Creative Interaction in Cyberspace: the trAce Online Writing Community
for Cybersociology magazine, Issue 4

Sue Thomas
Director, the trAce Online Writing Community

This is the first part of the story of how trAce set out to find, create, beg steal or borrow, a home for our Online Writing Community. It would be nice to say that we calmly conducted a needs analysis of what we wanted and then went shopping for it, but it hasn’t quite been like that. It has been long and complex and largely about not knowing what exists in the first place, let alone what we actually want to have. There's still a long way to go, and it will be an enjoyable task to write a sequel in a year's time to measure our progress. We have used three different media for the interactive part of our work: a mailing list; a MOO, and a community conference. This article outlines some of the challenges we faced and looks at how we approached them.

A Community for Writers
In some respects, the whole notion of creating a community of writers seems to be rather misplaced. After all, most writers are solitary souls. We work alone, imbibing impressions of the world and then reprocessing them into pages of spidery code which a reader knows as letters and words. It's always dangerous to generalise, but it’s fair to say that most writers commit the act of writing in a condition of solitude, often alone in a room, and with only one brain composing the text, only one set of hands on the keyboard or pen and paper. (Indeed, much like the act of web-browsing as it is for many people.) A lot of writers will say that they came to their trade via a preference for the reclusive life so it isn’t surprising that many find the idea of collaboration rather abhorrent. And quite a few are afraid of sharing work and ideas because they worry that others might appropriate them and sell them as their own, so there are practical concerns in operation here too. But not everyone is so apprehensive - some see the opportunities of the net as quite thrilling if a little scary. Put simply, a community of writers can be very different from, say, a community of musicians or actors who may need to collaborate in order to make art. To be blunt, for many writers the notions of community and collaboration goes against the grain.

So why is it that trAce has proved so popular? In the year since opening our doors we have attracted a worldwide membership across over 30 countries. Writers from many nations participated in the Noon Quilt, each contributing a hundred words describing the view from their windows to create this ornate patchwork of noontime impressions from across the globe. Our Day Conference in Nottingham, England, brought together a wide range of writers, arts organisers and journalists from around Britain, and the virtual conference at Communityware, opened in October 1998, has attracted a steady stream of authors and contributors. We expect a similar response when we hold a meeting for North American trAce members in Albany, New York, at the AWP Annual Conference April 1999. All this despite the avowed abhorence of many writers for society and interaction. Could it be that the offer the internet makes of combined intimacy and distance is just what writers enjoy?

TrAce was funded by the Arts Council of England to act as a broker for the literarary community, providing a stimulating milieu for communication, creation and innovation to flourish and grow. We offer a site for residencies and the creation of new work plus an interactive assembly where writers and readers can come together in their own virtual space to discuss, workshop, and debate. ‘Interactive assembly’ has come to mean ‘online community’, and it is that part of our work that I want to outline here. There is also a back-story to this, which is the story of how trAce came about in the first place. That is knitted into my own personal and professional history and is presented as an endnote for those who may be interested.

The Mailing List
In October 1997 we signed up with Mailbase, a list for UK academics and their collaborators. The trAce list was subject to great fluctuations in terms of accesses and content, and to some extent suffered from our lack of experience. There were some exciting moments, and other weeks when there was no activity at all. None of us were experienced list-users and there was no single host. Although technically very reliable, this list has proved unsuitable for our needs. With its single strand, it too often felt like a lot of individuals crushed together in an elevator with no room to breathe, and although the list is still open most people have moved to the new conferencing site, of which more anon.

There have been other problems too. In recent months only a few members have been active and it is fair to say that the list is in serious decline. We have learned a lot from this experience, and not least the havoc that a single member can cause. There is no room here to go into this but interested readers might like to look at the list archives to see for themselves how it happened. (There has been speculation that this situation might be even worse, and that we might be suffering from the plague of a single individual taking on a number of personas and then arguing with themselves! Whilst this might be humorous, it has been the kiss of death to this list.) As I write it is the last week of December and I am in the throes of reluctantly making the decision to close it, at least for the time being.

