A VIRTUAL FETISH: THEMES OF A VIRTUAL COMMUNITY AS PRESENTED IN TIME AND WIRED
Two magazinesDTime and WiredDoffer extensive discourse about the Internet.
This research compares and contrasts the social construction of the virtual
community technology as illustrated in Time (a popular press publication) and
Wired (a niche press publication).
The virtual community coverage of Time and Wired captures four predominant
themes: business, entertainment, government, and society. Overall, both the
popular press and niche press publications construct a positive and utopian view
of the virtual community.
A VIRTUAL FETISH:
THEMES OF A VIRTUAL COMMUNITY
AS PRESENTED IN TIME AND WIRED
MARJORIE LYNNE YAMBOR
3305 Trappers Cove Trail
Lansing, MI 48910
[log in to unmask]
A VIRTUAL FETISH:
THEMES OF A VIRTUAL COMMUNITY AS
PRESENTED IN TIME AND WIRED
A somewhat novel mania is sweeping society: the virtual community. The online
virtual world of the Internet represents the current state of virtual reality,
providing an immersive environment in which individuals may interact with
others; this alternative-playpen-existence has reached fetish status. People
everywhere are discovering the lure of chat rooms, e-mail systems, internet
games, and usenet news groups. When users enter the Internet world, they are
"logging on to a great computer-mediated gabfest, an interactive debate that
allows them to leap over barriers of time, place, sex and social status"
(Elmer-Dewitt, 1993, p.60). Chat rooms invite visitors to participate in live
discussions revolving around an eternal mix of topics, creating an instantaneous
coffee-house environment. E-mail systems enable users to transmit messages
electronically, providing an alternative to postal (commonly referred to as
"snail mail") and telephone correspondence. Internet games immerse players in
surreal realms with other on-line gamers, shaping clans of allies and rivals.
As Schroeder (1994, p. 526) points out, "science is no longer seen as a tool for
mastery over the world, but rather as the handmaiden of magic." Finally,
usenet news groups prompt the exchange of discussion on a myriad of subjects,
triggering an anarchy of voices. All of these examples prove one fact: the
on-line virtual community is booming.
Just a few years ago, many viewed the virtual community as a very eccentric
entertainment available mostly to those residing in major cities. The youth
culture, academic theorists, and developers of technology all influenced the
Internet, which offered "a common worldview and a common way of life among the
members of a cultural avant-garde in London and on the US West Coast, two global
centres of the information and communication industries" (Schroeder, 1994, p.
524). Today, the virtual reality of the Internet enjoys widespread acceptance
and attention. The computer has evolved into an increasingly necessary and
welcome tool in homes, schools, and businesses across the world. Society has
experienced "a way of looking at the world that combines an infatuation with
high-tech tools and a disdain for conventional ways of using them"
(Elmer-Dewitt, 1993, p. 59). Families shape the Net for leisure. Teachers mold
the Net for education. Corporate businesses develop the Net for efficiency.
Obviously, the Internet is becoming increasingly ubiquitous. Because of this,
traditional media (magazines, newspapers, and television) are embracing the
opportunity to engage in discourse about the Net. This research offers a
general thematic and rhetorical analysis of selected media's presentation of
this virtual reality technology. Some logical questions regarding the virtual
1. What primary themes are the media offering?
2. Is the presentation of these themes positive or negative overall?
3. Who, according to the media, are the major players hoping to exercise
some level of control over the virtual community?
4. Who is attempting to profit in the new environment?
5. What strata of society are participating in these virtual communities?
Two magazinesDTime and WiredDoffer extensive discourse on the
aforementioned topics. The social constructionist perspective serves as the
theoretical framework for this study. This research will compare and contrast
the social constructionDthe general thematic and rhetorical treatmentDof the
virtual community technology as illustrated in Time (a popular press
publication) and Wired (a niche press publication). The popular press
publication caters to a very general public, while the niche press publication
targets a distinct group of computer aficionados. The content for analysis
consists of various articles from an 18-month period, ranging from May 1996
through October 1997. A census sample was collected from Time for a total of 17
relevant articles. However, a purposive sample had to be taken from Wired due
to the subject nature of the publication. To best match the Time sample, one
article per month was selected from the Wired issues. (Note: Two issues were
unavailable from the resource poolDJuly 1997 and October 1997Dand the February
1997 issue failed to provide a significant article. So, three random issues of
Wired are represented twice in the sample of articles.) The virtual community
coverage of Time and Wired captures four predominant themes: business,
entertainment, government, and society. The following table illustrates the
distribution of articles by publication and theme:
Time's coverage proves somewhat disproportionate, favoring the business and
entertainment themes. On the other hand, Wired's coverage displays a more
proportionate distribution among themes, but leans slightly toward the issues of
government and society.
