"help manners": Cyber-Democracy and its Vicissitudes

Charles J. Stivale

Enculturation, Vol. 1, No. 1, Spring 1997

About the Author
Table of Contents

What are the laws of comportment and respect in cyberspace? Assuming such "laws" (or at least, guidelines) were developed, how might they be enforced in online environments, especially those in which user anonymity is frequently the rule? These are questions that citizens of a growing number of synchronous (real-time) chat sites have addressed in a variety of ways as the popularity of Internet access has attracted more and more "cybernauts" online. The results of this "frontier" law-making have varied between sites, with rare successes, some notable failures, and always plenty of discussion. By drawing upon my experience and research on two so-called MOOs, that is, "MultiUserDimensions-Object-Oriented" in cyberspeak, I propose to examine issues of "frontier" legislation and self-governance that have evident analogues to experience in what "cybernauts" call "rl," (i.e., real life).

I also will address a number of questions that the essay has raised subsequent to its posting to the WorldWide Web in January 1996. Following discussions with a MOO acquaintance, Susan Garfinkel, who taught a course in Winter 1996 on "Interpreting Cyberspace" at the University of Pennsylvania English department, I accepted her invitation to discussion this essay online with her class at PennMOO, a real-time discussion and learning site. Through advance publicity and word-of-pixel, news of this cyber-seminar became known to "cybernauts" beyond the U of Pennsylvania class, and hence a sizable number of guests and other interested parties attend the event as well as the students. That my reading of events on LambdaMOO, particularly those known as the SamIAm affair, did not meet with universal approval became quite evident in the contentious atmosphere that prevailed during the PennMOO seminar. Throughout this revision, I will address objections raised there and since.

In order to situate my own position, let me recall the cautious attitude suggested by Constance Penley and Andrew Ross in the introduction to the Technoculture volume, a wariness "of the disempowering habit of demonizing technology" and a weariness with "postmodernist celebrations of the technological sublime" (xii). Since I proposed this as a talk in winter 1995, little did I realize the extent to which the demonizing tendency would galvanize the nation, indeed much of the world, focusing on issues of use and perceived potential abuse of online modes of expression. Little did I suspect, for example, that the arrest of the University of Michigan student, Jake Baker, for posting his rape/murder scenarios to a Usenet group with a woman student's real name as victim, would actually result in federal authorities manipulating postal laws to fit Baker's messages, however loathsome, into something resembling a crime. (The case was dismissed in June by a Federal judge; see Godwin "Artist"). Little did I suspect that the dubious statistics in a report by University of Pittsburgh researcher Martin Rimm would be employed by a heretofore respected journalist, Philip Elmer-Dewitt, to fuel Time magazine's "Cyberporn" issue which, in turn, fanned the flames of what passes for "debate" in Congress in its anti-cyberporn jihad (see, among much more, DeLoughry, Elmer-Dewitt "On a Screen" & "Fire", Godwin "Phillip's" & "Wrong"). Little did I suspect, therefore, that in outlining these "frontier tales" today, I would be relating analogues in text-based virtual reality not only of pressing questions, but of recent "demonizing" practices that continue to challenge us in an atmosphere that increasingly condones censorship and the limitation of our freedom of expression.

On the other hand, one has an array of choices that exemplify celebrations of the cyber-sublime, for example the oft cited introduction by Michael Benedikt in Cyberspace: First Steps. However, the source that I draw from is Mark Poster's essay "Cyberdemocracy: Internet and the Public Sphere," a surprising choice in that I do not differ at all with his analysis of the possibilities for re-conceptualizing postmodern political potentialities. However, following a sophisticated analysis of the relations of text-based virtual reality to contemporary political theory, Poster offers a rather utopian view of the instantiation of these transformative political models. It is no small irony that I know this essay only thanks to the Net itself (via WWW access, see references for address), and a further irony indicates complications that we researchers face in our speedy, digitized age. The day before presenting this paper at the Modern Language Association Convention (12/29/95), I attended a panel on which Mark Poster spoke (on Baudrillard), following which we chatted briefly. He thanked me for comments that I had previously sent to him about his WWW-listed essay, and I mentioned that I would be referring to it in my talk, to which he responded: "I assume you've read the latest version where I take account of your comments." For my panel presentation, the answer was, in fact, no, for I had not thought to check for an update. Forging ahead nonetheless, I stated in my introduction to the talk that the references corresponded to a heuristic, virtual Mark Poster. I have now consulted the "upgrade," and although Poster has made certain modifications, the original references remain intact, allowing me to frame the following tales and better to reveal clashes between cyber-theorizing and "flickering" online examples.

In particular, Poster contends, first: "The 'magic' of the Internet is that it is a technology that puts cultural acts, symbolizations in all forms, in the hands of all participants," and second, the Internet manifests an inherent "spectrum of modern versus postmodern identity construction." The "full novelty" of this displacement of ordinary speech into new forms of public spheres is most evident, says Poster, on MOOs although he recognizes that the inhabitants "do not enjoy a democratic utopia" given the obvious hierarchies therein (notably, the elite status of site administrators, known as "wizards' or "janitors"). He maintains, though, that MOO sites do reveal "the diminution of prevailing hierarchies of race, class and especially gender" (despite considerable research to the contrary; see Bruckman "Gender", Nakamura), and that MOOs are places both "of difference from and resistance to modern society" and "of the inscription of new assemblages of self-constitution." He concludes that "because the Internet inscribes the new social figure of the cyborg and institutes a communicative practice of self-constitution, the political as we have known it is reconfigured. The wrapping of language on the Internet, its digitized, machine-mediated signifiers in a space without bodies, introduces an unprecedented novelty for political theory."

