Friday, August 1, 2008

What Puts the Space in Cyberspace?

Before CompuServe Information Service became a web-based shadow of its former self following the AOL takeover (which the New York Times described in 1998 as "traumatic" for the "computer intellegentsia" who made up the core of loyal CIS subscribers, and among whom -- despite my inability to cure the home networking problem described in my debut post -- I then counted myself), it was a truly remarkable place for many, many reasons. I was thinking today about one of those reasons.

For those who spent a lot of time there, CIS felt as though it had a physical geography. I had a conversation about this once with Nightshift, chief sysop of a number of gaming forums her company, The Electronic Gamer, had contracted to provide on CompuServe. For a number of years, I was an associate sysop in Gamers' and later, Action Games, two of the TEG forums. In any case, I still remember talking with her about how we and many users referred to the forums as though they were in physical space: "I just saw so and so over in GAMBPUB" or "I'll be up in FSFORUM" or "I'm popping out to ACTION." This was quite something, particularly when you consider what most of CIS (apart from its online games and perhaps WorldsAway) was not.

When you're in a graphical multiplayer game universe like WoW, it doesn't take much imagination to feel as though you're in a physical environment. Towns are located at certain points on a map, terrain and weather patterns change with geography, ships and zeppelins have regular embarkation/debarkation points and routes. Even outside of such obvious examples, mere interface features can suggest a feeling of movement through space. Using a web browser that moves you one page to the "east" each time you follow a link can make you feel as though you are literally moving "west" when you page back.

When I logged on to CIS for the first time in 1992, I used what would now be viewed as a very primitive-looking graphical interface called Compuserve Information Manager, or CIM. CIM was relatively new then; previously, CIS was accessed through the even more primitive command line interface in terminal emulation. Using either CIM or terminal emulation, the primary means of transport from place to place were "go" words. "GO GAMERS," for example, took you to the Gamers' Forum. This wasn't exactly suggestive of compass directions, and yet, many of us came to view our experience that way.

To be more precise, in my case, I perceived the architecture of my experience from a hub and spokes perspective. I almost always logged on to Gamers first, and from there would "move" to other forums. Gamers was the hub, the other forums I frequented were the spokes. Although I felt I was moving almost from room to room in space, I did not perceive multiple storeys in my hub and spokes building (except that my email box was in the basement). Role Playing Games was to my left, the Game Publishers forums were in a line to my right, starting with GameAPub, with Game Developers forum beyond that. Flight Sims was in front of me, in a northwesterly direction. Sports Sims directly in front. Action Games was behind me. I forget the locations of the others. When I went, occasionally, to non-TEG forums or venues on CompuServe it was rather like getting on a plane in my hometown and arriving at a point hundreds of miles away. Why?

I'm partial to the explanation that people, accustomed to orienting themselves in their surroundings by means of mental maps, also form mental maps of frequently travelled routes in online "spaces." This was my working hypothesis as I went out the front door of Morgana's Spot to see whether others had explored this question. Indeed, some have. The idea appears, for good or ill, in a number of essays I found during a quick stroll through web space, for example: "Lost in Cyberspace," "Passage of the Flaneur,""What Kind of Space is Cyberspace?." And to bring us full circle, the New York Times, the year after the article about the AOL acquisition of CIS, reported on the effort to "map" cyberspace.

I have to say that I have never had that same hearth and home feeling about the greater web. Apart from my home page and webmail page (to immediate right from my home page, or so it feels), every journey is like an exploration into uncharted territory where one can get lost, or even fall into a technological trap and end up with a virus or worse. Of course, I haven't been active in the social networking phenomenon. Perhaps MySpace and similar sites put some of the space back into cyberspace. I guess I'll find out -- if they're still around and popular when my kids are old enough to become addicted to them.


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