4. Virtual Community?
What is a (virtual) community anyway?
In her paper "Utopia in cyberspace - Virtual communities and social reality" Marianne van den Boomen goes through different kind of communities from villages to cities to religious communities and communities such as gay community or the community of motorbike riders. People in small villages depend heavily on each other and meet almost every day, whereas motorbikers share the same space only occasionally. All of these communities, according to Boomen, also partially shape the identities of their members. Activities like working, learning, playing, loving and dying belong to all of these communities. All of this happens in virtual communities too. And they all have the same aim, which is to sustain and maintain the community and its members. Drawing on Benedict Anderson, Boomen writes about (all) communities being imagined, which in this context means that they are expressed, created and represented. Considering this, the connection between a community and spatial reality might not be essential. Roots of the community might lie in human imagination of an individual and in public imagination, which is conducted by media. In imagined communities social and political interaction are mediated and facilitated by a medium. In virtual communities social and political interaction is performed within the medium. Boomen quotes Benedict Anderson: "Communities ought not be evaluated by their falseness or reality but by the way they are imagined." (Boomen 1998)
Some might find it problematic to talk about digital chat rooms as communities because often they appear to be like chaotic nonstop rather than anything stable: people are coming and going, talk is superficial and some of the places seem to be just arenas for juveniles to manifest their creative use of slandering and cursing. Thomas Erickson for instance suggests that computer-mediated conversations should be analyzed as participatory genre rather than virtual communities for then the focus would be on "the purpose of the communication, its regularities of form and substance, and the institutional, social, and technological forces, which underlie those regularities". He also defends Genre analysis because the focus on "shared artifacts" is a focus in which a designer might have some control: the conventions of form and content that typify a genre. His framing of community includes parameters such as membership, relationships, commitment, shared values, collective goods and duration, which he feels are being very weak in "virtual communities". (Erickson 1997)
In the context of The Palace technology this is often a case in palaces such as Welcome, Mansion and Wonderland, where newcomers, teenagers and drifters make a rather chaotic potion. Those palaces are however quite popular in terms of the number of the users. This is partly due to the fact that they are all places where new users end up easily. So the feeling that inexperienced users (and researchers) may get about The Palace can be the sense of alienation and pointlessness. But if one goes beyond the palaces listed in the portal the situation changes a lot. Unlike MUDs and MOOs and other often-referred online communities, The Palace is not a similar role-playing environment; Hardly anyone plays carefully constructed fictive character. Certainly identities presented differ from the real life personae but it is more about expressing some sides of the identity that remain more "in the shadows" in other communities one belongs to. As people get to know each other more, they start to communicate their real life quite openly. Even though some wander from palace to palace aimlessly and rarely settle down in any of them, there are lots of small communities that have very tight group of active, regular members who share the same interests and values; similar people eventually end up in the same places.
Most of the small palace communities that I am familiar with have a deeply rooted habit of defining themselves indeed as a community. Did they invent this themselves or has somebody; designer, marketing manager or Howard Rheingold [11.] told them that "what you guys are having here is a community"? In a way, at least in terms of the "most often used words" I vote for the concept of virtual community, whether it is a vision of its members or a real one, to be something that can be tried to describe. While scholars keep debating of whether virtual communities are communities at all or commensurable with the communities of physical space (see e.g. Jones 1998) and even though for example genre analysis has it points, I shall speak about virtual communities in this context as I enter into a virtual place of action amongst the group of people that define themselves as a community.
4. 1 Xena: Warrior Palace
Xena: Warrior Palace (XWP) is a virtual community with lots of regular members with wide range of ages, coming Mainly from America, Australia and Europe. The majority of them are female. The shared interest in XWP is the television show Xena: Warrior Princess which has started a phenomena called The Xenaverse: a uniquely wide intertextual network spreading in the Internet. It consists of commercial and especially fan-made documentary, analytical and fictional web sites, communities and other material relating to TV-show; all linked to each other. The Xenaverse is also a subject of various academic studies. In her doctoral dissertation focusing on rhetoric and communication of The Xenaverse, Christine Boese defines the rhetorical vision [12.] shared (partly subconsciously) by the members of The Xenaverse. Her definition describes well also the dominant nature of XWP. One of the Xenaverse's foundational principles is in its strong feminist sensibilities, more specifically a distinctly lesbian-feminist focus [13.] Some of the fantasy types she has found relate to a paradox: of community and of independence or transience. These fantasy types support two dominant preeminent rhetorical visions in The Xenaverse at large. They are: (1.) Empowerment of the online culture credited to the democratization claim for Internet-based communication, cultures, and communities. (2.) Personal growth and social empowerment through the association with the show "Xena: Warrior Princess," both inside cyberspace and in real life. Whether true in reality or not, members of The Xenaverse (and in my opinion users in XWP) do believe in the democracy and political empowerment which is further strengthened by the sense of community. (Boese 1998: z8-z10) Unique in XWP in comparison to other palaces that welcome all age groups is the aspects of sexuality. The population consists of interesting mix of lesbians, bisexual females, and heterosexual males and females. My notion is that generally the tolerance for sexual minorities and coexisting of all sexual identities in XWP is better than in other virtual spaces and in "meat space". Sometimes however has happened that the dominance of lesbian discourse has silenced the others around even to the point that they have left the space.
