Cybersociology Magazine: Issue Five

The Borg: A critique

by David Gordon










Introduction and Apologia:

I feel it is almost incumbent upon me to apologise for this paper in advance. To maintain interest and suspense I shall not disclose my findings at this time. I will reveal, however, that I suspect almost every reader will think to his or her self, my conclusion is obvious and common sense. In defence, it is my opinion that common sense adds to the validity of my argument. I also believe that the social sciences and common-sense are not mutually exclusive.

This paper examines, in part, the social phenomenon of sex-misrepresentation within Internet communities. This phenomenon is often incorrectly referred to as 'gender switching' by other researchers. My main research is focused on answering the question: 'Why do people find "gender switching" as unacceptable behaviour?' I answer this question by examining previous research findings and comparing these findings with anthropological theory and my own research.

The paper is structured so: Chapter one is an account that discloses the background history of the Internet. It also introduces the concept of two ethnic online groups. Chapter two and three looks at the mindset of the group of online community members that I have called the centric group and periphery group respectively. From these analyses, I draw my conclusions. My own fieldwork is peppered throughout the two analyses of subsidiary data.

Chapter One.

Late 1969:

A young, college undergraduate, lies back in his room and waits for his allotted computer time to arrive. He is scheduled to start his online adventure at two am. He receives such an unusual time because he does not study computer science and computer resources are very limited. He has plenty of time before he goes online but he lives for the technology, which has grabbed his imagination; the computer bug has bitten him. He has time to wash, shave and eat well; he will do none of these. He washes from absolute necessity and does so infrequently; he only sleeps when he no longer can stay awake; and when he eats, it tends to be fast or 'junk' food and snacks. He is part of a visible group of computer 'geeks'. He is unkempt, unshaven, unwashed, either thin from eating too little or fat from eating too much 'junk' food. He is pale, as he tends to sleep during the day and physically unfit as he concentrates on computing in a sedentary fashion. He has very few friends and no girlfriend; he tends not to socialise at all.

When two am arrives, he sits in the darkened computer laboratory communicating with others incognita. His tired eyes flicker in time with the phosphorescence of the computer screen before him. His arched back leans him over the keyboard where his fingers tap elaborate syncopated rhythms through the ethereal silence. His ghostly visage reflects its veiled existence back from the computer screen into the reality of the MIT computer lab. This screen is, however, also a window and although there is a reflection, there is an equally veiled image that transcends reality and virtuality, the human and the avatar, the body and the soul. What happens beyond the window is known as virtual reality. This is a misnomer, for what happens beyond the window is real, it affects the user directly, physically, emotionally and psychologically.


A young college undergraduate wakes and prepares himself for his hours online, via a computer. It maybe any time day or night, dependent upon his college or university's facilities. Moreover, it is still likely to be out of normal hours, for he does not intend to do normal academic work ­ he is going online to meet and chat with his friends. He, like his twenty-year primogenitor is part of the growing army of geeks. There are some changes to this geek though. He needs not be resident in the USA; he does not necessarily need to be middle-classed ­ though he has a high likelihood of being so. He still has few friends, if any, though he will swear he has many 'real' friends. All other considerations such as being dishevelled, girlfriendless, unfit and unhealthy are still reliably true.

The friends that he speaks of are online comrades with whom he chats with nearly every night. Friends that he emails regularly and even meets in the hyper-reality that he feels most comfortable within, a place he calls home and all others have begun to call the Internet. When he meets his friends online he metamorphosises into his avatar, his non-corporeal being, his ethereal self that is freed of the bodily and environmental constraints, he becomes the very nature of his own imagination. As his fingers dance across the keyboard, he beats life into his non-somatic being and the tens of thousands of other online imaginations breath life into their abstracted biosphere. To the outsider they have created life from no-life; the biopoeisis is Genesis like in nature, but only to the outsider. The biogen for the computer geek is the concrete manifestation of their imaginations; this is when they are truly alive. Offline life is a means to an end, the end being the disassociation of the body, achieving, in sum and substance, a new-age Buddhist Nirvana.