To consider some "flickering" examples, I must provide an all too brief explanation of the functioning and purposes of two sites chosen for these tales. Located on computers, respectively, at Xerox-PARC in Palo Alto, CA and MIT, LambdaMOO and MediaMOO provide a virtual location in which participants may contribute to synchronous (real-time) exchanges and programming, each site with an identified chief administrator, Pavel Curtis (Lambda) and Amy Bruckman (Media), designated as "wizards" or "janitors" (see Bruckman "Finding"; Curtis). LambdaMOO's social function is evident in its referential paradigm, a "large" house and its grounds, with a set of main public rooms for group discussions, and a vast web of individual virtual spaces created by the participants themselves (see HumbertHumbert's LambdaMOO archive). MediaMOO's paradigm is a research complex, with libraries, laboratories, class and meeting rooms, as well as a network of individual spaces, less extensive than on Lambda (see Bruckman and Resnick). Whereas LambdaMOO's fraternity house atmosphere aptly summarizes much of the social exchange there, MediaMOO presents itself as a more serious location for "media research," a difference that extends to the site administration (Bruckman "Finding"). [1] That is, whereas one's LambdaMOO character registration is hindered only by a delay due to limitations on per-day admissions, MediaMOO requires the vetting of one's current research activities in media studies for admission as a registered participant. This policy helps assure participants have a commonality of professional interests, thereby maximizing (in theory) research exchanges, but one result of the vetting policy, admitted or not, has been to prevent the "mass" influx that has slowed transmission speed and increased pandemonium on other sites, including Lambda. Moreover, whereas disclosure of "real life" personal information on LambdaMOO is entirely voluntary, all registered MediaMOO citizens must accept public access to his/her name, e-mail address and research interests through a simple, pre-set public command.

Once a participant has registered and chosen a character name, a gender (male, female, neuter, and half-dozen other variants), and composed a personal description, interactions within MOOsites acclimate one quickly to a complex array of social interactions and programming possibilities (see Marvin, Reid). One also becomes increasingly aware of the uses, and often abuses, to which the programming language on the MOO can be put (see Cherny, Stivale). The term "help manners" in my title refers to the online guide that each participant (whether registered or transitory, i.e., a Guest) is advised by the site administrators to consult as an orientation to the site (see Appendix I). [2] This lengthy document (eight 24-line screens) has evolved over the nearly six years of the online site's existence, and currently states: "Like members of other communities, the inhabitants of LambdaMOO have certain expectations about the behavior of members and visitors. This article ['help MANNERS'] lays out a system of rules of courteous behavior, or 'manners', which have been agreed upon by popular vote."

As the appendix shows, these "rules" are presented as a series of indications 1) against jeopardizing the site's integrity through hacking or cracking, 2) against hogging database resources, and 3) against abusing other players. Among the latter points are concise commandments against different forms of harassment: "spamming," "shouting," "spoofing," "spying," "teleporting objects that one does not own," "emoting (I.E., EXPRESSING) violence or obscenities," all summed up by the rule to respect others players' privacy and, above all, their sensibilities. It is regarding this respect of "sensibilities" that most contention between participants arises.

In both of the sites that I consider here, despite a general desire for forms of government that do not emulate "real life," the inhabitants have discovered that some form of governing body or process is necessary in order to "enforce consensus" and to create sanctions against participants who willfully infringe upon guidelines in support of that consensus. As in any documentary account, my own bias plays an important role in the selection (and exclusion) of materials, as well as in the interpretations I give to these. For example, I have met several of the individuals from the MOOs discussed, and have developed friendships as well as strong enmities with certain online participants. Far from clouding my judgment, these relationships give me a healthy perspective to see through some of the cyber-democratic hyperbole often wielded by MOO-utopians. Moreover, LambdaMOO has remained and still remains the online site that I most frequent, so nothing in what follows contests the considerable efforts by programmers and administrators there, nor on MediaMOO for that matter. Rather, this essay discusses the gap between best intentions in cyberspace--to enable democratic representation and to found due process--and the limitations of these intentions. In fact, in a 16 May, 1996, "Another Direction" statement (item 300 on *News), the wizards at LambdaMOO have finally admitted these limitations and thereby support the main conclusions that I drew in the original version of this essay (cf. Apppendix III).

My account of this developing process of self-governance in cyberspace relates four broad "moments" on two sites during which these processes were transformed in significant ways. I should emphasize that participants with greater online longevity and/or different perspectives on these events may well identify not only other moments as key ones, but also place a different spin on how they unfolded. I thus recognize that this narrative is but one possible account, yet it is one that I base on extant documents as well as direct experiences within the sites (see Humbert Humbert). I provide an outline of the successive moments on Appendix II as a point of reference.

I. During 1992, after several years of site development, the LambdaMOO "wizards" wearied of policing the rudimentary "help manners" statement on an ad hoc basis in individual disputes between participants (Curtis DIAC '94). Thus, in an internal post dated December 9, 1992 entitled "On to the next stage . . ." and known as "Lambda Takes a New Direction," Pavel Curtis (as archwizard Haakon) pronounced an every-participant-for-him/herself policy of non-intervention by the wizards except as technicians in matters of site maintenance and development (see HumbertHumbert). He subsequently stated that the result of this was to make hassles and unfriendliness on the site not less, but *more* annoying (DIAC '94), and in March 1993, an incident of so-called "virtual rape" and online abuse occurred, described in Julian Dibbell's December 1993 Village Voice essay. The offending character, Mr.Bungle, had acquired the programming capacity necessary to isolate female-presenting characters and then to "spam" to their screens (i.e., transmit) sexually explicit and violent statements. Subsequent public discussion, including a "town meeting" that Mr.Bungle attended briefly, allowed many participants to express their outrage, but with no process of adjudication nor of sanctions in place, it fell to one wizard unilaterally and rather reluctantly to accede to the expression of general outrage and to "enforce consensus" by accepting responsibility for "toading" (permanently excluding) the offending character. As a result of this "germinating event" (to use Curtis's expression, DIAC '94), Curtis took it upon himself to institute a petition and ballot system through which citizens could vote measures into place. Following this unilateral act (contested by a few as inherently undemocratic since accomplished by fiat) was the initial ballot that instituted a formal "dispute" process with registered mediators to hear and resolve grievances and providing possible sanctions against disputants, when appropriate.