The MOO
When I wrote the application for funding in early 1997, I envisaged that our synchronous online communications would happen in a MOO, and looked around for the most appropriate place. LambdaMOO, although elaborate and fascinating, is not the best location for newbies to begin. The geography is mystifying and the populace don’t always receive new people kindly. We needed somewhere with a stated interest in helping beginners and which had very little lag (another major problem at Lambda). After some research, LinguaMOO at the University of Texas at Dallas seemed to offer most of what we needed, and so we created a meeting room there. In the Spring of 1998 I worked with students at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth to establish an online working environment and we conducted a number of test meetings inside the MOO. Now all we had to to do was bring people in.

This has proved much more difficult to do than we expected. It’s one thing to teach a class of university students how to use a MOO, and it’s quite another to expect individual writers in scattered locations to apply themselves to the study of programming in order to be able to get onto a MOO, let alone to move around, speak, build and interact. The Lingua administrators Cynthia Haynes and Jan Rune Holmevik have been extremely helpful and efficient but it has been hard to persuade trAce members to come along to online meetings at Lingua. Those who have attended, however, have found the experience very stimulating, and it is always exciting and exhilerating to see new people open up to the potential of the MOO. Text-driven as it is, it offers huge opportunities for writers, and it’s great to see them realise it.

We have held a number of live meetings at LinguaMOO in the summer of 98, and recorded a few of them. Imagining a Stone was held on 29th July 1998 as part of the Lecture Series Ensemble Logic & Choragraphy curated by Teri Hoskin of Adelaide, Australia. This meeting involved a tour of a series of virtual rooms created by myself and including several responses to works by the artist Andy Goldsworthy. It was attended by writers in Australia, the USA, England and Norway. Another meeting, Sharing a Common Language was hosted by the Globewide Network Academy on 15th September 1998 when a multi-national group discussed the implications of creating an international cybercommunity of writers and readers based around the 'English' language.

The trAce Meeting Room at Lingua (telnet: lingua.utdallas.edu 8888 then @go trace) provides a wonderful meeting environment, especially when supplemented with The Learning Hall, a more controlled room built by Tara Davis. Robert Epstein has written a good help file to advise beginners on installing a telnet client and various trAce members have built rooms there. But we still have a long way to go, and we hope that the new enCore Xpress client will make access easier for new users. The MOO is not easy to use but it greatly repays time spent learning its complexities.

Conferencing: So many options
In May 1998 I attended the Harvard Conference on Internet & Society. It was a very useful and informative event, but for me the most fascinating part was the conference website! They had a community website for conference attendees and those who could not make it to the event but wanted to be involved. I’d never seen anything like it before – it gave me my own office and kept files for me about my interactions there – who I had got to know and the mailing lists I subscribed to, as well as allowing me to create a file on myself that other people could look at. There was a real sense of community and of belonging to the discussions. Of course, thousands of people will now write to me and tell me that this has been available for years but I had seen nothing like it.

However, needless to say, it was so complex that most of the time it didn’t work! Although it looked just great, it constantly crashed, forgot what it had been told a million times, and scrambled everyone’s data. A brave attempt to play ‘the Lunch Table game’ which consisted of using attendees’ stated interests and preferences to match them up at lunch during the fleshmeet itself collapsed into chaos when the system kept forgetting who we all were. (In the end, my luncheon companions were very interesting, but bore no relation at all to the people promised by the software!)

But it was too late. I had been bitten. I had seen the future and I wanted it for trAce. I emailed Simon Mills, the trAce designer, and asked him to check out the site. By then it was degrading fast and he never managed to get on to it for more than a few minutes but he too was entranced by what he glimpsed through the veil. And so in June 1998 we began the search for Shangri-La.

I had started the project with a vision of a MOO-based community, but now it looked as if a new kind of structure was possible – one where a member could establish their own identity with a webpage and a set of preferences; one which integrated chat with conferencing, one which would have the overall atmosphere of an artistic community with workshops and events and a system of news. In short, many of the features of a MOO but more besides, and in a user-friendly environment.

