Cybermind: A Case Study
A natural starting place for the research for this case study is with a definition of virtual community. Rheingold’s (1993) was the first definition that I read and the list I am going to discuss meets all his criteria. Rheingold is most prepared to acknowledge as community groups that:
(1) from purely computer mediated interaction (CMC) move to face to face meetings (f2f) and
(2) share particular or useful details of real life.
There are of different ways of defining virtual community. For Etzioni and Etzioni (1999) one of the core elements of community is bonding and that this applies both in real life (RL) and CMC. In both cases it is necessary for members to gain what they refer to as “encompassing knowledge” of one another. This occurs in a number of ways:
(1) the ability to “anchor” items of knowledge about others from which “broad and inclusive pictures of others” can be developed
(2) trust, and this may include some way of authenticating the messages
(3) developing a sense of accountability, that the members of the group are responsible.
Shawn Wilbur (1997) defines virtual community as “the experience of sharing with unseen others a space of communication.” He then goes on to give examples such as “It is other contributions to electronic mailing lists like Future Culture or Cybermind...”. Wilbur is one of many people who have found in Cybermind both a community and, for many of the academics on list, a source of research.
History of Cybermind:
The full title of the list is “Cybermind: the Philosophy and Psychology of the Internet”, but group members refer to themselves as CM’ers. From very soon after its inception the list moved dramatically from proto-community to community. The list was formed by Alan Sondheim and Michael Current. According to Marshall (2000) the earliest retrievable post is from 1July, 1994. It opened "I now step into this new space, created by two net.persons I have come to admire and respect [...] I have hopes for this space as I always have when I enter a new room". Marshall (2000) draws attention to the “casual use of metaphors of space, and the expectations of framing” in this early post.
Cybermind, or CM, was formed by Alan Sondheim and Michael Current. They met on the “Future Culture” list and at that time Michael was running the Deluze and Guttari list. From reading the best history of the list that exists (Marshall, 2000) it appears that from the very early days of its inception the list had a high membership and a heavy volume of postings. Marshall (2000) gives figures of 330 posts between 1st July and 6th July. At that point about half the members came from university addresses with a fair proportion seeming to be academic staff. Currently (11/04/05) the list membership stands at 243.
The list was widely advertised on the Internet before it began and this, as well as the numbers of people who followed Michael and Alan from “Future Culture” accounts for the large number of people at start up. I saw the adverts around this time – but as it looked too interesting, thus time consuming, and I only had access to the Internet at work I did not join then.
Cybermind’s transition to community came early and at an agreed on moment. In the first week then took place what list members came to refer to as the Great Spelling Wars. This discussion itself was partly an early means of attempting to find list boundaries and an attempt to find communal agreement. Both Marshall (2000) and Everard (1996) agree that in the early weeks of CM there was much discussion about the nature of community. Everard cites discussion threads such as "Mind the Wires”, and “Virt Community”. MOO-space was also discussed. Everard (1996) records that the bulk of the early posts were about community and in particular:
• whether Cybermind would become one,
• whether Cybermind already was one, and
• what was the nature of community anyhow?
Everard reports that “On 10 July 94 there was what to me now is a poignant message from Michael Current on the nature of virtual community. In it he described Cybermind as a nascent community.”
The moment Cybermind became a community is recorded by Everard too well to do anything but quote in full:
On 23 July 1994 the world stood on end. A message came on that Michael Current had died. Amid a quick flurry of questions - like is this someone's idea of a bad joke? - we were quickly assured that it was not. That Michael Current had died from complications owing to a reaction to his insulin.
The list went very quiet. I personally felt very odd. I was feeling a palpable sense of loss from what the wisdom of the day said was a virtual persona. Could what I was feeling be real? One by one others shared their thoughts on the list - shared their feelings of loss and grief.
For me that was the defining moment of Cybermind: the Community. Suddenly we were not talking ABOUT the nature of community we came together AS a community. People were sharing feelings as well as thoughts. It seems ironic that Michael should write that it was his hope that one day Cybermind would become a community, only later to become the catalyst for that community process to occur - with greater passion and depth than I have seen on any other list.