II.a: Meanwhile, on MediaMOO, until fall 1993, no system of governance was in place other than the autocratic rule of the site's chief "janitor", Amy Bruckman. Although having initiated a "Forum on Democracy" shortly after starting the site in early 1993, Bruckman has stated that little resulted from this since no participants yet seemed invested enough at that point to pursue such a direction (DIAC '94). The site's registration requirement, to have one's research activities vetted and approved as a pre-condition for admission, changed this attitude as a number of players contested some of Bruckman's negative decisions as arbitrary. Thus, following a public online meeting in October 1993, a MOO-Council was instituted through a process by which particular players "represented" constituencies of at least 15 MediaMOO "citizens." In practice, the Council's solely advisory role to Bruckman included deciding requests for registration, but the vagueness of the Council's broader purpose became a source of contention in itself, and eventually contributed to its dissolution.

II.b: Throughout 1993, the petition/ballot and dispute processes were developed on LambdaMOO, and all citizens were apprised of procedures and rights therein. The December 1993 Dibbell article, while bringing into very public (and print) view a number of activities of unwelcome "spam" that had occurred early in the year, also inspired a character named Dr_Jest, purported to be Mr. Bungle's latest re-registered avatar, to undertake a campaign of abuse that included homophobic comments against one MOO "citizen" who then duly availed herself of the "dispute" process. Besides massive online public debate of this dispute, the result was Dr_Jest's exclusion ("toading") despite his refusal to recognize the validity of the mediation process at all.

III.a: The debate on verbal abuse and, more generally, on community standards continued into 1994, inspiring an anti-rape ballot, entitled "Virtual Rape Consequences" that attempted to define parameters of sexual abuse well beyond the originally slender "help manners" guidelines of "respect[ing] other players' sensibilities." While being defeated after extensive and heated discussion during spring, 1994, the initiative spoke well of the ballot process, while also revealing the discomfort of many participants with the ongoing interpretations of appropriate behavior that discussion of the ballot had raised. As a voting MOO citizen, I opposed the *Ballot:AntiRape not because I approve of the abusive and sexually explicit behavior inflicted on all MOO participants at one time or another. Rather, like many voters, I felt that the line was not adequately delineated in the ballot proposal between what constituted abuse and what constituted playfulness, particularly in the use of certain commands designated in the proposal (cf. Stivale "Spam" on levels of "spam"). Hence, however strictly defined some proponents felt this measure to be, others could not endorse the potential for abuse that the ballot's lack of specificity might have made possible.

The partisanship resulting from this debate created some strong divisions, and as many participants were registered on both LambdaMOO and MediaMOO (and elsewhere), discussion and debate occurring on one site had repercussions on the other.

III.b: A subsequent dispute on LambdaMOO against a player named SamIAm brought these sentiments out forcefully, overlapping from one MOO to the other, and revealed the fragility of the dispute system. To this day, the exceptional procedures adopted in this dispute remain a bone of contention, particularly the recourse to a "shadow" disputant, named Gru, representing unnamed disputing parties, rather than their publicly and directly evoking the dispute as established guidelines dictated.

Over several months prior to the *dispute:Gru.vs.SamIAm, I had spoken online and corresponded (by internal MOOmail and regular email) with SamIAm and his "typist." We discovered many common interests, and we also shared the rather intense and eventually disagreeable relationship with a character named Nancy, author of the aforementioned *Ballot:AntiRape that both SamIAm and I opposed. However, during the rancorous exchanged regarding this ballot, SamIAm seemed intent on questioning Nancy's bona fides and even honesty in arguing her pro-ballot case. Hence, the rancor between them about an internal MOO issue, laced with generous doses of personal enmity, was well established at the time of the SamIAm affair, and no doubt motivated some of the efforts against him on LambdaMOO and elsewhere. Few MOO citizens, if any, have been aware of my close relationship with SamIAm's typist, and critics of this essay have adduced some sort of alliance between us from the record of comments that I have made on the MOO and from various internal political positions that I have supported. Although I would be dissembling were I to pretend not to have my own personal interests as well, I, like any other MOO citizen, have not been privileged to view any actual charges against SamIAm, and so my argument here in no way seeks to exonerate him or plead on behalf of his actions, whatever they were. Rather, I wish to call into question the procedure of the dispute against him since, presumably (if the accusers' case, maintained to this day, is to be believed) there was ample documentation available to judge him according to the formal process in place.

What makes this process so reprehensible is not merely that a citizen was deprived of the procedures afforded to all other disputants, even to Dr_Jest. It is also so because defenders of this procedure still, in 1996, attempt to maintain the smoke screen around the events that occurred. For example, even the charges against SamIAm are contested since the secret proceedings prevented public and official statement of these, and readers of the dispute list could receive only unreliable versions of these charges posted by certain disputants themselves (cf. 54 on *dispute:Gru.vs.SamIAm, posted by Gru, the "shadow" disputant). These secret proceedings arose from the mediator's initial judgment that the sensitive nature of the alleged offenses required maintaining both the disputants' anonymity and non-definition of specific charges against SamIAm. With the resultant secretive deliberation in progress, a public "trial" by unsubstantiated rumor (passing as "documented" fact posted again to the dispute list by one disputant) revealed that SamIAm had allegedly verbally abused and even threatened the offline personal and/or professional well-being of one or several participants on LambdaMOO.

