph.D.
Department of Cell Biology
Harvard Medical School

A unique feature of social MUSHes which makes them popular is their facilitation of personal interactions, for those who experience anxiety during normal conversation. Several aspects of the MUSH make this possible.

Discrimination is greatly reduced on the MUSH. For example, users with physical disabilities can safely MUSH without distraction, from the virtual and real environments of their choice. A user can type leisurely in their bedroom, in the virtual "room" which makes them most comfortable. Because the user is shielded from copious visual cues, social stresses and phobias involving race, gender, sex, body shape, wealth, or age do not become apparent. It is also possible for those with visual or auditory impairments to converse effectively over a MUSH. Blind users can use speech digitizers, a headset (and no monitor) when MUSHing, and need not adjust to different dialects, voice styles, or tones. The text-based interface of the MUSH makes it possible to avoid unwanted sexual tension envisioned in other unseen users. It is in this environment that discrimination, prejudicial treatment, and anxiety are highly reduced. Thus, the site becomes a private place where fewer social pressures are present.

In this environment, several positive and somewhat playful behaviors emerge. Frequent among many MUSHes are text-based wordplay, puns, and "inside jokes" of the MUSH. This allows the users to be more humorous and light-hearted. Additionally, grave attitudes are not usual (at least not without a wry, self-effacing humor), partly because of the contribution of continual and sporadic typos. These are tolerated at least as well as the slang of verbal conversation. And if a user is interested, the text can be used to generate highly sophisticated puns or anecdotes. Bilingual or multi-person jokes are not uncommon. Several MUSHes also incorporate "polls" which allow the user to assess the social milieu from the "WHO" list before actually venturing in, thereby increasing the safety or privacy of the conversations in which they will engage.

Because of the lessened social tension, ease of use, and its nondiscriminating environment, the MUSH is an easy way to easily communicate globally with other people. Frequently, users can become involved in long-distance relationships that evolve faster than those traditionally performed through letter writing or email.

Although the above features of MUSHes make them popular among the sensitive, the ease of communicating also can backfire, because many users show less restraint than in their everyday conversations. The conversational boundaries are thus "deattenuated". Because many barriers to communication are dropped, the extremes of verbal care and abuse are also allowed to emerge. This makes the MUSH somewhat volatile socially, but also contributes to rapid and easy interactions between new acquaintances. As such, the burdens of tact and restraint are also greater.

The above issues demonstrate that social MUSHes can be useful facilitators of conversation among those predisposed to social anxiety. Despite many new advances in other virtual, electronic communication environments including visual and auditory data, it is plausible that MUSHes will survive permanently for these reasons. The text based features of the MUSH can make it a haven for facilitated discussions, where it may not have been possible before.