It has only been ten years since the last narrat ion was based and only thirty since the tale of the Internet began. It is this last ten years that has produced the greatest changes for both the corporeal researcher studying the biocoenology online and for the non-corporeal online settler.

The non-corporeal settler could now be almost anyone, anywhere. They may be any colour and any religion. They may be affluent or insolvent, young or elderly, male or female. They may be online for business or pleasure. They may be online for a few minutes a week or practically permanently. They may be discernible computer geeks still, but are just as likely to be one of the 'non-geeky' multitude. This has also produced the most conspicuous papers, arguments, hypotheses and theories of what is happening in the social disassociated-bodily world of the Internet. It is this that I shall be examining through an analysis of the most prominent argument based upon Internet research. It seems that 'gender-switching', more accurately defined as sex-misrepresentation produces anger and resentment in some of the users online as they regard it as deceitful. I shall simplify the theoretical findings of other researchers into a common denominator and show that the complexity that is described by much of the findings is inaccurate. I shall be giving a lucid and veritable explanation to the problems allied with sex-misrepresentation.

The Ethnic make-up of the Internet Described:

As I have insinuated, there are two principal ethnic groups found on the Internet. For me to conclude this I had to realise that the Internet is a community of people in its own right. There is no need to consider the offline ethnicity, to any great degree, of those that comprise the Internet community. When Marshal McLuhan coined the phrase 'Global Village' [McLuhan and Powers: 1992] what he was describing was not so much the world in which all people inhabit, that of the offline world, but that of the online world. In actuality, the global village is an idealised view of the Internet. The Internet exists through modern telecommunications, it is independent economically, socially and politically ­ The very description of the global village. The political and economic aspects are beyond the scope of this paper, but will be mentioned within the focus of social interdependence and the problems associated therein. In particular, I shall address the social problem caused by 'gender switching' .

The Centric Group:

The architects of the Internet comprise the group that I have termed the 'centric group'. This group is and was mainly composed of those that I referred to earlier as the 'geek army'. They are overwhelmingly the underground power-holders, though not exclusively. They have tended to be conservative, focusing there energies on attaining the idealised goal of complete disembodiment and total immersion online; the new-age Nirvana. The members of the centric group are Internet mature [ibid.]. They participate in life online, visibly creating the culture in which they inhabit and in which the non-centric group members have, over the last decade and mainly over the last five years, invaded.

The Internet maturity that I have mentioned is of a nature that indicates a hands-on attitude. The infrastructure of the Internet is built by manual labour and not simply through imaginative discourses within the boardroom. Thus, the underground power that the manual builders hold may appear, to the outsider, as a weak power-base. The argument would run something like this:

Those at the top of the Internet Business hierarchy command those at the bottom to create the Internet model according to the whims of the leaders and thus have no real power.

To the centric group, they know that those at the top are usually Internet immature. They are new to the Internet and see it as only another arena upon which a commercial war is to be waged, and to the victor goes the spoils of capitalism. Those at the top of the command chain are not members of the centric group. A reasonable anthropological analogy would run thus:

The centric group would be called the Shamans or religious section of the society whilst the visible leadership would be what I have termed the periphery group. The periphery calls upon the centric group to provide and advise upon practical solutions concerning the manufacture of the infrastructure of the society in which they live.

The centric group members are in essence the creators of the society. Within the Internet, the periphery group members are in essence reaping the rewards of what others sow. If the others (the centric group) failed to sow, then the periphery would collapse and have nothing with which they could prop themselves up with ­ in real terms, the periphery group members are vulnerable and weak.

Therefore, the centric group members are, in their own opinion, the rightful defenders of their homeland and home. Upon the ethereal continent, the centric group live. It is where their friends and lovers live. To produce a sense of proportion, as the periphery would take to arms to defend their friends and family offline, so to would the centric group online. This is because, by definition, the centric group members only exist online, and the periphery group members only exist offline.