A VIRTUAL FETISH: FOCUS ON BUSINESS
In its discussion of business in the virtual community, Time reflects on small
businesses as well as corporate giantsDMicrosoft and NetscapeDwho are waging war
with each other to gain widespread browser acceptance with Internet users. Time
indeed links hype with technology. Wired constructs the same overall positive
presentation, although the primary focus tends to be on the absence or presence
of middlemen in online business transactions, as well as how specific companies
are molding the new technology. All of these companies (mentioned in both
publications) seek to not only control the evolving landscape of the virtual
world technology, but also to profit from it. Only the niche press publication
indirectly and directly mentions the specific strata of society that is engaged
in online business. Indirectly, it seems safe to assume that users would be
middle class or higher who own computers and also possess credit cards with
which to engage in online transactions. Directly, Wired notes that one
particular corporate guru cooperates with Clinton's vision of getting inner-city
and rural residents connected to the virtual community, thus expanding the
parameters of the online population.
This popular press publication presents a positive perspective of certain
business realms of the virtual community. Business ventures in the Net world
range from virtual shopping malls to virtual real estate. Even fashion exists
in the realm of the virtual. The Style Channel on America Online runs the
Virtual Agency, which serves as a counseling and information center for aspiring
models. A Time magazine article (Cray et al., 1997) describes the former models
as "tech-savvy divas" who are ensuring that the fashion world stays in step with
technology. The popular press publication portrays a positive image of those
who are learning and using society's newest medium.
Also eager to maintain pace with technology is an individual best described as
a virtual librarian: Brewster Kahle. As a Time magazine article (Cray et al.,
1997) points out, "Today's hit home pages evaporate into electrons as soon as
they've outlived their utility." So, it seems that although the virtual
community of the Internet remains here to stay, some fear that the thoughts
exchanged therein are transitory. Kahle hopes to combat the evanescent quality
of virtual content by preserving digital records, which will be available to
those seeking Internet-based information through his profit venture: ALEXA
Quite a bit of profit in the virtual community realm lies in the game
entertainment business. Time covers one particular gaming company that caused
quite a stir: id. President John Carmack and game architect John Romero
introduced a phenomenon with the computer games Doom and Quake. The games
revolve around interactive virtual worlds that totally titillate "The twitchy
teenagers and addicted adults who spend hours at a time blasting away the
phosphorous phantoms on their PC screens_" (Quittner, 1996, p. 62). Across the
world, ultimate fans bang away on computer keyboards on Friday and Saturday
nights instead of pursuing traditional weekend entertainment such as concerts,
parties, and theatre. The visionaries could not be more pleased, since "id's
3-D bloodfests have spawned a worldwide gaming revolution and made its founders
cult heroes and multimillionaires before age 30" (Krantz, 1997c, p. 56).
Unfortunately, though, the dynamic starters no longer exist. John Romero left
id with Mike Wilson to form ION Storm, a competitor. Wilson professes faith in
ION's ultimate goal, which "is to make computer gaming a mass medium 'in the
same league as film, TV and music'" (Krantz, 1997c, p. 57). Considering the
current success rate of the Internet gaming industry, the concept seems
Moving on, Time also offers insight about three corporate giants that are
shaping the terrain of the virtual community: Cisco, Microsoft, and Netscape.
First, Cisco dominates the Internet router business. Routers are simply devices
that link computers to networks, enabling individual computers to correspond
with one another via the Internet; without routers, the virtual community could
not exist. Time (Ramo, 1997, p. 51) presents a rather unflattering picture of
the technical side by saying, "Late at night, when corporations sleep, 'geek
squads'Dthe human infrastructure of the information ageDstuff routers into
closets, under desks or anywhere out of sight. It is not a business that
produces headlines. It does, however, produce stock market rockets." Two
Stanford academics (a husband and wife team) created the router to solve the
inability of the college's mainframe to send messages; they simply wanted to
converse via computer dialogue. The rest is making stock market history. Now,
"Cisco owns the horses of the fastest-growing Pony Express in history" (Ramo,
1997, p. 51).
Next, Time focuses on Microsoft and Netscape, two current behemoths in the
computer industry. The popular press publication presents a clear theme:
Microsoft and Netscape are at war. The device caught in the middle is the
browser, which eased the sting of technology by bringing "order to the chaos of
the World Wide Web, a corner of the Net stuffed with text, sounds and pictures"
(Ramo, 1996a, p. 58). Browsers allow users to easily navigate the virtual
community. Microsoft's version of the browser is Internet Explorer. The
mottoD"When I'm awake, I'm working"Ddrives the Microsoft vision, and CEO Bill
Gates (cited in Ramo, 1996a) offers obvious hype on behalf of the Internet:
The Internet is a revolution in communications that will change the
world significantly. The Internet opens a whole new way to communicate
your friends and find and share information of all types. Microsoft is
betting that the Internet will continue to grow in popularity until it is
mainstream as the telephone today.