However, following the PennMOO cyber-seminar (11 April 1996), one student in the course, Katherine Bunt, interviewed a LambdaMOO (and PennMOO) wizard, Seth Rich, who denies that any "shadow" disputant or secretive procedures took place. In this interpretation of "facts," the disputant Gru took it upon himself alone to lodge a dispute against the offending SamIAm. Yet, the record of the dispute belies such distortions since, contrary to previous disputes, NO record of specific charges from the mediator exists in any of the documents on the dispute. Whatever denials may arise from defenders of the dispute process, the bottom line remains an abuse of this process voted into place and supported in good faith by MOO citizens. [3]

Yet another factor made resolving this dispute impossible: one then anonymous disputant (later revealed by SamIAm to be none other than Nancy) retaliated preemptively against SamIAm's actual offline registrant by contacting his local system's administrator to allege commission of offenses that had yet to be adjudicated anywhere. SamIAm's typist was forced to accede to local demands to cease all MOO activities in order to protect an ongoing collaborative project that required access to the Internet. Thus sanctioned in his work site without due process, he was then "sentenced" in absentia to six-month's suspension from LambdaMOO without being able to mount a defense. Hence, from an examination of documentation on the *dispute:Gru.vs.SamIAm list (e.g.. messages 197, 199, 203, 206-07, 215; 6-7 June, 1994), the real-life personal nature of this dispute becomes evident, paralleling, if not superseding, the strictly MOO-related issues.

Meanwhile, the case had already overlapped onto MediaMOO since some SamIAm disputants on LambdaMOO were concurrently vested as MediaMOO Council members and brought forth an initiative to exclude SamIAm from this site as well. The rationale presumably was that any abuse alleged to have occurred on LambdaMOO must also have taken place on MediaMOO as well, and thus SamIAm was just as culpable on one site as on the other. Chief "janitor" Amy Bruckman admitted subsequently that, while the Council had no specific charge to advise on such matters, she had felt justified at the time in accepting its decision to exclude SamIAm from the site (Council discussion list). However, she also initiated a public discussion of matter (late June 1994), and once the unsubstantiated nature of the LambdaMOO charges and even a possible conflict of interest in the Council became suspected, Bruckman (as chief "janitor") overturned the Council's decision and re-admitted SamIAm to MediaMOO (an admission made moot in any case given the owner's agreement to refrain from all such activity). Discussion of these actions continued during summer 1994 among MediaMOO constituents, also addressing the role of the Council more generally. After much debate, the Council members agreed that theirs had been a noble experiment in self-governance, but with only an awkwardly defined advisory role, the Council's time spent on deliberative activities finally had become too burdensome. Thus, in late summer 1994, the Council dissolved itself, and MediaMOO returned to the autocratic governance that had existed before, i.e. Bruckman assisted in technical and programming matters by a small cadre of "janitors".

IVa. While the MediaMOO-Council experiment was instructive about the possibilities and limitations of representative self-governance on an Internet site, the LambdaMOO experience still continues. A vociferous proponent of what might be called MOO "civil liberties" named Sunny took an increasingly unpopular stand throughout 1994 in trying to expose the nexus of self-interest that structures relationships between different participants in governance roles on the site, and indeed, between different sites on the Net. For her efforts, she was harassed with a number of disputes, and even with a ballot initiative that, had it passed, would have resulted in her permanent exclusion (toading) from Lambda. In an ironic twist, however, her efforts in 1994 were recognized at the end of 1995 after she was absent from LambdaMOO for a sufficient length of time that her character was designated for recycling (aka "reaping"). Another ballot, opposite to the "toading" ballot of 1994, entitled "Save our Sunny," would have "immortalized" her character, permanently preventing it from being reaped. Only Sunny's eleventh hour return to thank everyone for their concern eliminated the ballot's necessity, while reminding all that, despite her extended absence, she had by no means departed definitively.

IV.b. While 1994 might be considered the year of Sunny, 1995 was arguably the year of the "collective assemblage" known as Tchinek. For some LambdaMOO citizens, the SamIAm dispute was democracy in action, while for others, it brought into full view another aspect of democracy, (i.e., the vulnerability of the process to be subverted by a select few), in this case, not only by one mediator's decision to block all but the most limited disclosure, but also by machinations of particular disputants to manipulate "real life" claims and tactics for maximum effect in the text-based virtual reality environment.

In January 1995, the appearance on LambdaMOO of a newly named character, Tchinek, claiming to serve as means of access for an authorized collective of registrants, coincided approximately with the end of SamIAm's six-month suspension, and marked a new phase in political strategies. [4] Upon arrival, Tchinek sought a dispute, first, to test a loophole he/they had discovered, and second, to challenge the process with the claim of being above and beyond this system of arbitration. And what better way was there to offend sensibilities than to revive the SamIAm affair? Thus, in the context of a discussion on the internal *social-list about the Jake Baker case (the Univ. of Michigan student expelled and then arrested for posting rape-murder fantasies to the Usenet), Tchinek posted publicly within LambdaMOO a copy of the letter sent in spring 1994 to the local systems' administrator of SamIAm's registrant, initially complete with name, address and institutional affiliation of the sender (he removed the original post several hours later, replacing it with an expurgated version, without the aforementioned name, address, and affiliation). Predictably, this former disputant employed arbitration in not one, but two simultaneous disputes against both Tchinek and SamIAm, but unpredictably, Tchinek then lodged a dispute against every arbitrator on LambdaMOO, which he/they then quickly withdrew. Only then, in attempting to assign an arbitrator to the dual disputes, did the arbitration programming reveal the loophole that Tchinek was exploiting: no arbitrator could adjudicate a dispute in which one of the parties had previously been involved in a dispute with that arbitrator, hence jeopardizing any dispute against Tchinek.

