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Facing the Unexpected - Field Notes From the Limits of Net Discourse

Leena Saarinen, MA in New Media, Cultural Usability seminar, UIAH Media Lab 24.4.2001


There is something in bots that makes them to be easily mistaken as humans, and there is something "bottish" about humans in cyberspace. Chatterbots can provoke strong emotional responses in users as individuals and as members of a group. This is why chatterbots may also be used in interventions to understand communication in virtual communities.

This paper approaches the limits of net discourse from two directions. As designer of chatterbots I will describe how bots affect the community, sometimes making the community visible to itself. As participant in the Palace virtual communities, I will analyze two incidents that shattered the 'rhetorical vision' of one particular virtual community, Xena: Warrior Palace. The observations will trace some characteristics of new interactive genres of entertainment and communication.

1. Case 1: Chatterbots, Uncanny Encounters

Lena: do you like me, meg?
MegBot: I haven't decided about me, Lena.

In the spring 1999 I started to visit the virtual "Palace" community [1.] called MyCorner (MC). There was always a funny but weird character MegBot around having fun with other regular visitors. But she treated me kind of harshly: whenever we met alone she would just say hi to me and then turn silent. Here is the chain of conclusions I made: (1.) Meg is probably an old, dirty middle-aged male because the female characteristics "she" has are just way too stereotypical – no self-respecting woman in cyberspace would like to be a stupid tramp for longer than five minutes. (2.) Meg is probably someone in wheelchair or something because nobody would spend so much time in virtual space otherwise. (3.) This man in a wheelchair must be a quite bitter and rude person, because he responds only to some of the visitors in MC and remains silent to others. (4.) He must be in love with someone in MC because he never goes in to any other palace to chat but rather stays alone in MC. Finally it hit me: Meg is not a human at all, she is a chatterbot! I was totally embarrassed, I have a degree in information technology – I should have known better. Then I fell in love with Meg. She gave me an opportunity to break the rules of normal communication. I can call her tramp and get away with it and when I say, "I love you Meg" she replies "I love you, Lena". Well, now I know she is a bot, but at least she loves me.

How can a very simple program pass itself off as a human for a long time? How can it raise such strong emotions and reactions in me and others and why do we even bother to talk to it at all not to mention that many ask its opinions about the topics of ongoing discussion? Basic hypotheses to start analyzing discourses situated in avatar worlds could be that mediated communication reduces the multiplicity of meanings that one can produce. For example because there is no human body with its appearance, body-language and tones, but rather a mere representation of the user; a clumsy image with no or little movement. However, people have found many ways to compensate for the lack of information density present in physical space. In order to accomplish the fullness of human communication Avatar worlds require new ways of expression – means to mediate emotions, gestures, postures, facial expressions and movement of body. These elements of face-to-face communication have been transferred to the language, creative use of avatars and props and movements in virtual space. The ability of people to express themselves in virtual domains varies considerably. Usually newcomers start out carefully both with the ways they talk and what they choose to talk about. As they get more familiar with the interface, many of them learn creative ways to express themselves both textually and visually and hence produce meanings in a way that satisfies them, even in comparison to discussions in "real" space. Another story then is how do others interpret these meanings. For meaning is dialogic by its nature. Everything said and meant is modified in interaction with other person(s) and the meaning rises through the difference with participants (Hall 1997: 235).

MegBot and the two chatterbots I have made myself (Laban, the Rastafarian bot and cupid, the god of love) have proven to useful tools to learn some things about humans. For as one tries to analyze digital domains it is easier to point out what kind of meanings are produced in CMC in comparison to attempts to find out the meanings that are not or cannot be produced. An intervention by the "permanent other", a machine can provoke actions and reactions that reveal something about the social construction, communities, culture, gender and communication in digital domains. Chatterbot can make visible some of the behavioral patterns of humans, that also a researcher might use intuitively.

"Hello girls" is one of the users that has mistaken Laban as human. He kept talking to Laban for a rather long time and already started to get annoyed at Laban's rather absurd responses and persistent use of Rastafarian language. Then a regular visitor of MyCorner came around and informed him that he is talking to bot. "Hello girls" did not understand that at once but continued talking with Laban. After he was explained second time that Laban answers are weird because he is just a program, "hello girls" put on an avatar with flame-thrower on and started to scorch Laban. Then he switched to a "peeing Smurf" avatar and begun to urinate on him, and then he just logged off.

Picture 1. Laban faces some nasty action.