On the anniversary of Michael’s death Alan Sondheim re-sends Michael Current’s last e-mail to Cybermind. Alan sends it with a framing context explaining to newcomers who Michael was and the role he played in the formation of CM. This ritual serves to give the long-time members time to pause and reflect, and enables newcomers to understand more of the nature of CM the community.
Becoming a CM’er
Both steps to meeting Rheingold’s definition of community can, in Cybermind, be dated quite specifically. The first, and defining, moment of achieving community was Michael’s death, in July 1994. Meeting the second of the criteria Rheinglod (1993) mentions, that of moving from purely CMC to f2f meetings, took place in November 1996. This was a far more joyful atmosphere at the Cybermind Conference. The conference was held at Curtin University (in the Elizabeth Jolley Lecture Theatre).
This is where I finally caught up with Cybermind. When I knew the Conference was coming I enrolled to go along but deliberately refrained from subscribing. I felt I wanted to immerse myself with no prior assumptions and see what I made of it all. This is the reverse of the normal experience of joining an online group.
The Conference is worth briefly mentioning because the interactions there demonstrated so many notions of community. I was one of two people at the conference who had not (previously) subscribed to CM. The other such participant, performance artist Stelarc, had similar feelings and responses as my own to the event. It has been noted that there is a potential for an individual to experience the virtual through a kind of synesthesia. In some fashion the immersion in the internet allows for all senses to be exercised through eyes and fingers (Wilbur 1997).
Alan Sondheim was the keynote speaker and his was the first of a number of papers to refer to Michael Current. During the course of one presentation a survey of the RL participants was taken. Group members were asked, among other things, how they experienced the list. That is to say when they read the e-mail was it lines of text they read or did they hear the voices (or the imagined voices) of the senders? A large number of the people present reported this phenomenon.
The conference itself was highly technically organized. As well as the usual paper presentations there was a MOO, RealAudio capabilities and CuSee-Me. The lecture theatre was arranged so that CMers from around the world were able to participate in the conference via the MOO, and some also were able to listen and to watch the proceedings. The MOO was screened on one wall of the lecture hall so it was possible to see group members responses to what was reaching them via one of the computers. This was made textually possibly by audience volunteers taking turns to précis each paper as it was being delivered. In addition the video camera image was projected on the wall behind the speaker so the audience could see what those with CUSee-Me were witnessing.
This quickly led to interchange between the MOO participants, the speaker and the audience. It was MOO participants who first interrupted one of the early speakers. The speakers, and then the audience (via the computer typists) began to interact with the MOO participants and each other. The boundaries between the virtual and ‘real” were extended and blurred. On the second day a paper (and something of an ode to one of the group members) was presented on the subject of “Hands”. This gave rise to one of the most powerful moments at the conference :-
The cameraman began a series of pictures focusing on the hands of the audience and speaker. The images quickly took on the timing and cadences of the language used by the speaker in what was essentially a blank verse poem. At this time the MOO participants began to type their own responses to the moment, writing of the hands they could see and the words they could hear, or the text they could read. At this every aspect of what had been developing over the last day and a half seemed to achieve fusion of all the disparate ways of being “present” at the conference.
Community online has been described in numbers of ways but as Roberts (2001) has found, one consistently common experience for people who are in a community, RL or CMC, is of being “home”. CM has been just such a place since 23rd July 1994.
Amitai Etzioni and Oren Etzioni, 1999 Face to face and computer mediated communities, A comparative analysis, The Information Society, vol. 15, p.243.
Jerry Everard, (1996) Semiotics of Cybermind, Cybermind Conference, Perth, Western Australia, 29th November - 1st December 1996, http://lostbiro.com/papers/semiotics_cybermind.html , [retrieved 16.05.04]
Jon Marshall, 2000 Living Online: Categories, Communication and Control: A Study of the Internet Mailing List Cybermind, University of Sydney, 2000, http://www.geocities.com/jpmarshall.geo/T2/ch02.rtf [retrieved 11.05.05]
Lynne Roberts, 2001 Social Interaction In Virtual Environments, Doctoral Dissertation, Curtin University.
Howard Rheingold, 1993 The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier, Reading, Addison-Wesley, p.5.
Shawn Wilbur, 1995 An archeology of cyberspaces: virtuality, community, identity, in D.Porter (ed), Internet Culture, London, Routledge, p.141