Looking Backwards, Looking Forward: Cyberculture Studies 1990-2000
© David Silver, Department of Communication, University of Washington
Originally published in Web.studies: Rewiring
Media Studies for the Digital Age, edited by David Gauntlett
(Oxford University Press, 2000): 19-30.
While still an emerging field of scholarship, the study of cyberculture
flourished throughout the last half of the 1990s, as witnessed in the
countless monographs and anthologies published by both academic and
popular presses, and the growing number of papers and panels presented at
scholarly conferences from across the disciplines and around the
world. Significantly, the field of study has developed, formed, reformed,
and transformed, adding new topics and theories when needed, testing new
methods when applicable.
In an attempt to contextualize the chapters found in this volume, this
essay traces the major works of scholarship on cyberculture from the last
ten years, seen in three stages or generations. The first stage,
popular cyberculture, is marked by its journalistic origins and
characterized by its descriptive nature, limited dualism, and use of the
Internet-as- frontier metaphor. The second stage, cyberculture
studies, focuses largely on virtual communities and online identities
and benefits from an influx of academic scholars. The third stage,
critical cyberculture studies, expands the notion of cyberculture
to include four areas of study -- online interactions, digital discourses,
access and denial to the Internet, and interface design of cyberspace --
and explores the intersections and interdependencies between any and all
I. Popular Cyberculture
Our disciplinary lineage begins with what I call popular
cyberculture, a collection of essays, columns, and books written by
particularly wired journalists and early adapters. Starting in the early
1990s, these cultural critics began filing stories on the Internet,
cyberspace, and the "information superhighway" for major American
newspapers and magazines. Significantly, what began as an occasional
column in a newspaper's technology section soon became feature articles
appearing on the front page, in the business section, and in lifestyle
supplements, as well as within the new media/cyberspace beat of many
mainstream magazines. Between 1993 and 1994, for example, Time
magazine published two cover stories on the Internet while Newsweek
released the cover story "Men, Women, and Computers." Moreover, in 1994,
the second editions of the popular how-to books The Internet for
Dummies and The Whole Internet became bestsellers.
The popular cyberculture writings were generally descriptive. Usually
required to follow the term Internet with the parenthetical phrase the
global computer network system, these journalists had the unenviable task
of introducing non-technical readers to the largely technical, pre-World
Wide Web version of cyberspace. Accordingly, much of this work included
lengthy descriptions, explanations, and applications of early Net
technologies such as file transfer protocol, gopher, lynx, UNIX
configurations, telnet, and Usenet.
In addition to being overly descriptive, early popular cyberculture often
suffered from a limited dualism. As a number of scholars (Jones
1997; Kinney 1996; Kling 1996; Rosenzweig 1999) have noted, early popular
cyberculture often took the form of dystopian rants or utopian raves. From
one side, cultural critics blamed the Net for deteriorating literacy,
political and economic alienation, and social fragmentation. For example,
Birkerts (1994) warned that the Internet, hypertext, and a host of
electronic technologies would produce declining literacy and a less than
grounded sense of reality. Sale (1995) drove home the points he made in
his book Rebels Against the Future: The Luddites and Their War on the
Industrial Revolution: Lessons for the Computer Age by smashing
computers while on a promotional tour, and Stoll (1995), upon shifting
career tracks from a cyber-hyper computer hacker to a cyber-griper
Cassandra, begged cybernauts to log off, reminding us that "life in the
real world is far more interesting, far more important, far richer, than
anything you'll ever find on a computer screen" (13).
