The whole purpose of virtual reality is to help us to escape from this prison called ordinary reality, which is not the creation of God or of nature at all, but is the creation of selfishness and greed. At least in virtual reality we have the opportunity to free ourselves from the prevailing ordinarist assumptions: that greed is good, that you can measure human happiness in terms of money and possessions. Virtual reality gives us the opportunity to explore alternative values and alternative world systems.

-Pierre DeLeary, in Space, Time and Reality.

Such is the definition of virtualism given to us by the founder of one of the most controversial schools of thought in the field of virtual reality. When discussing notions of the significance of virtualism the realm of cyberspace becomes a relevant topic of interest. Interaction on this increasingly popular form of communication can either be seen as a further development of postmodern alienation or as a possible forum for deeper human relationships. The problems inherent in such physically removed relations are many and will be addressed later. However, it is my belief that the majorities of criticisms leveled at the cybersphere ignore or leave out the role of virtual communities; choosing instead to focus on the individual web explorer, lost in a microcosmic image of the world. Online communities seek to create a disembodied social sphere where people can interact free of geographical and time constraints. Physical forms of society are essential to our view of what is ‘real’ because they enable relationships to be created and nurtured. It would seem illogical to suggest that a personal connection made in a mind-centered dimension would be incapable of the depth we so rarely encounter in the physical realm. In cases where significant personal relationships are formed it becomes only a matter of time before the relationship is cemented in the physical world.

Before we get too far, it is essential to discuss what is meant by the term ‘real’. Many philosophers have agreed that the real world is one that is interrelated, where relations between people and things are paramount. For the Buddhists, this reality is termed as open space—a realm where we are free of all the cultural and psychological aggregates that make up our identities. For the empirical materialists, reality is based solely in the physical experience. Martin Buber, a German philosopher, sees the world of relations as an encountering of God:

God is present when I confront You. But if I look away from You, I ignore him. As long as I merely experience or use you, I deny God. But when I encounter You I encounter him. (Kaufmann)

In Buber’s work I and Thou he discusses the two basic forms of relatedness: I-You and I-It. I-You relationships are those we form when encountering people on a personal, individual level. A relationship is classified as I-It when we interact with machines or treat others as such. Therefore, a connection originating on a computer would necessarily be considered I-It, however, it is possible for an I-It relationship to become I-You through personal, physical interaction. It is this world of human relatedness that we refer to when the term ‘real’ is used.

Problems in the metaphysical cyber realm

In her article, “Virtual Reality, the ‘Cult’ of Narcissism and the Disintegrating Self,” Maria-Louise Rowley makes repeated reference to Christopher Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism. She says that “Lasch suggest that the negation of mystery in nature and religion and the denial of individual potential for greatness causes an impoverishment of the human spirit which today manifests in narcissistic behaviors of grandiosity and parasitic dependencies on omnipotent self-objects.” While Lasch’s book does not cover the virtualistic realm, his arguments in favor of exposing a narcissistic culture can easily be cast upon this new milieu.

In the world of the narcissist, the grandiose personality craves attention and recognition. With its protective shroud of anonymity, cyberspace may be seen as a ready-made playground for this type of person. The self-indulgent personal web page, the online journal, and voyeuristic webcam technology all allow the narcissist free reign of exhibition. In these examples, the computer screen becomes the ‘omnipotent self-object’ to which the narcissist develops a parasitic dependency. The narcissist is able to experience continued power and control over others through the I-It interaction formed through this use of technology. Most threatening to traditional ideas of ‘real’ is the proliferate embrasure of a continually changing self with the creation of a screen name. Rowley describes the danger this represents as follows:

As a consumer commodity, virtual reality has the potential to be the ultimate narcissistic mirroring device in which the psychological self as ego-agent plays with an illusive metaphysical self—a virtual masturbation that renders continuous identity obsolete and the duality of subject-object redundant. It is a potentially addictive technology that will feed the narcissistic desire for control and power.

Narcissism is problematic here because its quest for a ‘mirroring device’ automatically negates the possibility of any true relating. Though it is possible to find a good number of such individuals in cyberspace, there are also those who seek something more. These people seek out online communities, usually centered on a common interest that helps foster a sense of togetherness. This paper will focus on a specific web community that, as a member, I feel is a shining example of how initial I-It interactions can develop into physical world I-You relationships.

Welcome To Everything

Henceforth, when man is for once overcome by the horror of alienation and the world fills him with anxiety, he looks up (right or left, as the case may be) and sees a picture. Then he sees that the I is contained in the world, and that there really is no I, and thus the world cannot harm the I, and he calms down; or he sees that the world is contained in the I, and that there really is no world, and thus the world cannot harm the I, and he calms down. And when man is overcome again by the horror of alienation and the I fills him with anxiety, he looks up and sees a picture; and whichever he sees, it does not matter, either the empty I is stuffed full of world or it is submerged in the flood of the world, and he calms down. (Buber)

Before we can discuss a particular example of a successful online community it is necessary to begin with a definition. In J. Preece’s book, Online Communities, she lists the following as defining characteristics:

    · People, who interact socially as they strive to satisfy their own needs or perform special roles, such as leading or moderating. · A shared purpose, such as an interest, need, information exchange, or service that provides a reason for the community. · Policies, in the form of tacit assumptions, rituals, protocols, rules, and laws that guide people’s actions. · Computer systems, to support and mediate social interaction and facilitate a sense of togetherness. (Preece 2000)

It is important to note here that the computer system is included in the description of what creates an online community. This interface is what prevents the connections formed through such a forum to begin as I-You relationships.