The Periphery Group:

The periphery group have only appeared in any real numbers in the last few years or so, but have been increasing by an estimated one million people per month [1997 figures]. Due to the massive influx of people onto the Internet and upon the digital land and home of the centric group t he centric group have felt compelled to create a structured system of information exchange between themselves and the periphery group. All the documents of this type come under the all-encompassing title of 'newbie files' , these may be FAQs , help files, rules and/or many other types of document.

New members of the Internet community may be immediate members of the centric group, as the centric group is not based upon experience, but upon ideology. Most periphery members do not have the same ideals and values as the centric group, or indeed knowledge that there is such a group of people online (this is gained from experience). Some newbies think that manufacturing positions of power for themselves will immediately allow them to enter the centric group. These periphery power-makers will eventually learn through experience that this is not the case. The experience that they learn this through, is the same experiential knowledge that will allow them the opportunity to adopt the ideals of the centric group and therefore become a member of those underground select few.

In the last five years, a new selection of people has entered the periphery group, which is the online researcher. I am not suggesting that all online researchers are members of the periphery group, but it is obvious that the vast majority is. I have been online myself for about fifteen years or so. In fact, my online years reflect the approximate age of one of the community leaders that I researched for this paper. I would categorise him as a periphery power-maker, which is reflected in his attitude and language, though I am sure he would disagree in the most certain of terms.

The Periphery Group as Researchers:

I shall now turn to the researchers themselves as members of the periphery group, but before I do so I need to emphasise one fact. By virtue of the experience that most centric members have online they know the periphery group far better than the reverse. This can be shown in that many periphery group members do not know how and where the centric group can be found. I would not be too surprised to find that many periphery group members did not even know that the centric group existed at all.

The researchers, as I have stated, are in general members of the periphery group. They are not fully aware of the facts, a nd although the findings of many of the researchers remain valid to a point, many are based upon fallacious premises. This entire paper is designed to eradicate one such erroneous theory that surrounds 'gender switching'. The term gender-switching itself is used erroneously [ibid.] and I shall, f rom now on, use the term sex misrepresentation.

For several years, I have felt that Malinowski's notion that participant observation was a prerequisite to social research was unfounded. Through the research of this paper, I have concluded that I have done Malinowski an injustice. In keeping with this theoretical train of thought, I ought to address the post-modern question of objectivity. First, and foremost, this is a postmodernist's paper. Secondly, using reflectivity to interpret where I am situated in relation to my research I would say the following: I am part of the periphery group of online researchers with more than a decade participant observation under my belt. Thus, I feel confident that I am well suited to conducting this research, and the critique of other online researcher's findings.

My participation and observation of the Internet spans more than a decade. It is because of this duration of active community membership that I have discovered that the flaw in the majority of similar papers is because of the researchers themselves have not been privy to all the facts. Their temporary incursions into my home from home coupled with their faith in their academic methodology prevent them from producing an accurate analysis. There is a lot of money to be potentially made through the Internet. The spiralling number of books being published upon the subject indicates the growing interest and the recognised commerciallity of such publications. People entering Internet research will often have this in mind and this alone places them within the periphery group [ibid.]. I have read a large number of books that have been obviously erroneous to any long term member of the Internet, yet they are published and this makes experts of the authors overnight. Thus, returning momentarily to Malinowski, I have learned that participant observation is an absolute necessity. The longer the participant observation spans then the better. Because extended participant observation helps move the researcher (resituates) into a location where a greater degree of objectivity is sustainable.

The centric group is conservative and acephalous by nature. They are devoted to traditionalism. The direction that the centric group flocks toward is in creating their Nirvana, that is their elusive idealistic goal. The closer that technology moves the centric group towards complete disembodiment the better, whether the centric group will actually welcome complete disembodiment is yet to be learned, but at present we are privy to this being the goal. This is illustrated by the magnitude of cyberpunk novels that relate this theme as do the main stream program makers who create the cyborgs moving ever away from the somatic being to the digital spirit, and Nirvana.

