Article #10: Visual Metaphors for Virtual Community
being a brief survey of ways to look at the places we live
As human beings, it can be hard to wrap our minds around this new medium. Understanding a communiy as a series of inputs and database calls (which, in the end, is the fundamental software basis for any virtual community more sophisticated than a chatroom) is difficult for most.
Many visual metaphors have sprung up to try to explain the structure and mechanics of virtual communities, and your choice of metaphor forms a filter that influences your experiance and perception.
An early metaphor that comes down to us from the days of MUDs is virtual community as a roleplaying game. It's not suprising that it's easy to draw an equivalency between sitting at a computer and competing (or cooperating) with other people and software entities for status, level, eXperience Points, powers, spells, and abilities under the aegis of an administrative Aesir, and sitting around a table rolling dice and exploring imaginary dungeons and towns with other people and non-player constructs controlled by a Dungeon Master. Many early MUDs were specifically dungeons, and the idea of magic is strong online. Since it really all takes place in our heads, why wouldn't magic work? At E2, [the Everything2 Role Playing Game] is a great (and witty) example. Role-playing is very common across many virtual communities -- there are legions of furries, and I play the role of a genetically engineered dolphin living in a mobile tank of filtered seawater in a couple of communities. People know I'm human, but it is fun and a good icebreaker.
To the lurker, the observer who chooses not to interact directly with the community, it can be a giant and intimate soap opera. People are creatures of habit and will ususally act in predictable ways, just like Erica Kane or Bo and Hope Brady will rarely venture far out of character for long. If you are a dedicated, long-term lurker, it's easy to see story arcs, lead and supporting characters, subplots, and even commercials in the form of spam and ad banners.
A subset of this, but more active, is virtual community as theater, especially absurdist theater. This can be a healthy way of keeping a sense of humor, but can be taken so far as to distance people from the real effects of their interaction with others. If you are playing a role, it's easy to assume others are too, when they may be totally sincere.
A common metaphor seen in larger communities is website-as-city, with busy sqaures, intimate coffeehouses, and soapbox-filled parks, connected by broad avenues of general interest and dark alleys of Meta. The vision of cities of various sizes and atmospheres connected by superhighways of the Internet is an appealing and supple one.
Another way to look at virtual communities is as a magazine or newspaper. This is especially apt for sites like Slashdot or E2 that have a large population of contributors, and a large group of non-participant observers. There are news articles, top stories, extensive op-ed pages, and cartoons/jokes. The community is managed by a cadre of editors who have significant input into the daily look, feel, and content of the site.
Another visual metaphor is a house or houses, with the administrators as owners. This is especially apt in discussions of hosting. A common argument is, "You have the right to free speech, but I have the right to kick you out if you kick my dog, spil red wine on my white carpet, and set the draperies on fire." Although this is certainly a valid argument, it has an equally valid counter-argument, "If you invite a group of essentially strangers into your home for a party, you have to expect a few spilled ashtrays and a fistfight or two. It's not a party until somebody gets punched." In a large community with a lot of vertical stratification (like Motet boards) this is quite useful, as several houses on the same cul-de-sac can be quite independent and discrete, but it's easy to walk from one house to another, and especially loud or violent parties can significantly impact their neighbors.
One very prevalent metaphor comes from history, and is frequently quoted in Meta issues. "The Tragedy of the Commons" is the principle that an area owned and used by all will be exploited and destroyed by a few. In relatively unmoderated communities, the "Wild Wests" of the Internet, this can be true. The September That Never Ended is a USENet metaphor for this phenomenon, the flooding of an existing community by unsophisticates with little or no committment to the health of the community. (It's no coincidence that Comittment and community are such similar words. They seem to be related in direct proportion.) Defenders of free speech often find themselves in conflict with the defenders of the commons. Too strong a defense of either side can be detrimental, leaving on one hand a site looking like Yasger's Farm the day after Woodstock, but on the other extreme, a prairie criss-crossed with barbed wire and guarded by a militia of riflemen, where only a select few are allowed to graze, docile and sheeplike, on nomimally public land that still bears the marks of bison tramping through.
Finally, it's possible to view a virtual community as an orchard, with nuts and fruits growing on topic trees, the rotten ones discarded by administrators who patrol the rows pruning unhealthy branches, the larger trees cutting off light and resources from the smaller ones. "There is unrest in the Forest/There is trouble with the trees/For the Maples want more sunlight/And the Oaks ignore their pleas..." -- from Neil Peart's "The Trees"
There's a similarity to the Commons issue and conflicts here, with Metaheads seeing themselves as checks and balances on chainsaw-happy, overzealous pruners, and admins seeing argumentative strangler figs choking off conversations with off-topic chatter and flames.
(There is another metaphor that I have been introduced to recently that is supple, robust, and very applicable to virtual community. This is web community as a feudal society, with owners and admins as lords of the manor, and end users as serfs. In order to fully appreciate this metaphor, you must remember that peasant was once an honorable profession, perhaps the most honored, and noblesse oblige must apply for a feudal community to be healthy.)
No one of these visual metaphors is universally applicable, but these are common ones, and easily accessable.
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