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Reality and Fantasy in Online Groups

An Investigation into Life in the Screen

Rationality vs. Fantasy:
The internet is a new frontier – a new communication medium, which has provided and continues to offer a space where people can meet, exchange ideas, collaborate or argue, form communities, chat, engage in virtual sex, promote their goods and services for sale, conduct commerce and more.

The Internet has transformed the computer from a single-user technological tool into a tool for exchanging information with a vast group of others, in a world-wide communications space.

I want to address issues of reality and fantasy as they apply to this space called the internet. We can begin with the obvious questions:

What is reality?


What is fantasy?

Well, we all know what reality is. Or, we think we do. We refer to the concept implicitly and explicitly from time to time. Psychoanalysts talk of reality, of being in touch with reality, or out of touch, as if one could touch it, as if there’s an it there to touch – as if the concept were readily accessible to consciousness. We could go into an extensive review of philosophical thought concerning reality, as various philosophers, from Plato through Descartes, and on, have addressed the issue through the centuries. Take Descartes for example. He sits in his chair, and wonders whether everything he sees before him – the wall, the painting, the fireplace, even the chair on which he’s sitting, and even he himself are real. Perhaps it’s all in his imagination, he muses. Descartes wants to doubt everything, hold everything up to question, to find out what happens. In his Meditations, he then goes on to conclude that reality exists, and it’s a product of the mind, of reason. Descartes thus opens up the age of rationality, the era of Enlightenment thinking which holds reason to be supreme, and so Descartes is now known as the father of the modern age of philosophy. This approach can be opposed to the postmodern, of which I’ll say more later.

Psychoanalytically, we can say that someone who is out of touch with reality, and is unaware they are out of touch, is psychotic. Someone who is only somewhat out of touch with everyday reality from time to time, is considered neurotic. Freud doesn’t really attempt to define reality is. However, we know something of his reality – how he was unable to take up work as a professor in Vienna because he was Jewish, for example. We also know from some of his writings about society, such as The Future of an Illusion (1927), that he feels that society as a whole is suffering under a variety of fantasies and delusions, some of which he believes could lead to disastrous consequences. He discusses these premonitions with Einstein, who at that point is much more optimistic. Freud’s apparent pessimism about the course western culture was on at that point was proven to be visionary. Nazism was flourishing in Germany 10 years later, and Freud was lucky to escape with his life from his native Vienna. Essentially, we see that Freud believes all society is neurotic at best, and so what would it mean to adjust yourself to that reality? To quote Freud:
“… no doubt fate would find it easier than I do to relieve you of your illness. But you will be able to convince yourself that much will be gained if we succeed in transforming your hysterical misery into common unhappiness. With a mental life that has been restored to health you will be better armed against that unhappiness”. [Freud, S., Studies on Hysteria, SE Vol. 2, p305]

Many psychoanalysts since that time show that, in some way or other, they share Freud’s skepticism about the society’s mental well-being. Some, like Laing (in Politics of Experience) take a radical path in suggesting that perhaps even those who are considered mad may in fact be the sane ones, and vice versa. Laing’s notion forced many to reconsider their assumptions about normality, everyday life and madness.

Lacan draws distinctions between the imaginary, the symbolic and the real, but as we read through Lacan we find that it is only the symbolic and the imaginary which can be accessed and comprehended by the mind – reality is somehow there yet our experience and understanding of it is always mediated through language – through words which are signifiers pointing to the signified, Like the word “tree” refers to the object we know as a tree, yet the referent, that which the signified represents, that which is real – the tree in itself – is not accessible through language .

So we see that reality is not simple concept, and it is not necessarily readily accessible to our minds. So let’s now consider fantasy. Fantasy on the ‘net. Consider the historical evolution of the Internet for a moment.

Historical View of Fantasy Games on computers and the ‘Net:
I first encountered the internet in the early 80s, when I was a graduate student in computer science. First designed as a redundant system by the military to allow continual uninterrupted operation of critical military command systems even in the event of a nuclear strike against the U.S., it was initially opened up to the universities to allow a collaborative experimental and learning community to work together in improving, refining and expanding its orbits. In those days, the communal unstructured aspect of the 'net consisted only of Usenet – a bulletin board where discussions could take place on matters both serious and banal. Usenet offered sections for discussion of all sorts of subjects – everything from abstruse technical matters, to social conversations, philosophy and commerce – everything from abortion to zebras.

