Net Communities

[Keynote lecture for Doors of Perception, Amsterdam, November 1995. Please bear in mind that this was, indeed, 1995.]

I WAS INVITED TO discuss Internet, and more specifically: whether there is such a thing as net-comminities, and, if so, whether they are in any way comparable to communities as we know them in daily life. But I’d like to make a preliminary remark. When discussing Internet, it seems as if everybody focusses on the World Wide Web. On homepages. Or, to be more precise, on the form of homepages. Homepages are hardly ever discussed on their merits as to contents, nor are they presented as the best tool for information retrieval, which indeed they can be; instead, homepages are hailed and applauded for their blitzy graphics, their fancy Netscape 2.0 backgrounds, their interlaced gifs, their dazzling lay-outs and what have you.

And I just fail to see why. Homepages are the least interesting part of Internet: they are static, highly un-interactive, and no matter how intricate their design, they become boring rather quickly. As an experienced Dutch Internet journalist once put it, the largest part of the Web is just another slide show, a collection of display windows that the owners would like you to marvel at, mouth agape, saying ‘Oooh…!, Aaahhh…!’ and ‘Isn’t it great what they can do now?’, while all you can do is watch passively and click a button in order to make the next slide appear on your screen. The Web is rapidly evolving in just another exercise in zapping.

I must admit, I have a homepage too. In fact, next month I will even be put on trial because of it, as Scientology took an instant dislike to it. It is the first time in Holland that somebody is sued for the contents of their homepage, so in a strange way I feel obliged to defend my little nook on the net. But the plain truth is I don’t care much for homepages. Some of them are very useful – it’s where I get my information on other ligitations from CoS from, and where I read about all those lawsuits, affidavits, memorando opinio, verdicts and court transcripts – and presently I would be at a loss without them. But I don’t really care for them. I need them, I use them, but I don’t love ’em.

Usenet is where the action – and the interaction – is. No fancy nothings – just plain text. The liveliest medium, as I will try to show you. Here goes.

*

INTERNET, COMPUTERS AND modern technology somehow revive an old dream: cleanliness. The ablity to be pure, to be mind only, to forget about bodies and other physical entities and discard them as irrelevant.

‘Travelling has become obsolete’ is a popular slogan. Distance has lost its meaning. Tokyo, Milwaukee, the Mona Lisa in the Louvre and the coffee pot in the Trojan Room are closer within reach than the newspaper in your snail mailbox. The world is just a click away. A journey around the earth will now take a mere 80 seconds.

‘On Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog’ is another slogan. Appearances do not matter, this is a truly democratic medium: the only merit is in the value of one’s words. Whether one is ugly or beautiful, male or female, black or white, old or young is of no importance. All that matters is one’s words. You can be anybody, anything you wish, just by saying you are. At last you can be free from your body and maybe even be free from your personality. You can reinvent yourself.

Bodies do not matter on Internet. That’s what they say, anyway. Let’s see.

*

I SUBSCRIBED TO a Dutch newsgroup a few weeks after I got an Internet account in November 1994. The group, nl.misc, or *.misc as the regulars like to call it, is a rather busy one; there are about 300 messages each day and about a hundred people who post regularly; some post three messages a week, others twenty each day. Discussions range from current IRL news to chatter and gossip, and include debates about sex and editors, health or lack of it, the existence of god, fascism, immigration policy, music, work, cats and, of course, discussions about the weather (my first posting was a complaint because it was snowing outside; it meant I couldn’t go out, because my wheelchair becomes uncontrollable). Many people have come to know each other through this newsgroup.

For instance, it is common knowledge on *.misc that Christian studies music, writes sonatas and tends to fall hopelessly in love with contraltos; that Gerard is in the hands of a cult called ZetaTalk and believes himself to be Nancy’s messenger; that Johan does not like foreigners and is engaged to Mirjam, with whom he practices ballroom dancing; and that Pien has recently bought a piano, partly to remedy her broken heart. And everybody is chatting away about everything. Theads get entangled in no time whatsoever, because every subject is a free for all and the same subjects reappear time and again. There is also a homepage listing the regulars of *.misc, which contains little stories about all these people.

In a way, *.misc is the Internet-version of the cafe just around the corner, where you drop by after work or during your lunchbreak to see some familiar faces, to relax, to read a newspaper and hear some stories. But then: most of these people have never met. They only know each others’ text. And text is, as we all know, rather flexible.

