Testo tratto dalla rivista:
INTERTEK, vol. 3.3, Winter 1992, Goleta, CA, USA

Di Elizabeth M. Reid


Traditional forms of human interaction have their codes of etiquette. We are all brought up to behave according to the demands of social context. We know, as if instinctively, when it is appropriate to flirt, to be respectful, to be angry, or silent. The information on which we decide which aspects of our systems of social conduct are appropriate to our circumstances are more often physical than verbal. We do not need to be told that we are at a wedding, and should be quiet during the ceremony, in order to enact the code of etiquette that our culture reserves for such occasions. In interacting with other people, we rely on non-verbal information to delineate a context for our own contributions. Smiles, frowns, tones of voice, posture and dress tell us more about the social context within which we are placed than do the statements of the people we socialise with. The words themselves tell only half the story--it is their presentation that completes the picture.

These aspects of human communication are taken for granted by us all--yet technology has the potential to challenge them. Computer-mediated communication subverts many of our assumptions about the practice of communication for it relies only upon words as a channel of meaning.(*1) This inherent limitation to the medium has several consequences. "Computer-mediated communication has at least two interesting characteristics:" writes Sara Kiesler, "(a) a paucity of social context information and (b) few widely shared norms governing its use." (*2) Users of these systems are unable to rely on the conventions of gesture and nuances of tone to provide social feedback. Words, as we use them in speech, fail to express what we really mean once they are deprived of the subtleties of the non-verbal cues that we assume will accompany them. The sense of social context is lost. The standards of behaviour that are normally decided upon by non-verbal cues are not clearly indicated when information is purely textual. Not only are smiles and frowns lost in the translation of synchronous speech to pure text, but factors of environment are unknown to interlocutors. It is not immediately apparent, in computer-mediated communication, what aspects of social etiquette are appropriate.

Given these limitations, how do computer-mediated interlocutors relate to one another? If the problems presented by the medium were insurmountable, then stable systems would not be able to fomm. Yet they havc computer-mediated communities do exist. One such example is that seen on Intemet Relay Chat, the synchronous conferencing facility available on the Intemet computer network.

Intemet Relay Chat--IRC--allows many hundreds of people to communicate simultaneously. Users issue cornmands to the IRC program to create 'channels', virtual spaces within which to talk. IRC supports an unlimited number of channels, which are known by any name which users care to create them under. Not all users have access to the same set of commands--there are degrees of privilege. The creator of a channel--the 'channel operator,' or 'chanop'--has the power to control access to that channel, and can 'kick' unwanted people off it. IRC operators--'opers'--maintain the IRC network connections and are able to control access to the entire system and may 'kill' unwanted users.

Kiesler, Siegel and McGuire have described computer-mediated communication as having four distinct features: an absence of regulating feedback, dramaturgical weakness, few social status cues, and social anonymity. IRC is subject to all these forces--yet a coherent system has managed to evolve over the years. Conventional systems for regulating interaction may fall apart when communication is computer-mediated, yet IRC has been in existence for several years, and is (barring technical mishaps) in continuous use. My interest is to describe how this social system works. How do users react to the ways in which computer-mediated communication deconstructs the conventional boundaries defining social interaction? What altemative methods are developed to sustain understanding? How does the electropolis of IRC function as a community?


Users of Intemet Relay Chat are not generally known by their 'real' names. The convention of IRC is to choose a nickname under which to interact. The nicknames--or 'nicks' as they are referred to--chosen by IRC users range from conventional first names such as 'Peggy' and 'Matthew,' to inventive and evocative pseudonyms such as 'Wintrwolf', 'Pplater', 'LuxYacht', and'WildWoman.' These names can be changed at will--there is nothing that one IRC user can ascertain about another--beyond the fact that they have access to the Intemet--that is not manipulable by that user.

Our efforts at self-presentation usually assume that we cannot change the basics of our appearance. Physical characteristics, although open to cosmetic or fashionable manipulation, are fundamentally unalterable. What we look like, we have to live with. This is, however, not the case on IRC. How an IRC user 'looks' to another user is entirely dependent upon the infommation they choose to give. It becomes possible to play with identity. The boundaries delineated by cultural constructs of beauty, ugliness, fashionableness or unfashionableness, can be bypassed on IRC. It is possible to appear to be, quite literally, whoever you wish.

The anonymity of interaction in IRC allows users to play games with their identities. The chance to escape the assumed boundaries of gender, race, and age creates a game of interaction in which there are few rules but those that the users aeate themselves. IRC offers a chance to escape the languages of culture and body.