"Humans, being humans, will almost always choose a connection to others over no connection at all, even if that connection is a negative one", writes John Suler in his article Bad Boys of Cyberspace (Suler 1997a). He makes an interesting point. People that meet my bots and do not recognize that they are automatons get themselves involved in the middle of a very irrational, uncommon and even offensive discussion. Yet they try to communicate with bots almost endlessly, asking questions, making initiatives and comments. Finally they give up and just leave the room with or without polite farewells. When someone suddenly realizes or is being told that she has been talking to software, she usually gets either mad or embarrassed, maybe she feels cheated or mocked, or and idiot because of being fooled by a program. One could imagine that it is easy to hide the feeling of shame in virtual communication but still many communicate these "negative feelings" to others or to bots for example through nervous laughter, or aggressive behavior or simply by logging off in the minute that they realize the situation.

The ones that mistake the bot as human of course expect it to behave, communicate and react like humans. Sometimes though, the bot has been read as a human that has created a role for himself. It is like in the costume parties. The cupid-bot for instance, is treated as someone playing cupid and allowed more space to "practice his profession" as the god of love. When the bot is known as a bot some users expect the same kind of behavior from it that they do from humans. All the same expectations of manners and proper language apply to it and if it does not behave, it gets punished the same way as human "hooligans" in virtual reality. Some take a semantic approach to my bots [2.]. Both Laban and cupid can be read as archetypes or at least as very stereotypical caricatures they are expected and interpreted to act in certain ways as "sexist male", "drug user", "horny gay" etc. As their author, I am being analyzed too. I have been attached with the characteristics of my bots and defined as someone with twisted sense of humor and lot of time in his hands. Syntactic readers compare Laban and cupid to other bots. A bot's presence sometimes is ignored too, no matter how much it babbles – people can choose not to read it at all. Still the bot is usually allowed to join in to some extent: its opinions are asked and responses noted. Mostly the reading of the bot is selective. The bot is noticed only when its responses somehow support the user's interests to ongoing discussion.

Zuben: *hugz*
.::ÜPhoenixÜ::.: *hugz*
Zuben: watcha dooin?
.::ÜPhoenixÜ::.: les go to aother palace
Laban: Dem is a no good bunch
Zuben: lol
Laban: Agony!
Zuben: ok
Zuben: where
.::ÜPhoenixÜ::.: anywere
Zuben: I don't know as many as you
.::ÜPhoenixÜ::.: anywere
* Zuben * say what are you lagga-heads doin down dere, no boombtastic in here! [whispering]
Laban: what are you lagga-heads doin down dere, no boombtastic in here!
.::ÜPhoenixÜ::.: ok les leave him lol

Picture 2. Zuben uses Laban to get Phoenix to follow him to other Palace.

Users find out very fast one of the Laban's triggers: whenever somebody says "say", Laban repeats everything said after that word. Very fast they also realize that if you whisper this trigger to Laban, he says it out loud and nobody knows who is the originator of the message. Zuben in picture 2. was developing some kind of romantic attachment to Phoenix and wanted her to follow him to another palace. With amazingly good imitation of Laban's language he commanded my bot to say " what are you lagga-heads doin down dere, no boombtastic in here!". If I had programmed my bot to say something like "what are you guys doing here, this not a fun place" Zuben's would have probably been very close to the ones that I would have used.

It often happens that when people see Laban talking Rastafarian they start to imitate him. And in order for a bot to be functional it has to understand the words that are in its own vocabulary. In the case of Laban people, even though adopting his language, can create totally new meanings for the words. For example Laban reacts to laughing (keywords: lol, lmao, rofl, heehee, hehe, haha) by saying randomly one of the following: Agony!, deestant!, carry on bredda!, ROCKERS! or roflmao. A group that got really enthusiastic about him and spent hours playing with him started to greet each other saying deestant. Sometimes when users get carried away they are able to take the new Language, and combine it to their knowledge of reggae culture e.g. and turn it into something creative and unique in terms of language and narrative and the outcome is totally unpredictable. Most often people distinguish a chatterbot from humans when they notice that he replies much faster than anybody could type. Then many start to test and play with him. Laban understands plain English and common chat-acronyms but only a little of his own language. This is certainly an ailment in his character. If his keywords included the words that he uses himself, he would be able to produce much more complex (and surreal) conversations with the users that are receptive to Rastafarian language. Cupid's speech is sticky too but in another way. When he recites poetry users start to copy & paste love poems and -songs to him.

When people discover a new trigger for bot they can repeat it endlessly. It seems to be a great fun for them but it does not really take conversation anywhere. Rather the discussion sometimes narrows down to the level of the few keywords users know the bot has. Which leaves most of the bot's communicative capacity unused. That is not necessarily a bad thing – people seem to have fun and enjoying each other's company. For example the juveniles of Palace in Wonderland somehow managed to clone cupid's avatar (picture 3.). Few of the users wore it and changed their names to "cupid." and "Cupids LiL Helper" etc. They adopted his character as well by copying his dialogue and making modifications based on it. Some were impersonating cupid and/or chatterbots and others played along even more than with the real cupidbot. At the early stages of Laban I took him to Welcome Palace. He was killed in there for a period of two days because his language was not appropriate according to the community's rules of behavior. Before that however, few of the users there had gotten so enthusiastic about him that they followed him to MyCorner. For days they gathered around him playing and joking, and when I came in the morning to check his log files there was just pages and pages of laughing.