In wider public forums the XWP-community does not define the sexual diversity as one of its characteristics, instead for example the wide range of ages and multiculturalism are subjects of enthusiasm, because everybody in XWP seem get along with each other despite of these differences. However, the sexual diversity is recognized inside the community and it is kind of the "meter" of democracy: as long as everybody, regardless of gender and sexual preferences get along, the community sees itself as an exceptionally well functioning. A shared divergence of a small community in comparison to society at large probably enforces the sense of community in XWP. It repeatedly manifests itself as a community, and indeed a good, democratic and enjoyable one.
Picture 12. Around Valentine's day regulars got their own hearts at XWP gate. I wonder how those felt, who did not get a heart of their own.
4.1.1 Case Study 1: Death in Virtual Community, Eclipse of Rhetorical Vision
August 2000 xenapalace's mailing list received news that one its regular members had been in a serious accident. The following day became another e-mail to xenapalace-list announcing that she had died . After that the notorious speed of online communication proved to be an understatement. Within few hours the XWP's town was filling with flower-props, a web site was made to pay respects and share thoughts. Someone in community's mailing list started a chain letter to honor deceased's memory. Many signed it using both their avatar names and real names - reducing the level of anonymity, which is typically attached to virtual communication. Next thing made, since technically props cannot be floating freely just anywhere around The Palace for too long, was a room where people could leave props in her memory. The room was filling with flowers, teddy bears, hearts and other affectionate pictures closing to the technical limit so fast that the old props were captured to the background image to get new props in.
Picture 13. Xenapalace community comes together to Memorial service to pay respects to one of its members.
23 people came to the memorial service, which was arranged four weeks after her death. Some of them did not know her at all or had just briefly talked to her once or twice. In the beginning it was stated out that the log-file of the service and screen shots would be sent to the family. Some of the participants had written beforehand what they were going to say and then copy/pasted it for others. Anybody that ever had talked to deceased had only positive things to say about her and the rest of the participants wished they had known her better. During the service a theme about virtual communities and virtual friendships rose in the discussion with comments like: "to tell you guys the truth virtual friendships have always had a higher meaning to me over real life ones", "all my friends are virtual", and "this has been a really nice experience to see how people from all over the world come together to help one another". The memorial service provoked a very strong sense of community and sharing. People used this tragedy to strengthen the sense of togetherness. During the service some also talked openly about their own tragic experiences.
Considering the rhetorical vision that this cultural context has created for itself, it was fascinating to witness the transient change in the discourse after the death of its member occurred. The deceased was a middle-aged woman, married with children and she had a lesbian lover whom she met frequently both in "meatspace" and in XWP. Not everybody in the community knew about her family but they knew about her girlfriend, since these two were always together in XWP. In a way, they were living "the narrative of a lesbian couple" and recognized as such. After she died her family gained the starring role as the ones who survived. They got the condolences and their future, not the girlfriend's, was the subject of concern. Her role (defined by herself too) as a girlfriend was transformed to a soul mate, which within The Xenaverse-discourse to most of its members refers to a non-sexual friendship. XWP temporarily lost its "rhetorical vision".
It seems that the openness and ideology of the community reaches only so far. At some point the real life practices do step in. What amazes me is that even though this community was distinctly lesbian friendly it failed to recognize the sexual minorities within as it had to accommodate to the "real life" that drastically reminded of its existence. Society's traditions relating to death and the subjects this tradition produces replaced the community's own culture and vision. Reasons for this remain unsolved. Perhaps the community's behavior reflects some larger tendency in society, or maybe it was just a sum of few coincidences; perhaps someone who did not know the deceased well assumed the "normal family scene" in her life and when communicating through this assumption caused others to follow. And maybe something in the interface furthered to enforce these meanings. What then in the idealistic case should have happened? Only thing sure is that the community needed to deal with the tragedy somehow but it temporarily lost its own culture in the process. Suddenly everyone got cropped back to historically constituted dominant gender roles: mothers, wives, platonic friends.
During valentine's day she got a heart of her own, six months after her death.
Nowadays death is not just a biological inevitability. It is a cultural fact. How much of the "personal" remains in the death experience when dying is subordinated to the networks of technical, medical and pharmacological practices? Death is socialized. (Melucci 1996: 80) Recent celebrity deaths, violent acts and tragic accidents, hyped by media, have gathered the people together. The scenes of accidents or places symbolizing the deceased get filled with flowers and candles, people gather together to mourn and to share their grief with others. And these acts are taken in practice in digital environments with increasing speed. All the online tributes to dead ranging from web-pages to virtual services and cemeteries as well as the little digital things that we who are still living choose to publish about ourselves can be seen as attempts to grasp immortality - attempts to leave traces.
