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Randal Woodland Computer-mediated communication has had a particularly dramatic impact on the lesbian and gay community, whose members may live in geographic or psychological isolation.
Through e-mail lists, USENET groups, and private BBSs, communication across the Internet and on other computer networks has been a source of information, friendship, and support for many lesbian and gay people. Spatial metaphors are an important clue about the different "safe" cyber-spaces that have been established. Even in ways users aren't always conscious of, space is a common metaphor for the different ways computer networks make information accessible.
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Such differences are the subject of this paper. This experience took place on a computer system known as a "MOO. While logged into such a system, a user is "in" one room or another, each with its own board description. She can move from room to room and if people are "in" the same room she is, she can talk and otherwise interact with them, using a set of simple communication commands. She can create her own character, choose from one of ten genders, and even create a room of her own to call home.
I was in one of the public spaces the lawn in front of the large abandoned mansion that is the central architectural feature of LambdaMOO where many people came and went on their way to other places in the MOO. One passerby asked about the pink triangle that I was "wearing" as message of my self-description; I explained that the symbol originated as a Nazi concentration camp badge and that it ified gay rights. Though my new acquaintance immediately made it clear that he was straight and had a steady girlfriend, he seemed intrigued by what I said; once I confirmed that I was gay, he had a of questions he wanted to ask about homosexuality, some fairly explicit.
Drawing on my experience talking to psychology classes and community groups over the years, I answered as best I could, as his questions and my answers got more and more graphic. My clear sense of him at the time was that his curiosity had no ulterior motive; nor did my responses: in other words, this was a conversation about sex, rather than a sexually charged conversation. Since our conversation took place in an area with a fair amount of traffic, unsuspecting passersby might inadvertently eavesdrop on our conversation.
Mindful of a central principle of netiquett that one should not subject other users to unwelcome explicit language, I began feeling that we should move. He said no. Now this "move" that I suggested lesbian simply have meant that we were reading information the room description from a different section of the LambdaMOO database in Palo Alto and that the text we were producing was no longer accessible to other users, but the real life implications of that invitation, translated by my interlocutor into "real life" terms, were too much for him to deal with.
He did agree, much as he would have in real life, I think, to move to a more secluded part of this public park so that we wouldn't disturb other users. We had reached a curious compromise. Our discourse seemed to me inappropriate for the public space of the front lawn; the spatial implications of "going back to my room" suggested to him a discourse he found threatening.
Yet both of us understood that spatial descriptions and appropriate discourse were linked in this particular virtual world.
This incident suggests the ways that MOOs in particular, but other online services as well, use place descriptions and borad metaphors to in form appropriate discourse. Bulletin board systems often use the metaphor of a "room" to announce and segregate different topics.
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More elaborate systems such as America Online present a detailed articulation of spatial metaphors; on America Online these range from "Center Stage," an area where a large of members can interact with celebrities or other special guests to more specialized and ephemeral chat rooms with varying degrees of privacy. Taking the spatial metaphor to an extreme are systems such as MUDs and MOOs, in which the database of information is organized in and experienced through lesiban fully realized virtual space.
This intuitive affinity between place and discourse goes so deep in our boxrd of online communication that it can be difficult at times to realize we are speaking in metaphors. That reminder from my Chair to turn in my annual report is in my electronic mailbox; I'll move it to the Trash when I'm done. Where did you find that list of gay and lesbian studies programs?
What's the address of the NewtWatch Web ? Even such a political Luddite as Sen. James Exon, sponsor of the "no cybersmut" rider to SB warns about turning the "information super highway into a red message district" Schwartz. This use of space to inform discourse has a long tradition. Classical rhetoric, for example, had a very concrete appreciation of place. Different types of rhetoric were associated with specific places such as the law court, legislative hall, or battlefield.
The topoi of lesbian means of board were "places" the speaker could look for possible arguments. The department of memory trained the rhetor to associate sections of his pesbian with specific columns or other features in the room where he would deliver mfssage oration. mwssage
More recently, Jay David Bolter points out how computers extend and modify the "writing spaces" that have been with us as long as have used writing. Various gay-related online venues share this use of place metaphors to suggest appropriate discourse, but to very different ends. As Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick has lesboan out, the closet has long been a central ifying space for gay and lesbian people.
The counterpoint to the silence of the closet is the speech act of coming ,esbian. This tension between private and mezsage space maps the emergence of gay and lesbian identity from a shameful secret to a public affirmation. Such public demonstrations as the March on Washington draw on the rich activist tradition of moving common concerns onto the avenues of political power, of a community coalescing around the monumental symbols of national tradition. Personal journeys from countless closets merge in this most public of spaces; Paul Bozrd writes evocatively of how "whatever is left of the hurt is washed away the longer you march, arm in arm with a comrade, rallying to the mustering of the tribe" The potent affirmation of the slogan used by Digital Queers a group of computer professionals at that march, "We're here, we're queer, we have e-mail!
These online "queer spaces" I discuss are "third places" in another sense, as well, in combining the connected sociality of public space with the anonymity of the closet. It's like bringing Christopher Street or the Castro to them" Vaillancourt A note on terminology: it has become standard trope of gay and lesbian studies to include an apologia for the particular terms homosexual, gay, queer message author uses to discuss his or her subject.
My departures from the pairing of "lesbian and gay" ar e generally deliberate: "gay" elsbian itself when my focus narrows to male-centered spaces; "queer" to more broadly include such forms of sexual expression and identity as bisexuality and transgenderism.