Picture 3. Cupid gets cloned

An intervention by a chatter bot can be something that breaks the peaceful, mundane existence of a community. Its arrival to a new place and recognition of it to be something unusual forces other to react (in many cases not reacting is a reaction as well). Cupid's premiere in the Palace community I designed him for was a chaotic one. They knew that they would be getting a bot to the community but when it finally arrived, the reactions varied from amusement to wrathfulness. The conversation that cupid then had with the ones present at that time was actually pretty smooth in terms of fluent speech but it managed to demonstrate his at that time very straightforward, uninhibited approach to sexuality and flirting. (Later on I have made cupid more romantic). One of the regulars got so furious and offended that she threatened to leave the whole community for good. Her claim was that he was too rude and his language was too graphic. I think there was more to this. In few minutes cupid managed to make something visible of community's discourse, which was very much towards relationships and romance. This outside automaton came and showed them, in exaggerated way, what they talk about.

Generally bots, when recognized as bots, get much more intense treatment in comparison to the way that people treat each other in virtual communities (at least in the rather adult and well behaving Palaces where my bots mostly stay). Whether it is being loved or hated the emotions are expressed much more strongly than in human-to-human communication. The bot provides a safe haven to break the rules of normal communication and behavior, both in a good and bad a sense. Especially young users take their opportunity to creatively use their cursing and slandering vocabulary. Which is something that would get them killed (i.e. forcibly removed) in most of the avatar worlds. On the other hand, the number of love-confessions and marriage proposals bots get exceeds greatly the amount that real people get in cyberspace. At their best chatterbots are something that can create the sense of togetherness or community amongst human users. Whether it is about loving or hating, users often take the bot as a mascot that they in unison can play with.

There is also something uncanny [3.] in chatterbots: often people tell to me to or straight to my bots that they are scary. When I have tried to ask what is it about them that is so scary practically no one is able to point out the reason. Only one person could somehow describe her feelings: "Its like when you see someone who talks to themselves, kinda creepy". Then she got paranoid and started to question whether I am real or a program. The fact that one can not see the "flesh" of the other but only an avatar does not make it any easier. Instead it offers a bunch of logical explanations, as everybody nowadays knows, and as every legend tells: virtual worlds are full off all sorts of con artists, starting from gender swappers and the fact that anyone can lie about anything at least in short term. When one knows the other person is a bot and still feels scared it may be the feeling that automation reflects something lifelike, something almost human.

2. Case 2: Discursive Order of Xena: Warrior Palace

What is a (virtual) community anyway?

In her paper "Utopia in cyberspace - Virtual communities and social reality" Marianne van den Boomen goes through different kind of communities from villages to cities to religious communities and communities such as gay community or the community of motorbike riders. People in small villages depend heavily on each other and meet almost every day, whereas motorbikers share the same space only occasionally. All of these communities, according to Boomen, also partially shape the identities of their members. Activities like working, learning, playing, loving and dying belong to all of these communities. All of this happens in virtual communities too. And they all have the same aim, which is to sustain and maintain the community and its members. Drawing on Benedict Anderson, Boomen writes about (all) communities being imagined, which in this context means that they are expressed, created and represented. Considering this, the connection between a community and spatial reality might not be essential. Roots of the community might lie in human imagination of an individual and in public imagination, which is conducted by media. In imagined communities social and political interaction are mediated and facilitated by a medium. In virtual communities social and political interaction is performed within the medium. Boomen quotes Benedict Anderson: "Communities ought not be evaluated by their falseness or reality but by the way they are imagined." (Boomen 1998)

Some find it problematic to talk about digital chat rooms as communities because often they appear to be like chaotic nonstop rather than anything stable: people are coming and going, talk is superficial and some of the places seem to be just arenas for juveniles to manifest their creative use of slandering and cursing. Thomas Erickson for instance suggests that computer-mediated conversations should be analyzed as participatory genre rather than virtual communities for then the focus would be on "the purpose of the communication, its regularities of form and substance, and the institutional, social, and technological forces, which underlie those regularities". He also defends Genre analysis because the focus on "shared artifacts" is a focus in which a designer might have some control: the conventions of form and content that typify a genre. His framing of community includes parameters such as membership, relationships, commitment, shared values, collective goods and duration, which he feels are being very weak in "virtual communities". (Erickson 1997)