Conversely, the periphery group that have invaded the homeland of the centric group are progressive almost tangibly anti-conservative. The periphery group is open to change in tradition and institutions. Therefore, it is hardly surprising that the centric group sees them as change to tradition; see them as creators of new and despoilers of established institutions. The periphery group members are the neighbours from hell. They play games within the land that the centric group exists. The one conservative view that is reversed online is Utopia. The centric group believes life online is a step towards Utopia. Disembodiment online is Utopia. The periphery group sees the Internet as an advanced computer game or tool that is for amusement and work only ­ the real world (offline) is where we live.

Immediately it should be noticed that there are a lot of opposing forces between the centric and periphery groups. My labelling itself helps to indicate this, as is my opinion of their hierarchical positioning. So, is it this that causes the resentment concerning sex misrepresentation online? The rest of this paper is going to address and develop this idea and prove, as best as possible, that the resentment of this issue is a periphery manifested resentment whilst the idea of sex misrepresentation is a misunderstood notion of the centric group. Thus, the researchers, whom I have stated, normally lie within the periphery group are in a position to analyse such resentment and activities. However, they do not have the hours of participant observation behind them to fully understand what they are witnessing in context.


Chapter Two.

The Centric Group's Mindset:

The centric group knows that real life and virtuality are disparate, separate and very different from each other. I have already stated that the corporeal body is left behind when the centric group member goes online. With the memory that the centric group are attempting disembodiment it is unsurprising that Baudrillard believes that: 'As soon as behaviour is focused on certain operational screens or terminals, the rest appears as some vast, useless body, which has been both abandoned and condemned. The real itself appears as a large, futile body.' [Baudrillard: 1988]. Furthering, it is the somatic existence of the individual centric group member that prevents attainment of Nirvana. The total disembodiment of the individual is the final step that the centric group member needs to achieve for them to be whom they believe they intrinsically are. One of the steps that need to be addressed in order to achieve disembodiment is the removal of culturally specific bodily biased notions, such as gender roles and biological sex categorisations. Ried also noted 'a definitive division between the "real" body at the computer keyboard and the [sexed based] subject in virtual space. [Ried: 1994].

The intrinsic belief of the centric group is that online life is not a sub-set or part of offline life. The two aspects are in existence in isolation from each other at the logical level. There is no argument that one can not live online without the offline existence of the Internet itself. What is argued is that the human corporeal body needs not exist for the essence of the being of the individual to exist. I would equate this to the Christian (and many other religion's) belief that once the corporeal body dies the spirit continues to live.

'...from the beginning he didn't respect that online is its own place' [Turkel: 1997: pg. 231, par 1]. In this short quotation, an informant indicates that she has had some type of discourse with another online member whom thought differently to the centric group's credo. The problem arises from differing mindsets of the centric and periphery groups. As Mike, another informant used by Turkle mentioned '[Cyberspace] it's where I live, more than I do in my dingy dorm room. 'There's no place like home.' [Tu rkle: 1997: pg. 21, par 2].

In this respect the centric group and periphery group would probably agree ­ there is no place like home. It is just a consideration of where home is, and to the periphery group home simply can not be online. I shall discuss this further when I examine the mindset of the periphery group. But, for the centric group no argument can suffice in dissuading them that they are wrong to believe that they can ever attain their Nirvana and this is because of their unique view on whom they are and how they define themselves.

I am what I am:

Donna Haraway said: 'The machine is not an it to be animated, worshiped, and dominated. The machine is us, our processes, an aspect of our embodiment' [Haraway: 1991: Pg. 180]. This is a fundamental premise upon which the centric group base their lives, passions and theories. The centric group are however, longing for the time when the machine is no longer an 'aspect' of embodiment but becomes embodiment in itself.

'Said Satre in Being and Nothingness, "I am my body to the extent that I am". The virtual world is different. It is composed of information rather than matter. [Donath: 1998] . Donath is correct, in that, The virtual world is different but falls into the periphery trap, thinking that information is not matter. The digital pulses that traverse the online bloodstream is measurable, tangible ­ it is energy. The digital matter of binary pulses is the purest form of matter attainable. Such purity is a worthy goal to seek for all humans. Satre epitomises the centric philosophy. The body is superfluous to existence for existence is embodiment though not necessarily corporeal in being.