One popular fantasy game available on the mainframe prior to the internet was called Adventure. You had to type in your commands: “Go down rabbit hole”. “Say ‘open sesame’”, and you’d advance on a quest to find some imaginary prize. While this game was popular among computer science students, what was even more popular among the graduate students – who worked with the Unix operating system – was a game called Rogue. The player, represented by an “X” on the screen, travels around various rooms and passageways, drawn using the regular ASCII keyboard characters, and from time to time encounters monsters, who must be vanquished before they kill him. Each blow against a monster saps his strength points somewhat, while a kill increases them. As the player progress, he develops more strength points, enabling him to battle more ferocious monsters. While travelling through the rooms of this virtual world, the player can also pick up magic scrolls, stashes of gold, magic potions, etc. He can find a trapdoor on each level which takes the player to the next level below (considered, actually, as a “higher” level), where different and more formidable monsters lurk, and more valuable treasure awaits. The ultimate aim is to attain the ultimate object—that imaginary prize which will gratify all desire .

One could spend many hours playing this game, learning new tricks each time, such as how to battle different types of monsters, and what armor and weapons work best in various circumstances. It is not surprising that people would want to escape to some sort of fantasy via the computer, this machine that was unforgivingly rational and certain in its consistently rigid behavior. The perfectly rational versus the utterly fanciful. The space opened up to the computer user was populated by processes and programs which could sometimes be infected by bugs – anthropomorphic constructions of programmatic systems running as subsystems of programmed (operating) systems which functioned in an unexpected manner. A world (a space) infested/infected with fantasy objects !

People could sit for hours in front of a terminal screen, completing a programming project, writing pieces on the text editor, visiting Usenet, or e-mailing the few others in the world who had e-mail. Or you could also escape into the exciting fantasy world of Rogue. Everyone knew it was a fantasy game, yet students would often spend considerable amounts of time discussing Rogue strategies, and recounting the dramas that had unfolded during their last quest, just before they were killed by a Troll or some other fiend. One evening, I saw Bert, a fellow graduate student – wandering down the bleak corridors of the computer lab, looking exceptionally downhearted. “What’s the matter?” I asked him. “Aww, Jeez .. I got killed by a Zonk on level 15, and it took me over two hours to get there.” “Oh, that’s awful,” I commiserated with him. “Yeah, and that was the highest level I’d ever gotten to,” he sighed. The elements of fantasy had taken priority over the bleak, gray rationality of the computer laboratory.

MUDS (Multi-User Domains) and MOOs (MUDS of the Object Oriented Type):

As the internet became more pervasive, MUDs became popular. The word “MUD” stands for “Multi User Domain” while “MOO” stands for “Multi User Domain of the Object Oriented sort.” An adventure-type MUD is a Multi User Domain – a game where players adopt various fantasy identities, and go on a quest, generally for adventure and treasure. It’s like a multi-user version of Rogue. However, in most MUDs there is not a stated final goal – the aim, if any is simply to keep the community alive and functioning, so all can participate in it and enjoy the community that evolves. It is played widely by university students, and allows players to explore various aspects of themselves – aspects which they could not normally present in their normal public lives. In an adventure-type MUD, a player can be a sorcerer, an elf, a magician, a rogue, or whatever strikes his or her fancy. These MUDs are centered around a metaphor of physical space, often an ancient or mediaeval space .
In each room or space in which you find yourself, you are told what interesting objects exist and what other characters are in the room. You can generally pick up or examine objects to learn more about them, and you can also communicate with other characters. In general, you are expected to stay in role when communicating, though some MUDs allow players to communicate with one another out of their role in special OOC (Out of Character) asides.

Before playing each player writes a brief piece describing his character, and this description is available to other players to view at any time. Players form impressions of one another through reading each other’s self-descriptions and through interacting with them throughout the game play.

In social MUDs, players interact with one another as members of a village, town or community. Players again may invent any identity they choose, but depending on the nature and rules of the particular MUD, what is allowed or forbidden is governed by a variety of rules. Many such communities have a wide variety of characters, who interact just like citizens of a town would. There are houses, roads, a town square, a city hall, a mayor and a variety of bureaucrats, performing routine functions, like collecting taxes and registering deeds for real estate. There is generally also some type of law enforcement authority – in the form often of Wizards and Grand Wizards, who have the power to eject people if necessary. Some MUDs also have counselors, advisors and therapists. All of this takes place in the virtual world of the Social MUD, and players communicate with one another and receive instructions via written text.