So, according to this claim that bodies do not matter and personalities are flexible on the net, it would follow that one can pretend, one can tease, one can personify, one can mystify, one can change and one can impersonate on Usenet. All these regulars on *.misc can be whoever they want to be and create or recreate their own image. And being text, and thus being clean and pure and bodiless, there are no real, valid and lasting ties or obligations.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is sheer nonsense. There are several very interesting phenomena which I’ve witnessed – or engaged myself in – on this newsgroup that prove otherwise. Think of these observations as a preliminary investigation into net-anthropology.

*

FIRST OF ALL: it is indeed a group, a small net community. And a rather tight one, too. People worry about each other. When Izak hadn’t posted for a week, the regulars noticed and he got lots of e-mail inquiring about his well-being. When Christian got back from his holiday in Indonesia, many of the regulars were relieved to have him back and wanted to hear – read, I should say – his stories; when did not elaborate enough, he was rebuked. And of course he was quickly briefed on what had happened during his break from *.misc. It has by now become a habit to announce a temporary leave from *.misc, so as to not have the others worried.

It is just text that we miss? Or people?

Secondly, there is Truus. She started posting about two years ago when the Dutch journalist I mentioned earlier started writing about Internet on Internet; that is, he posted the articles he’d written about Internet and Usenet for the newspaper he works for, on *.misc. Of course everybody jumped on him, flaming him for technical errors and questioning his authority – who was he to write about them in their forum? Truus came to his rescue and defended him. Ever since, whenever journalism or the press is mentioned on *.misc, Truus posts praising this journalist. She also makes derogatory remarks about nerds and is quick to point out that a discussion is diverging into sex and editors yet again. She only posts one-liners, such as ‘Mr. van Jole is a very good journalist’, or: ‘Nonsense’, or: ‘Sex again’. Some readers love her, others hate her with a vengeance.

The funny thing is: Truus does not exist as a person in real life. Truus is an e-mail account, somebody’s pseudonym, an alias, a virtual entity, and therefore as bodiless as can be. She might be one of the regulars posting under this alias, or she might even be a group of people using the same login name.Yet she does have a recognizable face: her texts. And what is most interesting: while other regulars can from time to time adopt her style and while it has become a kind of in-crowd game to impersonate or parody Truus, she cannot change. She is fixed. If her subjects or her style were to change, the regulars would immediately doubt the authenticity of those postings. For instance, when some very rude one-liners signed Truus were posted a couple of weeks ago, many people almost instantly assumed that those postings must have been forgeries, as indeed they turned out to be.

Truus is what novelists refer to as a flat character. She is text and she is, in the most literal sense imaginable, a fixed style. She is thus doomed to be this one-line poster who is at war with one half of the newsgroup and the jester who is doted upon by the other half. She cannot evolve. She can only discontinue, remove or cancel herself – all synonyms for virtual suicide.

Thirdly, there is this immense hunger for more than just text to go by. The regulars long for things such as physical descriptions of each other, they invent body language to communicate affinities and sympathies with, they want to know about everybodys personal circumstances and search for ways to express a sense of friendship. What is slowly transpiring on *.misc, is a very specific way of engaging in make-believe: introducing real life on screen.

For instance, when Patricia – who’s known to be very sociable on *.misc – spots a newcomer in the group, she usually welcomes them. She would write something like: ‘Ah, we’ve not yet met. Do come in, sit down and make yourself comfortable. Would you like some coffee? Yes it’s crowded here, I know, but you’ll get used to it. Would you like a little refreshment? Here’s some cake. Icu had no time to eat it, his presence was urgently requested in a different newsgroup. I bet something fishy is going on there. But don’t worry, he’ll be back. I’ll introduce you later,’ etc. etc. Patricia is indeed the perfect hostess; but what is striking is that she in fact writes as if *.misc were a tangible cafe – or even a house, her house – with chairs inside and people to touch and glasses and plates and cups to pass on and people to shake hands with and faces to smile at.

While Patricia has cultivated this attittude to almost unattainable heights, many people engage in similar behaviour. People ask other posters to move closer, because they want to whisper something that the others mustn’t hear; people blush, giggle, yell, shuffle their feet out of shyness; people embrace each other, punch somebody in the eye or ask permission to sit on each others lap. All on screen. All in text. It’s not real life, of course. But it is not make-believe either. It’s a virtual copy of life.

Fourthly, this virtual copy of real life is effectuated from time to time. Not usually, but it does happen.

This summer for instance, I suddenly became severely ill. I had to be taken to the hospital overnight. A very good friend of mine, who’s also a regular in *.misc, posted a message on my behalf explaining my absence. During the weekends, when I was on temporary leave from the hospital, I posted updates (see here and here), explaining what was wrong with me and how I felt and how scared I was (I have multiple sclerosis, but that was not what was ailing me; it turned out I had had a brain haemorrhage).