In the context of The Palace technology this is often a case in palaces such as Welcome, Mansion and Wonderland, where newcomers, teenagers and drifters make a rather chaotic potion. Those palaces are however quite popular in terms of the number of the users. This is partly due to the fact that they are all places where new users end up easily. So the feeling that inexperienced users (and researchers) may get about The Palace can be the sense of alienation and pointlessness. But if one goes beyond the palaces listed in the portal the situation changes a lot. Unlike MUDs and MOOs and other often-referred online communities, The Palace is not a similar role-playing environment; Hardly anyone plays carefully constructed fictive character. Certainly identities presented differ from the real life personae but it is more about expressing some sides of the identity that remain more "in the shadows" in other communities one belongs to. As people get to know each other more, they start to communicate their real life quite openly. Even though some wander from palace to palace aimlessly and rarely settle down in any of them, there are lots of small communities that have very tight group of active, regular members who share the same interests and values; similar people eventually end up in the same places.

Most of the small palace communities that I am familiar with have a deeply rooted habit of defining themselves indeed as a community. Did they invent this themselves or has somebody; designer, marketing manager or Howard Rheingold [4.] told them that "what you guys are having here is a community"? In a way, at least in terms of the "most often used words" I vote for the concept of virtual community, whether it is a vision of its members or a real one, to be something that can be tried to describe. While scholars keep debating of whether virtual communities are communities at all or commensurable with the communities of physical space (see e.g. Jones 1998) and even though for example genre analysis has it points, I shall speak about virtual communities in this context as I enter into a virtual place of action amongst the group of people that define themselves as a community.

Xena: Warrior Palace (XWP) is a community with lots of regular members with wide range of ages, coming Mainly from America, Australia and Europe. The Majority of them is females. The shared interest in XWP is the television show Xena: Warrior Princess which has started a phenomena called The Xenaverse: a uniquely wide intertextual network spreading in the Internet. It consists of commercial and especially fan-made documentary, analytical and fictional web sites, communities and other material relating to TV-show; all linked to each other. The Xenaverse is also a subject of various academic studies. In her doctoral dissertation focusing on rhetoric and communication of The Xenaverse, Christine Boese defines the rhetorical vision [5.] shared (partly subconsciously) by the members The Xenaverse. Her definition, in my opinion, describes well also the dominant nature of XWP. One of The Xenaverse's foundational principles is in its strong feminist sensibilities, more specifically a distinctly lesbian-feminist focus [6.]. Some of the fantasy types she has found relate to a paradox: of community and of independence or transience. These fantasy types support two dominant preeminent rhetorical visions in The Xenaverse at large. They are: (1.) Empowerment of the online culture credited to the democratization claim for Internet-based communication, cultures, and communities. (2.) Personal growth and social empowerment through the association with the show "Xena: Warrior Princess," both inside cyberspace and in real life. Whether true in reality or not, members of The Xenaverse (and in my opinion the users in XWP) do believe in the democracy and political empowerment which is further strengthened by the sense of community. (Boese 1998: z8-z10) Unique in XWP in comparison to other palaces that welcome all age groups is the aspects of sexuality. The population consists of interesting mix of lesbians, bisexual females, and heterosexual males and females. My notion is that generally the tolerance for sexual minorities and coexisting of all sexual identities in XWP is better than in other virtual spaces and in "meat space". Sometimes however has happened that the dominance of lesbian discourse has silenced the others around even to the point that they have left the space.

In wider public forums the XWP-community does not define the sexual diversity as one of its characteristics, instead for example the vide range of ages and multiculturalism are subjects of enthusiasm, because everybody in XWP seem get along with each other despite of these differences. However, the sexual diversity is recognized inside the community and it is kind of the "meter" of democracy: as long as everybody, regardless of gender and sexual preferences get along, the community sees itself as an exceptionally well functioning. A shared divergence of a small community in comparison to society at large probably enforces the sense of community in XWP. It repeatedly manifests itself as a community, and indeed a good, democratic and enjoyable one.

Picture 4. Around Valentine's day regulars got their own hearts at XWP gate. I wonder how those felt, who did not get a heart of their own.

2.1 Death in Virtual Community, Eclipse of Rhetorical Vision

August 2000 xenapalace's mailing list received news that one its regular members had been in a serious accident. The following day became another e-mail to xenapalace-list announcing that she had died [7.]. After that the notorious speed of online communication proved to be an understatement. Within few hours the XWP's town was filling with flower-props, a web site was made to pay respects and share thoughts. Someone in community's mailing list started a chain letter to honor deceased's memory. Many signed it using both their avatar names and real names – reducing the level of anonymity, which is typically attached to virtual communication. Next thing made, since technically props can not be floating freely just anywhere around The Palace for too long, was a room where people could leave props in her memory. The room was filling with flowers, teddy bears, hearts and other affectionate pictures closing to the technical limit so fast that the old props were captured to the background image to get new props in.