With this definition in mind it is possible to discuss the web community known as Everything2. Ryan Postman and Nate Oostendorp founded the site in 1998 as a database contributable to by anyone with sufficient interest. Since its inception, however, the scope and user base has grown to the point where a community loosely centered on writing has formed. It is the intricate structure of the site that makes it remarkably effective in this regard.

Theories of cybernetics and ecology show us that it is the relations between things, not the fixed named objects, which are important. What does this biological conception imply for techne? The relations between, the support things give each other, becomes a key to survival and continuance. The multiplicities of feedbacks between layers and sections provide multifarious pathways for energy flow and for escape, regrouping, re-orientation (pro-active response) as well as for self-regulation within the system, re-assessment, strategic withdrawal, and the results of feedback. (Jones)

As a collective database, Everything2 acknowledges the importance of internal relations to a properly functioning system. The entire site is made up of individual nodes, containing an unlimited amount of write-ups within each. It is only through the use of softlinks and hardlinks embedded in the text of these write-ups that the site maintains a sense of internal cohesion. Users create hardlinks by placing brackets around words they wish to highlight and these links then take you to another write-up within a different node. Links to other, external sites are not allowed as the idea is for Everything2 to remain entirely self-contained. The linking system itself is based upon the human neural network. Jones gives us a vivid description of how this works in his paper on “Consciousness Reframed”:

Taking a model of the operation of the brain and consciousness consisting in cascades of very wide-band neural networks, the daily processes of perceiving and knowing what it is you perceived continually retrains the network. Neural networks are really wide bundles of neurons which carry the data flow of the brain from plexus to plexus. The primary point about a neural net is that at each plexus a vast array of synapses provide the links from bundle to bundle that are the brains processing of, say, sensory information.

As users travel from one write-up to the other, or from one node to the other, softlinks are left at the bottom of the write-up previously vacated. The random assortments of softlinks that can be found in a write-up are indicative of the individual minds at work in creating the site. Additionally, these softlinks arrange themselves according to the frequency with which they are traveled. Therefore, more popular links can be found closer to the body of text, while less traveled paths hide at the very bottom of the write-ups. This system of navigation allows users to read each other’s work easily and creates diverse ways of delving into the depths of the site.

Order and quality control is kept on the site through the implementation of the XP system. Users are divided into different levels dependant upon both quantity of write-ups and XP, a number used to measure the quality of each write-up. XP is gained or lost according to the dispersion of votes given to the user after reaching level two. When a write-up is voted up it is generally considered good, and stands a better chance of not being deleted by editors. Downvotes, however, are an almost sure sign that one’s write-up will be removed from the site.

Besides its unique structure, Everything2 helps to foster community amongst its users through several other features. The most prominent of these is the chatterbox—an on-site chat room usable only by registered writers. Users are encouraged to interact and voice their thoughts about the site here and through the private message function. Any administrative issues are to be taken to one of the site’s many content editors or Gods—users with special powers giving them some level of control over the remainder of the population. Aside from individual write-ups, users are given the opportunity to express themselves and reveal personal information on their homenodes. The homenode is where one is encouraged to write a biography and decorate through any sort of HTML coding allowed on the site. For the lower levels of users, this is done mainly through text, but upon reaching higher levels one is allowed to post a picture in their homenode.

The metaphysical importance of Everything2 can be seen in the direction it has taken over the past few years. As the site grew, people naturally became curious as to who their fellow writers were. The absence of physical constraints such as gender or race forces individuals to judge each other solely by the content of their thought. Thus, a unique opportunity to know someone’s unleashed inner life is made available to us.

The relation to the You is unmediated. Nothing conceptual intervenes between I and You, no prior knowledge and no imagination; and memory itself is changed as it plunges from particularity into wholeness. No purpose intervenes between I and You, no greed and no anticipation; and longing itself is changed as it plunges from the dream into appearance. Every means is an obstacle. Only where all means have disintegrated encounters occur. (Buber)

The possibility for the forming of truly intimate relationships based on mutual trust and understanding rather than merely being instrumental to self-fulfillment or narcissistic longing is great due to the ways in which one is allowed into the lives of their fellow users. However, there is still the matter of distance—the computer screen that prolongs the existence of an I-It interaction. Continually, these borders are being overcome as well. Users from common geographic locations routinely interact with each other in the physical realm at gatherings that are organized with relative frequency. In addition, larger, weekend long gatherings have been executed for which people travel from all different areas of the country to interact on an individual I-You level. The importance of these events to the community is discussed in a write-up called Everything is a Family:

We take time out of our schedules, travel long distances to sit around, talk, play guitar, drink beer, watch TV; stuff we can do at home... We go out of way to spend time together because we're all cut from the same thread... We're an enormous, elaborate tapestry, each section unique, but undeniably unified. (unity comes from diversity) Some may move away, but nobody truly leaves. Once you're here, you're family. (dann)

It has been said, “everything is people,” and the truth of that statement is constantly being proved. The metaphysical dimension of such a place reminds us of the interrelatedness of all things, that the natural flow of existence brings us together—whether it is through the physical ‘real’ or an immersion in the equally ‘real’ soup of the nodegel; a term used to describe the relational quality of the site. Either way, narcissistic postmodernism is the enemy and it is only by submergence in the abundant human energy that we will endure.

thanks to clampe for his help

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