A particular style of writing and communication develops in these communities, where participants may alter normal rules of English somewhat – for example, typing “How r u?” or using common abbreviations such as “IMHO” (In my humble opinion), as well as various emoticons such as :) or :( to indicate happiness and sadness. As there are no facial expressions or body language to read, one must judge other players’ sincerity through other means. If you want to express irony, you have to work on it in a different way than you would irl (in real life). In irl, when people are f2f , there are various meta-communications at play at the same time there are communications taking place on the verbal level. Although we are not always consciously aware of these communications, various researchers, including Gregory Bateson, Laing and Birdwhistell have shown that they play an important part in communication between us, and from time to time create anxiety, confusion or even madness. Communication taking place in web space occurs within a narrower bandwidth, meaning we must work harder to convey the flavor of what we mean. Also, some researchers have found that the narrower bandwidth lends itself well to the creation of a realm of fantasy which can be desirable – for example, in sex-chat rooms.

There are many studies available concerning the social life of MUDs, examining such things as whether a “true” community exists in this online world; the nature of presence ; whether presence is achieved; how relationships form and dissolve; the nature and dynamics of transvestitism; love and sex; etc. The fact that such studies exist seems to point to the fact that these online groups do indeed constitute a discrete community each with its own rules and social mores.

Because some characters in the town are pretty well-defined in their function – such as certain city hall clerks – they are played by programmatic characters, generally referred to as “bots” . Players and cyberculture creators with some basic programming skills have created a diverse array of bots, which are set loose in these communities, and on the wider Internet space, to play one role or other. In one community, there was a Barney bot, which kept telling everyone he met how happy he was, and how pleased he was to see them. Though Barney was soon murdered by one of the other players, this Barney-bot was quickly resurrected. Soon, however, Barney was “offed” again. Eventually, someone decided that it wasn’t OK to kill Barney. If you killed him in future, then two identical Barneys would take his place. If you them tried to kill these Barneys then their number would double, causing even more distress to those players who found the character insufferable.

Not surprisingly, many players spend time in the game getting to know other players, in role. If you get to know someone really well, you may want to venture to get to know them out of role. So, on-line “virtual” romance leads to romance irl .

The boundaries between what can be called reality and what a game are blurred. The following statement is from a set of FAQs, written by Jennifer Smith (see the newsgroup rec.games.mud.misc). Question 13 reads:

Is MUDding a game, or an extension of real life with gamelike qualities? It’s up to you. Some jaded cynics like to laugh at idealists who think it’s partially for real, but we personally think they’re not playing it right. Certainly the hack-‘n-slash stuff is only a game, but the social aspects may well be less so .

The Turing test:

In 1951, a computer scientist named Alan Turing wrote a paper which explored the question, “Can a Machine Think?” Turing first explains a game which involves fantasy of a sort and was popular at certain parties in Cambridge at the time. Two people, a male and a female, would be assigned to a room, and the door closed. Suppose we call the two people A and B. Then there is a third person (C) who has to guess which of A and B is male and which female. The only way C can communicate with the people in the room is via typewritten notes. A and B also communicate via typewritten notes which are slid under the door. One player is supposed to help the questioner, while the other’s role is to confuse the questioner as much as possible. The possibilities for this game are fascinating. What questions would you ask to try to determine who is male and who is female? But that issue is the subject of an entirely different paper.

Turing goes on to ask what would happen if, instead of putting a male and a female in the room, you were to place a person and a computer there. Would the questioner be able to tell the difference, if the computer tried to fool the researcher? In his paper, Turing suggested that, in 50 years time, there would be computers that would be smart enough to fool the questioner for at least five minutes. This theory is what inspired the homicidal computer, HAL, in 2001: A Space Odyssey, a movie which got its title from the Turing paper. Fifty years after 1951 is 2001.

This test of a computer’s ability to fool a person is known as the Turing Test and various people have offered substantial monetary rewards to anyone who can create a computer system that can pass it. A group of people at Pittsburgh University created a bot called Julia which “lives” in one of the online MUDs. She flirts with men, and knows a lot abut hockey. There are many cases of men being fooled by Julia for a while. This occurs in a MUD where players are familiar with the concept of bots. What are the fantasies of those who encounter Julia, and what is it about her responses that alert the player to the fact that she’s just a program? The nature of sexual desire and the fantasies associated with it are brought into question here. Clearly, even in virtual space, desire needs a gratification and has a sensitivity that’s associated with the body and its responses and which alerts the player when the cues he receives don’t work appropriately somehow .


Another notable fantasy construct is the ELIZA program.