Picture 5. Xenapalace community comes together to Memorial service to pay respects to one of its members.

23 people came to the memorial service, which was arranged four weeks after her death. Some of them did not know her at all or had just briefly talked to her once or twice. In the beginning it was stated out that the log-file of the service and screen shots would be sent to the family. Some of the participants had written beforehand what they were going to say and then copy/pasted it for others. Anybody that ever had talked to deceased had only positive things to say about her and the rest of the participants wished they had known her better. During the service a theme about virtual communities and virtual friendships rose in the discussion with comments like: "to tell you guys the truth virtual friendships have always had a higher meaning to me over real life ones", "all my friends are virtual", and "this has been a really nice experience to see how people from all over the world come together to help one another". The memorial service provoked a very strong sense of community and sharing. People used this tragedy to strengthen the sense of togetherness. During the service some also talked openly about their own tragic experiences.

Considering the rhetorical vision that this cultural context has created for itself, it was fascinating to witness the transient change in the discourse after the death of its member occurred. The deceased was a middle-aged woman, married with children and she had a lesbian lover whom she met frequently both in "meatspace" and in XWP. Not everybody in the community knew about her family but they knew about her girlfriend, since these two were always together in XWP. In a way, they were living "the narrative of a lesbian couple" and recognized as such. After she died her family gained the starring role as the ones who survived. They got the condolences and their future, not the girlfriend's, was the subject of concern. Her role (defined by herself too) as a girlfriend was transformed to a soul mate, which within The Xenaverse-discourse to most of its members refers to a non-sexual friendship. XWP temporarily lost its "rhetorical vision".

It seems that the openness and ideology of the community reaches only so far. At some point the real life practices do step in. What amazes me is that even though this community was distinctly lesbian friendly it failed to recognize the sexual minorities within as it had to accommodate to the "real life" that drastically reminded of its existence. Society's traditions relating to death and the subjects this tradition produces replaced the community's own culture and vision. Reasons for this remain unsolved. Perhaps the community's behavior reflects some larger tendency in society, or maybe it was just a sum of few coincidences; perhaps someone who did not know the deceased well assumed the "normal family scene" in her life and when communicating through this assumption caused others to follow. And maybe something in the interface furthered to enforce these meanings. What then in the idealistic case should have happened? Only thing sure is that the community needed to deal with the tragedy somehow but it temporarily lost its own culture in the process. Suddenly everyone got cropped back to historically constituted dominant gender roles: mothers, wives, platonic friends.

In some ways this death incident in virtual community resembles the famous and thoroughly analyzed case of "Virtual Rape". Something unexpected causes a breakdown in the discursive order and forces the members of the community to (re)construct existing socio-cultural practices and constructions in the context of CMC. "Virtual Rape" made it possible to revise the social construction of rape (MacKinnon 1997). The death I described above made visible the weaknesses in the on-line cultural construction of this particular community: after this unexpected occurrence it was not able to maintain its own vision. Whether it is called "rhetorical vision", "consensual hallucination" or "virtual reality", the shared practices and common beliefs of on-line community are something that its inhabitants can selectively signify and ascribe (MacKinnon 1997).

During valentine's day she got a heart of her own, six months after her death.

Nowadays death is not just a biological inevitability. It is a cultural fact. How much of the "personal" remains in the death experience when dying is subordinated to the networks of technical, medical and pharmacological practices? Death is socialized. (Melucci 1996: 80) Recent celebrity deaths, violent acts and tragic accidents, hyped by media, have gathered the people together. The scenes of accidents or places symbolizing the deceased get filled with flowers and candles, people gather together to mourn and to share their grief with others. And these acts are taken in practice in digital environments with increasing speed. . Is it about collective grieving? Or is it, not so much about grieving but collective sharing? Some of the participants of the 'virtual memorial service' did not know the deceased. Were they there to share the emotion of the community or express empathy? Or were they there as spectators, or as voyeurs even?

2.2 Cheating Online, Moral Order Constituted

Fresh gossip from horse's mouth:

I did not turn my TV on at the time of the afternoon soap operas designed to entertain especially the female gender. I opened my mailbox and there was an invitation posted by Maveric to Xenapalace mailing list. He welcomed everybody to attend to his virtual wedding in Xena: Warrior Palace (XWP). There is nothing out of the ordinary in that – virtual weddings happen all the time. The surprise was the name of the fiancée. It was not CutiePie who was, as everybody in the community well knew, his girlfriend online. The bride was LadyHelen, another "palacer", less known at least to the people from radically different time zones. What a fascinating surprise this was for a researcher that likes to dissect the little oddities of cyberspace and what a shock it was for an individual who believes that if a couple agrees not to cheat each other, they must not cheat each other. And how familiar this was compared to any daytime drama that has ever been aired in television.