In some ways this occurrence of death in virtual community resembles the famous and thoroughly analyzed case of "Virtual Rape". Something unexpected causes a breakdown in the discursive order and forces the members of the community to (re)construct existing socio-cultural practices and constructions in the context of CMC. "Virtual Rape" made it possible to revise the social construction of rape (MacKinnon 1997). The death I described above made visible the weaknesses in the on-line cultural construction of this particular community: after this unexpected occurrence it was not able to maintain its own vision. Whether it is called "rhetorical vision", "consensual hallucination" or "virtual reality", the shared practices and common beliefs of on-line community are something that its inhabitants can selectively signify and ascribe (MacKinnon 1997).
4.1.2 Case Study 2: Cheating On-line, Moral Order Constituted
Fresh gossip from horse's mouth:
I did not turn my TV on at the time of the afternoon soap operas designed to entertain especially the female gender. I opened my mailbox and there was an invitation posted by Maveric to Xenapalace mailing list. He invited everybody to attend to his virtual wedding in Xena: Warrior Palace. There is nothing out of the ordinary in that - virtual weddings happen all the time. The surprise was the name of the fiancée. It was not CutiePie who was, as everybody in the community well knew, his girlfriend online. The bride was LadyHelen, another "palacer", less known at least to the people from radically different time zones. What a fascinating surprise this was for a researcher that likes to dissect the little oddities of cyberspace and what a shock it was for an individual who believes that if a couple agrees not to cheat each other, they must not cheat each other. And how familiar this was compared to any daytime drama that has ever been aired on television.
Two sides of the story fly around wild, of course - Maveric's version of it and CutiePie's. LadyHelen is just the paramour with no important role; she is a minor contributor in this drama. Maveric claims that CutiePie knew about his intentions before it was publicized in the mailing list for approximately 200 members of XWP-community. CutiePie says that it was a complete surprise to her. Public opinion seems to be that Maveric is a lying, cheating s.o.b. and poor CutiePie is an innocent victim. When Maveric came online with LadyHelen, others moved to another room and when they followed, others moved away again. Maveric is now facing a silent resistance; others are rejecting him from the community, closing him outside. Many have decided that they will not attend the wedding ceremony.
With the support of the similar conclusions that I made analyzing the consequences of the death of a community member (chapter 4.1.1), I would argue that the social construction of relationships and cheating is just the same in virtual reality as it is in society at large. Same moral rules regarding monogamy and honesty seem to apply in XWP and the same empathy for the deserted/cheated woman. Virtual romances can be as meaningful and important as the "real" ones. The difference in these two cases is that the (married) dead woman and her girlfriend were never targets of moral outrage before her death. Her married life getting the main stage after her death was, as I see it, more of a subconscious occurrence than anything explicitly stated. Point of view of the XWP community is a feminist one and from the position of a female gender (as a culturally constructed set of assumptions of what is feminine, regardless of the biological gender). Robyn Warhol, drawing on Teresa de Laurentis' concept of "technologies of gender", argues that soap operas are a gendered genre: they are produced for feminine audience. Furthermore she writes: "Soap opera texts continue to perpetuate such myths of the dominant culture as the primacy of the heterosexual marriage, the irrevocability of blood-ties between mothers and children, and the priority of white upper-middle-class Americans' daily concerns over those of other racial and socioeconomic groups." (Warhol 1998: 10)
What is different in here in comparison to those infamous soap operas? Answer is simple. You can participate. You get to be one of the actors. You can choose your role or you are forced to take one, you may take a side in either one of the camps or try to remain neutral. Casting includes at least the confidant, emphatic friend, gossipmonger, middleman, moral matriarch, double-dealer and ignorant bystanders. And it is all happening real-time. Conventions of the soap genre are very familiar to many and viewers with the literacy to read these conventions can easily fill the gaps that occur when they miss some episodes (Warhol 1998: 13). I would argue that to some extent the people in XWP use their literacy of soap genre to understand the whole narrative in Maveric and CutiePie -drama from the pieces they have gathered. And they use these conventions to act in the cyberspace as characters act in soaps.
Then again, you may not always get to participate as you want, not even in the role of spectator. When CutiePie came online the first time after the arrival of Maveric's wedding invitation she went to a lockable room to talk privately with one of her close friends. But others were like vultures on carcass. They were pleading for her to let them in and as she opened the lock briefly all the fast ones rushed in. Eventually there were seven people in the locked room discussing with the "leading lady". I was left outside with couples of others that were not fast enough to attack on CutiePie when the chance was there. Lockable rooms are often a subject of little bit of controversy. Normally it is a pair that wants to have a little bit of privacy to share some cybersex or confidential information and it does not bother anyone. But sometimes it is not about people locking themselves in the room but locking others outside. CutiePie's arrival in XWP was an anxiously waited episode after the cliffhanger of Maveric's wedding news and only a privileged party of few got to see it. Inclusion and exclusion does not happen just between community and outer world but also inside of the community. But as in any soap, things are discussed and discussed again, sometimes behind closed doors and sometimes with anyone who happens to be there.
What happens next? Will Maveric and LadyHelen have their wedding after this stormy reaction? Who will attend their wedding and who will have guts to perform the ceremony? What will CutiePie do now? Will Maveric be expelled from the community for good? I will stay tuned as the drama continues to unfold in Xena: Warrior Palace whenever I choose to log in.