The changes that a user might make to his or her perceived identity can be small, a matter of realising in others' minds a desire to be younger or more attractive. However, the anonymity of IRC can provide more than a means to 'fix' minor problems of appearance--one of the most fascinating aspects of this computer-mediated fluidity of cultural boundaries is the possibility of gender switching. While superficial characteristics such as hair colour are relatively easily changed in 'real life,' gender reassignment is a far more involved process. IRC destroys the usually all but insurmountable confines of sex: changing gender is as simple as changing one's nick- name to something that suggests the opposite of one's actual gender. It is possible for IRC to become the arena for experimentation with gender-specific social roles:

<Upchuck> Umm, I've gender switched once or twice for about 2
hours or so... <Marion> how did you find being perceived as female?
<Upchuck> I did find it mildly irritating that I should get so much
attention and be immediately fixated as a sex object simply by
pretending to be female. (*3)

The potential for such experimentation govems the expectations of many users of IRC. Gender is one of the more 'sacred' institutions in our society, a quality whose fixity is so assumed that enacted or surgical reassignment has and does involve complex rituals, taboos, procedures, and stigmas--but this fixity becomes problematic on IRC. The atdtudes taken by individual users of IRC differ as regards the possibility for gender concealment. Some view it as 'part of the game,' others are hostile toward users who gender switch:

<SmilyFace> saro: so????????
<Karen> yes saro I heard you
<FuzzyB> Takes a relaxed place beside Karen offering her her
favourite drink.

Whatever may be the attitude of individual users of the IRC program to such examples of gender experimentation, the crucial point is that it is a possibility inherent to IRC. Exploitation of this potential is an accepted part of the 'virtual reality'--a popular catch-phrase amongst users of the Intemet--of IRC. It becomes possible to play with aspects of behaviour and identity that are not nommally open to alteration. IRC enables people to deconstruct aspects of their own identity, and to challenge and obscure the boundaries between some of our most deeply felt cultural significances. IRC users show a willingness to accept this phenomenon and to join in the games that can be played within it.


Researchers of human behaviour on computer-mediated communication (CMC) systems have often noted that users of such systems tend to behave in a more uninhibited manner than they would in face-to-face encounters. Sproull and Kiesler state that computer-mediated behaviour "is relatively uninhibited and nonconforming." (*4) Rice and Love suggest that "disinhibition" may occur "because ofthe lack of social control thatnonverbal cues provide." (*5)

Intemet Relay Chat reflects this observation. Protected by the anonymity of the computer medium, and with few social context cues to indicate the 'proper' ways to behave, users are able to express and experiment with aspects of their personality that social inhibition would generally force them to suppress:

*bob* by nature I'm shy..
*bob* normally wouldn't talk about such thingsw if you met me face
to face
*bob* thus the network is good..

Users of IRC often form strong friendships. Without social context cues to inhibit people--to encourage shyness-- computer-mediated interlocutors will often 'open up' to each other to a great degree. Hiltz and Turoff have noted that some users of CMC systems "come to feel that their very best and closest friends are members of their electronic group, whom they seldom or never see." (*6) 'Net.romances,' long distance romantic relationships carried out over IRC, can result from the increased tendency for participants in CMC systems to be uninhibited: (*7)

<Lori> The more we talked, the more we discovered we had in
<Lori> I told him that I was starting to get a crush on him..
<Lori> Anyway, it's grown and grown over the months.
<Daniel> A few mishaps, but weve overcome them, to bounce back
stronger than ever.
<Lori> And we'll be getting together for 3 weeks at the end of
November, to see if we're as wonderful as we think we are. (*8)

Such expressions of feeling are not in any way thought to be shallow or ephemeral. Far from being unsatisfactory for "more interpersonally involving communication tasks, such as getting to know someone," as Hiemstra describes researchers of CMC as having characterised the medium, IRC has in this instance fostered an extremely emotional bond between two people. (*9) Users of IRC are able to dispense with the conventional boundaries surrounding communication, and cross-cultural exchange, to form deep friendships, even love affairs, with people whom they have never met.

Net.romances display computer-mediated relationships at their most idyllic. However, disinhibition and increased freedom from social norms have another side. Along with increased broad-mindedness and intimacy among some users goes increased hostility on the part of others. 'Flaming,' the expression of anger, insults and hatred, is a common phenomenon. Anonymity makes the possibility of punishment for transgression of cultural mores appear to be limited. Protected by terminals and separated by distance, the sanction of physical violence is irrelevant, although, as I shall discuss later, social sanctions are present and often in a verbal form that apes physical violence. The safety of anonymous expression of hostilities and obscenities that would otherwise incur social sanctions encourages some people to use IRC as a forum for airing their resentment of individuals or groups in a blatantly uninhibited manner:

!Venice! Bashers have taken over +gblf... we could use some help...
!radv*! Comment: -Gay Bashe:+gblf- FUCK ALL OF BUTT FUCKING,

Not all uninhibited behaviour on IRC is either so negative or so positive. Much of the opportunity for uninhibited behaviour is invested by users of IRC in sexual experimentation. The usually culturally enforced boundaries between sexual and platonic relationships are obscured in computer-mediated circumstances. Norms of etiquette are challenged by the lack of social context cues, and the safety given by anonymity and distance allow users to ignore otherwise strict codes regarding sexual behaviour. Conversations on IRC can be sexually explicit, in blatant disregard of social nomms regarding the propositioning of strangers:

*Han* does this compu-sex stuff really happen?
Lola-> *Han* *smooch*
*Han* ...are oyu horny today at all ; )?
Lola-> *Han* today? it's the middle of the night where I am..
as for the adjective, well, do what you can ;-)
*Han* mmmmmm ..when did you last get off?