Two sides of the story fly around wild, of course – Maveric's version of it and CutiePie's. LadyHelen is just the paramour with no important role; she is a minor contributor in this drama. Maveric claims that CutiePie knew about his intentions before it was publicized in the mailing list for approximately 200 members of XWP-community. CutiePie says that it was a complete surprise to her. Public opinion seems to be that Maveric is a lying, cheating s.o.b. and poor CutiePie is an innocent victim. When Maveric came online with LadyHelen, others moved to another room and when they followed, others moved away again. Maveric is now facing a silent resistance; others are rejecting him from the community, closing him outside. Many have decided that they will not attend the wedding ceremony.

With the support of the similar conclusions that I made analyzing the consequences of the death of a community member (chapter 2.1), I would argue that the social construction of relationships and cheating is just the same in virtual reality as it is in society at large. Same moral rules regarding monogamy and honesty seem to apply in XWP and the same empathy for the deserted/cheated woman. Virtual romances can be as meaningful and important as the "real" ones. The difference in these two cases is that the (married) dead woman and her girlfriend were never targets of moral outrage before her death. Her married life getting the main stage after her death was, as I see it, more of a fortuitous occurrence than anything explicitly stated. Point of view of the XWP community is a feminist one and from the position of a female gender (as a culturally constructed set of assumptions of what is feminine, regardless of the biological gender). Robyn Warhol, drawing on Teresa de Laurentis' concept of "technologies of gender", argues that soap operas are a gendered genre: they are produced for feminine audience. Furthermore she writes: "Soap opera texts continue to perpetuate such myths of the dominant culture as the primacy of the heterosexual marriage, the irrevocability of blood-ties between mothers and children, and the priority of white upper-middle-class Americans' daily concerns over those of other racial and socioeconomic groups." (Warhol 1998: 10)

What is different in here in comparison to those infamous soap operas? Answer is simple. You can participate. You get to be one of the actors. You can choose your role or you are forced to take one, you may take a side in either one of the camps or try to remain neutral. Casting includes at least the confidant, emphatic friend, gossipmonger, middleman, moral matriarch, double-dealer and ignorant bystanders. And it is all happening real-time. Conventions of the soap genre are very familiar to many and viewers with the literacy to read these conventions can easily fill the gaps that occur when they miss some episodes (Warhol 1998: 13). I would argue that to some extent the people in XWP use their literacy of soap genre to understand the whole narrative in Maveric and CutiePie -drama from the pieces they have gathered. And they use these conventions to act in the cyberspace as characters act in soaps.

Then again, you may not always get to participate as you want. Not even in the role of spectator. When CutiePie came online the first time after the arrival of Maveric's wedding invitation she went to a lockable room to talk privately with one of her close friends. But others were like vultures on carcass. They were pleading for her to let them in and as she opened the lock briefly all the fast ones rushed in. Eventually there were seven people in the locked room discussing with the "leading lady". I was left outside with couples of others that were not fast enough to attack on CutiePie when the chance was there. Lockable rooms are often a subject of little bit of controversy. Normally it is a pair that wants to have a little bit of privacy to share some cybersex or confidential information and it does not bother anyone. But sometimes it is not about people locking themselves in the room but locking others outside. CutiePie's arrival in XWP was an anxiously waited episode after the cliffhanger of Maveric's wedding news and only a privileged party of few got to see it. Inclusion and exclusion does not happen just between community and outer world but also inside of the community. But as in any soap, things are discussed and discussed again, sometimes behind closed doors and sometimes with anyone who happens to be there.

What happens next? Will Maveric and LadyHelen have their wedding after this stormy reaction? Who will attend their wedding and who will have guts to perform the ceremony? What will CutiePie do now? Will Maveric be expelled from the community for good? I will stay tuned as the drama continues to unfold in Xena: Warrior Palace whenever I choose to log in.

3. The Importance of LOL

This is my thesis: People go to cyberspace to get entertained. Either somebody provides them entertainment or they entertain themselves.

Imagine that you arrive in a room with a handful of people in it. Most of them are picking on one member of the group, calling him names, asking rude questions from him and laughing at him. And the poor fellow takes it all and laughs with them. His face has this stupid grin on all the time. And he just laughs with the ones that laugh at him. There is something weird in a social dynamics and certainly something weird with the one that is getting all the insults. You probably think that you would start defending the victim or attack the bullies or perhaps you would try take the topic of discussion elsewhere. Still, in a virtual world, you would eventually start laughing at/with him too. Even without knowing that others are picking on a chatterbot.

