Like other technorhetoricians, I first encountered MOO space by visiting the Tuesday Cafe on MediaMOO. I had heard about MOOs as role-playing environments--not as spaces for the serious (and playful) educational dialogue that occurs during Tuesday Cafes. A colleague had told me of his wife's experience on a MOO in which she had borrowed his character to connect. Although she tried to explain to her fellow users that she was "actually" female (or female IRL), many people connected to that particular MOO space didn't believe her. In an interesting confusion between MOO reality and physical reality, some MOOers asked her why she was pretending to be female, when obviously she was male, since her character had a male gender. Others accepted her profession of "actual" femaleness, and they angrily wondered why she didn't use a female character. They felt hoodwinked, as if she were pretending to be male to mislead them.
My friend's early experience of gender-bending in MOO space suggested the unique character of the environment, especially its ability to allow imaginative play and exploration. People can describe themselves as they wish, setting their gender to one of many possibilities. "Leslie" can be male, female, neuter, royal, plural (among others); he/she/it /we/they can set his/her/its/our/their description to reflect that chosen gender. Other users cannot see their fellow players (that is, they cannot see the actual people sitting in front of their computer screens), and so they rely on reduced and manipulable clues to determined the identity categories--for example, gender, race, and age--that appear at first glance IRL. (For two related articles on gender in virtual environments, see Amy Bruckman's Gender Swapping on the Internet and Mindy McAdam's Gender Without Bodies.)
Since such identity clues are manipulable, the environment relies to a strong extent on trust. Other players who have not met me IRL believe that "Leslie" (or the person communicating as the player "Leslie") is male because I tell them so, because I have chosen a male gender for my character, and because I have created a description that suggests my gender. Others (with an actual name that indicates gender more clearly than mine does) can choose a MOO player name that matches their name IRL and that is more obviously gendered: Bill, Ken, Patricia, Jeanne, and so on. However, players have the freedom to be less straightforward on the MOO: they can choose a description that diverges from their actual selves, they don't have to ue their real names as MOO player names, and they can pretend to be whatever they want. Like other MOOers, I can invent myself on the MOO. I choose not to, however, because I don't wish to mislead the people who share that space with me. I thus bring to the MOO space the desires that govern my behavior in social contexts IRL: I wish to be accepted by the community, I want to be liked for who I am, and I want to be respectful of the feelings of others. I also want others to treat me with respect and honesty. If others mislead me (as they easily can on the MOO), I can become as angry as those disbelieving MOOers who confronted my unintentionally gender-bending friend.
The professional environment of the Tuesday Cafe tends to promote serious dialogue, although because of the many possibilities for play on the MOO, verbal jocularity never recedes too far into the background. Many of the participants are regular characters on MediaMOO, which means that they had to apply for such a status, indicating on their MOO application their interest in "media research" (as broadly defined by the janitors of MediaMOO). Whether guests or regular characters, players introduce themselves at the beginning of the Tuesday night dialogue, usually indicating a university affiliation (and a spatial mooring--the state where their host institution resides). The organizers of the Tuesday Cafe (Greg Siering and Tari Fanderclai)--founders of the Netoric Project-- show virtual slides that announce the topic of the day and that call for those original introductions. (See the attached excerpt from a Tuesday Cafe log for a typical beginning of a Tuesday Cafe.) Conversations then proceed at a rapid pace, with voices struggling to be recognized amidst the copius contributions of other attendees. The only sound one hears is that of one's own fingers clicking rapidly on a keyboard (or an occasional burst of laughter), as ideas race across the screen. Contributions are instantaneous and evanescent: the thought of a second (or perhaps a long-held conviction) shared immediately with others, replaced by a continuing flow of dialogue. Yet those contributions are also public and permanent, issued before a group of peers, recorded in a log that others can read after the fact. We care about what we say, because others remember what we say and judge us by our verbal comments. Yet we also enjoy the interaction, revelling in the speed of the conversation, enjoying the audience's reaction to a clever statement or to a witty pun. (For a more extensive discussion of the Tuesday Cafe, see the related Kairos article @go tuesday, written by Sharon Cogdill.)
The Tuesday Cafe makes clear the effectiveness of the MOO as
a writing environment. Its intensity leads to the active
exchange of ideas. Its public, playful nature reinforces the
joy of speaking/writing: contributing to a public discourse, achieving
recognition through those contributions, and receiving the virtual
equivalent of applause through the supportive feedback of others.
Participants express their agreement with stated opinions, laugh
at witticisms, request clarifications and further explanations,
all the while maintaining the flow of dialogue and making concrete
that particular event: an hour, spent together on a Tuesday evening
from 8:00 to 9:00 p.m., discussing topics of mutual interest.
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