Of course I got lots of wishing-wells e-mail from readers and posters of *.misc, all in all more than two hundred messages. But what’s more: I received over fourty postcards through snail-mail and three *.misc members that I had never met before, came to visit me in hospital. Somebody send me a book; somebody else sent me flowers. When I was finally discharged from hospital, an envoy from *.misc who had been collecting money from the regulars through bank transfers, came by to present me with a huge bouquet, courtesy of *.misc.

Quite frankly, I was very surprised, and truly moved, to receive all these expressions of sympathy. And although I knew that ties on *.misc run deeper than one would expect, I was truly amazed at this abundant and tangible proof that virtual sympathy does indeed equate real-life sympathy.

And so, because I wanted to communicate both my personal gratitude and this sociological observation, I posted a joking message on *.misc in which I stated that:

  • I had not been ill at all and
  • I had never been me anyway, because I was just
  • a researcher posing as a poster, in order to perform a participating investigation into the value and effects of on-line communication and ditto affections, and that
  • I could now congratulate *.misc for having proven that on-line communication was indeed as good as the real thing, but that
  • naturally, more research into such matters was called for.

The reactions to this message were, of course, utterly confused. Some people got the joke. Some people simply did not understand it and discarded the message in puzzlement. Others were furious and thought they had been taken for a ride, albeit a complicated one, and felt that their emotions had been played with – they had really been sorry for me, they had shared my fears and my grief and had felt for me – and now it turned out that all these feelings had been based on nothing? On fiction? On text?

I had to apologize profoundly, explaining that I had been me all along and not some researcher, but that I felt that their earlier reaction – the mail, the flowers – had indeed proven something: that text is enough to give rise to empathy.

The funny thing is, we had all made a grave mistake. I, because on *.misc people have to believe each other on… well, not at face-value, but at text-value. And they do. Which is why we cannot change and cannot de-mask. What is written there, is the truth. What you say about yourself is true because you say it. You write, therefore you are. The only thing you have to bear in mind is consistency. There are no outer criteria your fellow-readers can refer to. And thus, text is a very serious business on Usenet, flippant as it may be. It is you.

And others had made the serious mistake of forgetting that the same problem usually applies to real life. Why do you all out there in this hall believe that my name is Karin Spaink? Because somebody told you. Somebody you trust: a friend, or somebody who did meet me before, or because both the host of this afternoon and the program say that I am her. Why do you believe I have multiple sclerosis? Only because I said so, and because there’s nobody with some kind of higher authority who jumps up and says that I am lying.

Of course it’s possible to whip up a whimsical description of yourself and of your life, both on and off the net; but you must never forget what you made the others believe you look like and what you told them about yourself and what they are able to find out on their own. One has to maintain a coherent story. If Pien were suddenly to say that she’s a middle-aged man, nobody would believe her; and if it transpired that she does not have a piano, everybody would feel cheated. Just as you would feel cheated if you would find out that the Church of Scientology was not suing me. (But believe me, they are. Check out the newspapers. Or walk over to the bar: I am on television right now. I think. The journalist who interviewed me told me I would be, anyway. I have no way of knowing that they’ve told me the truth. I’m not sure until I’ve seen the tape.)

And sixth, wanting to know whether their affinities and antipathies would hold and stretch into real life and prove to be really real – and of course to satisfy the curiosities of the regulars, who all want to know the faces behind these texts and names – it has at one time been decided that *.misc should meet every once in a while. And so, there are regular ‘Samenscholingen’ (‘Gatherings’) where everybody debates exactly the same issues as they do on the net, where people are aghast that ‘jeez I can’t believe that you are really so&so’ and talk about why they had expected somebody to look a certain way, and where of course everybody once again tries to find out who Truus is and whether she might be among those present.

*

FINALLY, I’D like to tell you about an instant net community that came into being in the course of just these last two months. An instant community that is not primarily social, as *.misc is, but political. But first I need to tell you about Scientology.

The Church of Scientology (CoS) sells its followers expensive courses which, if students study them carefully, are supposed to set them free (‘clear’ them). One of their members, Steven Fishman, was jailed because he committed several crimes in order to get the money to pay for these courses. Scientology urged him to get the money any which way he could, he stated.

During his years in prison, he renounced the cult. In an interview in Time magazine, he explained about the criminal behaviour of the cult and how they coerce their members. Scientology thereupon sued him for slander. In that trial, Fishman showed parts of Scientology’s secret materials to prove what he’d said in Time. These higher materials of the cult – the so-called ‘OT-levels’ – were accepted as evidence and thereby became public material: anybody could go to the court library and read them. CoS, fearing that its sacred secrets would be revealed, had some of their people going to the library every day to take out these documents to prevent other people (read: non-Scientologists) to read them. Nevertheless, the Fishman Affidavit got copied (it was also available through the clerk of the court, for a mere $36,50) and has been travelling on Internet ever since.

