Review of "Communities in Cyberspace", edited by Marc A. Smith and Peter Kollock

The first five chapters of "Communities in Cyberspace" show us that a great deal of what is true about communities and identity in the real world applies to the virtual world as well. Virtual communication offers some differences, but mostly as an extension instead of a contradiction of identity within real world communities.

An individual's identity is derived by others by observing signals given by the person in question. Assessment signals, which are somewhat reliable signals due to their linking to something tangible (i.e., someone with a lot of muscles shows themself to be strong), are hard to find online. Therefore, conventional signals, which are not necessarily connected to the trait they are trying to advertise, become the primary mechanism for communicating identity online.

Donath describes a number of convential signals used online. The most basic set of signals comes from what a person writes. A person will both give explicit descriptions of themselves and their opinions as well as subtile cues in the way they express themselves. Also, looking at a person's username and the domain name of the source of their communication can give an audience hints as to the person's identity. (An example of this is the assumption that people who use AOL for Internet access are less technically savvy than people who do not.) Signatures give more specific information regarding a person's identity, offering ways to verify who or what they are (phone numbers, company affiliations, job type, etc.) or where to get more information about them (at their WWW homepage or through a quote).

Because of the limited bandwidth of most online communication, where communication is text-only or with primative audio or graphics, expressing these conventional signals must be done more efficiently than in the real world. Sterotypes and simple, common symbols are often used to get ideas across to others in a short amount of time and with as little effort as possible. This results in a sharpening of certain traits, such as race or gender. This is similar to the abbreviations used in newspaper personal adds, where DWJF translates to "divorsed white Jewish female". Online, it is common to introduce oneself by gender, race, religion, or age. Though this expresses only a small portion of the person's identity, it conveys sufficient information to the audience and allows the audience to make an initial decision regarding the person's place in the social structure of the community. The importance of race and gender changes depending on how important these traits are to the community. For communities where race or gender are very important, this sharpened sensitivity to one's race or gender comes strongly into play.

In the real world, race is derived from heritable physical features. Online, race is usually derived from a person's phenotype. The most obvious way a person expresses their race online is by simply stating it. Once a person's race is declared, the stereotype associated with that race is used to define the person's racial identity. This is the opposite of how racial identity is derived in the real world, where a sterotype is applied to the individual based on one's physical characteristics. As a result, online, if a person's subsequent actions do not conform to the sterotype, their identity is called into question. Inconsistencies in a person's perspectives change their racial identity as perceived by others instead of making them just an anomoly as would happen face-to-face.

Multiplicity or ambiguity can confuse the audience's perceptions. Berkhalter gives an example of a user who describes himself as "part-African-American", "human", and "American". This mixture of descriptors caused his audience to call into question the ambiguity of someone claiming to only be partially an ethnicity. (This may have been done to either gain clarification or to sidetrack the person's argument, since attacking the person's identity can corrupt their argument by weakening the foundation they claim to build that argument upon.)

Because there is always a degree of uncertainly regarding the true identity of people online, one cannot absolutely proof one's racial identity. Burkhalter argues that this absolute proof is rarely necessary since people will attempt to derive a person's racial identity from their online interactions. These conclusions can be flawed, though. At times, racial identity relies on the perceptions of the audience, which may miss obvious cues as to the true racial identity of other people.

What is true for ethnicity is also true for gender online. Multiplicity and ambiguity is similarly problematic for an audience attempting to determine a person's gender. Without catagorizing a person, the members of the audience do not know how to react to and with the person. O'Brien explains this as being similar to actors working without a script. Actors require a script and story to know what is appropriate for themselves and those around them. Additionally, O'Brien considers gender online as something that is performed since the physical reality is separated from the virtual world. These performances are based on the real world dynamics of conventional gender forms. An audience will assume a user is a certain gender because they behave as that gender would in the real world. Often, a person's gender is misread because their online actions are inconsistent with their real world gender.

Further indication that O'Brien considers online gendering a performance comes from her ideas that a person's online identity is still anchored in their real world personality. She writes, "even when the body is anchored elsewhere and unavailable as a source of symbolic cueing, central distinctions that reference the body as connected to self will still be evolked as the basis of meaningful communication." People's perceptions are still rooted in the experiences they have in the real world. Therefore, they cannot totally escape from their true identities even when playing out a different identity online.

Race and gender can both be considered when looking at a community's social structure. Even within monocultures where the race or gender of the community members are the same, hierarchical structures exist online. A person's place in an online community can be determined through a number of mechanisms. Technical or specialized knowledge might be one gague. Alternately, how much a person contributes to the community could give that person special standing within the community. Once their standing is defined, a person's interactions with others within that hierarchy become more defined.

Conflict within a community will be handled differently by different levels of the group's social hierarchy. Those with technical or administrative powers can unilaterally censure or punish individuals. Groups of users at lower strata within the hierarchy may make decisions and act upon them without permission or mandate by those above them. Also, more democratic practices may occur, where the desires of the majority are used to dictate the actions of those with power. Though technology may effect what mechanisms are available to a community to express their desires, each community develops its own way of dealing with problems and disagreements based on the values of those within the communities.

Though the virtual world is marketed as an opportunity to be unbound from real world social norms and taboos, communities online seems to carry over much of the traits and hierarchies that are found in their real world counterparts. Online communities are far less bound by distance and time, but the social rules that the users' real world identities adhere to find their way into the rules of online communities. The effects of some are lessened, but such things as race or gender identity can be intensified online.

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All contents Copyright 2004, Daniel Adinolfi.