The seemingly derogatory statements that I made earlier of the centric group being 'geeks' is only regarded as derogatory to pseudo-centric and periphery group members. Pseudo-centric group members are those periphery members whom try to break into the centric group by manufacturing power-bases for themselves. They remain periphery members because they do not subscribe to the aspirations and ethos of the centric group. In 1997, John Deep (et al.) published one in a long line of books that allow non-geeks (periphery group members) to codify themselves as geeks. They increased the number of pseudo-geeks without af fecting the number of the centric group. One would proffer that Deep attempted to become a centric member by producing a power-base for himself as a Wizard of the Internet. If Deep was a centric member he would be unlikely to produce such a publication. However, this is the real world and until disembodiment is possible, we are all materialistically bound to the commercial world in which we live. It is with this in mind that I reserve my judgement upon Deep's legitimate position within the two ethnic groups found online.

Mazur [1994] suggests that:

The examination of gender construction in the virtual space of Muds, then, should offer an insight into the concepts of gender identity without the insistence on a ''real'' stable and fixed body. It should also result in the collapsing of the real/virtual dichotomy.

The notion of a real/virtual dichotomy is undoubtedly a periphery group concern. The centric group realises such a dichotomy exists, but in the ungendered world of digital pulses, there is no such dichotomy. For the centric group, disembodiment removes all associations necessary for gender; no body means no gender, which means no dichotomy; the real 'periphery' world becomes 'futile' and unnecessary [ibid.]. Mazur seems to have stopped short from the inevitable conclusion that by removing the insistence upon a real, stable and fixed body for conceptualising gender i dentity, we could easily remove the corporeal body all together. Concluding, rather radically, that we could remove the concept of gender completely within the Internet. This would only be possible through and because of the system by which the centric group consider themselves. Such a method would not be possible for the periphery group, as they require, in their opinion, a corporeal body to exist. As Turkle noted, 'The Pygmalion story endures because it speaks to a powerful fantasy: that we are not limited by our histories, that we can recreate ourselves.' [Turkle: pg. 192 par 4]. I would now suggest that the centric group aims at a recreation of the self, a self-created evolutionary step.

Real life causes the problems:

I would think that everyone accepted that the real world is flawed. One of the main causes of these 'flaws' is communication. 'Many people have claimed that CMC improves communication between men and women.' [We: 1993]. It produces anonymity and reduces direct conflict. If, however, the communication was as such that it prohibited, even prevented, dichotomy, ambiguity and emotion, or anything that would incite; a system of communication such as the Orwellian 'New Speak' [Orwell:] then this would reduce the 'flaw level'. CMC does appear to reduce such flawed communication - if it were extended to CTC (Computer to Computer) communication, a side effect of total disembodim ent, then flawed communication would be eradicated altogether [ibid.].

Ried, as Rintel and Pittam rightly noted argues that '[online] interaction... involves a deconstruction of traditional assumptions about the dynamics of communication and the construction of alternative systems.' What tends to happen is the researchers understand the need for alternative systems being required, but end up recreating, reframing and redefining the current systems. The centric group remain aloof, they believe they have the answer and it is radical in that framework of the periphery group - but then it is based upon different ideologies, experience and cultural background. It must be re-asserted that the periphery group live offline, the centric group does not. The centric group's heritage is derived from online time, history and experience.



Anonymous respondents to We's survey stated this:

Respondent 1: The lack of the gendering of communication can allow me to make bold statements without having to worry about how my gestures or voice might falsely render them.

Respondent 2: I feel freer to express ideas and consider new and different points of view.

Respondent 1 has, I would have thought, inadvertently produced great insight about a fundamental element of the centric group's ideology. It is not only the gendering of the communication that needs to be addressed; it is all relative expression. It is through such a system that respondent 2 discovers her freedom of expression and reflection. Freedom is a primacy concern of the centric group. The centric group's notion of freedom allows for egalitarian freedom, and in some respects barrierless freedom. Recalling that this kind of freedom will be the resultant of the removal of offline cultural precepts and through disembodiment. It appears to be logically obtainable dependant upon their attainment of the new-age Nirvana.