I began by emailing the site designer to see if there were any more stable versions available, but never received a reply. (The site itself is long gone and cannot be found on the conference webpage.) During the summer we looked at a number of different softwares and sites. We learned that we had two choices - either to go for a software which we could run on the NT server which hosts our website, or to take up residency on someone else's server and use their host software. In terms of systems based on our own server, the two main ones we looked at were Comentor and Webboard. Comentor, designed at the University of Huddersfield, interested us for a while but it was designed more for an academic environment and was still at too early a stage of development to fulfill our requirements. O'Reilly's WebBoard looked more promising but we were not sure whether it would be sensible to take on a service which would require a considerable amount of nursing. We had begun to realise that an online community requires a lot of backup - both in technical terms and in terms of hosting. Eventually we found Durand's Communityware, which offered an interesting alternative and what's more it was free!

Visiting the Communityware site was rather like stepping onto an inhabited island where one knew nothing of its inhabitants and their history, and it took me a while to work out what had happened there. It seems that it had originally hosted Howard Rheingold's Electric Minds community but that things had gone wrong and some time in early 1998 Howard had resigned from his position as Electric Minds host. By the time we came along in August there were only a few brave souls keeping it going. But we were very impressed by their intense commitment to the site and their cheerful willingness to help us. However there was a serious problem we weren't sure if we could get around, and that was the fact that all of the interactivity took place online. For UK and European users this presented a massive problem, since they have to pay so much in terms for their telephone service. In the US and Canada local calls are generally free, and in Australia they are free or very cheap, but Europeans are at a constant disadvantage. It's not easy to relax to chat and learn when your surfing is costing you 15c a minute at peak rate. (This applies equally to MOOing of course, which can only be done live and in realtime.) But Durand were working on a new release of the software and assured us that offline mailing would be available very soon, so after a great deal of thought we decided to go ahead and commit ourselves to working with them. We felt that their helpful approach and their clear desire to make the thing work would see us through in the end.

We opened our doors at Communityware on 1st October 1998 and since then have acquired new members at a steady rate. The new 5.0 release of Communityware is now out and looking good, if still a little buggy and we now have forums for the exchange and discussion of writing, users' own webpages, and five specialised conferences:

Centre Introduce yourself. Ask for help. Speak out. Share your news, problems, opinions, rants and advice. This is the place to talk about writing/reading and artistry and looking and finding and also getting lost. Or just lurk. It's up to you.
Writers and Society This conference seeks to explore issues around writing and social responsibility. It offers a safe, respectful atmosphere where writers can explore their own relationships to society as well as those of other authors.
Reading Matters If you are a reader, a writer who reads others, a writer who is interested in readers' tastes, a bookseller, publisher or librarian...this may be the place for you. The act of reading is the focus - come and join us!
Writing and Children Topics for writers, teachers, librarians & parents to discuss will include writing FOR and WITH kids & supporting kids' own writing, including Internet markets for children's writing & resources for teaching writing in schools.
Writing Workshop A chance to get feedback on your writing and provide it for other people. This conference is unmoderated and the rules are set by those who work here.


Plus Live Chat meetings twice a week on Sundays from 9-10pm GMT and Wednesdays 2-3pm GMT.

It is of course early days yet, and as I write this section of our site has only been open for three full months, several weeks of which were taken up with downtime when the site was being upgraded. But the level of interaction is steadily growing and we are about to appoint a Virtual Writer-in-Residence to work inside the site, which will bring in even more people on a regular basis.

This is not the community I envisaged when I wrote my grant application - simply because I did not know then that it could exist. But it does exist, and it is fast becoming a place where writers around the world can meet and talk and work both asynchronously and in real time. Communityware does not replace the MOO, but it offers a parallel interaction. Together, they are offering a truly interactive assembly in every sense of the word.