Conversely, a vocal group of writers, investors, and politicians loosely
refereed to as the technofuturists declared cyberspace a new frontier of
civilization, a digital domain that could and would bring down big
business, foster democratic participation, and end economic and social
inequities. While finding platforms within major American newspapers and
popular magazines, among nascent organizations like the Electronic
Frontier Foundation, and throughout newsgroups, listservs, and Web sites,
their primary pulpit was a new line of technozines -- glossy,
visually-impairing magazines with names like Mondo 2000, bOing
bOing, and Wired. Encapsulating the utopian rhetoric of the
technofuturists, Wired's publisher Louis Rossetto likened
cyberspace to "a new economy, a new counter culture, and beyond
politics"; the magazine's executive editor Kevin Kelly proclaimed
"technology is absolutely, 100 percent, positive" (Keegan
1995: 39-42); and contributing editor John Perry Barlow argued "with the
development of the Internet, and with the increasing pervasiveness of
communication between networked computers, we are in the middle of the
most transforming technical event since the capture of fire" ("What Are We
Doing Online?" 1995: 36).
Not surprisingly, many politicians joined their ranks. Speaking at a
conference in Buenos Aires, Vice President Al Gore (1995) remarked:
These highways -- or, more accurately, networks of distributed
intelligence -- will allow us to share information, to connect, and to
communicate as a global community. From these connections we will derive
robust and sustainable economic progress, strong democracies, better
solutions to global and local environmental challenges, improved health
care, and -- ultimately -- a greater sense of shared stewardship of our
Finally, in addition to its descriptive nature and rhetorical dualisms,
early popular cyberculturalists employed the frontier as its reigning
metaphor. William Gibson (1984) famously coined the term cyberspace in his
groundbreaking novel Neuromancer:
"Cyberspace. A consensual
hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators
. . . A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every
computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity" (51). In Neuromancer
a new frontier emerges, one whose currency rests less in geographic space
and more in digital information.
It did not take long for activists, writers, and scholars to latch on to
and reify the metaphor. In the now canonical essay "Across the Electronic
Frontier," Kapor and Barlow (1990) described the Net in the following
terms: "In its present condition, cyberspace is a frontier region,
populated by the few hardy technologists who can tolerate the austerity of
its savage computer interfaces, incompatible communication protocols,
proprietary barricades, cultural and legal ambiguities, and general lack
of useful maps or metaphors." The frontier metaphor stuck. Rheingold
(1993a) observed: "The pioneers are still out there exploring the
frontier, the borders of the domain have yet to be determined, or even the
shape of it, or the best way to find one's way in it" (58). Rushkoff
(1994) noted, "Nowhere has the American pioneer spirit been more
revitalized than on the electronic frontier" (235). Whittle (1997),
discussing the future of the Internet, waxes poetic: "The pioneers,
settlers, and squatters of the virgin territories of cyberspace have
divided some of that land into plots of social order and plowed it into
furrows of discipline -- for the simple reason that is natural resources
can only be found in the mind and have great value if shared" (420).
II. Cyberculture Studies
Like most generations, mine bleed. Indeed, a significant portion of our
second generation of cyberculture scholarship, cyberculture
studies, can be characterized by its descriptive nature, binary
dualism, and frontier metaphors, and, as such, could easily be referred to
as popular cyberculture. Conversely, some of the early journalists made
important explorations into and observations about cyberspace, thereby
allowing them membership into the second generation. One such journalist
was Julian Dibbell, whose provocatively titled "A Rape in Cyberspace; or
How an Evil Clown, a Haitian Trickster Spirit, Two Wizards, and a Cast of
Dozens Turned a Database into a Society," appeared in The Village
Voice in 1993. In the article, Dibbell presents the
now-endlessly-recounted tale of "Mr. Bungle," a member of LambdaMOO (a
popular multi-user domain, or MUD) who uses a voodoo doll -- a program
that allows one user to control the online "actions" of another -- to
rape, violently attack, and force unwanted liaisons upon a number of
LambdaMOOers. Dibbell describes the attack, the violated users' emotional
reactions, the community's outrage, and the public discussion of
Mr. Bungle's punishment, including the possibility of 'toading,' a process
by which a MUD wizard turns a player into a toad, eliminating the player's
identity and description. Noting that the chief wizard of the MUD recently
revoked the toading process in an attempt to foster self-governance,
Dibbell traces the steps of one user, JoeFeedback, who decides on his own
to eliminate the Mr. Bungle character. Besides offering readers a
provocative glimpse into the online environment, Dibbell brilliantly
portrays the complex individual and social negotiations existing within
LambdaMOO, negotiations which, when viewed together, constitute very real
identities and communities.