In the early 1960s, Joseph Weizenbaum, the famous Artificial Intelligence (AI) researcher at MIT, developed his Eliza program (named after the character in Pygmalion ), which showed how the computer could be used for text manipulation, as well as number crunching (which is all that computers were seen as good for in those days). Eliza would take sentences that a user typed, analyze them and then transform them in some way, making it appear to have the simple intelligence of a not-very-imaginative Rogerian therapist. So, for example, I might write:

Hi, my name is Murray

Eliza might respond:

Hello, Murray. How are you today?”

And the conversation might proceed:

“Well, OK, but these exams are not going well.”
“The exams are not going well?”
“No, and I called my girlfriend and she’s not there.”
“So, you’re feeling pretty negative today, Murray.”

(Eliza would come out with a statement about being negative after it encountered 3 or 4 “not’s” close together.)

“Yeah, I guess I am.”
“You guess what?”
“I guess I’m feeling pretty depressed.”
“Does that have anything to do with your mother?”

(Eliza would respond to certain constructions it couldn’t parse, with stock phrases such as the one about your mother.)

So, who would believe that any intelligent person could reasonably be led into a world where fantasy and reality become indistinguishable by such a program running on an IBM mainframe, with text displayed on one of those green-on-gray IBM terminals?

Well, Weizenbaum was so surprised to find people earnestly relating to this simplistic program – this virtual simplistic therapist – that he wrote a book decrying the tendency to think that anything useful, anything therapeutic, could come out of this type of program? Not only did Weizenbaum’s secretary fall for Eliza, but notable figures in the world of AI at MIT such as Herbert Simon began singing the praises of Eliza and the possibilities the program opened up—people would no longer have to pay for expensive psychoanalysis. They could simply be plonked in front of a terminal with a souped-up version of Eliza running, and receive the best therapy rationality could concoct! Cheap. Effective. Therapy for the masses. What could be better? Soma for the masses?

The reality is that people allow their fantasies to determine what they find in the “space” opened up “in the screen” or “on” the screen. When John Lilly was asked by the Air Force to investigate mysterious crashes of jets in the early fifties, he discovered that the environment in which these pilots flew lacked sensory stimulation, and in these conditions, after some time, the mind began manufacturing its own content – fantasies, dreams and content – fantasies, dreams and hallucinations. Perhaps we can understand the virtual space opened up in the computer screen in a similar manner.

So what is real in virtual space?

Considering the fuzzy boundaries that exist in the world of interaction via the use of computers, we begin to see that the boundaries between reality and fantasy are in no way clearly definable. But then this is something that everyone who uses the ‘net already knows to some extent. Every computer user must take account of viruses and Spyware when surfing the ‘net. Nowadays, we must all exercise caution in terms of what e-mails we open, what sites we visit, what files we download, what lists we sign up for, etc. We must beware of phreaks and phonies of all sorts. Identity theft is not a fantasy, it happens in reality.

Concerning MUDs: I interviewed a player, Graham, from a social MUD called Ultima Online , who began playing the game while he was a college student in Australia. He soon became so good at it that the game controllers in the U.S. asked him to be a counselor. He was soon getting paid real money for his work assisting other players with their problems and helping to keep a reasonable sense of order in the game space. What I find remarkable is that Graham had purchased property in the game space soon after he began playing, using play (fantasy) money. A few years later, the game had become so popular and land had become so scarce that Graham sold the land to another player for real cash on eBay. Pure fantasy became real enough that actual money was exchanged, and cash – what economists refer to as the store of value, or the medium of exchange – signifies real value.

So we see here that what is originally considered fantasy, may at some point and by some people become real and valuable!

Other examples of Fantasy and Reality in the Online World:
I could provide countless other examples of how the boundary between fantasy and reality becomes blurred in the online world experience. In some ways this is just as it is in real life – we are not always able to so easily discern what is real and what is fantasy. This fact can apply to our perceptions of other people, to our awareness of social and political reality, to the economics and production of desire, whether they be sexual desires, desires for material goods or desires concerning one’s dreams and ambitions for who or what one takes oneself to be – one’s role definition. If reality is ultimately a social construct then we can see that the answers to these questions of reality and fantasy, and indeed the list of questions themselves, are founding moments of our conception of reality.

Then there is the question of what is real and what fantastic in relation to group experiences. Surely, what Bion describes as the basic assumption group is a group that has so allowed itself to become waylaid by a fantasy that it has become a dependency group, a fight/flight group, or a pairing group, rather than the group getting on with the work it has set out to undertake. Clearly, for the basic assumption group, there exists a fantasy which prevents the group from working. In reality mode, the group allows itself to be task-oriented, without necessarily having any fantasy about its composition at all.