So, the grandiose notions that accompanied past innovations also supplement
today's technology that makes the virtual community possible.
Finally, Time discusses Navigator, Netscape's version of the browser. Netscape
represents "one of history's headiest corporate ascents, as the ubiquitous
Netscape Navigator browser helped spawn the world's startling online stampede"
("The 25 Most Influential People in America," 1996). CEO James Barksdale
presents a vision to his employees of working better, not more, and "he radiates
the same cocksure attitude, bred from an ability to project a vast strategic
vision and master simultaneously each of its components" as his competitors
(Ramo, 1996a, 60). In the midst of intense competition from Microsoft, Netscape
enjoys a loyal client base. How these two companies (and others) fight the
browser battle will determine how users will occupy the virtual community.
Competition in the computer industry thrives, creating newer tools, faster
access, and greater technological flexibility for the public. As Time tells the
story, in the "information-age corporate warfare_.victory today means little
more than the right to come back and fight again tomorrow" (Ramo, 1996a, p. 64).
This niche press publication gives a straightforward mention of several
Atari employees who laid some groundwork for today's virtual community. Scott
Fisher founded the Virtual Environment Workstation project in 1985, an early
development in virtual reality. Brenda Laurel, whose name appears in a large
portion of literature about virtual landscapes, "has written extensively about
interface design, suggesting models based on drama to explore the relationship
between people and computers" (Montfort, 1996, p. 166). There is no doubt that
individuals are becoming increasingly familiar with computers, breaking down the
barriers of apprehension toward technology.
With regard to general business in the virtual community, Wired discusses the
process of "reintermediating." Virtual shopping eliminates such annoying
experiences as dealing with a car salesman, thus allowing automobile buyers to
take the time to seriously consider their purchases without the hassle of
pressure. However, web middlemen are introducing themselves more often,
claiming to offer some advantage to the virtual customer. One example is travel
planning, where "a great deal of hocus-pocus has been introducedDthe purpose is
to make it almost impossible for you or me to understand the jargon of airline
reservations or the price changes" (Negroponte, 1997, p. 2). Another example is
Virtual Vineyards, which arranges the delivery of wine directly to homes. The
company itself, though, does not actually possess any inventory; it simply acts
as a link between the vineyards and the consumers. Wired (Negroponte, 1997,
p.3) proposes a new intermediary that grants personal advice to individuals
according to personal taste so people do not waste time reading bad novels, for
instance: "The digital intermediaries may change that forever. I want them to.
So do you."
On the other hand, not everyone is reintermediating. David Shaw, for one, does
not believe in it. Shaw is launching FarSight, a virtual financial mall where
individuals can access personal checking accounts, credit card accounts, and
automated stock trading (to name a few perks). As far as Shaw is concerned,
"once computers have replaced these tassel-loafered leeches [finance experts], a
new financial era will dawn. Shaw calls this golden age 'disintermediation,'
because it involves 'pulling intermediaries out of the loop and letting
customers get closer to each other'" (Bass, 1997, p.210). Shaw is also working
with President Clinton to provide as many people as possible with Internet
access, through free e-mail to inner-city and rural residents, as well as wired
classrooms in schools. Perhaps if the computer industry recognizes the ills of
society and sculpts technology accordingly, everyone will benefit. According to
Wired (Bass, 1997, p. 211), "With wonderful good humor and efficiency, he [Shaw]
is offering to help straighten it out with a wave of his computational wand."
Finally, some companies are neither interested in reintermediating nor
disintermediating; they simply want to become more efficient by using the
virtual community. FedEx (which competes with UPS even in cyberspace) provides
an example of this notion. FedEx believes in learning the technology, molding
it to fit specific corporate needs, and then establishing a comfort level for
customers so they, too, interact in virtual business via web sites. Fred Smith
(cited in Lappin, 1996b), founder of FedEx, offers grand plans for the future
when he says, "The same type of effect that Wal-Mart had in the retailing
sectorDthat's what the Internet is going to do to every business."
The following table summarizes the presentations of Time and Wired on the theme
SOCIAL CONSTRUCTION OF BUSINESS THEME
Small business ventures
(virtual modeling agencies,
Former Atari employees
David Shaw; Fed Ex
same as above
same as above
STRATA OF SOCIETY
Shaw helps to expand by wiring inner-city and rural residents
A VIRTUAL FETISH: FOCUS ON ENTERTAINMENT
Everyone loves good entertainment, and the virtual community is no exception.