As Gladys We mentioned '... I wanted to hear stories behind the statistics from the women who found that electronic communication allowed them to speak their minds to the men who said that it eliminated thoughts of sex from their missives.'

In elaborating and rephrasing Gladys We's goal we produce justification in the goal of the centric group, in that the centric group's goal is:

As electronic communication frees the mind from offline cultural biases, the perfect solution would be to reject and remove all offline considerations.


Bumper stickers were released around 1994 containing slogans such as ' Feminism is the radical notion that women are people.' In fact, this is not so different from the centric notion that everyone is 'people'. Women, men and geeks ought to be considered equals. The way the centric group believes equality is achievable is to reduce everyone, who wishes, to a common denominator: Digital consciousness.

Garett, an informant of Turkle said, as Turkle cites:

[Garett] found Muds different and a lot more comfortable. 'On Muds', he says, 'people were making a world together. You got no prestige from being abusive' [Turkle: pg. 218 par 1]

Garett appears to be close to having the mindset of the centric group. He realises that there is an online world being built. If he means it literally, then he is referring to the centric group. If he is referring to the superficial, such as the Waterdeep , then he is referring to the periphery. One thing that suggests this may be the case, in his opinion; there is no prestige in abuse. If he limits himself to this then he is a periphery member. However, he may be a centric member sensible or reserved enough to realise that he is communicating with a periphery mem ber and social science researcher. The centric group's mindset is radical and often criticised by the periphery group.

Wood was correct in her assessment that 'space is a primacy means by which a culture designates who is important.' Offline this is true. Although it remains true that different matter can not occupy the same space, the notion of space itself becomes unsustainable online as there is no true space to talk of, certainly there is no mediated private space.

The periphery study of Donath highlighted the problems associa ted and produced by the periphery group itself:

While it is true that a single person can create multiple electronic identities that are linked only by their common progenitor, that link, though invisible in the virtual world, is of great significance. [Donath: Pg. 1, par 3]

It is true to both the centric and periphery groups that the corporeal-self is of importance - but for two differing reasons. The centric group sees the corporeal body as the cause of many offline problems and the barrier to online existence. The periphery group use the corporeal-self as a measure by which one should conduct oneself online; do unto others as you would have them do unto you. For the centric group, this is illogical. It seems foolish to wish to bring prejudices online when they could be eradicated altogether. By removing oppressive tendencies either executed consciously or unconsciously, the Internet can allow itself to be a refuge of absolute freedom; refraining from any semantic, or logical philosophical arguments we may have. The removal of all adverse producers in and through communication, appearance and action reveals the purest form of freedom which will allow total acceptance of all. The centric group abhors the periphery group's acceptance of a modus vivendi.


Chapter Three.

The periphery group's mindset:

Real life v.'s Virtual reality:

The periphery group invented the term virtual reality; it indicates the core belief that online life is an aspect of offline life. The online inhabitants of virtual communities are really offline corporeal beings playing or experimenting within a computerised simulation tool. As most of the researchers and researched are of the periphery group I have access to reams of data that elaborates and illustrates this mindset and the premises upon which online life is value judged. As most of the readership of this paper is also of the periphery group, I shall not delve to deeply to prove and illustrate this viewpoint.

Gladys We openly expressed the view that:

Computer mediated communication is a fascinating extension of the ways in which human beings already communicate, it has the potential to be liberating, and it has the potent ial to duplicate all the misunderstandings and confusion which currently take place ... the choice of directions is not being made deliberately...

Effectively, Gladys We has elaborately said nothing. However, it implies to me that she is unsure of what is actually happening online. This is understandable when the online members are taken as homologous, they are not, and quite clearly so.

When people are demanding knowledge of who and what their corespondents are, they seek to readdress power, perhaps to produce additional power for themselves, but online there is total anonymity [ibid.]. Any information gleaned from IP addresses, URLs, Signatures , names or indeed, individuals is open to manipulation and alteration. Receiving a full, detailed, account of an individual can not be proven and therefore worthless. However, the periphery group seems desperate to know who they are in conversation with.