The Lived Body:

In phenomenology, we talk of lived experience, which is my experience in my body, an experience I have as an embodied being. This characterizes phenomenological thinking from Husserl through Heidegger, Sartre, Merleau Ponty and Laing, amongst others. Psychoanalysis also takes the embodied human being for its subject. We never talk of a being, nor a philosophy of psychoanalysis, without reference to the lived body. And when we talk of intra-personal experience, we are referring to the experiences of two or more embodied beings. Which brings us to the question of the relationship of internet space to the “space” defined by this conference, which concerns itself with the experiences of group members amongst themselves, and what is new in the thinking and practice related to organizational work from the psychoanalytic perspective.

For Bion, it seems that he wavers at times on the point of whether the group as it exists, as it is experienced by its members, is an embodied group, or whether it exists as a group in some wider meta-space. In Experiences in Groups, Bion says:

McDougall and Le Bon seem to speak as if group psychology comes into being only when a number of people are collected together ion one place at one time, and Freud does not disavow this. For my part this is not necessary except to make study possible: the aggregation of individuals is only necessary in the way that it is necessary for analyst and analyzed to come together for the transference relationship to be demonstrable. Only by coming together are adequate conditions provided for the demonstration of the characteristics of the group; only if individuals come sufficiently close to each other is it possible to give an interpretation without shouting it; equally, it is necessary for all members of the group to be able witness the evidence on which the interpretations are based. For these reasons, the numbers of the group, and the degree of dispersion, must be limited. The congregation of the group in a particular place at a particular time is, for these mechanical reasons, important, but it has no significance for the production of group phenomena; the idea that it has springs from impression that a thing must commence at the moment when its existence becomes demonstrable.

And as Bion continues, he could be talking about lurkers:
In fact, no individual, however isolated in time and space, should be regarded as outside a group or lacking in active manifestations of group psychology.” [Bion, W.R., Experiences in Groups, p 169]

I suggest that this notion of the lived body, the notion that all I experience I experience as an embodied being, is crucial to understanding the space opened up by virtual shared internet space, just as we need to understand the lived body in relation to everyday experience.

I have found, in interviews and in surveys I have conducted concerning online experience, that there is a recurrent theme which spontaneously arises concerning the body and mind when people begin reflecting on their experiences in the online world. In the everyday world, we can see each other, and make judgements and evaluations of others, consciously or unconsciously, based on their physical appearance: What sex are they? What clothes are worn? Neat or messy? Young or old? Fat or thin? Handicapped or physically A-1? Black, white or other race? Am I attracted to her or him? Do I appear attractive to him or her? But online these usual evaluations and judgments are turned on their head. One young woman tells me that what she really likes about internet chat rooms Is that “online, you can be whomever you want to be.” Another person, answering a survey which asks about what they like about the online world, quotes a New Yorker cartoon, where one dog tells another that in the online world,:

“The thing I like about the internet is that online, no one knows you’re a dog.”

I have found this same theme repeated in interviews, in casual conversations, and in research done on the online world.

The ways in which expereince online is interpreted in terms of our five senses has been aptly demionstrated to me in my work with groups in online videconferences and a variety of online discussion groups. Also, Paulette Robinson shows how students refelct upon their expereincs in distance learning contexts in terms of what they see other people saying, How they watch and are watched, and so on. Also, how people sound – their tone – is it conversational or are they shouting? What is the meaning of silence of other members? How does one listen to others? Does each member have a voice? Do I hear you? Am I heard?

Online Groups: Practical Examples and Analysis:

Examples from online groups I have been involved with seem to show that there is more of a propensity for people to behave aggressively towards one another online than irl.

A few respondents to the survey mentioned that what they don’t like about online groups is the fighting that goes on. Some say it bores them, while others say that it scares them, makes them not want to contribute to the discussion.

One thing that is radically different between the group online and the group irl, is the experience of the group to those who don’t participate. In a real-life group I can see everyone who’s involved in the group, and form impressions about them based on what they say, and – significantly – on their silence – what they don’t say. In an online group, the silent ones –referred to as lurkers – cannot be seen or heard, and so cannot exert the same type of influence on the group as silent members of a flesh-and-blood group might.

I have already referred to the freedom that online communication offers people. But the other side of the coin is that online groups also provide the freedom for some group members to attack others in ways they would not do in a face-to-face meeting. I heard this observation made by several people who I interviewed .

Perhaps it’s the fact that in an asynchronous online group a member can write pieces as long as s/he wants that also opens up the possibility that members get the impression that they can fully express themselves without interruption, which is frequently not possible in face-to-face groups, where group members may not have the patience to listen to a long essay about what Jack or Jill thinks about a given subject.