The popular press publicationDTimeDpresents various aspects of entertainment in
the virtual community, ranging from virtual concerts and vacations to the
introduction of gaming software for girls. Wired also discusses the gender
issue in and offers an in-depth look at interaction inside metaworlds. Both
publications offer utopian visions of the entertainment theme. Major players
include companies that target both the girl and boy gaming population, such as
id and Purple Moon.
For those individuals who require more excitement than playing Net games at
home in front of their personal computer screens, GameWorks serves as a festive
alternative. Created by Steven Spielberg, the 30,000-square-foot electronic
playground offers guests various virtual-reality diversions, including
fighter-plane simulators and an Internet lounge (Baumohl, Cole, and Eisenberg,
1997). Of course, who could be more perfect to mold a virtual arcade than
Spielberg, the mogul of the fantasy film industry?
Visitors to the virtual community also have the opportunity to catch a concert.
As Time (Krantz, 1996, p. 74) points out, the soundscape of the Net is
metamorphosing since "the music industry is getting wired with a vengeance, and
that's changing everything: how bands get heard, how performers develop
followings, even how music gets distributed." By broadcasting their music on
the Web, musicians gain immediate access to a global audience; then, all they
have to do is strike a chord with potential fans. However, not everyone expects
to benefit from the virtual music scene. Retail music outlets fear the most.
Logically, fans would enjoy downloading entire pieces of music onto blank
compact discs, so if the technology were to catch up with the desire,
traditional music stores could experience trouble. Time (Krantz, 1996, p. 76)
says, "But that's the way it has always been with rock 'n' roll. One person's
dream is another's nightmare."
For those who are not craving a nightmare, perhaps a virtual vacation would
soothe the soul. Planet 9Da company based in San FranciscoDnow offers various
cityscapes of tourist cities via the Web. The graphics remain rough; however,
the ability to instantaneously zap the space between geographical locations is
quite real. Time (Dworetzky, 1997, p. 92) reports that "This brave new virtual
world will let us visit many places that inaccessibility, inconvenience and
danger have heretofore made remoteDeven exotic."
Finally, Time explores the issue of gender in the entertainment realm of the
virtual community. In the past, virtually all of the computer games targeted
males. The female market "has been all but ignored in favor of the seemingly
bottomless appetite of boys and young men for so-called twitch games, like the
bloody, light-speed shoot-'em-ups Quake and Doom" (Krantz, 1997b, 9. 48).
However, that scenario is changing. Brenda Laurel (formerly with Atari and
mentioned earlier in this research) acts as a pioneer in the girl gaming
industry. She receives financial backing from Interval Research to run Purple
Moon, a company dedicated to creating CD-ROMS for preteens. Research reveals an
interesting irony: "Girls don't think boys' games are too hard; they think
they're too stupid" (Krantz, 1997b, p. 49). Instead of engaging girls in the
monotony of "bang-bang-you're-dead," Purple Moon invents games with complex
emotional dimensions. Some of the games even boast characters that create their
own Web pages. So, it seems the virtual community even welcomes fictional
beings (although most humans often become fictional by the time they complete
their online personas). These games that target females are not only providing
the preteens with escapism but also with increased computer skills that will
give them an edge in the job market later.
Wired also deals with the issue of gender in computer games. Beato (1997, p.
98) expresses that the goal is "To reach the testosterone-spattered war rooms of
the interactive entertainment industry and persuade the pasty knuckle-draggers
who reside there to conceive, develop, and deliver games for girls. Call it
Woom." The list of corporate players sweeping in on the new target is long:
DreamWorks Interactive, Hasbro Interactive, Mattel Media, and Phillips Media, to
name a few. Wired also mentions Laurel and explains how the new games for girls
incorporate strong narrative and social elements. There is no doubt that the
girl game market possesses extreme potential, because "For many girls, the
online world has already begun to supersede that sacred tool of female
adolescence" (Beato, 1997, p. 104).
Of course, the insurrection of girl games is not diminishing the power of boy
games. A Wired (Laidlaw, 1996, p. 126) article traces the steps of the gaming
giant id as it developed the design for Quake, its latest release, which
"represents the next step in utterly immersive gameplay." These computer games
(with some assistance from the users' willing suspension of disbelief) swallow
players into a realm of nightmarish ambiance, a favored escapism. The next goal
is to reach the level of three-dimensional environments in which players
interact simultaneously, and "At id, a handful of programmers are channeling
this dream into an action game whose easily hackable software will ensure that
the cyberspace revolution won't be shaped by a few competing corporate giants.
It will be shaped by game players. Kids. Lots of them" (Laidlaw, 1996, p.
Finally, Wired presents a discussion of metaworlds. Metaworlds are those
places in which people experience the full vitality of the virtual community.