Undaunted, the wizards immediately patched the loophole (certain passages in the current "help manners" are a result of this effort), but although arbitrators were found for the dual disputes, they both ruled independently that "one should fix the [ARBITRATION] system, NOT punish Tchinek." Indeed, the arbitrator in the dispute against Tchinek stated further that "arbitration is becoming the haven for the lynch mob, and I don't like it; for this reason, I am unlikely to arbitrate any more disputes in the future, as it seems most disputants don't want arbitration, they want blood" (28 Feb 95). Despite subsequent retaliation against the arbitrator (via harassment) and against Tchinek (via disputes and petitions), Tchinek succeeded not only in exposing the documentation employed against SamIAm offline based on unsubstantiated allegations, but also in demonstrating the point that he/they and others critical of the dispute process had been making all along, its vulnerability to manipulation by those determined to exploit it for their own ends. Moreover, he/they ended the year with yet another dispute, this time formally contesting Pavel Curtis's unmandated initiation of the ballot/dispute process in 1993.

While these tales may strike some as an insider's view of "As the MOO Turns," the aftermath of these allegations is quite instructive about the delicate balance between laws that regulate site administration, interstate and, indeed, international communication, and the freedom of expression that sustains the very dynamic of these sites, asynchronous and synchronous alike. These tales stand, I would argue, as a sobering lesson of just how limited are the current efforts, however well-intentioned, to develop online cyber-democracy due to concomitant practices of distortion and infringement on rights, practices imported piecemeal from real-time personal and political processes. These tales would seem to contradict any contention that "in Internet communities, [the fetishistic aura attached to authority holders] is more difficult to maintain [since] the Internet seems to discourage the endowment of individuals with inflated status" (Poster). For what status could be more inflated than a site administrator's power, literally, to pull the plug on a site, or short of that, to make unilateral decisions of both programmatic and social nature with which the participants have no choice but to abide? Moreover, in the SamIAm case, no adjudication took place offline, and while in "vr," only the grossest subversion of the established process occurred, with the result that a researcher was required by his system's administrator to agree not to "break laws" in his work place based solely on hearsay allegations of already having done so, or having intended to do so. Only had the researcher been subjected to some more formal punishment without due process (e.g. loss of contract, Internet account, and/or employment) could he then have tried to prove in court that a civil wrong had been committed, most likely at his own expense of time, money and reputation. And this process would have been further complicated by discrepancies between international laws and jurisdictions.

On LambdaMOO, the petition/ballot and dispute processes have been challenged throughout 1995 and into 1996, but most efforts to define MOOrights through various ballots (such as a Bill of Rights or a MOO-Convention) have been stymied both by a mix of general cyber-political indifference and by gridlock among the politically committed minority on just how to cope with the complex conflicts between guarantees for freedom of expression and guarantees for virtual community standards. One exception, that confirms the general rule, is the revised version of "help manners" (summarized on the handout), a stopgap measure to shore up the loopholes revealed through Tchinek's return initiatives. The most recent twist in the saga occurred on 16 May 1996 when the LambdaMOO wizards proclaimed yet another "New Direction" (cf. Appendix III). While maintaining the players' "voice" via petitions and ballots, the wizards finally yield de jure to the technocratic, top-down governmental system that has heretofore existed de facto by "reintroducing wizardly fiat."

The French expression, "plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose" (the more it changes, the more it stays the same) would seem to apply here, suggesting that postmodernist claims for transformation of political structures through cyberspace have yet to find practical models through which they might effectively be realized, even (or especially) on MOOs. Such a stark conclusion may strike some as self-evident, even to confirm precisely what cyber-skeptics and "demonizers" have claimed all along about this application of technology. However, Poster has argued in response to such skepticism that:

"the 'postmodern' position need not be taken as a metaphysical assertion of a new age; that theorists are trapped within existing frameworks as much as they may be critical of them and wish not to be; that in the absence of a coherent alternative political program the best one can do is to examine phenomena such as the Internet in relation to new forms of the old democracy, while holding open the possibility that what might emerge might be something other than democracy in any shape that we may conceive it given our embeddedness in the present. Democracy, the rule by all, is surely preferable to its historic alternatives." [5]

For those of us committed to participating in and developing online "micro-worlds" and to contributing to the concomitant community-building, however fluid and even ephemeral this conception of "community" may be, the "evidence" of cyber-political indifference, gridlock and lack of appropriate models should not deter us from attempting to pursue modes of governance that fall prey neither to the pitfalls of democracy, nor to the traps of democracy's "alternative," particularly of the dictatorial form. This experimentation with the medium at our disposal is but one phase in a learning process that is far from complete and that might yield some unforeseen results, in some flickering virtual space-time.


Warm thanks to Cynthia Haynes and Jan Rune Holmevik for their support at LinguaMOO and for providing a Web-home for earlier versions of this essay.

[1] See Bruckman's home page at: http://lcs.www.mit.edu/people/asb/ for more texts related to the founding and development of MediaMOO.

[2] The original 'help manners' contained only a slim list of the basic points, almost in commandment form, that have been considerably expanded since.

[3] The internal posts to LambdaMOO's dispute-list as well as to the general *social list are extensive and from an array of sources: the dispute's mediator (AcidHorse), from the "shadow" disputant (gru), from one accuser (Nancy), the accused (SamIAm, posting directly at first, then through e-mail messages forwarded to the lists by active registrants), and from a number of commentators (most notably Sunny).