In Turkle's Life on the Screen, she devotes much of her work to showing that online people vary their identities and gender according to their whims. Turkle does not seem to realise that their responses may also vary according to whim. Perhaps, it does not matter and Turkle was simply trying to illustrate the ease of identity variance online compared to offline.

Cherny discovered from her three months, participant observation, fieldwork that men and women are different, bot h online and offline. What Cherny and every other online researcher I have read, which is many, have concluded is that people are freer online than offline due to anonymity. Offline and online people are the same. This is one of the major pitfalls of being uninformed of some of the deeper, less superficial, aspects of a culture under investigation.

I am what I am:

Herring concludes that: 'Women and men have a different communication ethic.' Yes men and women are different and essentially one's identity is rather fixed culturally. The fluidity that the postmodernists believe in is fine in theory, but it appears largely unsustainable in practical terms. The periphery researchers have unwittingly shown that the cultural baggage that we carry is more concrete and restrictive than suggested by the postmodernist.

Turkle, like most periphery researchers discovered that 'some people think that representing oneself as other than one is is always deception, many people turn to online life with the intention of playing it in precisely this way.' [Turkle: pg. 228 par 2]. As a generalisation, it seems impossible for a periphery researcher to know who their informants are. This I conclude is because periphery members are playing games and are more likely to misrepresent themselves. Similar in essence to taking on the role of an animated computer game character for the purposes of, and through which they can, play their games.

Real life causes the problems:

Herring's insight lead her to the definitive perception and statement why periphery researcher produces variance within online communities whilst producing such similarities with offline communities. Her statement reads:

The existence of gendered styles has important implications, needless to say, for the claim that CMC is anonymous, 'gender-blind', and hence inherently democratic. If our online communicative style reveals gender, then gender differences, along with the social consequences, are likely to persist on computer mediated networks [Herring 1993a].

The anonymity that Herring is disputing is a production of low confidence levels in ascertaining the true identity of communicators. Indeed, I believe Herring is actually correct. Our cultural baggage is a major aspect of online life for the periphery group. This is simply because the periphery live offline and play online. The inherent democracy of online life does exist for the centric group because they, metaphorically, wipe the cultural baggage from their feet before going online. Their prior knowledge of their cultural baggage is used as a gauge to tell them how well they are living their online life. Rather than being an anchor to the offline world it is a wall used to barricade the offline world out, preventing it infecting the online world wit h the prejudices inherent in offline corporeal, culture based, body.


Freedom is a double-edged sword offline. As so much offline life is brought online by the periphery, it seems logical that it remains a double-edged sword online. Anonymity allows people the freedom to be as obnoxious as they wish to the extent that online rape and murder is possible. Although I have witnessed murder online, (the process by which a person's online persona is destroyed) I am without any log files of the activity . Online rape was made infamous when Julian Dibbley released an article about a rape on LambdaMoo [Dibbley:]. The other side of the sword allows people to be extrovertly friendly, confident and free. Shy people make friends, disabled and disfigured people are unrecognisable as such, and thus are more confident. Cyberlove is one of the top activities of the periphery group [c.f. Hamman:]. This 'positive freed om' is part of the ideal of the centric group and a worthy ideal it is too. Who would argue against the removal of negativity to be left with only the positive?


Susan Herring concludes her 1994 paper by saying that to produce the egalitarian online world that is so highly written about women need to be active creators of netiquette . Women need to feminise the Internet. Herring suggests that this should be done now 'while its [the Internet] is still evolving and seeking its ultimate definition...' Herring's premise for this is her opinion that there is 'No greater power... than the power to define values.' It should be clear to the reader that Herrin g is adopting a periphery attitude. Forcing another gender online adds to the problems, it creates dichotomy. It makes online life more mirror-like of flawed offline life, hardly an admirable goal.



Chapter Four.

The Theory:

Baudrillard believes that life online prevents social change offline. He may be correct but this is only of importance to the periphery, as the centric group do not live offline anyway. 'Anyone interested in progressive social change must surely ask if the transition to a simulated virtual world is really contingent on a loss of value and meaning?' [Spittle: pg. 3 par 5].