Using Dibbell as a starting point, we can characterize our second
generation with a single passage by cybertheorist Allucquere Rosanne Stone
(1991) who defines cyberspace as "incontrovertibly social spaces in which
people still meet face-to-face, but under new definitions of both 'meet'
and 'face'" (85). In other words, while cyberspace may lack for the most
part the physical geography found in, say, a neighborhood, city, or
country, it offers users very real opportunities for collective
communities and individual identities. It is upon these twin pillars --
virtual communities and online identities -- that cyberculture studies
One of the earliest and certainly the most referenced articulators of the
virtual communities idea is Howard Rheingold (see his chapter in this
book). Building upon Stone, Rheingold (1993a) defines a virtual community
A group of people who may or may not meet one another face-to-face, and
who exchange words and ideas through the mediation of computer bulletin
boards and networks. In cyberspace, we chat and argue, engage in
intellectual discourse, perform acts of commerce, exchange knowledge,
share emotional support, make plans, brainstorm, gossip, feud, fall in
love, find friends and lose them, play games and metagames, flirt, create
a little high art and a lot of idle talk. We do everything people do when
people get together, but we do it with words on computer screens, leaving
our bodies behind (58).
A few months later, Rheingold published The Virtual Community
(1993b), a significant expansion upon his earlier essay which would
quickly become one of the principal texts of cyberculture studies. In the
book, Rheingold provides a brief history of the Internet, a social history
of a particular online community -- the Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link (the
WELL) -- and countless examples of online interactions which take place
within both the WELL and the Internet. Although the author concludes with
a cautionary chapter detailing the potential perils of an overly
commodified Internet, online surveillance, and cyber-induced
hyper-reality, Rheingold's enthusiasm dominates:
We temporarily have access to a tool that could bring conviviality and
understanding into our lives and might help revitalize the public
sphere. The same tool, improperly controlled and wielded, could become an
instrument of tyranny. The vision of a citizen-designed,
citizen-controlled worldwide communications network is a version of
technological utopianism that could be called the vision of "the
electronic agora" (14).
If Rheingold's The Virtual Community
is the first pillar of
cyberculture studies, the second is Sherry Turkle's Life on the
Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet
(1995). Turkle addresses
the idea of online identities by exploring ethnographically a number of
virtual environments, including Multi-User Domains, or MUDs. She finds
that while some users use cyberspace to repress an otherwise
less-than-functional "real" or offline life, most use the digital domain
to exercise a more true identity, or a multiplicity of identities. In each
case, users are free to pick and choose genders, sexualities, and
personalities within what Bruckman (1992) labels an "identity
Like Rheingold, Turkle's take on cyberspace is largely
enthusiastic. Through a number of case studies, the author reveals how
users of MUDs create online identities to help navigate their offline
lives. For example, Turkle introduces Ava, a graduate student who lost her
leg in a car accident. During her recuperation process, Ava began to MUD,
and created a one-legged character. Soon after, her character became
romantically involved with another, and they began to make virtual love,
or, as it was then commonly referred to, have "tinysex." According to
Turkle, these online interactions led Ava to become more comfortable with
her offline body, leading her to note: 'Virtuality need not be a
prison. It can be the raft, the ladder, the transitional space, the
moratorium, that is discarded after reaching greater freedom. We don't
have to reject life on the screen, but we don't have to treat it as an
alternate life either' (263).
