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Issue Seven

Issue Seven: Religion Online & Techno-Spiritualism

Cyberville: Clicks, Culture, and the Creation of an Online Town, Stacy Horn, Warner Books, 1998.

Book Review by Claire Shearman <[email protected]>

Cyberville is the story of Echo, the online salon of New York City, as told by founder Stacy Horn. It’s an easy to read account of the characters and issues that have shaped the emergence of this particular online community. Stacy tells you about the people whose lives meet and connect in ways that make Echo home from home for the Echoids. She tells you about the kind of issues that have come up in building an online community, how she dealt with them and what she has learned from them.

On one level the experiences that Stacy talks about are very specific to Echo. If the book has a weakness in terms of telling the Echo story, it lies in too much Echoid conversational detail at times. Like she says, it helps if you know the people and New York City – and knowing neither, I was tempted to skip over pages from time to time. But on another level, and more importantly, Stacy’s book offers some valuable insights that reflect a variety of online experiences in the UK and elsewhere in Europe.

First though, I should say, the existence of the book itself is important. One of the key messages the book underlines is the importance of maintaining cultural boundaries, of being different and being local. The Well, long established and well renowned, has for too long been the prime source of ‘how to do it’ or what to aim for in building online communities. As Internet usage and cyberspace has increased, different types of online communities have emerged but generally failed to get much of an international profile. This is particularly true of developments in Europe, Asia and Australia but is a feature of the US scene too. Stacy’s book puts Echo more firmly on the map and gives us a New York window on the online world. What we need now is more online windows from across the globe. Secondly, well done to Stacy for showing us that cyberspace pioneers can be female too. There aren’t too many female role models to date out there in cyberspace yet but all it takes apparently is a bit of hard-working opportunism and attention to detail.(p330) I’d add talent and vision to the list along with effort and time!

If I compare the Echo experience to some of the more successful online community initiatives in the UK, I’d say that Stacy is right in her understanding of what online communities – whatever their nature – are about. "A connection to people. That’s all any virtual community has to offer. Period, end of story." (p20) What is important is the recognition that there’s more than one way of doing things. As Stacy says, this is not Bill Gates’ cyberspace. "The culture of Echo is very different than that of the Internet and it takes time for some people to realise they are in someplace new." (p237)

What makes this place new and different is that the people involved feel a sense of ownership and identity. Part of this comes from the self and group expression that the Echoids have developed over time. Here variety is important - more tools means more community. "There’s more than one place to talk to someone here, and there’s more than one way. Online services that offer only chat, or only conferences and have no private spaces, tend to be flat and lifeless. Without all these tools, there cannot be as great an outpouring of self. And community." (p269)

Part of the sense of Echoid ownership comes from the fact that – unlike many of parts of cyberspace – girls get to make some of the rules too. One obvious area of conflict lies in gender issues and harassment. Echo women made the ground rules clear: Would you walk up to a strange woman on the street and say that? Then don’t do it here. (p99)

It is locality though that makes an online community home from home. "There is a virtual accent that is unmistakable. New Yorkers have a different style of communicating, regardless of where they happen to be, and they talk about different things. Even online, I wanted to be with them." (pp8/9) This sense of local identity is important. Online communities develop a sort of local dialect. "Like certain parts of the country that have their own expressions, each online place develops their own slang, their own unique way of saying things. It’s an important tool in cyberspace for recognising and identifying with your group or online home." (p62)

One of clearest points that the Echo experience spelled out to me is that the strongest virtual communities are not strictly virtual. Offline contact is an essential part of online community building. In an online survey of 368 members of Echo in January 1996, 67% said they went to the face-to-face events. In November of the same year a second survey of 267 members of Echo indicated that 87% see other people from Echo offline; either at work, socially or at Echo events (p111). For Stacy, this is not only obvious - "If someone you talk to online is at all interesting, you want to meet them. It isn’t so much what they look like, you simply want to be with them in the flesh." (p8) – but also essential. "The virtual community of Echo just wouldn’t be the same without this. The f-t-f. Face to face." (p114)

Offline contact, along with online shared conversations, experiences and storytelling is what it is all about – hanging out with the same people, having history. "Again and again I say that what happens here happens over years. This is what is important. It is the very fact that it does continue over time that makes it valuable. It takes time, what is exchanged online: the lives that meet, cross, connect, explode, the loves, the babies where there were no babies, the friendships, jobs, companies….. And it doesn’t end when you hang up the phone." (p46)

This kind of an online town – the social and people side – is a marked contrast to the kind of online towns local city councils and regional agencies tend to talk about. Their window on the online world is more of an information provision, learning and other ICT activities sort of town. The question that comes to mind is where do the two interact or meet? One part of the answer might be in areas like performing arts, reminiscence work and local history. As Stacy says, "cyberspace makes historians of us all. (p327)… Because our words are saved, it gives history back to us and not just the people who write about it later." (p69) Some local communities in the UK are using digital media to explore their own personal and collective histories and identities as well as making history in the present. This is proving an important community building tool – offline as well as online. Like with Echo, this means that anonymity disappears. After all, "how can you create history (and I would add community here too) with people if you don’t know who they are?" (p18)

I don’t know whether I would want to be an Echoid or not, but I think I’d like somebody like Stacy to coordinate my local online community. After all, how many online community developers take the time to send you a letter and poem to say goodbye to you when you close your account? What I do know however is that there should be lots more ‘home-grown’ models of online communities across the globe. And here is the real issue – building online communities takes time, talent, vision, effort and RESOURCES. Stacy flirted with the idea of developing other regional online systems and despite her success in New York City thought better of it: "I’d have to find people locally to host, build relationships with local organisations and businesses – it’s an incredibly delicate and gut-wrenching process – I simply couldn’t go through it again and again unless some big huge company paid me a lot of money to oversee the local people they would they would also pay a lot of money to do the actual work of building a local virtual community from within a physical one." (p333) Hopefully Stacy’s book will inspire more benefactors to support the development of local online communities.

Cyberville: Clicks, Culture, and the Creation of an Online Town, Stacy Horn, Warner Books, 1998.

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Contents Page

Issue Seven