So please check out our homepage at http://trace.ntu.ac.uk and find out more about our community at http://trace.ntu.ac.uk/community/community.htm

Sue Thomas, January 1999


Endnote
TrAce was born from my own personal and professional exploration of the internet, and it is still intimately fed by my creative ideas as well as those of others who have joined us. I am a novelist. My first book, Correspondence, was an exploration of machine consciousness and an attempt to examine the similarities between human and machine 'thought' processes. While I was writing it I had nobody at all to discuss it with since all my writer friends at that time thought I was mad for even being interested in such a bizarre topic and they could not understand what I was trying to do. In other words, my social community failed me, and my intellectual community was derived simply from reading other people's books. And that's fine - that's how most of us work, and I accepted it with no problem at all. Then in 1995 I happened to go to the Virtual Futures Conference at the University of Warwick, England. I had just got online at work and was curious to know how the internet might feed into my existing obsession with computers. It was this trip which was to transform my intellectual life because it was there that I found my community, a group of like-minded people with the same interests, people who did not think I was crazy. For the first time I came across the Australian artist Stelarc, who without knowing it had been in part living the fantasy of Correspondence for most of his performing life. I sat in a darkened cinema and drowned in the delicious noise and smoke of a movie about the US-based Survival Research Laboratories and their insane fighting robots, and I heard the French artist Orlan describe the many plastic surgeries she had undergone in her attempt to use the body as art. But most significantly of all, I went to a workshop by Australian cyberfeminist Francesca da Rimini where she inducted us into the mysteries of LambdaMOO. It would turn out to be my first, and most influential, virtual community.

[Since then I have produced Becoming Virtual, a guide to MOOing which is still accessed regularly by people all over the world keen to know what MOOing is and how to do it. (NB if the link to LambdaMOO does not work, you need to install a telnet client. In the meantime look here for background information.)]

This is all very personal data but I include it because it is relevant to the discussion of community. It is how I found the beginnings of my own intellectual fellowship. As it happens they were in one physical place at one time but they also represented a larger creative group spread around the world and sustained by electronic connections. Some used email, some used BBS's, some used MOOs - but together they shared a set of concerns and preoccupations and a medium with which to develop them. Some of them will not know who I am – I only listened and did not introduce myself. Others have become friends and colleagues.

In the months which followed the Warwick conference I talked with Francesca da Rimini - aka Gashgirl - about performance in text-based virtual spaces. I had started to write a novel about this strange ambiguous existence and was hungry for information. I needed to know what was possible and I needed the programming skills to make my ideas a reality. As I floundered around in MOOspace I was helped by Francesca as well as by other friends whose real names and identities I did not know and who did not know mine. I learned to connect with people on quite a different level; I learned about the intensity of virtual life; I learned about the potential for misunderstanding, and I learned what it’s like to live inside a huge and largely uncontrolled social experiment. I took part in online interactive performances and kept extensive logs of life at LambdaMOO with the intention of using them in my fiction.

But a strange thing started to happen. At first the notion of logging all this talk and behaviour seemed a writer's godsend - masses of authentic human interaction and all for free. But it began to dawn on me that I actually did not want to use this rich material. I had grown to feel an affinity with this motley group of pretenders and to use their lives as fodder for fiction seemed a huge betrayal. As it happens this went alongside a discussion which was very lively at Lambda at that time after a visit by a journalist to the Living Room for the sole purpose of recording conversations. This material was later published in an American magazine, much to the fury of Lambda residents at this invasion of their privacy. So the debate over privacy began as I was starting to write my novel and soon I was engaged in it and, of course, voting for some kind of protection.

So it was that I fell into a community by accident rather than design; learned how to live in it, and finally became very much part of it. At trAce, however, we are doing it the other way around. Whereas at LambdaMOO individuals develop a sense of community because they are have the MOO in common, trAce has brought together people who already have a shared interest – the writing and reading of literature – and has built a home for them to occupy. And already trAce members are having to confront the problems and issues of building online community. Nobody ever said it would be easy!