How to Create a Better Online Group:

I have briefly touched on a number of aspects of life online, or perhaps more accurately, “Life in the screen.” In the online world, on web pages, one is able to branch off in a myriad of different directions through the existence of hypertext, so that one reader can choose to explore through a particular path, then return and branch off again somewhere else, while another reader may take a wholly different path, after starting at the same point.

Another observation I have made in this respect is that conversation online takes a different form from conversations irl. There are different explanations for this. First (as pointed out by Pavel, the inventor of LamdaMOO in his article xxx) typing text message takes some time, so conversation is not smooth and immediate. One “says” something and then must wait while the other types a response. So, what happens in many synchronous groups (such as MUDs and chat rooms) is that while there is a pause, someone else will say something unrelated to the first utterances, and the player/chatter might begin responding to the second communication, while still retaining the awareness of the first response she is awaiting. What occurs then is a multithreaded multi-tasked conversation between many people, which can be disconcerting to new players/chatters who are not used to this.

Sherry Turkle stresses again and again that the online world brings us a completely new metaphor for reality – a postmodern one. In Turkle’s view, the postmodern is characterized by a multi-dimensional concept, multiple views of realty, where no one view can necessarily be said to be final or complete. In fact, it is not really correct to say there are multiple views of reality, because that would assume that there is a reality which exists, of which we can form multiple views. For the radical postmodern perspective, there is not necessarily one reality at all, there are simply multiple perspectives.

When someone who is accustomed to this world of multiple simultaneous conversations engages in text-based conversation in an online group, then they would feel comfortable talking about and responding to more than one thread at a time. If they, in addition, have learned a sufficiently appropriate web etiquette (netiquette), then they would also be able to respond reasonably politely to others’ views, beliefs and opinions. Sometimes a clash occurs between those who feel a particular online group is weighty and serious, and participants should engage in serious conversation concerning a specific subject matter, pursuing each theme relentlessly until “the truth” is discovered. An approach such as this seems to lead inevitably to serious arguments of the head-to-head variety. [Or avatar-to-avatar? Persona-to-persona? Do we have “heads” on-line?]

In my view, the phenomenological perspective, as developed by Husserl, and elaborated upon by Heidegger, Merleau Ponty, Sartre and – not least of all—by Levinas, provides a better foundation for the development of knowledge in philosophy, psychology, science and psychoanalysis. Phenomenology begins with the understanding that we each have our own perspectives on the world, so let’s accept that as the reality and begin from there. There very well may be no final answer, no one truth, no totalization of the whole ball of wax . This would accord with Levinas’ view. Levinas might find it acceptable to attempt to totalize a physical object such as a ball of wax. But certainly it is not appropriate – if indeed possible at all –- to attempt to totalize another human being. It is difficult (or perhaps impossible?) to live life in the Levinasian spirit, always honoring the other, always putting the other first, never totalizing him/her, but always being open to the awareness of the other as an infinitely unknowable human other (God springs to mind here ). If one keeps this in mind when interacting with others in online groups, a rich, multitasking multi-threaded conversation can ensue where there is sufficient room for discussion of different or multiple views, and divergence of views from the accepted gospel, while at the same time there is not a degeneration into a certain stereotyped version of what may be considered a post-modern mishmash of anything-goes narcissistic posturing.

Ina recent group I hosted, titled “Value of Values,” I observed the interaction of one member who was known to me from previous groups with which I’d been involved with their members. One such group was set up to study various case presentations of interactions with groups, and was attended by a number of professionals. The group had been initiated by an individual who was attempting to establish himself and his company as a reputable firm that consulted with organizations, both on-line and off. As the facilitator for such groups, I generally try to mediate conversations between members, but also from time to time express views of my own, which I feel might be helpful in generating more discussion, including a reasonable amount of disagreement. Nothing is more boring than a conversation/discussion where everyone agrees. In one such group, this individual, who I will call Fred, responded to a posting I made where I spoke of Nietzsche’s views concerning values, and the need to re-examine all values, with the following posting:]

“Murray, be careful. Nietzsche was a fucker!”

I was surprised at first by this, but then welcomed it as something that showed and expressed some emotional quality, something that I feel helps an online group stay alive. I responded to the posting and hoped others would too. However, the initiator of the group (Alan) was extremely upset by this, and felt that Fred was deliberately using Anglo-Saxonisms in "his" group to show disrespect. He felt such language (such behavior) should not be allowed, and so diverted the flow of the conversation to the issue of whether it was permissible to use such language. I, personally, was not particularly affronted by the language. What was more important to me was the fact (as I saw it) that Fred had completely misconstrued Nietzsche. However, Alan had ultimate authority, and he insisted on carrying on the complaint to the point of toading Fred. I personally felt that Alan overstepped his authority in usurping my authority as group facilitator to wrestle with and threaten Fred publicly in the group, and that as professionals with psychoanalytic backgrounds, these people were not children and were perfectly capable of dealing with such language.