By the mid 1990s, cyberculture studies was well underway, focused
primarily on virtual communities and online identities. Further, as a
result of the enthusiasm found in the work of Rheingold and Turkle,
cyberculture was often articulated as a site of empowerment, an online
space reserved for construction, creativity, and community. Fortunately,
however, this simplification was matched by the richness found in the
nascent field's welcoming of interdisciplinarity. With the growing
popularity of user-friendly Internet service providers such as AOL and
CompuServe and the widespread adoption of Netscape, by the mid 1990s, the
great Internet rush was on. Significantly, the introduction of the Web was
not only a technological breakthrough but also a user
breakthrough. Replacing tricky file transfer protocol and burdensome
gopher with a simple, point-and-click graphical interface, the Web helped
to foster a less technical, more mainstream Internet populace. Coupled
with these technological breakthroughs were academic considerations. In
addition to a concerted effort on the part of university administrators to
get faculty wired, scholarly conferences, papers, archives, and
discussions came online, leading all but the most technophobic academics
to the Net.
As expected, new scholars brought new methods and theories. For example,
while some sociologists approach virtual communities as "social
networks" (Wellman 1997; Wellman et al 1996), others employ the
sociological traditions of interactionism and collective action dilemma
theory (Kollock & Smith 1996; Smith & Kollock 1999). Within anthropology,
scholars began formulating a new subfield, cyborg anthropology, devoted to
exploring the intersections between individuals, society, and networked
computers (Downey & Dumit 1998; Escobar 1996). Researchers from a related
field, ethnography, took their cue from Turkle and began to study what
users do within diverse online environments, ranging from online lesbian
bars and Usenet newsgroups to Web-based "tele-gardens" and online cities
(Baym 1995a, 1995b, 1997; Correll 1995; McLaughlin et al
1997; Collins-Jarvis 1993; Silver 2000).
At the same time, linguists began to study the writing styles,
Netiquettes, and (inter)textual codes used within online environments
(Danet et al 1997; Herring 1996a, 1996b, 1996c). Similarly, feminist and
women's studies researchers have used textual analysis and feminist theory
to locate, construct, and deconstruct gender within cyberspace (Cherny &
Weise 1996; Consalvo 1997; Dietrich 1997; Ebben & Kramarae 1993; Hall
1996). Further, a collection of community activists and scholars began to
explore the intersection of real and virtual communities in the form of
community networks, including the Public Electronic Network (PEN) in Santa
Monica, California, the Blacksburg Electronic Village (BEV) in Blacksburg,
Virginia, and the Seattle Community Network (SCN) in Seattle, Washington
(Cisler 1993; Cohill & Kavanaugh 1997; Schmitz 1997; Schuler 1994,
1996; Silver 1996, 1999, 2000).
III. Critical Cyberculture Studies
By the late 1990s, the study of cyberculture had arrived. Indeed, in the
second half of the 1990s, many academic and popular presses have published
dozens of monographs, edited volumes, and anthologies devoted to the
growing field of cyberculture. Reflecting this growth, recent scholars
take a broader view of what constitutes cyberculture. No longer limiting
the field to merely virtual communities and online identities, a third
generation of scholarship, or what I call critical cyberculture
studies, has emerged. As with all emerging fields of study, the
landscape and contours of critical cyberculture studies are, at best,
chaotic and difficult to map. That said, I wish to argue that critical
cyberculture studies contains four major areas of focus, each, as we will
see, interdependent on one another.
As revealed in the last few pages, the perspectives and priorities of the
first and second generations of cyberculture scholars differ
significantly. Instead of approaching cyberspace as an entity to describe,
contemporary cyberculture scholars view it as a place to contextualize and
seek to offer more complex, more problematized findings. In general, four
dominant areas of focus have emerged. Taken together, these areas serve as
the foundation for critical cyberculture studies:
- Critical cyberculture studies explores the social, cultural, and
economic interactions which take place online;
- Critical cyberculture studies unfolds and examines the stories we tell
about such interactions;
- Critical cyberculture studies analyzes a range of social, cultural,
political, and economic considerations which encourage, make possible,
and/or thwart individual and group access to such interactions;
- Critical cyberculture assesses the deliberate, accidental, and
alternative technological decision- and design-processes which, when
implemented, form the interface between the network and its users.