Many of the normal elements that exist in reality also occur in metaworlds:
advertising, conversations, crimes, gestures, weddings. People create avatars
(animated icons) which represent them while they are in the metaworld. There,
just as in reality, they meet friends and enemies; they live. Each metaworld
boasts unique environments. For instance, WorldsAway "looks coolDthe background
graphics are in a hallucinatory art nouveau nouveau style_but the software feels
like something that used to run on a Commodore 64" (Rossney, 1996, p. 202).
However, this slow technology has not suppressed interest and participation in
metaworlds. Randy Farmer (cited in Rossney, 1996) with Electric Communities
offers the prophetic notion that metaworlds will become as common as e-mail
currently is, resulting in stronger real-world communities as "We_see the
reestablishment of geographical communities by moving the front porch into
The following table summarizes the presentations of Time and Wired on the theme
SOCIAL CONSTRUCTION OF ENTERTAINMENT THEME
(musicians, record labels);
Mattel Media; Phillips Media;
(to name a few); id;
same as above
same as above
STRATA OF SOCIETY
families, preteen girls
preteen girls, males
A VIRTUAL FETISH: FOCUS ON GOVERNMENT
Government intervention in the virtual community continues to be an issue of
major concern. Time (with a somewhat neutral perspective) mentions taxation and
regulation of Internet gambling. Wired offers an intense look at government's
relationship with the virtual world, especially access, censorship, and
education; the presentation is extremely pro anti-government involvement.
Government entities (such as Congress and the FCC), Internet service providers,
telephone companies, and the general public represent the major players in this
The popular press publication passes only a cursory glance at the theme of
government in the virtual community. One article poses the government dilemma
about how to tax business that occurs on the Net. This reveals a clear battle
between commercial interests and government interests, and the winner will shape
virtual business. Another Time article deals with an issue involving the
judicial branch of government: virtual gambling. Krantz (1997a, p. 61) points
out that "In the ongoing quest for an Internet bogeyman, pornography still gets
the most ink, but gambling is where the action will be." For now, much
confusion exists about how current laws apply to the virtual community; only
time and perhaps some trial-and-error will present solutions. In the meantime,
Dave Herschman (cited in Krantz, 1997a, p. 62) of Virtual Vegas, Inc. offers a
suggestion: "Instead of sporadic antigambling crackdowns, we should be closely
monitoring and taxing this industry." Once again, capitalist ventures are
attempting to reach agreements with government about how to sculpt the Net.
The niche press publication delves into the debate over who should control
Internet access: the service providers or the telephone companies? Wired
(McCullagh, 1997, p. 54) sets the scene as follows:
The stage has been set for a showdown between a telephone industry
regulated since its birth and a new economy that has prospered with
surprisingly little government interference. The tug-of-war pits
buttoned-down monopolies against a rough-and-tumble collection of Silicon
Valley bigwigs. Faced with potential disaster, the high tech coalition has
had no choice but to learn the art of war as it is waged within the
of the FCC's arcane rulemaking process.
So, the somewhat stagnant battle grows more fierce. The original network is
designed to handle voice rather than data traffic, and apparently phone lines
are getting increasingly bogged down. Ed Young (cited in McCullagh, 1997), a
lobbyist for Bell Atlantic, grumbles that "There's no longer a free lunch.
Internet welfare has to stop." However, Wired seems to think the telcos are
fighting a losing battle. The telcos are ignoring available technology such as
ISDN and xDSL that could handle the data traffic well; however, they have not
chosen to make the innovations economically feasible enough for the general
public to embrace them. In addition, claims made by the telcos that flat-rate
pricing is a major culprit of the clogging are unfounded, especially since the
phone companies have attempted their own flat-rate Internet fees. Wired calls
the telcos "scaremongers" and refers to the entire situation as "wonk warfare."
However, one positive outcome is occurring since "In the face of the telcos'
onslaught, netizens are joining ranks with business interests to lobby the
government and protect the Net" (McCullagh, 1997, p. 183).
Next is the issue of government censorship in the virtual community. A Wired
article exhibits excerpts from a legal brief challenging the Communications
Decency Act, conveying the analogy that "A specter is haunting cyberspaceDthe
specter of government censorship" (Lappin, 1996a, p. 84). Arguments against
censorship include the unique nature of the Internet, the active capacity of the
users, and the ridiculous notion that all Net material should be reduced to an
appropriate level for minors. The brief (cited in Lappin, 1996a) suggests the
utopian idea that "In the 21st century, the InternetDif allowed to flourish
unhindered by government censorshipDcan revive the now little-used public square
and convert it into a global medium of communication and discourse."
