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Get Real

While the Net has plenty of beneficial uses, it is not "wholesome," and the concept of the virtual "community" is a misnomer.

by Joel Snyder

When I'm good, I'm very good, but when I'm bad I'm better
--Mae West

In this issue, the focus is on the helpful and wholesome aspects of the Net. While the Internet is nothing if not helpful, I don't think it is a very wholesome, family-oriented kind of place. Which is fine by me because my own taste runs more to Hunter S. Thompson and Warren Zevon than Mr. Rogers and the county fair.

Of course, the extent of the Internet's helpfulness is typically wildly inaccurate, but that's no different from real life's helpfulness. Have you read Michael Crichton's most recent book, The Lost World, the sequel to Jurassic Park? There's a wonderful running thread in the story about how almost everything people tell you is wrong.

When I think of wholesomeness, I conjure images of family-oriented activities, such as camping, boating, and playing Scrabble. I do not think of sitting in a dark room with my glasses reflecting the phosphors of a 19-inch CRT and clicking away at a mouse as a family-oriented thing. The Internet is singularly singular. It came from a world of anti-social people, people who often could not relate to others in person. It has wonderful resources. But it is not something that I can imagine saying, "Hey, everybody, gather 'round, we're going to surf the Web together. . . " (On the other hand, that's the same way I feel about television, which is why I don't have one.)

The Internet also is largely not wholesome for other reasons. The vast majority of its participants are in that awkward child-becoming-person stage, no matter what their physical age. This means that in any corner you're liable to run into some dude (or dudette) who has an attitude problem. I may like it that way, but I wouldn't want a young child to be wandering around on the Internet. Forget the pornography; those "Web watch" services that focus on porn are barking up the wrong tree. I'd rather have a six-year-old see a picture of a couple copulating than meet some of the people, attitudes, and viewpoints I've run into on the Internet.

Virtual World Falls Short

People also laud the Internet as a way for "virtual communities" to get together, but I don't see it that way. I see virtual communities as no more real than anything else called virtual: virtual memory, virtual reality, virtual personalities. Virtual means "not real." Something is either a real community or it isn't. Virtual communities aren't.

A community is more than a bunch of people distributed in all 24 time zones, sitting in their dens and pounding away on keyboards about the latest news in alt.music.indigo-girls. That's not a community; it's a fan club. Newsgroups, mailing lists, chat rooms--call them what you will--the Internet's virtual communities are not communities in almost any sense of the word. A community is people who have greater things in common than a fascination with a narrowly defined topic.

In a real community, people are forced by geographic circumstance to deal with a broad spectrum of issues. What are we doing about schools? Crime? Traffic control? In virtual communities, exactly the opposite is true. The narrowest possible issue is the defining vector for the community, be it a mailing list, newsgroup, or whatever. A microscopic tunnel describes the only allowed discussion topic, with any off-topic comments earning strong reproach from any self-appointed Net police.

In real communities, people join as a circumstance of geography, typically something that's difficult and expensive to change. People buy houses, live in apartments, or work in areas that comprise communities. They can't drop out of those communities without great effort. For that reason, real communities enforce compromises and maturity. You can't go on arguing forever about the same topic with no resolution (well, not on the important ones). You have to deal with important issues because they won't wait for you to play around with the silly ones.

Internet virtual communities have none of these defining characteristics. People can join and leave them with the touch of a key. Don't like what's going on? Unsubscribe. Drop out. Don't log on. Don't want to deal with real issues? Drag in whatever nonsense you feel like.

Virtual communities also tend to bring out the worst in people. Where no one knows your real name, you can feel free to be as rude, obnoxious, uncompromising, and unfriendly as you want.

I'm not going to claim that Internet communities are not useful. After all, if you're the only Bonsai gardener in your real community, it's nice to be able to find some people with that same interest. Some Internet communities, such as The Well (Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link), have even made a close approximation to real ones. But I do want to make this clear: "Virtual community" is a misnomer. As a general case, the Internet does not sustain and develop communities.

As Clifford Stoll writes in Silicon Snake Oil, "We chat without speaking, smile without grinning, and hug without touching. . . how sad, to dwell in a metaphor without living the experience. The only sensations are a glowing screen, the touch of a keyboard, and the sound of an occasional bleep. All synthetic."

The Internet's virtual communities are not only not communities; the Internet itself is truly anti-community. With all activities, there are substitution effects. If you're sitting in front of a screen violently defending the virtues of Amiga micros, you're not spending that time active in your own home town. You've substituted the virtual world of the Internet for your own community.

Real-World Results

So what can you do? Stoll would have you turn off your computer and step outside. I'd agree, but encourage you to go a step further: Find a way to use the Internet as a tool for your own community. We all are affected by the decay of our cities. If your own community lacks the strength to improve things, use the Internet to strengthen it.

Let me give you an example. The few days a year I'm not on the road, I live in Tucson, Ariz., a city of about a half-million people. Tucson has more than 2,000 Internet dial-in ports in its local calling area and more than 20,000 desktops in businesses and government organizations with direct access to the Internet. That's a substantial potential user base.

Our local daily newspaper, The Arizona Daily Star and alternative weekly paper, Tuscon Weekly as well as hundreds of local companies are online. We have at least a half-dozen Internet service providers.

The kind of exposure Tucson has now is interesting and useful, and could even help the economy. But that's not what I'm talking about. I don't want to extend Tucson into the Internet virtual community. I want to build a virtual community in Tucson that has the same membership as my real community.

One thing that Tucson could do is create local "Tucson-only" newsgroups. By narrowing the range of potential readers and writers to people in Tucson, a virtual community can achieve a better sense of real community. I've seen this in other kinds of newsgroups.

I would even suggest restricting the distribution of community newsgroups so that only community members can participate. Sure, it's anathema to Internet zealots to have any piece of the network inaccessible to any other piece. Nevertheless, a sense of community means Tuscon residents can gather opinions on civic problems in Arizona without reading posts from uninvolved readers in Albania.

Newsgroups are only a start. How about some mailing lists? Or even an occasional online chat with our mayor and members of the city council?

If members of the Tucson community are online and active, local governments will bring their information resources to the Internet. For example, I sure could use a better handle on what the developers are doing to real estate at the outskirts of the city.

Can the Internet open the door on back-room politics? No, of course not. But it can make it easier for members of the community to watch what's happening in their own backyard. In an online world where a million hosts clamor for attention, your data packets need never leave home. *IW*

Joel Snyder is a senior partner at Opus One in Tucson, Ariz.

Reprinted from Internet World magazine Vol. 7 No. 2, (c) 1996 Mecklermedia Corporation. All rights reserved.