Critical cyberculture studies, in its most rich manifestation, explores
the intersections between any and all four of these focal points.
Contextualizing Online Interactions
While critical cyberculture studies scholars acknowledge the importance of
virtual communities and online identities, they take a step back and
contextualize their topics. For example, Jones (1995) sets the stage for
what could be called the social construction of online reality. Unlike so
many cyberculturalists who approach their topic as a brave new world,
Jones contextualizes cyberspace within the more traditional paradigms of
communication and community studies, including James Carey's work on the
electronic sublime, James Beniger's notions of pseudo-communities, and
David Harvey's theories of postmodern geographies. From there, the author
reminds us of the cultural construction of cyberspace and warns us not to
celebrate uncritically its potential. Two years later, Jones
(1997) continued this necessary process of contextualizing by
problematizing some of the key definitions and directions of cyberculture
studies. Drawing upon the work of Benedict Anderson, Richard Sennet, and,
once again, James Carey, Jones historically locates popular rhetoric
heralding the Net's potential to transcend time and space. Next,
commenting upon Rheingold's The Virtual Community, he questions the
all-too-unproblematized notion of virtual communities. Substituting
Neo-Luddism with critical caution, Jones calls for a healthy re-evaluation
of cyberspace, noting that the "Internet is another in a line of modern
technologies that undermine traditional notions of civil society that
require unity and shun multiplicity while giving impressions that they in
fact re-create such a society" (25).
In addition to contextualizing virtual communities and online identities,
many scholars have gone beyond merely recanting the findings of Rheingold
and Turkle to make critical explorations and discoveries of their own. For
example, McLaughlin et al (1995) attempt to establish general, online
codes of conduct by collecting all messages posted to five newsgroups
within a three week period and analyzing them for normative
discourse. From the data, they deduce seven categories of reproachable
behavior, including novice use of technology, bandwidth waste, ethical
violations, and inappropriate language. Next, they note the ways in which
"rules of conduct on Usenet as currently constituted can be understood as
a complex set of guidelines driven by economic, cultural,
social-psychological, and discursive factors" (107). Much more than a
simple set of "netiquette," the authors' findings trace the intricate
parameters and factors that help to support the relative success or
failure of online communities. Similar scholarship (Kollock and Smith
1996; MacKinnon 1998, 1997, 1995; Phillips 1996) focuses on the parameters
and punishments that serve to establish acceptable and unacceptable
behavior within online environments.
At the same time, Baym (1995) has used ethnographic methods to better
understand the nature of virtual communities. Baym explores the
well-trafficked Usenet newsgroup rec.arts.tv.soaps, or r.a.t.s., and
suggests that online communities emerge out of a complex intersection
between five factors: external contexts, temporal structures, system
infrastructure, group purposes, and participant characteristics. Applying
such factors to r.a.t.s., Baym concludes that
participants in [computer-mediated communication] develop forms of
expression which enable them to communicate social information and to
create and codify group-specific meanings, socially negotiate
group-specific identities, form relationships which span from the
playfully antagonistic to the deeply romantic and which move between the
network and face-to-face interaction, and create norms which serve to
organize interaction and to maintain desirable social climates (161).
Another important yet largely unexplored element of contextualizing online
interactions is to trace the history and development of virtual
communities. While past scholars approached online communities as already
existing digital environments, critical cyberculture studies scholars
(Dibbell 1998; Horn 1998; Silver 1996, 1999) have begun to analyze their
brief yet crucial histories.