Finally, Wired addresses the seemingly simple idea of education. In this
instance, it seems members of government need to gain knowledge about the
virtual community before they assume the task of regulating it, and it does not
help matters to know that "Most of Congress is in profound datashock already.
Hardly any of them has an attention span longer than an elevator ride" (Barlow,
1996, p. 56). According to the Wired article, current members of government
matured during the age of television, which vastly differs from the current
virtual community. Barlow (1996, p. 56) expresses his lack of optimism when he
says, "So I'm not sure it would be a good idea to further inflict the riotous
informational fertility of cyberspace upon an organism that evolved in the more
temperate zones of the late 18th century_.The political system we've got is too
tangled in the parasitic undergrowth of the last two centuries to process or
understand what is being created for the century to come." This notion proves
especially depressing when one considers the fact that society fast approaches
the next millenium. Nevertheless, some members of Congress are enlightened and
eager to pass the intelligence to others in government. Representative Rick
White (1996, p. 80) reveals that "the mere mention of the Internet elicited
blank stares from many of the assembled legislators_.Congress is lost in
cyberspace." He hopes to combat the ignorance with the Internet Caucus, which
focuses on putting members of Congress online, actually interacting with the
technology. Such a step proves necessary to avoid the virtual blind leading the
The following table summarizes the presentations of Time and Wired on the
theme of government:
SOCIAL CONSTRUCTION OF GOVERNMENT THEME
Positive (pro anti-government)
Internet service providers,
Internet service providers,
STRATA OF SOCIETY
A VIRTUAL FETISH: FOCUS ON SOCIETY
At the core of the online virtual world lies an evolving sense of community that
perhaps successfully fills a void in many people's daily lives. Time positively
constructs this theme through discussions of Net weddings, funerals, and
religion; the popular press publication also covers the privacy issue. Wired
reports on different areas of the virtual community, focusing primarily on the
current positive nature of the Net and the continued freedom of expression for
people on the Web. Major players range from Net chapels to Net cops.
It seems the virtual community participates in all sorts of traditional
even weddings and funerals. GlamOrama's Internet wedding chapel functions just
as the real-life version, offering an off-beat alternative to the conventional
(sometimes mundane) ritual. The chapel even sends e-mail invitations. As Time
(Cole et al., 1996) mentions, "The idea does have a certain seductive magic."
Then there are the on-line funerals. Many Americans devoted to hectic
lifestyles are often unable to attend the actual ceremonies. So, Cybermourn
offers videoconferencing suites to funeral directors so they can place memorial
services on secure Websites. The goal is "to tap the 'guilt market' and provide
a virtual outlet for grief, for eulogies and as a way to comfort the bereaved"
(Cole et al., 1996).
Along the same concept of virtual rituals, the popular press publication
an article to religion in the virtual community. Time's (Ramo, 1996b, p.60)
impression of religion on the Net appears clear:
Almost overnight, the electronic community of the Internet has come to
resemble a high-speed spiritual bazaar, where thousands of the faithfulDand
equal numbers of the faithlessDmeet and debate and swap ideas about things
many of us had long since stopped discussing in public, like our faith and
religious beliefs. It's an astonishing act of technological and
intellectual mainstreaming that is changing the character of the Internet,
and could even change our ideas about God_.For all their fire and testoster
one, these chat rooms and bulletin boards draw scores of believers hunting
for new ways to understand their old religions.
Parishes are establishing cyberchurches in order to maintain close contact with
their congregations. Time (Ramo, 1996b, p. 60) also suggests that the
implications of virtual religion run deeper, since the Internet itself "is a
vast cathedral of the mind, a place where ideas_can resonate, where faith can be
shaped and defined by a collective spirit. Such a faith relies not on great
external forces_but on what ordinary people_can create on this World Wide Web
that binds all of us." Indeed, society possesses some power to determine the
course of virtual community technology.
One of society's biggest concerns with the evolution of the virtual community
is privacy. Unfortunately, immediate availability of particular types of public
information also means instant access to certain bits of private information.
As U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein (cited in Quittner, 1997) points out, "People
are losing control of their identities. Our private lives are becoming
commodities with tremendous value in the marketplace." Legislation such as the
Personal Information Privacy Act of 1997 could curtail private information in
the virtual world; however, the final saga has yet to unfold.
Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web, yet he did not earn a cent
its creation. As far as Berners-Lee (cited in Schwartz, 1997) views it, "For
something like the Web to exist, it has to be based on public, nonproprietary
standards." Only now can a concept like "global village" become reality.
Anyone and everyone, with access to a computer, may interact in the virtual
community. The only problem arises when one attempts to infuse some order to
the chaos of the Web's evolution process, "a task Berners-Lee describes as
frantically trying to steer a bobsled that is careering downhill at
ever-accelerating speeds" (Schwartz, 1997, p. 140).
