The concept of identity is a fascinating and integral part of any virtual community. In CMC systems there is no sense of body, no physical characteristics, no body language. We are stripped of our traditional means of expressing ourselves and are forced to create a sense of identity using the limited, but increasingly inventive, means available in the electronic medium. Depending on the particular CMC system used, identity in an on-line environment may be achieved through the use of handles, textual character descriptions, sound bites, and even graphical avatars.
7.1 Aspects of Identity in CMC
It is noted that during real life interaction people furnish two types of information: information they deliberately provide and information they make known through body language (Goffman, 1959). When interacting via the Internet however, people for the most part have access to only one type of information: the information they intentionally provide, be that fact or fiction (Bechar, 1995). Such a situation enables, if not encourages, experiments with identity and ones sense of self.
CMC systems are "for the most part a 'silent', stripped-down medium: there is no way for us to obtain even the most elementary information about the person with whom we are talking, other than what is explicit or can be inferred from the text itself" (Bechar, 1995). How we are perceived is entirely dependent on the information we choose to give. Our "bodies", our sense of self, are freed from any real world grounding, and are given free rein to explore all possibilities.
In real life our sense of identity is composed of many elements, such as our physical characteristics, our clothes and appearance, our behavior, and our names. By contrast however, interactions on the Internet nullify our physical existence. In MUDs, on IRC, or WWW virtual communities, we have no body, no physical characteristics, no clothes, no appearance at all. We are known solely by the name we choose to call ourselves, and the behavior we choose to display.
With all sense of body, and therefore physical characteristics and appearance, removed from our on-line existence, the way we identify ourselves is through the name or handle we choose to display. In a virtual community our names or handles are our primary means of expressing identity and are therefore of great importance to the virtual community participant.
7.2 Handle Content
One fascinating aspect of CMC systems is the potential for exploring different genders. The fact that CMC systems are experienced in virtual space is ideal for users to explore aspects of another gender, an opportunity that is rarely taken in real life. While external physical attributes such has hair or eye color are relatively easy to change in real life, changing ones gender is a much more involved process. CMC systems nullify our physical existence, making gender swapping as simple as using a gender specific handle.
The choice of a user's displayed on-line gender is for some users of great importance and consideration, while for others it is quite simple (Curtis, 1992). As in real life, the displayed gender of a handle can be cause for increased attention, harassment, and even dispute. If a user is 'found out' to be of the opposite gender than their handle displays, feelings can be hurt, relationships broken, and tempers can flair. As far as handle content is concerned, gender may possibly "generate the greatest concern and interest on the part of other users" (Curtis, 1992).
Though all CMC systems enable users to represent themselves with a name, handle, tag, or avatar, not all systems are alike. Early UNIX email systems only allowed users to have email names of 8 or fewer characters. Many proprietary CMC systems also have limitations on a user's name or handle, such as a character length or not allowing spaces. IRC and MUDs are two very popular CMC systems that have strict limitations on a user's handle.
IRC allows users a handle of 9 or fewer character with no spaces (Bechar, 1995). When a user first connects to IRC they must supply a handle before the system will allow them to converse with the other users. The user must choose a handle that will adequately represent their chosen identity in one word of 9 or fewer characters with no spaces. Even with this seemingly large limitation, IRC users have managed to express themselves and their on-line identities through IRC's limited handle setup quite well. In some cases a handle will invite certain associations and connotations, in others, a handle may play with words or the sounds of a language (Bechar, 1995). Figure 4 is an example of typical IRC handles.
MUDs also allow users a handle of 9 or fewer characters with no spaces (Curtis, 1992). When a MUD player first connects to the system they appear to other users of the system as a nameless genderless "it" (Curtis, 1992). They can then choose a handle by which they will be known. As with IRC, this choice is not permanent and can be changed at anytime, though not to a handle already in use by someone else. Users can choose to appear as any gender they wish. On many MUDs, users can also choose to be plural or appear as a group (Curtis, 1992). Like IRC, MUD users have also used the limited handle appearance with great creativity. MUD handles range from names inspired by myth, fantasy, and literature, to real life names, names of concepts, animals, and everyday objects that have representative connotations (Curtis, 1992). Figure 5 shows an example of typical MUD handles.
Like IRC and MUDs, bianca allows users a handle to represent themselves while on-line. The handles within bianca however do not have the limitations that IRC and MUDs impose. Users of bianca have for the most part an unlimited choice of handles. Handles can be unlimited character length with any number of spaces in between and can use the whole range of ASCII character set. Like MUDs, when a user first connects to bianca they are not forced to choose a handle. If a user attempts to chat without choosing a handle they are assigned a temporary handle consisting of all numbers such as 804666903, for the sole purpose of allowing other users to be able to identify the anonymous user. At any moment a user can begin chatting with the handle of their choice, provided someone else is not already using that handle. A user can easily change their handle at any time. With an almost unlimited range of possibilities, handles in bianca can be quite creative. As with IRC and MUDs the content of handles in bianca are often inspired by popular culture, myth, fantasy, or literature. Real life names, names of concepts or ideas, animals, body parts, and everyday objects are also often used as handles. However, because bianca allows arbitrary length handles, users can go into more depth with their handle choice than they can with the 9 character limitations of IRC and MUDs. Figure 6 shows an example of bianca handles.
