We Are Who We Are
by Stacy Horn
Echo is an online service of over 3,000 members based in New York. Founded in 1990, Echo was the first virtual community to take hold in New York (87% of its members are local, 40% are women). Echo has also produced "real-life" events for six years including: "Read Only," a reading series, "Virtual Culture," a new-media lecture series, and "Alt.Film," an alternative film festival.

You want to know the truth? I've been writing about virtual communities for years and I have to say that the differences between a virtual and a face-to-face community are superficial and secondary. Each has its pluses and minuses, but they end up accurately reflecting the people who participate. We are who we are, and--over time--we can't help being ourselves. You can't hide from yourself, even online where no one can see you. (Unless, of course, you lurk, or flit from place to place. But if you did that in the face-to-face world, the result would be depressingly similar.)

What did we all think? That we'd get online and we'd all be different? I know many people thought we'd be better. That there'd be no sexism because we don't have bodies or genders. We'd eliminate racism because we can't see anyone's color. Wrong, wrong, wrong. We bring our biases with us. We aren't miraculously transformed when we get online. Understanding and change is a long and agonizingly slow process. It can and does happen online, but at the same rate it happens anywhere else.

Here's the big advantage to online communities: They do provide more time and distance, to not so much work out differences so much as learn to live with them. For a community to work, its members must accept imperfection. You have to learn from people's shortcomings. Even in a relatively small place like Echo, we get all kinds. The same thing has to happen in face-to-face communities, but there's one difference in virtual communities.

Imagine you're at a party or on the street or on the subway, and someone starts spouting off, broadcasting some perfectly hideous idea. Depending on my mood, I might talk to him, shut out the noise, or simply walk away. When someone says something similar online, I can step up and take a closer look--at least after the initial revulsion and retreat. It's like walking right up to a traffic accident instead of slowly driving by. Except in this case you are looking at the accident inside that person's head. Or heart. And because people online participate over time, you can even see it happening; you can watch the action unfold in excruciatingly slow motion.

I'm not saying you're going to like people any more online than you do in person. But you're going to know them better. And that makes you think; it changes you. It's certainly changed me.

Stacy Horn is the founder of Echo. She holds a master's degree from the Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP) at NYU, where she currently teaches a course on virtual culture. Horn is the author of a forthcoming book about small-town life in cyberspace, to be published by Warner Books in 1997.

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