One particular Wired article focuses on this apparent chaos and its potential
evil. As always throughout history, each new medium bears the weight of social
diseases. Traditional mass media often attempt to rhetorically demolish a
burgeoning mass communication tool, such as the Internet, and "Perhaps when
fortified with an ample supply of quotations from get-tough bureaucrats and
hand-wringing policy wonks, such worries seem credible" ("What Have They Been
Smoking," 1997). However, Wired quickly rescues the virtual world of the Web.
The niche press publication ("What Have They Been Smoking," 1997) notes that "in
the end, articles that link the Internet to social pathology inevitably say more
about the antidemocratic impulses of the people who write them than they do
about the Internet itself." The virtual community did not spawn drugs,
pornography, or cult suicides. The Net simply provides a new tool that allows a
more efficient and widespread communication of social norms and abnorms that
Nevertheless, certain self-proclaimed watchdog groupsDlike the CyberAngelsDhave
set out to protect the virtual community from cybertrash, which can take the
form of anything from cybersleaze to cybersluts. Despite the seemingly good
intentions of the CyberAngels, Wired (van Bakel, 1996, p. 90) is not amused and
says, "Predictably, the group has vowed mainly to go after online child
pornographers, those semimythical bogeymen of the electronic age." After all,
some glaring problems with the group exist. To begin, the commandant of the
CyberAngels does not own a computer and has never even entered the virtual
community. The members of the loose organization also appear to have no real
grasp of First Amendment issues, as far as what is and is not legal in this
country. Finally, the CyberAngels hold no connection to official law
enforcement agencies, and could therefore intrude upon current investigations.
Wired (van Bakel, 1996, p. 91) comments that "the group has caught flak from
those who see the CyberAngels as a band of clueless Ninja Turtles whose ideas
are grandiose, misguided, and kooky." Lance Rose (cited in van Bakel, 1996)
agrees and says, "What the CyberAngels are doing would be just wonderful if they
weren't also guilty of a jaw-dropping mixture of hubris and naivete that, in its
sum total, makes them at least as great a problem as whatever it is they're out
to contain or destroy." It seems the power to control content in the virtual
community should remain distributed among the people rather than dictated by
The following table summarizes the presentations of Time and Wired on the theme
SOCIAL CONSTRUCTION OF SOCIETY THEME
Positive (as free,
STRATA OF SOCIETY
In conclusion, this research reveals the social construction of virtual
community technology as illustrated in Time (a popular press publication) and
Wired (a niche press publication). Time emphasizes the themes of business and
entertainment, whereas Wired focuses more on the government and society themes.
However, both the popular press and niche press publications construct a
positive and utopian view of the virtual community. Howard Rheingold (cited in
Hafner, 1997) captures a fading perspective of the virtual world when he says:
It's this territory where you know your behavior is somehow obsessive
and taboo in the Protestant sense, that you should be working, that there's
something sick and dehumanized about spending time doing this, but you also
know that it's sociable, and you're doing it together. That was the unholy
attraction of it.
Now, it appears this man-machine interaction has evolved into a pleasant
alliance that will (according to the press construction, at least) not only
build a true global village, but also strengthen the local community. Hence,
the strata of society populating the virtual world will likely expand.
Time discloses several major players who are shaping the virtual community
technology: Cisco, id, Microsoft, Netscape, Purple Moon (to name a few). Wired
adds to this network with David Shaw, Fed Ex, telephone companies, and various
government agencies. Both press publications weave an extensive web of
individuals and corporations that possess the power to profit from and perhaps
even control the virtual community. Of all these forces, Time and Wired appear
supportive of all but one: government.
Despite the positive outlook for the virtual community technology illustrated
in Time and Wired, not everyone believes the road ahead will be so smooth. If
this virtual fetish consumes too many minds, repercussions could indeed follow.
Jaron Lanier (1996, p. 160) notes that "The whole point of the Net is
empowerment of the people, not the computers. That happens only if people
choose to be empowered. Let's not blow this chance for more human autonomy
because we're caught up in the fantasy of machine intelligence." Ultimately,
peopleDnot science, not technology, not the mediaDwill decide what they want
from this burgeoning virtual community. Slouka (1996, p.32) offers a seed for
As we plummet through the looking-glass, however, we would do well to
bear in mind that beyond that Orwellian and seemingly ubiquitous adjective
"virtual" is a marketing scheme of unrivalled audacity, unprecedented
and nearly unimaginable impact: a scheme that is_designed to sell us
of the things we already have available to us for freeDlife itself.
The next millenium approaches, and society should greet it with a fresh and open
state of mind and spirit. Whether virtual or real, life is for living.