Fred then attended my “Value of Values” group, and began creating waves in the somewhat placid waters of the group up to that time, by talking about how sorry he felt for a group of young Republicans at a university in the Midwest who wanted to conduct a bake sale, which was perceived by the authorities at the university as racist. Some feminists had held a bake sale at the university a few months before where they charged higher prices for cookies to men than to women to try to illustrate the inequality in wages that exists in the society. These Young Republicans organized a bake sale where they posted menus showing lower prices for minorities, to illustrate their point that they felt that minorities were being given an unfair advantage because of affirmative action policies that were in existence at the university.

Initially, I though that this would lead to serious fights and arguments in the group. However, two group members, both steeped in Levinas, engaged Fred in conversation, and finally showed respect for his views, but questioned certain of his premises. Over the period of a few days, I was amazed to see a civil and intelligent conversation ensue between the three of them, after which point, Fred, who is very intelligent and adept at arguing his positions actually came to a friendly agreement with Sam and Hilda, and resolved that he would actually take a look at Levinas, though he had originally been totally opposed to anything that smacked of the postmodern.”

In conclusion, it seems given that the reality of the online world is that it provides more freedom
from the usual social restraints than life irl. This freedom is sometimes abused by people who overlook – deliberately or otherwise – the reality that the characters you find online are representative of real-life characters just like you or me, and that we all owe each other respect while we engage in conversations which, if allowed to proceed on some appropriate level in their multi-dimensionality, can enrich all those who are involved. If we use that freedom, and perhaps our superior verbal fighting skills, to try to put down, embarrass, show up, or totalize others, that soon gets unpleasant for most participants.

Although we don’t want prissy, simplistic Barneys running about sprouting syrupy “I love you, you love me” platitudes, it may be well to think of love from time to time when involved in a group. Tavistock-style human relations groups are excellent laboratories for analysis of power and authority, but perhaps they leave out the Levinasian appreciation of the other as infinite. For us to all get along and welcome one another with all our diversity of culture, of age, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, age and educational background, we need to keep this in mind to create a viable, rich and interesting forum where all can benefit from the incredible talent that’s represented in the diverse array of people gathered together under the ISPSO umbrella.

There is no ideal formula for how to create a workable, interesting, intellectually challenging online discussion group where each honors the other. All we can do is develop general principles and guidelines, and keep in mind that the communications in the online environment represent the saying of embodied human beings. To quote a student reflecting on the online experience:

Without how you sound and your body language, I think you have to write to be tactful. You can say things online very critically, and come across as abrupt. But face-to-face you are more tactful. So when you do it in writing, you have to be careful.

In terms of body experience, we can keep in mind that we and others experience each other in terms of sight and sound, as already mentioned. But we also experience one another in terms of touch. Perhaps we should be aware of whether we are hurting or touching another or whether we feel touched when we communicate in this world.


Berman, Joshua and Bruckman, Amy S., “The Turing Game: Exploring Identity in an Online Environment”, in Convergence, 7(3), 2001

Bernard Shaw, G., Pygmalion, Penguin Books, London, 1916

Bion, W.R., Experiences in Groups, Tavistock Publications, 1961

Birdwhistell, R.L., Kinesics and Context: Essays on Body Motion Communication, University of Pennsylvania Publications in Conduct and Communication

Descartes, R., Meditations, in The Rationalists, Anchor Books, New York, 1974

Freud, S., Studies on Hysteria, in Standard Edition Vol. 2
Freud, S., The Future of an Illusion,

Fromm, Erich, Art of Loving

Heidegger, Martin, Being and Time,

Husserl, E., The Idea of Phenomenology, Martinus Nijhoff, 1973

Ihde, D. Experimental Phenomenology: An Introduction, State University of New York Press, 1986

Ito, Mizuko, Virtually Embodied: The Reality of Fantasy in a Multi-User Dungeon, in Internet Culture, ed. David Porter, Routledge, New York, 1996

Laing, R.D., Politics of Experience,

Laing, R.D., Self and Other

Leonard, Andrew, Bots, Penguin Books, 1998

Levinas, E., Totality and Infinity,

Levinas, E., Of God Who Comes to Mind,

Lewis, C.S., The Chronicles of Narnia, HarperCollins, New York

Lilly, J., Center of the Cyclone,

Lyotard, J.F., The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MN, 1999

Miller, Eric, Videoconferencing for Folklorists, at http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/~emailler/for_folklorists.html

