‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone,’ it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less.’
‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’
‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master – that’s all.’
Alice was too much puzzled to say anything; so after a minute Humpty Dumpty began again. ‘They’ve a temper, some of them – particularly verbs: they’re the proudest – adjectives you can do anything with, but not verbs – however, I can manage the whole lot of them!”
“Impenetrability! That’s what I say!’
‘Would you tell me, please,’ said Alice, ‘what that means?’
‘Now you talk like a reasonable child,’ said Humpty Dumpty, looking very much pleased. ‘I meant by “impenetrability” that we’ve had enough of that subject, and it would be just as well if you’d mention what you mean to do next, as I suppose you don’t mean to stop here all the rest of your life.’
‘That’s a great deal to make one word mean,’ Alice said in a thoughtful tone.
‘When I make a word do a lot of work like that,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘I always pay it extra.’
How do we talk about online spaces? With metaphors. We love describing online communities as if they were face-to-face spaces.
Pubs, bars, rooms, parties, cafes, homes, classrooms, villages, islands, town halls, rail networks, dungeons – we’re all keen on repurposing terms from offline geography to describe our digital social geography. Each term has its own connotations, its own slightly tweaked set of rules and etiquette. Each looks and feels a little different from the next.
As tigtog mentioned the other day, she and I go back to old-school Usenet, so we’ve done our fair share of wrestling with all of these imperfect yet useful and fun metaphors in certain areas of this shared series of tubes. Environments like Second Life and World of Warcraft have gone the extra steps to create a 4D visual environment that replicates the offline to a greater or lesser extent, but in text – especially asynchronous text, somehow – we get to use our imaginations.
The people collaboratively developing the descriptions do so for a variety of reasons. Jocular motivations abound, and the spatial metaphors are a way of forging and deepening relationships and communities through the creative, whimsical manipulation of language. There’s also that deeper layer, the layer that involves influencing understandings of those spaces in certain directions. Linguistic description can gently steer the way participants think about the space. Clashes in spatial understandings can underlie online tensions. The contrived “free speech”/”censorship” trolling so often swung about about on blogs is one of the more obvious examples of this. Never has a triumphantly-attempted trump play been more ineffectual.
Where are we now? It’s not like my livejournal, which I see as rather like my living room, or perhaps afternoon tea on the front porch. What kind of space is Hoyden About Town?
I don’t speak for tigtog, but after much contemplation, I think for me it’s a cross between a huge, ongoing backyard party and a series of interconnected consciousness-raising meetings. (Doesn’t every good party have a good few D & Ms? ) The gate is open, neighbours drop by, friends bring their friends, and people post flyers at their own parties. My imaginary futuristic version of Google Streetview Live has a pulsing party icon and a pop-up window with our tagline.
The metaphor creaks under the strain. Hyperlinks complicate things. Do we have hyperspace wormholes to other parties? Since we’re embracing modern electronics even within the metaphor, I’d like to imagine large screens videolinking us to all the other blogparties we chat with. We are, however, clearly making these words work hard for their living. We’re not quite in Humpty Dumpty land yet – words still mean stuff. We just get to play with them a little, not actually order them around as if we were master.
Parties are fabulous, but strange parties can be confronting when you don’t know anyone there, the music is unfamiliar, and there’s a bouncer with a truncheon occasionally glancing at you out of the corner of her eye. But no fear: the playlist is posted right there at the door – all you have to do is read. And the coolest thing? You can keep your Cloak of Invisibility on until you’ve eavesdropped on all the conversations, learnt the names of all the participants, and feel confident that you know what’s going on. Lurking for the first little while is positively encouraged, not considered rude. I wish I’d had that cloak of those for some of the face-to-face parties I’ve been to.
Sometimes, the waves of all-fun-all-the-time can hit a lull. It’s all fun and games till some numpty hands out a couple of thousand invites on Myspace. Now, most of the Myspacers might be fabulously fun, but a few just charge in the gate singing bawdy rugby songs, trample the vegie patch, hog all the snacks, break their stubbies on the dog kennel, and yell so loudly that the rest of us can’t be heard. The occasional one will let loose a string of abuse or pull a knife. Sometimes a few sharp glances and a pointed remark lead the more courteous among them to look around and realise, “Oh! It’s not that sort of party!” Some of those might leave in search of a party more suited to their needs; some might decide they’d like to stick around for a homebrew and a natter. But a few are hell-bent on singing their ditties too loudly to listen to anyone without a truncheon.
So unless we want the attention-junkies continuing that sort of behaviour and making the party all about them, we need bouncers. We need bouncers with ultimate power over this particular tiny corner of the universe; bouncers with big-arse truncheons. Tigtog and I are those bouncers.
And after the flurry of truncheon-waving, we turn the music back on, and get down and boogie.
The new summary of the Hoyden About Town Commenting and Moderation Policy is now up in our Guidelines section.
Check it out.
 I don’t much like the term “Real Life”; it reveals that people think about online interactions as “not real”, the corollary of which seems too often to be “I have licence to be an arse”.
 D & M = “Deep And Meaningful”. Those intense, profound, passionate conversations in the corners of parties where you lay your emotions bare and solve the problems of the world.