Community by Subscription
by Janine Cirincione
MicroSoft Network, Microsoft's proprietary online network, probably needs no introduction. The author is Forum Manager (or moderator) of MSN's ArtLine, the Fine Arts Forum.

ArtLine, like many other online art sites, functions as part magazine (reviews of exhibitions, interviews with art world figures, updates on current gossip), part exhibition space (including two "galleries," one for special art projects and one for members), and part daytime talk show (What do YOU think about the NEA: arts funding yes or no? What is Jesse Helms so afraid of, anyway?). Two things differentiate ArtLine from most other online art sites, however. First, unlike the other art sites on the web, MSN is a private service. It is a community that you choose (and pay) to belong to. Second, MSN is driven by the notion of community. The MSN Forums are not monolithic, unilateral presentations about any given subject. The site's very raison d'etre is to serve as a springboard to spark discussion, participation, and interaction. I find it more like attending an opening at DIA, where you can catch up with friends and the latest art world goings-on, than it is like reading the current issue of Art in America.

This is a good thing and a bad thing.

It is a good thing to allow infobahn surfers to participate in shaping the discourse and the tone of areas they patronize. It is a good thing, too, to offer visitors an interactive forum for open discussion and a place where their opinions are valued. (Let's face it, that hardly ever happens in RL.) But, is it too democratic? Does the moderator have to aim for the lowest common denominator to make everyone feel welcome? With over 1 million members on MSN it is obvious that my audience is drawn from a different demographic than, say, Artforum's subscription list. This means that anyone interested in art--from an art world culturati to my grandmother with an Erte poster in the attic--might drop by and spend time in the forum. My challenge is to juggle the various levels of education, dedication and sophistication.

But the interesting thing about communities, virtual or otherwise, is that they take on a life of their own. Like cellular automation programs, life springs up and thrives in one area of the community, as another becomes obsolete and fades away. For example, ArtLine's gallery section and the Aesthetics BBS are very active, but after months of inactivity in the area created for collectors, I removed it. Without community support, it didn't seem to make much sense to keep this clubhouse open.

In defining virtual community, one has to resist the temptation to trot out the by-now commonplace stories about gender bending avatars and virtual rapists in cyberspace. Of course these people exist, because a virtual community is still made up of people coming together to do pretty much what they do when they come together in real life: They interact with one another, they share ideas with one another, they annoy one another, they talk to one another, they help one another, they bore one another to tears, they support one another, and they act out. In short, a virtual community is a place for people to meet, online, to interact in the ways that they normally do. The big difference is that everyone expects it to be so much better.

But is isn't necessarily better. Relying on the interactive participation of its citizens makes a virtual community only as good as the sum of its parts. That's the problem with interactivity in general. It can often mean a kind of random, pointless point-and-click journey through information and ideas, with insufficient context and structure. At last year's "CyberSoho Festival," Laurie Anderson wryly commented on the pitfalls of interactivity: "To me, interactive is listening to music, or reading, or seeing a dance, seeing something, anything that changes your life or your mind. Interactive is not typing." The same caveat applies to the virtual community. How can it be interactive in a way that provides a life changing, or at least a meaningful, social structure for its participants?

It is important to keep in mind that virtual communities as we now know them--chat rooms with cute, smiley-faced little avatars, and BBSs with warm, fuzzy interfaces--are relatively new. Communicating on the old, text-based Internet was largely reserved for researchers, scientists, and hackers who needed to exchange information and resources over long distances. Well, OK, they did play "Dungeons and Dragons" too, but there was usually a functional imperative for them being online.

Now, according to a recent survey in USA Today, after e-mail, the number two online activity is the pursuit of interests and hobbies. People are hangin' out in these virtual communities. Hangin' out can be a waste of time, and an expensive one. Online life can be like a trip to the suburban mall when you don't really need anything but can always find something to buy while killing time. Online existence doesn't have to become, as William Gibson put it, like main-lining TV--the injection of an endless stream of unimaginative infotainment that is both irrelevant and captivating to people who have nothing better to do.

One way to ensure the relevance of online life is to keep communities focused, and to participate in communities that offer worthwhile activities. ArtLine isn't the appropriate place to post a portrait of your cat, or to talk about your gallstones; there are other areas on the network for that. Maintaining focus without being oppressive, however, is the host's greatest challenge. Some hosts are like Johnny--graciously drawing out participants and makeing everyone feel at home. Everybody likes Johnny. Some hosts are more like Dave--aggressively orchestrating the action so he looks better and smarter than his guests. A surprising number of people find him compelling, too.

What I have tried to do is to build an expandable infrastructure that is flexible enough to keep most members of my virtual community interested, even me. We share interests (art), although not necessarily the same views about it. I post material that interests me, and I hope is of interest to others, and most members post material in the same spirit. I have organized a congressional e-mail campaign to save arts funding and posted interviews with people who intrigue me. ArtsLine members have directed me to web sites I didn't know about and posted information about geographically dispersed exhibitions I'll never be able to see. I appreciate knowing about them.

If on-line life threatens to be an ever expanding e-Mall, like the endless series of booths with barkers hawking their wares at The Mall of America, I want to make sure that art has its place there. Making art is one of the most profoundly intimate and political acts, allowing, as it does, for one consciousness to communicate deeply with another. Talking about art, disseminating it, sharing ideas, and pushing boundaries is one of the best ways I can think of to keep the anarchic, originating principals of the Internet alive and well.

Janine Cirincione is an artist, curator and writer living in NY. She and her colleague, Michael Ferraro, make large-scale, virtual-reality installations:

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