[4] I learned of this supposed "collective" status only by querying Tchinek directly about his name and entity. While some have objected to my accepting this self-characterization, everyone who adopts a character name, description and gender on a MOO must be taken at such "face value" (perhaps "screen value" is a more apt metaphor), even when one adopts a Spivak gender or makes one's home in a shopping cart.

[5] While preparing this essay version for _Enculturation_, I was also engaged in reading the *resesarch list on MediaMOO. Between November 1996 and January 1997, a number of MediaMOO registrants, including some of the principals in the events examined above, engaged in a heated debate about "ethical standards" for online research. While I am forbidden from citing from the list due to wizardly fiat out of concern for many of the issues raised in the debate, much of the discussion dealt with a recent doctoral dissertation defended at Northwestern University (criticized yet unread by several of the participants) and the questions that this (and other) forms of research about online activities raise regarding scholarly ethics. One ironic aspect of this debate became evident when the "real-life" registrant of SamIAm intervened on the list as a Guest regirstrant. The result of his pointed challenges to some of the commonplaces and posturings emerging from some discussants' remarks -- on ethical standards, let us recall -- was to ban Guests from further access to the discussion lists. This online debate resulted in a symposium on ethics (marking MediaMOO's fourth birthday), easily and publically accessible at: http://www.media.mit.edu/~asb/MediaMOO/ ethics-symposium.html.

Works Cited

Benedikt, Michael. "Introduction." Cyberspace: First Steps. Ed. Michael Benedikt. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1992. 1-25.

Bruckman, Amy. "Finding One's Own in Cyberspace." Technology Review (January): http://www.mit.edu/afs/athena/org/t/techreview/www/past-archive.html. 1996.

- - - . "Gender Swapping on the Internet." Proceedings of INET. ftp from media.mit.edu/pub/MediaMOO/papers/gender-swapping. 1993.

Bruckman, Amy, and Mitchell Resnick. "Virtual Professional Community: Results from the MediaMOO Project." ftp from media.mit.edu pub/asb/papers/MediaMOO-3cyberconf. 1993.

Bunt, Katherine. "Perspectives on the Toxic Event at PennMOO: Social Norms or Socially Propagated Truth." Formerly located at http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/!bkat/games/fnlcyb.txt. 1996.

Cherny, Lynn. "'Objectifying' the Body in the Discourse of an Object-Oriented MUD." Works and Days 25-26 (1995): 151-172. http://www.iup.ed u/en/workdays/ CHERNY.html.

Curtis, Pavel. "Mudding: Social Phenomena in Text-Based Virtual Realities." Proceedings of DIAC '92. ftp from parcftp.xerox.com pub/MOO/papers/DIAC92. 1992.

Curtis, Pavel, and David Nichols. "MUDs Grow Up: Social Virtual Reality in the Real World." ftp from parcftp.xerox.com/pub/MOO/papers/MUDsGrowUp. 1993.

DeLoughry, Thomas J. "Researcher Who Studied On-Line Porn Gets Invitation from Congress, Criticism from Scholars." The Chronicle of Higher Education (July 21, 1995): A19.

Dibbell, Julian. "A Rape in Cyberspace." The Village Voice (December 21, 1993): 36-42. Rpt. in Flame Wars. The Discourse of Cyberculture. Ed. Mark Dery. Durham: Duke University Press, 1994. 237-261. Also available online: http://vesta.physics.ucla.edu/~smolin/lambda/laws_and_history/Villa geVoic .txt .

DIAC '94. "Democracy in Cyberspace." Amy Bruckman, Pavel Curtis, Nancy Deuel, Mitchell Resnick. Video.

Elmer-Dewitt, Philip. "Fire Storm on the Computer Nets." Time (July 24, 1995): 57.

- - - . "On a Screen Near You: Cyberporn." Time (July 3, 1995): 38-45.

Godwin, Mike. "Artist or Criminal?" Internet World 6.9 (September 1995):96-100.

- - - . "Philip's Folly." Internet World 6.10 (October, 1995): 102-104.

- - - . "The Wrong Spin." Internet World. 7.1 (January 1996): 86-87.

Humbert's LambdaMOO archive. http://vesta.physics.ucla.edu/~smolin/lambda.

Marvin, Lee Ellen. "Spoof, Spam, Lurk, and Lag: the Aesthetics of Text-Based Virtual Realities." Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 1.2 (1996): http://shum.huji.ac.il/jcmc/vol1/issue2/vol1no2.html.

Nakamura, Lisa. "Race In/For Cyberspace: Identity Tourism and Racial Passing on the Internet." Works and Days 25/26 (1995): 181-194. http://www.iup.edu/en/workdays/Nakamura.html.

Penley, Constance, and Andrew Ross. "Introduction." Technoculture. Eds. Penley and Ross. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota Press, 1991. viii-xvii.

Poster, Mark. "Cyberdemocracy: Internet and the Public Sphere." http://www.hnet.uci.edu/mposter/writings/democ.html.1996.

Reid, Elizabeth. "Virtual Worlds: Culture and Imagination." Cybersociety: Computer-Mediated Communication and Community. Ed. Steven G. Jones. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1995. 164-183. Home site: http://www.ee.mu.oz.au/papers/emr/cv.html

Stivale, Charles J. "'Spam': Heteroglossia and Harassment in Cyberspace." Readerly/Writerly Texts. 3.2 (1996): 79-93.

Appendix I

'help manners' (LambdaMOO, revised 1995: excerpts; complete text available at: http://vesta.physics.ucla.edu/~smolin/lambda/laws_and_history/help_m anners )

LambdaMOO, like other MUDs, is a social community; it is populated by real people interacting through the computer network. Like Members of other communities, the inhabitants of LambdaMOO have certain expectations about the behavior of visitors. This article lays out a system of rules of courteous behavior, or "manners", which has been agreed upon by popular vote.