Like all forms of culture, cyberculture is, in part, a product of the
stories we tell about it. Indeed, the tales we tell over coffee, read in
Wired, Newsweek, and The New York Times, and watch in
movies like The Net, The Matrix, and Disclosure
inform the ways in which we engage in cyberculture. Further, these stories
-- and lack of stories -- can potentially discourage and dissuade would-be
cybernauts from going online. Thus, for some scholars (Borsook
1996; Sobchack 1993; Ross 1991), cyberspace is not only a site for
communication and community but also a generator of discourse, a very real
and very imagined place where a variety of interests claim its origins,
its myths, and its future directions. As many third generation
cyberculture studies scholars have noted, two disturbing discourses of
cyberspace have emerged: the Net as frontier and cyberspace as
For example, Miller (1995) notes the ways in which the Net-as-frontier
metaphor serves to construct cyberspace as a place of manly hostility, a
space unsafe for women and children. She argues: "the idea that women
merit special protections in an environment as incorporeal as the Net is
intimately bound up with the idea that women's minds are weak, fragile,
and unsuited to the rough and tumble of public discourse" (57). Further,
as Doheny-Farina (1996) argues, the metaphor reinvokes the American myth
of the individual and "conjures up traditional American images of the
individual lighting out from the territories, independent and hopeful, to
make a life" (16).
In addition to the Net as frontier metaphor, a dominant discourse found in
magazines and movies is cyberspace as boystown. Understanding cyberculture
to be not only online interactions but also the stories told about such
interactions, scholars have performed feminist readings on such
technozines as Wired and Mondo 2000. For example, Borsook
(1996) analyzes the ways in which the trendy magazine has appropriated
countercultural themes in the name of testosterone-driven
Wired has consistently and accurately been compared in the national
media to Playboy. It contains the same glossy pictures of certified
nerd-suave things to buy -- which, since it's the nineties, includes cool
hand-held scanners as well as audio equipment and cars -- and idolatrous
profiles of (generally) male moguls and muckymucks whose hagiography is
not that different from what might have appeared in Fortune. It is
the wishbook of material desire for young men (26).
Online Access and Barriers
While cyberculture studies celebrates the existence of online communities,
critical cyberculture studies seeks to better understand their
participants. Although important work in the field of online marginality
has begun, much more is needed. Indeed, while scholars from across the
disciplines flock to the general topic of cyberculture, few have made
their way into the margins to explore issues of race, ethnicity, and
One step in the right direction is the work of the National
Telecommunications and Information Administration, or NTIA, an agency of
the U.S. Department of Commerce. In a three-part series of studies titled
"Falling Through the Net," the NTIA examines what they call the "digital
divide," a growing gap between information haves and have-nots, and the
economic, social, cultural, and geographic elements contributing to the
gap. For example, in "Falling Through the Net: A Survey of the 'Have Nots'
in Rural and Urban America" (1995), the NTIA concludes that class, race,
age, and education contributed significantly to online access. In "Falling
Through the Net II: New Data on the Digital Divide" (1998), the NTIA
expanded their study to find that although Americans, as a nation,
accessed the Internet in increasing numbers,
the "digital divide" between certain groups of Americans has
increased between 1994 and 1997 so that there is now an even
greater disparity in penetration levels among some groups. There is a
widening gap, for example, between those at upper and lower income
levels. Additionally, even though all racial groups now own more computers
than they did in 1994, Blacks and Hispanics now lag even further
behind Whites in their levels of PC-ownership and on-line access.
Finally, in "Falling Through the Net: Defining the Digital Divide" (1999),
the NTIA reveals that the digital divide had increased further, leading
Larry Irving, assistant secretary of Commerce for Telecommunications, to
remark: "America's digital divide is fast becoming a 'racial ravine.'" As
before, the report notes that while Americans, as a nation, continue to
flock to the Net, disparities based on race, class, and region contribute
to the growing gap between information haves and have-nots.
In addition to the barriers discussed by the National Telecommunications
and Information Administration, there are other, more cultural
ones. Performance artist and writer Guillermo Gomez-Pena (1996) recounts
his and his collaborator Roberto Sifuentes' 1994 entrance into cyberspace,
a digital space already largely "settled" by ethnocentrism:
We were also perplexed by the "benign (not
naive) ethnocentrism" permeating the debates around art and digital
technology. The unquestioned lingua franca was of course English, "the
official language of international communications"; the vocabulary
utilized in these discussions was hyper-specialized and depoliticized; and
if Chicanos and Mexicans didn't participate enough in the Net, it was
solely because of lack of information or interest (not money or access),
or again because we were "culturally unfit" (178).