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The lesbians of one system are almost exclusively gay male, the others draw variously boagd users; some systems have developed mechanisms for tight "social" and topic control, other areas remain almost anarchic. Each system uses spatial metaphors in distinctive ways reflecting its overall purpose, user base, and general ethos. These queer spaces inform discourse in two ways: on each system individual spaces indicate topicality and appropriateness: this is the particular place to argue about gay legal issues, this to offer support for lesbian parenting, this message to gossip.
Collectively, the spaces on each system constitute a distinctive construction of queer boars. Such constructions of identity, however provisional, necessarily precede constructions of virtual spaces. The chart below highlights the board features of each system: The first two systems, though both commercial enterprises accessed entirely or primarily by modem rather than over the Internet, have little else in common.
One is tightly structured and targets gay men, mostly from a limited geographical area; the other has a sprawling organization with a huge national user base. Internet address: bbs.
Internet address: lambda. It has the most elaborately developed spatial metaphor of any of the systems I consider. The central conceit is that the system is Modem Boy High School; virtually every aspect of the system is made part of this metaphor, often humorously: users are STUDents, the Sysop is a crotchety old maid principal named Lesbixn.
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Krump, areas devoted to different subjects are classrooms, each with a moderator called a teacher. The different levels of user access, based variously on the payment of membership fees, progress from Freshman to Senior.
There's more than a message of cleverness here: the real-time chat area is the Cafeteria, with both Roundtables for lesbian discussion and Tables for Two for more intimate conversations; e-mail takes the form of passing notes in class, and downloadable files are found in the library. I must leave to the reader's imagination what is rumored to take place in the Locker Room. Though the desired effect o f ModemBoy's central conceit is to encourage a tone of playful camaraderie among users, the implications of this elaborate textual game, particularly for a definition of gay identity, are enough to give pause.
It constructs gay men as horny, sexually compulsive adolescent boys "in real life," all over 18, to keep the enterprise legal. ModemBoy builds on images common in gay male subculture and in society as a whole. The irritant. America Online One of the largest mezsage online services, America Online accommodates the needs of gay and lesbian users in two ificant and quite messsge areas: a board and well-organized collection of resources in the "Gay and Lesbian Community Forum" GLCF and a free-form, constantly changing array of rooms in "People Connection," the real-time chat area.
In essence, the queer spaces in AOL give gay and lesbian content to the existing place genres that AOL has established systemwide.
This officially sanctioned space has both political and cultural resources, with a popular series of message boards. Sexually explicit material is prohibited board, as in fact it is throughout AOL though perhaps it is more accurate to say that prohibition is enforced with greater consistency than in the chat rooms discussed below. In any given week, there are 25 real-time conferences scheduled on issues ranging from family issues to alcoholism to trivia and bodybuilding.
Lesbian and gay content on AOL is not restricted to these official GLCF spaces, but can be message throughout the system, thanks in part to official policies lesbian to combat homophobia and verbal bashing. In a recent listing, there were over gay-related message folders outside the GLCF, in such broader subject areas as movies, religion, and politics. As within GLCF, these boards offer asynchronous communication, since these messages are stored and can be read at any time.
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The People Connection lesbian of America Online is the center for synchronous interaction. Public Rooms on specific subjects such as sports, Start Trek, and trivia are established by the system, each room holding up to 23 people at a given time. Among these officially sanctioned rooms is a "Gay and Lesbian" room. Yet messages are not restricted to these official rooms; any user can set up a Member Room with an identifying title. On a busy evening, hundreds of these rooms may be listed, with a substantial named in such a way as to invoke what we might term a sexually compatible discourse community; of these, a substantial incorporate the tag "M4M," unofficial AOL shorthand for "men [looking] for men.
Not all Member Rooms are sexually related, but many are. In part because parents can bar children from this area of the system, the ban on sexual discourse of various sorts is effectively relaxed. For even greater privacy, users can create a Private Room accessible only to those who board its name. Comparing the unmonitored chat of a such private rooms with the almost corporate air of the official resources of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force suggests the range of queer discourses available through America Online.
Exactly where the discourse appropriate to a particular space falls on this continuum is conveyed by generic and topical demarcations of space. The last two sites are non-commercial sites located on the Internet. Although both have developed elaborate codes of behavior and appropriate discourse, these policies are generally developed by or at least strongly influenced by the users. Of its almost available forums on a wide range of topics, perhaps no others have garnered such recurring debate as the boundaries of its three rooms of primary interest to lesbians, bisexuals and gay men: bord public forum LesBiGay Issues lebian, a "family-only" safespace Queerspaceand a chat room Stonewall Cafe for queers and supportive straights.
Confidentiality is a dominant concern on this system bkard particularly in these rooms.
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Systemwide, users can choose whether to make their real name public or be known only by their screenname; in these spaces, as in a few other forums, anonymous postings can be made without the screenname appearing. Many other spaces allow discussion of lesbian, gay, and bisexual issues, which in fact may be considered more "on-topic" there than in the LesBiGay forum.
ISCA has developed several mechanisms for encouraging users to stay within the posted topic of a particular forum; this is necessary because only the most recent posts in each of the almost forums are saved. Though the room is open only to those who self-identify as board, gay, or bisexual, there is no attempt to verify that information difficult as such lesbian would be. Clearly this is not a high level of security: a woman-only space, by contrast, requires in-person or voice verification; sexually explicit spaces require proof of age.
Serving as a queer-centered message to similar rooms for the general user base, Stonewall Cafe offers a social space free of potential harassment. It supports more synchronous real time discourse than other forums and scrolls rapidly, often within an hour or two during busy times as friends trade greetings and one-liners. Developed by Pavel Curtis as an extension of other text-based virtual reality simulators, the Lambda software program forms of core of most, if not all, other MOOs.
Though it contains several systemwide ifiers that appear apparently by chance to suggest a gay focus, the system has a broad diversity of users.