Such behaviour is often referred to as 'net.sleazing.' Sexual experimentation is a popular Intemet game, perhaps because the Intemet primarily serves educational institutions and thus students who are generally in their late teens or early twenties. Adolescents, coming to temls with their sexuality in the 'real world,' find that the freedom of 'virtual reality' allows them to safely engage in sexual experimentation. Ranging from the afore- mentioned gender-role switching to flirtation and 'compusex,' IRC provides a medium for the safe expression of a "steady barrage of typed testosterone." (*ll)

Disinhibition and the lack of sanctions encouraging self-regulation lead to extremes of behaviour on IRC. Users express hate, love, intimacy and anger, employing the freedom of the electronic medium to air views and engage in relationships that would in other circumstances be deemed unacceptable. This 'freedom' does not imply that IRC is an idyllic environment. Play with social conventions can indeed lead to greater positive affect between people, as it has between 'Daniel' and 'Lori', and to greater personal fulfillment for some users. It can, however, also create a violent chaos in which people feel 'free' to act upon prejudices, even hatreds, that might otherwise be socially controlled.


"Culture can be understood as a set of solutions devised by a group of people to meet specific problems posed by situations they face in common.'' (*12) In this sense the users of IRC constitute a culture, a community. The measures which users of the system have devised to meet their common problems, posed by the medium's lack of regulating feedback and social context cues, its dramaturgical weakness, and the factor of anonymity, are the markers of their community, their common culture.

Textual substitution of traditionally non-verbal information is a highly stylized, even artistic, procedure that is central to the construction of an IRC community. Common practice is to simply verbalise physical cues, for instance literally typing 'hehehe' when traditional methods of communication would call for laughter. It is a recognised convention to describe physical actions or reactions, usually denoted as such by presentation between two asterisks:

<Wizard> Come, brave Knight! Let me cast a spell of protection on
you...Oooops-wrong spell! You donit mind being green for a while-
do you???
<Prince> Lioness: please don't eat him...
<storm> *shivers from the looks of lioness*
<Knight> Wizard: Not at all.
<Bel letre> *hahahah*
<Lioness> Very well, your excellency. *looks frustrated*
<Prince> *falls down laughing*.
<storm> *walks over to lioness and pats her paw*
<Wizard> *Dispells the spells cast on Knight!*
<Lioness> *licks Storm*
<storm> *Looking up* Thank You for not eating me!

IRC users also have a 'shorthand' for the description of physical condition. They (in common with users of other computer-mediated communication systems such as news and email) have developed a system of presenting textual characters as representations of physical action. Commonly known as 'smileys,' CMC users employ alphanumeric characters and punctuadon symbols to create strings of highly emotively charged keyboard art:

:-) or : ) a smiling face, as viewed side-on
:-( or : ( an 'unsmiley': an unhappy face
:-(*) someone about to throw up
>:-0 someone screaming in fright, their hair standing on end

These 'emoticons,' as they are known on the Intemet, are many and various. Although the most commonly used is the plain smiling face--used to denote pleasure or amusement, or to soften a sarcastic comment--it is common for IRC users to develop their own emoticons, adapdng the symbols available on the standard keyboard to create minute and essentially ephemeral pieces of textual art to represent their own virtual actions and responses. Such inventiveness and lateral thinking demands skill. Successful communication within IRC depends on such conventions as verbalised action and the use of emoticons. Personal success on IRC depends on the user's ability to manipulate these tools. The users who can succinctly and graphically portray themselves to the rest of the IRC usership will be the ones most able to create a community within that virtual system.

Whether users of IRC are involved in an online fantasy role-playing game, or just feeling happy, the concentration of verbalised physical actions and reactions in their exchanges demonstrates the extent to which users of the IRC system feel it important to create a physical context for their peers to interpret their behaviour within. Verbal statements by themselves give little indication of the emotional state of the speaker, and without physical expression to decode the specific context of statements, it is easy to misinterpret their intent:

*Whopper* just kidding..not trying to be offensive
<Fireship-> *Whopper* didn't assume that you were...

In order for IRC users to constitute a community it is necessary for them to contrive a method to circumvent the possibility of loss of intended meaning of statements. Verbalisation of physical condition is that method. With- out some way of compensating for the inherent lack of social context cues in computer-mediated communication, IRC would get no further than the deconstruction of conventional social behaviours. The textual cues utilised on IRC provide the symbols of interpretation--of culture--that are necessary to meet the specific problems posed by CMC. These shared modes of understanding hold IRC users together as members of a community.