The funny thing is, when you read the document, you’ll just see a bunch of gibberish. Apart from the instructions of how to treat non-Scientologists – almost every means is allowed to silence them; lying is common sense; cheating is part and parcel – there’s just this silly and badly written science-fiction tale about Xenu, head of the Galactic Universe who nuked earth 75 million years ago and who through his body thetans even now controls all of us people, except (of course) the few Scientologist who managed to clear themselves. Well, L. Ron Hubbard was indeed an sf-writer.

Scientology does not want their followers to know whats in store for them: they forbid everybody to read this material until they’ve done lots of courses, stating that it would kill those who are not yet ready for it; but more probably because people may stop believing Scientology once theyve read this lousy sf stuff. And of course Scientlogy asks their followers massive amounts of money for the privilege of studying these OT-levels.

But the Fishman Affidavit got out on the net. Ever since, CoS has been hunting it, all the while screaming hell about copyright infringements. They’ve forged cancel messages, they’ve tried to remove the newsgroup where critics and former members discuss the cult; they’ve raided anon.penet.fi, an anonymous remailer, in order to get the name of one of their critics; they’ve raided FactNet, an on-line archive on the cults activities; they’ve raided Erlich and Lerma, members of FactNet who posted the Fishman Affidavit on alt.religion.scientology and have seized their computers.

Scientology does not argue with people who do not agree with them. They prefer to harass, start crazy lawsuits, have people followed by private detectives, and generally intimidate them. They do not sue in order to win; they sue in order to intimidate and harass and to ruin their critics.Their motto is: ‘Never defend, always attack and they stick to it.’

Some people in Holland had at one time or another heard about this. Most of them weren’t very interested: just another crazy US cult US. So, what else is new?

Now, XS4ALL is Hollands first public Internet provider. Due to their past activities (they were parented by the now dead but famous Hack-Tic) and due to their present activities (they put up a free local provider for Amsterdam, the Digital City or DDS; they provide good and rather cheap access; they are usually the first provider to experiment, propagate or evaluate new developments, both technical, social and legal), they are held in very high esteem.

It was this provider that Scientology raided on september 5; the Fishman Affidavit was on an XS4ALL user’s homepage. CoS seized the XS4ALL computers and threatened to sue XS4ALL if they did not remove this homepage. XS4ALL refused to do so, stating that the content of peoples homepage is of no concern to them and that they are not responsible for what their clients put there. FonsS voluntarily (well, what would you do if you knew CoS was after you?) removed the Fishman Affidavit. That was the end of it, it would seem.

But it wasn’t. Many Internet users in The Netherlands were shocked to learn that some cult wanted to interfere with XS4ALL and with users’ rights to publish public material. The indignation was quite immense. Newspapers covered the issue extensively, there were some items on television and many Dutch Usenet-newsgroups debated the issue. Most people were truly outraged.

And suddenly, Fishman homepages started appearing – one after another. An e-mail letter was circulated, asking people to review what was going on and to consider putting up a Fishman homepage as well. More or less renowned people became involved: first myself, later on a member of Parliament, then a laureate writer, a network, a magazine. Homepage after homepage. Fully knowing that CoS would at some time have to sue, more and more people joined.

As of today, there are one hundred and three Fishman Affidavit homepages in the world. One is in the UK, one in the US, one is in Germany; and there are exactly one hundred homepages in The Netherlands. There is a daily bulletin which all Dutch participants receive. There are t-shirts. There are people compiling Dutch versions of FactNet. There is now more information available in The Netherlands about the cult than there ever was – and none of it very positive, I must say. FactNet, Lerma, Erlich, Klemesrud, Fishman – people and organisations who are or have been sued by Scientology because of this Affidavit in the past two years – are eagerly waiting to see what’s happening here, for a positive verdict for us here would have bearings on their cases in the US. There is by now a massive correspondence between some of the regulars of alt.religion.scientology and people involved in this Dutch Net protest, as all critics of Scientology would like us to win. Some of the regulars of *.misc are preparing a defend fund for those who are being sued by the cult.

Two days ago Scientology filed charges against four Internet providers – XS4ALL, DDS, Cistron and Dataweb – and me. Scientology still believes they are fighting single persons and single institutions. We, on the other hand, know that they are facing a net-community.

And I, I am having a real net life.


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