Nietzsche, The Gay Science

Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra

Pirsig, Lila

Robinson, Paulette, The Body Matrix: A Phenomenological Exploration of Student Bodies Online, in Educatinal Technology and Society, 3(3), 2000

Russo, Tracy, and Benson, Tracy, Leaning with Invisible Others: Perceptions of Online Presence and their Relationship to Cognitive and Affective Learning, in Educational Technology & Society, 8(1), 2005, 54-62

Turing, Alan, Can Digital Computers Think, in “The Essential Turing: Seminal Writings in Computing, Logic, Philosophy, Artificial Intelligence, And Artificial Life; Plus The Secrets Of Enigma” by B. Jack Copeland, Alan Mathison Turing

Turkle, S., Life on the Screen

Weizenbaum J., Computer Power and Human Reason: From Judgement to Calculation,

Various articles.

Virtual Reality and its Discontents

Internet Culture

The “Gestalt” drawings (vase woman’s face)

Movie where Laing and 2 others interview the same patient.

Movie: The Time Bandits

Movie: The Purple Rose of Cairo

Movie: Ghostworld

Movie: You’ve Got Mail

Pictures (Escher, gestalt) from http://members.lycos.co.uk/brisray/optill/othis.htm

Article online: http://www.newcastle.edu.au/discipline/sociol-anthrop/staff/kibbymarj/maledisp.html
Marjorie Kibby & Brigid Costello
Displaying the phallus: Masculinity and the performance of sexuality on the Internet
Men & Masculinities V1 N4 April 1999:352-364

© Copyright, June 2005, Murray Gordon. Murray@LivingPhilosophy.org

Suggestions for Running a Succesful Online Discussion Group

1. The person in control of the “physical” keys for the group should not be the same person as the moderator of the discussion. There is generally one person who can decide whether a particular person can still participate in the group, and can exclude any individual by locking them out. As an analogy, when one gives a presentation at an event, the person giving the presentation may use a projector, microphone, etc., but does not set up the projector and other audio-visual equipment, and is not physically in control of the equipment. The moderator may, however, have certain authority to request an individual be admitted or excluded from the group. The “physical” sysop should then comply with the moderator’s request.
2. It is helpful in an online group if each participant is introduced to the group in some way – preferably each person introduces themselves. In an educational online group, where grades may be involved, where performance is measured in some way, the group leader/teacher can call upon any member requesting him/her to respond in some way. I believe that a group moderator should consider how to encourage other participants to participate. The problem of lurkers demands that there should be some concern with encouraging everyone to participate.
3. There should be a statement of intent and rules of etiquette for the group. These should explain that the group is concerned with exploring a particular topic or range of topics, and participants should respect one another, and try to build on another’s views, rather than adopt unassailable absolutist positions, which invite opposition from others with opposing absolutist positions. This could be called the mutually positive appreciative approach (or an approach based on phenomenology, which begins with the understanding that we each have different perspectives, and the object, if any; of the groups is to consider what is valuable in each person’s perspective, rather than trying to reach a fixed, ideological position.)

Some Definitions

irl: In real life

An automatic mailing list server developed by Eric Thomas for BITNET in 1986. When e-mail is addressed to a LISTSERV mailing list, it is automatically broadcast to everyone on the list. The result is similar to a newsgroup or forum, except that the messages are transmitted as e-mail and are therefore available only to individuals on the list.

LISTSERV is currently a commercial product marketed by L-Soft International. Although LISTSERV refers to a specific mailing list server. The term is sometimes used incorrectly to refer to any mailing list server. Another popular mailing list server is Majordomo, which is freeware.

(From: http://www.webopedia.com/TERM/L/Listserv.html)
The refmon is there in the chat room to assist participants that are having trouble with CU or have questions about, well, just about anything.

(From: http://www.geocities.com/SiliconValley/Vista/341/refmon.html?200525

Some oppositions:
Reality – Fantasy
Liberating fantasy – Punishing/persecuting fantasy
Illusion – Delusion
Modern – Postmodern
Normal everyday English – New vocabulary and language on the ‘net
Theory – practice
One truth – Multiple perspectives
Real life – The game (in reference to MUDs)
Body – mind
Embodied – Mind-oriented
Anglo American philosophy – phenomenology
Absolute – multi-threaded

A vase or two faces?

Escher print


San Francisco Street