First of all, any action that threatens the functional integrity of the MOO, or might cause legal trouble for the MOO's supporters, will get the player responsible thrown off by the wizards. If you find a loophole or bug in the core, report it to a wizard without attempting to take advantage of it. ... [3 PARAGRAPHS ON LOOPHOLES]

Beyond that, there are two basic principles of friendly MOOing: let the MOO function and don't abuse players.

==== LET THE MOO FUNCTION ==== Besides not trying to hack or break things, this means not hogging resources by taking up more memory or processing time than necessary. [3 PARAGRAPHS ON RESOURCES]

==== DON'T ABUSE OTHER PLAYERS ==== The MOO is a fun place to socialize, program, and play as long as people are polite to each other. Rudeness and harassment make LambdaMOO less pleasant for everyone. Do not harass or abuse other players, using any tactic including:

* Spamming (filling their screen with unwanted text)
* Teleporting them or their objects without consent
* Emoted violence or obscenities
* Shouting (sending a message to all connect players) [SHOUTING
explained] ...

* Spoofing (causing messages to appear not attributed to your character) ...

* Spying - Don't create or use spying devices [INCLUDING 'SILENT', I.E. UNANNOUNCED, 'TELEPORTATION', I.E. MOVEMENT, INTO ROOMS] ...

* Sexual harassment (particularly involving unsolicited acts which simulate rape against unwilling participants) - Such behavior is not tolerated by the LambdaMOO community. A single incidence of such an act may, as a consequence of due process, result in permanent expulsion from LambdaMOO.

In general, respect other players' privacy and their right to control their own objects, including the right to decide who may enter or remain in their rooms.

Also respect other players' sensibilities. MOO inhabitants and visitors come from a wide range of cultural backgrounds both in the U.S. and abroad, and have varying ideas of what constitutes offensive speech or descriptions. Please keep text that other players can casually run across as free of potentially offensive material as you can. If you want to build objects of areas that are likely to offend some segment of the community, please give sufficient warning to casual explorers so that they can choose to avoid those objects or areas.

==== SELF-DEFENSE ====

Avoid revenge! If someone is bothering you, you have several options. The appropriate first step is usually to ask them to stop. If this fails, and avoiding the person in insufficient, useful verbs include @gag, @refuse, and @eject. ...

Note these following rules established by passage of *b:Patch-Arbitration -Loopholes (#4223): [passed April 1995]

* All characters are bound by some system of justice which has been voted by the people. Characters are free to suggest that this is not so, but such suggestions will [be] regarded as "mere speech" and will carry no force of law. In particular, Arbitrators will not consider such claims of exemption to be material. Characters who wish not to be subject to the lawfully created rules of this MOO are, like anyone else, free to request that their accounts be turned off.

* No character may in any way exploit the use of multiple characters to beat the system. For example, if a character is newted for punitive reasons, all characters controlled by that typist will be newted AND if that typist shows up controlling a guest during that period, he is still not welcome.

If you have a serious problem with another player, you may wish to consider invoking arbitration, in which some player decides the dispute. Since arbitration is some trouble and is binding on both parties, make sure you really want it before invoking it. See "help arbitration" for details.

Appendix II

Chronology of Cyber-democratic Processes at LambdaMOO & MediaMOO
              *LambdaMOO                            MediaMOO
Pre-1993: Ad hoc adjudication by wizards           - - - -

Dec 1992: "LambdaMOO Takes A New Direction":       - - - -
          Intervention by wizards only on technical,
      not social, matters

Spring 1993:
"A Rape in Cyberspace", the Mr.Bungle        MediaMOO online: Auto-
affair, "resolved" by an ad hoc wizard       cratic direction by site
intervention; discussions begin re           "janitor"/administrator
dispute/arbitration process

Summer/Fall 1993:
Dispute/Arbitration & Petition/              Site admission policy
Ballot processes defined and activated       questioned; October
                                             "town meeting" leads to
                                       establishing an elected
                                             advisory Council

Dec 1993- J. Dibbell Village Voice article;  Council continues work/
Jan 1994: Dr_Jest disputed                   decisions by consensus

Winter-Spring 1994:
Diverse ballot issues raise governance         Council continues
1994: and conduct issues, including "*ballot:
      Antirape", that fails passage; disputes
 (particularly against Sunny) take on
      *ad hominem/feminam tenor

Spring-Summer 1994:
Dispute: Gru.vs.SamIAm: due to alleged       Council concurs on sus-
delicacy of charges, dispute procedures        pending SamIAm for
superseded; SamIAm "newted" (suspended) for    charges imported from
6 months, while "real" typist required to      LambdaMOO
cease MOO activities due to allegations

Summer 1994:
Sunny (and others) question the SamIAm         MOO citizens/Council
procedures, in particular, and the dispute/    members question SamIAm
arbitration process, more generally            suspension, as well as
                                               efficacy of Council.
                                               Council disbands,

Fall 1994:
Continued questioning of dispute/arbitra-      MediaMOO governance
tion process                                   returns to autocratic
                                               direction by "janitors"

Winter 1995:
Return of SamIAm (under new character name),
guerilla subversion of dispute process, re-
definition of 'help manners'

1995: Attempts to define "Bill of Rights" and MOO
      Constitution as well as a new "Justice" process:
      except for revision of loopholes in "help manners,"
      all ballots fail, both for lack of general political
      interest and for lack of clarity in different ballots'
      implications for restriction of freedom and/or
<1996> Continuned debate on the validity of the
original "New Direction" policy; in May, the
wizards declare "Another Direction" (see below)