It appears that for the centric group the removal of offline v alues will create unambiguous meaning. Offline problems seem to be the resultant of mixed meanings and tenuous definitions. Offline problems are manifestations of human fallibility. Computers never make mistakes; it is the creators and operators of computers that make the mistakes. The closer that the centric group can move towards being computer like then the closer that they move towards infallibility and the further they move from relativity.

To briefly recap:

The centric group believes online and offline life is to be regarded in isolation. There is an intrinsic self, centred on the consciousness and imagination, which is purely logical and fluid, unconstrained by the corporeal body. Real life is flawed so the abandonment of the flaws in real life is easier to attain online than the correction of the flaw offline. Through the abandonment of offline flaws, freedom and acceptance for all will be the resultant. The periphery group, however, are quite different. They believe that online life is an extension of offline life and the Internet is a playground for experimentation. Periphery individuals have a degree of fluidity but are still fixated upon the 'real' of the corporeal being and thus fluidity is channelled tightly rather than being free. Real life is flawed and people should address the flaws that are apparent online whilst there is an opportunity as the online world is still evo lving. Once these online flaws are corrected people will, whilst online, be free and accepted.

What has not been stated by the periphery is: they that have created the flaws online. These flaws are inherent in themselves and no matter where they go they will take with them their value judgements, prejudices and fallabilities. This is well known by the centric group, hence their determination to remove themselves from the corporeal world.


The periphery group has become acculturated to the centric group's activities and institutions but not to their way of thinking. The idea of being other than you are offline whilst online is a goal of the centric group. One way to be different is to change one's appearance, i.e. identity. Such alterations are simple and only take a few keystrokes to achieve. However, as this causes confusion in offline value judged systems it produces the same confusions when the periphery use the same flawed systems online. Sex misrepresentation is a value judgement. It is deceitful only in the mindset of some of the periphery. If the periphery accepted that online and offline worlds are different, as are the people that inhabit those worlds, then it would resolve much of the sex misrepresentation issue. Online personae become legitimised, they gain rights in their own right - surely a goal of all online members regardless of ethnicity.

Value judgements:

It is unlikely that any two people have the exact same vales. When one examines the values of several million people one shall note some groups that hold similar opinions on particular subjects. Thus, it is no surprise that there are groups of people, online, that agree and disagree on whether sex misrepresentation is acceptable.


In Summary:

Within this paper, I have shown the two main groups of online people. These two groups are almost opposites in attitude. Within these groups, there will be variance of values and affiliation, especially within the periphery group, where, incidentally, the main arguments and research lie concerning sex misrepresentation. I have indicated the centric group introduced the freedom offered by living online to the periphery members. I have also shown that the periphery group remain tied to the corporeal body and hence their culture's, and ethnic, values. The millions of periphery members are derived from hundreds, if not, thousands of offline, ethnic origins. Thus, it becomes apparent why there are arguments and discussions on the appropriateness of sex misrepresentation.

Contextualising the arguments:

There appears to be two types of sex misrepresentation, in and out of context. In context, misrepresentation should not produce any problems, as it is an enactment of the group's expectat ions. No one for instance, should complain that in As you like it [Shakespeare: 1600/1994: pg. 627-652] Rosalind was originally written for a male actor, although being the daughter of Duke Senior. Equally, there are no complaints about Rosalind misrepresenting 'her' sex within the play as the character Ganymede [Shakespeare: 1600/1994: pg. 635]. The arguments are derived from, usually, perceived reasons that are more malicious. Although the complaint always resorts back to the core problem of deception.

I have tried throughout this paper to avoid misusing Clifford Geertz's terminology, which for me describes the Internet perfectly. For the periphery group the Internet, I would argue, is the 'Theatre state'. In the words of Geertz: 'The dramas of the theatre state, were, in the end, neither illusions nor lies...' [Geertz: pg. 136]. It is as I have concluded purely dependent upon the prescribed cultural values of the receivers and where they are situated in the social arena.

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David Gordon ([email protected]) is a member of the Department of Social Anthropology at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland.

[© Copyright 1999 David Gordon]


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