Along similar lines, Bailey (1996) argues that shared customs such as
netiquette and acronyms constitute "newbie snobbery," producing an
unwelcoming terrain for marginalized cultures. He notes: "The Net nation
deploys shared knowledge and language to unite against outsiders: Net
jargon extends beyond technical language to acronyms both benign (BTW, 'By
the way') and snippy (RTFM, 'Read the fucking manual'). It includes
neologisms, text-graphical hybrids called emoticons, and a thoroughgoing
anti-'newbie' snobbery. Like any other community, it uses language to
erect barriers to membership" (38).
This is not to suggest that traditionally marginalized cultural groups
have not taken to the wires as a means for communication, community, and
empowerment. Indeed, a number of contemporary cyberculturalists explore
marginalized cultural groups' attempts to establish self-defined,
self-determined virtual spaces. For example, Mitra (1997) analyzes the
discursive practices of contributors to the Usenet newsgroup,
soc.culture.indian. While acknowledging strong "segmenting
forces," especially when users crosspost messages to soc.culture.pakistan,
Mitra argues that the online community generates "centralizing
tendencies" for Indian users: "these diasporic people, geographically
displaced and distributed across large areas, are gaining access to
[internet] technologies and are increasingly using these technologies to
re-create a sense of virtual community through a rediscovery of their
commonality" (58). Other scholars (Shaw 1997; Correll 1995) make similar
arguments regarding gay and lesbian online communities.
As many scholars have noted, males tend to dominate online discussions,
regardless of the topic. Recently, however, female users have countered
this domination -- not to mention hostility -- by creating online spaces
of their own. As Camp (1996) recounts, Systers, a mailing list of women in
computer science and related disciplines, was established in response to
male-dominated discussions about women taking place in Usenet newsgroups
like soc.women. The solution was to 'withdraw to a room of our own -- to
mailing lists' (115). Able to control and moderate the list, members of
Systers discuss the issues most relevant to them. These online spaces also
include, of course, the Web. These sites are as diverse as the population
they hope to represent, ranging from academic sites like the Women's
Studies Database (www.inform.umd.edu/EdRes/Topic/WomensStudies) and the
Center for Women and Information Technology (www.umbc.edu/cwit), to
hipper, do-it-yourself sites like geekgirl (www.geekgirl.com.au) and
AngstGrrl! (www.angstgrrl.com). Not to be left out of growing markets,
feminist-leaning Web sites like iVillage.com (www.ivillage.com), Oxygen
(www.Oxygen.com), and Women.com (www.Women.com) fuse timely women's issues
with targeted cyber-marketing.
Second generation cyberculturalists admirably explored the kinds of
communities and identities found on the Internet. Yet too often they all
but ignored the ways in which the digital design of online spaces informs
the types of interactions made possible. One exception is the significant
attention literary scholars paid to hypertext, or what is commonly
refereed to as hypertext studies. Focusing more on early hypertext
software like HyperCard than on online networks such as the Internet and
the Web, hypertext scholars (Bolter 1991; Landow 1992, 1994) compared the
new media to contemporary critical theory and considered the ways in which
hypertext reconfigures the text, writer, and reader.