Because of the range of possibilities, and the ease with which the bianca system enables users to change handles, users will often subtlety manipulate their handle to reflect a mood or some emotion they may be feeling. If a user is upset at the time of posting, they may change their handle to <Big Boy (upset)>. If a user finds themselves falling in love with another user they may change their handle to <Big Boy (in love with Green Eyed Girl)>. The possibilities are only limited to the creativity of the user.
It should be noted that the users who do take advantage of bianca's unlimited handle lengths by developing multiple word handles or expressing moods, feelings, or emotions in their handles seem to attract the most attention in any given room. When a user enters a chat room with a mood or emotion as a part of their handle, they will more often than not be questioned by other users as to why they feel as such. By adding short statements to ones handle a user can further express themselves and is one way to attract the attention of other users and strike up conversation. Also, it has been observed that when new users enter a room they will often comment on the more creative handles of the room. Though the concept of expanding one's handle to attract attention should be further explore in a more socially oriented paper, it deserved at least mention here.
7.3 Handle Expressiveness
Through an undocumented 'feature', IRC provides users an unintuitive, slightly cryptic means of further defining one's on-line identity (Bechar, 1995). By typing "setenv IRCNAME this is my slogan" at a UNIX prompt before entering IRC, a user can set what is known in IRC as a "slogan". If another user then enters the command "/whois handlename" at the IRC prompt, the user issuing the "/whois" command will obtain a bit more information about the other user, including the other user's "slogan" if they have entered one. For example, if there exists a user on IRC called "freeform" who had earlier issued the command "setenv IRCNAME the only thing constant is change" and another IRC user types "/whois freeform", they will see something like:
freeform is firstname.lastname@example.org (the only thing constant is change)
on channels: #bianca
via server irc.bianca.com
MUDs have a well documented, intuitive, and integrated means for users to further express their on-line identity. MUD players can define for themselves what is know as a player description. A player description "is where players can, and often do, establish the details of a persona or role they wish to play in the virtual reality. It is also a significant factor in other players' first impressions, since new players are commonly 'looked' at soon after entering a common room" (Curtis, 1992). MUD players can use a command called "look" to obtain further descriptions about items in the MUD. When a player "looks" at another player, the looked-at player's description file is shown. The description can be as short or as long as the user desires. Some players use short descriptions, either in an effort to be clever (e.g. 'the only thing constant is change') or straightforward (e.g. 'a slim intelligent gal with brown hair, green eyes, and extreme wit'). Other players put considerable time into developing their ideal description. Paul Curtis has noted that many of the player descriptions in LambdaMOO contain a large degree of "wish fulfillment" and seem to take "advantage of the MUD to emulate various attractive characters from fiction" (Curtis, 1992).
Like IRC and MUDs, bianca also provides users with an ability to further express their on-line identity. Both IRC and MUDs let users add text to enhance their identify, where as bianca provides three ways for users to embellish their on-line identity. The first is through bianca's almost unlimited handle naming scheme. A user is not limited to a single 9 character word handle as in IRC and MUD and can therefore add any amount of further description to their handle without having to use cryptic or extraneous measures to do so. Second, using the linking capabilities of the Web, a user can set up a Web page to which they can provide a link if they wish to further describe their on-line identity to another user. The third is the actual ability to add flare and expressiveness directly to one's handle though sanctioned HTML tags.
Because bianca is based on an HTTP system, full HTML capabilities are available for use. It was decided that the necessary precautions should be taken to allow users to use HTML not only in the context of their message, but also in the text of their handle. By allowing HTML to be present in a user's handle, a user can add flare and expressiveness to their handle by adding HTML tags such as bold, italics, font size or font color. However, simply allowing HTML in a user's handle did not find many users taking advantage of the possibility, as new users do not know how to use HTML, nor was it readily apparent in the interface that one could use HTML in one's handle. It wasn't until we sanctioned specific HTML tags and made it explicit in the interface that one could use HTML in one's handle that many users took advantage of the expressiveness HTML can add to a handle.
By observing the HTML used most often by users, it was decided to officially support italics, font size and font color. To add flare to one's handle, a user simply clicks the "Configure Chat" link on the chat interface and then designates what size and color they would like their handle to appear in and whether they would like their handle in italics or not. Figure 7 shows a typical Configuration Chat screen. By officially sanctioning specific HTML tags, encouraging users to add flare to their handle, and making it explicit in the interface that one can add HTML to their handle, many more users are now experiencing the joys of unlimited handle length and handle expressiveness.
Allowing HTML in a user's message content has enabled users a far greater degree of expressiveness than ever before attained in a text only chat environment. In almost all text only CMC chat environments users attempt to textually express non-verbal communication by differentiating non-verbal cues from normal chat text. In straight ASCII text chat environments this practice is typically accomplished by wrapping the textualized non-verbal contexts in asterisks: <storm> *shivers from the looks of lioness*. <storm> *walks over to lioness and pats her paw*. In bianca, users have the capabilities of HTML to express both verbal and non-verbal communication. Users can make their text larger if they are shouting, or smaller if they are whispering. Text can be bolded for emphasis, or italicized to express non-verbal cues. Text can even be colored for an expression not even available in real life conversation. The extent to which a user wishes to express themselves is limited only by the user's patience and creativity, and deserves much further study in a more socially oriented paper.
By allowing arbitrary handle lengths and adopting sanctioned HTML based on user observations, bianca has enabled it's virtual community to further explore the concept of identity and expression in an on-line chat environment.
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