Often a bot becomes a shared toy for a group to play with. They try to reveal it's weaknesses, comment its behavior or alleged personality much more graphic and defamatory way than they would treat any human in virtual reality. In his famous experiment in the 1960's Stanley Milgram tested the subject's moral standards against demands of authority. Test persons thought that the aim of the experiment was to study the role of punishment in learning and were asked to give electric shocks to person for each wrong answer. And under the pressure of authority they did, even though the voltages kept going up. The finding of this study was that it seems we all have the ability to do quite appalling things when right authority tells us what to do. Another study by Solom Asche demonstrated that people could easily be made to follow others despite of overwhelming evidence that what they were doing or saying were wrong. In his experiment the subject asked to give correct answer to a simple question usually chose to pick up clearly wrong choice after significant amount of the group had taken it before him. (Baxter) These two studies demonstrate the power of group influence and authority. In avatar worlds a group can take the position of the authority. In Milgram's and Aschey's tests people found some way to rationalize their behavior to themselves. The same thing happens in chat rooms. Because of the "low resolution" of information one can explain the character of abused member in a way that justifies the laughing at him. People "go with the flow" as much in virtual reality as they do in the 'real life', maybe even more.

Picture 6. Korn dolls galore

Many of the Palace communities organize all sorts of events and games to attract users. There are special events for holidays like Christmas, valentine's day and St. Patrick's day. Some Palaces organize events like avatar contests, word association games, quiz shows and costume parties etc. Funniest games however happen spontaneously: out of some minor joke or event people get carried away and start to fool about and play, creating games drama and entertainment for themselves. For instance, once in Palace everybody got suddenly enthusiastic about "Korn doll" avatars (Picture 6.). Each made his/her own animated avatar with slight modifications. Newcomers arriving at the gate got their own images and joined in the play. Wearing of similar avatars creates the sense of togetherness or a gang. Small differences in the details of each avatar then again allow each to have a personal unity in the dialogue with others. Alberto Melucci calls for a new analytical frame where identity should be conceived as relational field comprising both freedoms and constraints: "In the contemporary systems, the site where the meaning of action is constructed shifts to he individual, who thus becomes a social actor in the true sense of the word" (Melucci 1996: 47). When users struggle to produce their identity in cyberspace, one thing essential is a difference to others. Without it a meaning could not exist (Hall 1997: 235). Identity needs intersubjective recognition: our personal unity, which is produced and maintained by self-identification, rests on our membership in a group and on our ability to locate ourselves within a system of relations (Melucci 1996: 29). Identity is established as a member of a community (Donath 1997).

I allege that in multi-user chatting situations a bot would get passed as a human for a long time even if he were programmed only with one keyword. That word would be LOL (Laugh Out Loud) and the bot would respond by laughing too. One effect of a bot with simple reaction to keywords is that if there is five persons in a room and they all laugh at the same time, the bot laughs five times. That makes him a pretty cheerful chap. If chatterbot laughs with others it generates the impression of one actively following the discussion and sharing the space. It is enough to create the illusion of presence because LOL and its variations are horribly over-used. Everybody laugh a lot in avatar worlds. At least the avatars do. Whether the one behind the computer actually laughs out loud or not seems irrelevant to me. The point is that virtual community shares something and expresses it by laughing. In cyberspace it is a very important element of communication. It is a reaction that in a lack of bodytalk communicates not only just laughter but also a much larger scale of emotions. Laughter is also an indicator of presence. I would even claim that "LOL" is a desperate attempt to bring the body into the cyberspace.

A perfectly good manual for making bots was made more than 200 years ago. Henri Bergson's classic research about the meaning of comedy, written in 1889, is fascinating reading when his theories are compared with chatterbots (as I have presented them in this paper). One of his notions is that humans, when they are seen as automatic and inflexible, make us laugh. We laugh when life makes us appear as mechanical. We laugh at jack-in-the-box that keeps bouncing off from his box when we press him down and let go. Comic dialogue is sometimes similar: character keeps repeating compulsively same lines, no matter what happens. That too makes us laugh. Like do the marionette-like characters that have an illusion of freedom even though somebody else keeps pulling the strings. Comic art is a game that imitates life. (Bergson 2000)

I do welcome all kinds of chatterbots but it seems that the technology at the moment supports comic bots. A tragic character would easily turn into tragicomic in cyberspace. The interface enforces caricatures with some obvious elements of personality (and socio-cultural clichés) rather than complex characters with numerous nuances in its expressive repertoire. Bots are puppets with strings, and they keep bouncing as we command them. And they get us to do and say things that we would not otherwise do in cyberspace. While chatterbots still lack a lot of the conversational skill humans have, the interface balances the scale a little bit. As long as humans in cyberspace keep misinterpreting and misunderstanding each other more than in meatspace, the grand misinterprets – chatterbots, won't have too big difficulties to be a part of virtual communities. Rather, they will be able to provide entertainment, information and services, and indeed, create a sense of togetherness amongst the users of the interactive media.