Appendix III

The Lambda Takes Another Direction text is also available on HumbertHumbert's LambdaMOO site at:
http://vesta.physics.ucla.edu/~smolin/lambda/laws_and_histor > >y/anotherdirection

Date: Thu May 16 11:00:54 1996 PDT

From: Haakon (#2)

To: *News (#123)

Subject: LambdaMOO Takes Another Direction

On December 9, 1992, Haakon posted 'LambdaMOO Takes A New Direction' (LTAND). Its intent was to relieve the wizards of the responsibility for making social decisions, and to shift that burden onto the players themselves. It indicated that the wizards would thenceforth refrain from making social decisions, and serve the MOO only as technicians. Over the course of the past three and a half years, it has become obvious that this was an impossible ideal: The line between 'technical' and 'social' is not a clear one, and never can be. The harassment that ensues each time we fail to achieve the impossible is more than we are now willing to bear.

So, we now acknowledge and accept that we have unavoidably made some social decisions over the past three years, and inform you that we hold ourselves free to do so henceforth.

1. We Are Reintroducing Wizardly Fiat


In particular, we henceforth explicitly reserve the right to make decisions that will unquestionably have social impact. We also now acknowledge that any technical decision may have social implications; we will no longer attempt to justify every action we take.

Players will still have a voice, however. Your input is essential. We will keep our existing institutions for now, with the modifications described below, but we encourage you to develop ideas for replacing these institutions (as will be described in section 2).

a. Petitions


The petition system will remain in its current form, with the following change:

In cases where difficulties arise that were unanticipated by the vetting process, we reserve the right to re-interpret and/or explicitly veto any clause of any passed ballot.

We will continue to vet petitions, in order to minimize the use of ballot veto, and we will continue to do so in terms of the existing vetting criteria in most cases. However, we will not rule out the possibilities of vetting being denied for other reasons, or of the vetting criteria being revised by fiat.

b. Arbitration


We explicitly reserve

(*) the right to veto any Arbitrator decision, particularly one that significantly impairs the ability of the wizards to do their jobs.

(*) the right to veto any Arbitration Change Proposal that is clearly not a "minor change" in the spirit of *Ballot:Arbitration (#50392) or that significantly impairs the ability of the wizards to do their jobs.

These may be temporary measures, as we hope to facilitate revision or replacement of Arbitration so that it may more adequately meet the needs of the community.

c. Wizardly Actions with Social Implications


The wizards will no longer refrain from taking actions that may have social implications. In three and a half years, no adequate mechanism has been found that prevents disruptive players from creating an intolerably hostile working environment for the wizards. The LTAND ideal that we might somehow limit ourselves solely to technical decisions has proven to be untenable.

2. Alternatives to Wizards Making Social Decisions


We encourage you, the players, to devise new mechanisms that will help minimize the need for the wizards to make unilateral social decisions. Several mechanisms, most notably the Arbitration system, seem less than ideal for the purpose, yet are too deeply entrenched to be changed with the petition system. We would like to try new mechanisms and to enable more radical changes than the current petition system will allow. We would like the players to propose ideas for major new institutions, and ways to select among the proposals. We hope this will introduce a new dynamism to LambdaMOO that will allow us to find better solutions to some of our more fundamental problems.

Similarly, we hope to facilitate an overhaul of the current petition and ballot system if the players want it.

Do keep in mind, though, that we cannot keep LambdaMOO running without the wizards Haakon has selected. "Cyberspace" and "new social reality" rhetoric aside, so long as the MOO is located on a single RL machine at a single RL site subject to RL laws and liabilities, there will be those deemed responsible for the use of that hardware. Part of the need for administrators is also inherent in the LambdaMOO security model and the organization of LambdaCore, while some of this need is a consequence of various quirks of LambdaMOO society (e.g., the correspondence between RL identities and MOO identities needing to remain secret and yet the need for someone to maintain it). While we might consider ways to decentralize some of these tasks, the fact remains that we simply can't decentralize everything. We are still open to your suggestions for ways to decentralize what we can.

Suggestions such as:

(*) persons not well trusted by Haakon might be granted wizard bits as a result of popular election, or

(*) we might set up a "wizard machine" to run arbitrary wizardly code with NO human intervention at all

are not acceptable, however. There may be site administrators somewhere who will accept the risks involved in implementing these ideas, but we will not.

3. Rejection of the New Direction?


We realize that not everyone will agree that this is the best new direction LambdaMOO might take. We don't doubt that some of the polemics among you will be able to come up with a different slant, e.g. (just to save you some trouble) wizardly blackmail military coup martial law nuclear terrorism

Some of you may find the new direction so disagreeable that you will consider ways to force an end to the new direction or ways to make the wizards' lives miserable because of it. Instead of making the use of civil disobedience or wizard harassment be the necessary means for shutting down LambdaMOO, we will accept a *simple majority* decision of the following form:

Any eligible voter may author a "shutdown" petition. This will be a pre-vetted petition with a specific, fixed wording. Should the petition reach ballot stage (by acquiring the usual signature threshold), a vote will be held to decide whether LambdaMOO should be shut down. If the number of YES (we should shut down) votes equals or exceeds the number of NO (we should not shut down) votes received, LambdaMOO will be shut down after an 8-week grace period. (Note, only one "shutdown" petition may be active at a time.)

Shutdown petitions will be implemented at the earliest opportunity.

4. The New Direction


We hope that LambdaMOO will become a more dynamic and enjoyable place for the wizards and the players. We do not want to discourage lively debate or to deprive players of a voice, and we encourage all of you to develop new ideas, mechanisms, and social policies, so as to minimize the need for direct wizardly social intervention as much as possible.

-The Wizards of LambdaMOO

Copyright © Enculturation 1997

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