More recently, however, conversations between computer scientists,
community activists, and ethnographers have produced new insights into the
complex relationships between humans and computers. Commonly referred to
as human-computer interaction, or HCI, such work approaches the
interface as a critical site for interaction. The design of an interface
-- as designers have known for years -- can have a substantial impact upon
the relative success of a site's intentions. For example, as Kollock
(1996) notes in "Design Principles for Online Communities," online
environments should be designed to encourage user cooperation, maintain a
community-based institutional memory, and include elements of the physical
environment through which users travel. Currently, a number of scholars
(Baecker 1997, Kim 1999) are developing models for discussing and
assessing online interfaces. The pursuit has also been one of the key
sites of study for a number of research institutes, including the
Graphics, Visualization and Usability Center (www.cc.gatech.edu/gvu) at
the Georgia Institute of Technology, the Human-Computer Interaction Lab
(HCIL) (www.cs.umd.edu/hcil) at the University of Maryland, and the
Knowledge Media Design Institute (www.kmdi.org) at the University of
Issues of design and participation come together in the relatively new
field participatory design, an approach pioneered in Scandinavia
and currently making waves in the United States. As Schuler and Namioka
(1993) note, participatory design "represents a new approach towards
computer systems design in which the people destined to use the system
play a critical role in designing it" (xi). With support from the Computer
Professionals for Social Responsibility, participatory design has been
debated and adopted by both scholars and designers (Muller et al
1992; Shneiderman & Rose 1997; Trigg et al 1994).
Conclusion: Bringing it All Together
As previously noted, critical cyberculture studies at its best does not
focus simply on one of its four key areas. Instead, it seeks to comprehend
the relationships, intersections, and interdependencies between multiple
areas. To better understand this point, we turn quickly to the work of
Nakamura (1999) and Collins-Jarvis (1993). Brief yet penetrating,
Nakamura's "Race In/For Cyberspace: Identity Tourism and Racial Passing on
the Internet," explores the ways in which race is written within the
popular MUD, LambdaMOO. She observes that while users are required to
specify their genders, there is no such option for race: "It is not even
on the menu," Nakamura notes (444). Instead, the formation of racial
identity is limited to the selection of already-established
characters. Focusing specifically on Asian identity formation, Nakamura
notes that the vast majority of such characters -- Mr. Sulu, Bruce Lee,
Little Dragon, and Akira, for example -- fall within familiar discourses
of racial stereotyping: "The Orientalized male persona, complete with
sword, confirms the idea of the male Oriental as potent, antique, exotic,
and anachronistic" (445).
Countering optimists who view cyberspace as a space where race does not
matter, Nakamura argues that not only does it matter, but it has been
designed out of the network, or what I call routed around. Significantly,
this process is largely a design issue; the interface of LambdaMOO
is designed without race-based user identities. Instead, users are forced
to assume one of the default identities -- identities which for Asian
Americans reinforce stereotypes. Nakamura's work is important, therefore,
because it reveals the interdependent relationships between interface
design and user identities.
The issues of access, discursive communities, and insider/outsider
dynamics come together in an article on one of the first community
networks in the world, Santa Monica's Public Electronic Networking system,
or PEN. In her article "Gender Representation in an Electronic City
Hall: Female Adoption of Santa Monica's PEN System," Collins-Jarvis
examines the reasons why the percentage of female PEN users (30 per
cent) was, for the early 1990s, unusually high. Significantly,
Collins-Jarvis offers three answers: PEN's public terminals, the
availability of socially- and politically-related discussions and forums
related to "female interests," and the ability for women to take part in
the network's design and implementation.
According to Collins-Jarvis, female users of PEN required not only access
to get involved, they also needed a reason to participate: "Computing
systems which appeal to women's norms and interests (e.g. by providing a
channel to enact participatory political norms) can indeed increase female
adoption rates" (61). Further, when faced with often hostile flaming and a
dearth of "women-specific" forums, female users of PEN assumed the
responsibility of reinventing rather than rejecting the network. This
reinvention took the form of creating a number of conference topics and
user groups devoted specifically to issues of their own. Like Nakamura,
Collins-Jarvis correctly understands online interactions to be a product
of many offline factors, including design, content, and outreach.
As Nakamura and Collins-Jarvis suggest, cyberculture is best comprehended
as a series of negotiations which take place both online and off. In this
light, it is crucial to broach issues of discourse, access, and design. In
the new millennium, it is the task of cyberculture scholars to
acknowledge, reveal, and critique these negotiations to better understand
what takes place within the wires.
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