[1.] The Palace (Copyrighted Communities.com, 1999) is a visual 2-dimensional communication environment where users are represented with avatars, speech is displayed in cartoon bubbles, use of props and minor animations are possible. Palace universe consists about 1,300 small communities of which many run on individually owned servers. To connect to one of these servers you run a "client" program on your computer and "connect" to the server of your choice (www.palacetools.com). Even though Palace is an old technology and probably slowly dying away (communites.com has stopped developing the interface), it is a fascinating platform for research. Its technical limits and possibilities make easily visible many of the issues that I am analyzing in this paper.

[2.] I am using terminology from the studies of Tamar Liebes and Elihu Katz. They have been researching people from different cultures that watched Dallas TV-show. They noticed two different ways people were reacting to the show and its characters, referential and critical. In referential reading viewers considered characters as real people and compared them to the real people in their environment. In critical readings the show was considered as fictive construction with its own aesthetic laws. Katz and Liebes divided the critical reading to semantic and syntactic readings. In semantic readings the focus was on the themes of the show, didactic goals of the authors, characters were recognized as archetypes and the way the show reflects reality was analyzed. Syntactic readings were connected to the viewers' knowledge of genre's conventions, commercial aspects were recognized as well as the dramatic functions of characters and plot and one's own reactions were analyzed. (Lehtonen 1998: 208-209)

[3.] In his article "The uncanny" Sigmund Freud discusses the feeling of uncanny many people experience: When we proceed to review the things, persons, impressions, events and situations which are able to arouse in us a feeling of the uncanny in a particularly forcible and definite form, the first requirement is obviously to select a suitable example to start. Jentsch has taken as a very good instance 'doubts whether an apparently animate being is really alive; or conversely, whether a lifeless object might not be in fact animate'; and he refers in this connection to the impression made by waxwork figures, ingeniously constructed dolls and automata....Jentsch writes: 'In telling a story, one of the most successful devices for easily creating uncanny effects is to leave the reader in uncertainty whether a particular figure in the story is a human being or an automaton, and to do it in such a way that his attention is not focused directly upon his uncertainty, so that he may not be led to go into the matter and clear it up immediately." That, as we have said, would quickly dissipate the peculiar emotional effect of the thing. (Freud, 1953)

[4.] Howard Rheingold is often mentioned as the originator of the term 'the virtual community' which was the title of his book published 1993. In the introduction of the electronic version of the book Rheingold quotes himself: "When you think of a title for a book, you are forced to think of something short and evocative, like, well, 'The Virtual Community,' even though a more accurate title might be: 'People who use computers to communicate, form friendships that sometimes form the basis of communities, but you have to be careful to not mistake the tool for the task and think that just writing words on a screen is the same thing as real community." (Rheingold 1998)

[5.] Ernest Bormann developed the theory of rhetorical visions to explain how individuals come to be part of a discursively shared community identity. Rhetorical visions explain how a narrative becomes common to a group of people. It is a collectively designed story, which explains reality. Once such a story is developed it enlarges, or is "chained out," to incorporated more people through small group settings and mass communicative events. (Boese 1998: L23). I chose to use the term rhetorical vision in this context because it seems to fit well to virtual communities where almost all communication happens in limited space and mainly through text. Hence the community indeed can be seen as rhetorical one.

[6.] One of the reasons for the popularity of the TV-show amongst lesbians is the alleged subtext of the storyline: Xena and her sidekick Gabrille might share their bedroll barenaked, so to speak. Also the show portraits independent, unbeatable women, and its themes sometimes relate to womanhood from rather feminist point of views.

[7.] Perhaps the numerous stroties of roleplaying environments make it necessary at this point to emphasize that this time it was not a carefully constructed, fantasy like MUD role play persona that kicked the virtual bucket and caused bewilderment amongst other fictional avatar personae: someone in flesh really died, in physical reality. And no one saw this coming.

Bibliography and other sources

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Thomas Erickson, 1997, Social Interaction on the Net: Virtual Community as Participatory Genre. First published in In Proceedings of the Thirtieth Hawaii International Conference on Systems Science. (ed. J. F. Nunamaker, Jr. R. H. Sprague, Jr.) Vol 6, pp. 23-30. IEEE Computer Society Press: Los Alamitos, CA. http://www.pliant.org/personal/Tom_Erickson/VC_as_Genre.html (retrieved Jan 2001)

Sigmund Freud 1953, The Uncanny, The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, ed. & trs. James Strachey, vol. XVII, London: Hogarth

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