Barlow, J.P. (1996, September). The powers that were. Wired, 4(9), 53-56,
Bass, T.A. (1997, January). The phynancier. Wired, 5(1), 152-156, 206-211.
Baumohl, B., Cole, P.E., & Eisenberg, D. (1997, March 17). A virtual night out
with the family. Time, 149(11), 44.
Beato, G. (1997, April). Girl games: Computer games for girls is no longer an
oxymoron. Wired, 5(4), 98-106.
Cole, P.E., Eisenberg, D., Forbis, S., Hamilton, A., Robischon, N., & Stamper,
(1996, November 11). Time digital: Digital trends and tools. Time, TD6.
Cray, D., Eisenberg, D., Girardi, L., Granatstein, L., Hamilton, A., &
(1997, June). Time digital: Digital trends and tales. Time, 6.
Dworetzky, T. (1997, June 16). Next_virtual vacations: Cruising the great
superhighway with no baggage, no crowds? It's closer than you think.
Time, 149(24), 92.
Elmer-Dewitt, P. (1993, February 8). Cyberpunk! Time, 141(6), 59-65.
Hafner, K. (1997, May). The world's most influential online community (and
it's not AOL):
The epic saga of the well. Wired, 5(5), 100-142.
Krantz, M. (1996, December 2). Wired for sound: Rock 'n' roll is exploding on
Internet, changing how fans hear music and what music gets heard. Time,
Krantz, M. (1997a, June 2). Cyberspace crapshoot: The imminent boom of online
gambling raises a host of dicey moral and jurisdictional issues. Time,
Krantz, M. (1997b, June 9). A rom of their own: Smart, socially oriented
challenge the notion that girls won't play. Time, 149(23), 48-49.
Krantz, M. (1997c, June 23). Beyond Doom and Quake: Everything that game
designer John Romero touches turns to gore. And to gold. Time, 149(25),
Laidlaw, M. (1996, August). The egos at id: They made Doom, the most popular
computer game of all time. Can they do it again with Quake? Wired, 4(8),
Lanier, J. (1996, November). My problem with agents. Wired, 4(11), 157-160.
Lappin, T. (1996a, May). Internet v. United States department of justice,
Reno, et al. Wired, 4(5), 84-91.
Lappin, T. (1996b, December). The airline of the Internet: Fed Ex is piloting
next phase of the digital revolution. It's a very big idea. It's called
Wired, 4(12), 234-240, 282-290.
McCullagh, D. (1997, June). Telco terrorism: If the baby bells get their way,
pay by the minute and through the nose for the privilege of logging on. But
the Net has an unlikely defender: the FCC. Wired, 5(6), 53-56, 183.
Montfort, N. (1996, October). Spawn of Atari. Wired, 4(10), 166-171.
Negroponte, N. (1997, September). Reintermediated. Wired, 5(9), 1-3.
Quittner, J. (1996, May 13). The wizards of id: Computer-game freaks are
breathlessly for Quake, son of the highly addictive Doom. Time, 147(20), 62.
Quittner, J. (1997, June 2). No privacy on the Web: Snooping on your friends
neighbors has never been easier. Time, 149(22), 64-65.
Ramo, J.C. (1996a, September 16). Winner take all. Time, 148(13), 56-64.
Ramo, J.C. (1996b, December 16). Finding God on the web: Across the Internet,
believers are re-examining their ideas of faith, religion and spirituality.
Ramo, J.C. (1997, June 9). Cisco guards the gates: Data would go nowhere on
Net without the company's routers. It aims to keep things that way. Time,
Rossney, R. (1996, June). Metaworlds: Choosing an avatar is the new way to
yourself in cyberspace. You can stake out territory in metaworlds, make these
places your own. This could be the next interactive revolution. Just don't
steal your head. Wired, 4(6), 142-146, 202-212.
Schroeder, R. (1994, June). Cyberculture, cyborg post-modernism and the
of virtual reality technologies: Surfing the soul in the information age.
Schwartz, E.I. (1997, March). The father of the Web: Tim Berners-Lee thinks
the Web can
bridge local interests and universal values. Then again, he invented it.
Slouka, M. (1996, January 12). The illusion of life is bought dearly. New
Society, 9, 32.
The 25 most influential people in America. (1996, June 17). Time, 147(25), 54.
van Bakel, R. (1996, July). To surf and protect: No age criteria. No
The only requirement: a desire to fight online criminals. Who are these
CyberAngelsDcitizens performing a public service, or boy scouts gone haywire?
Wired, 4(7), 90-96.
What have they been smoking? (1997, September). Wired, 5(9), 1-3.
White, R. (1996, July). I'm from Congress, I'm here to help. Wired, 4(7), 80.