Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Sexual Transgression in the Virtual Community

I found the Dibbell reading this week raised a lot of interesting questions about the nature of transgressions on Internet communities. At the surface level, the chat-room antics of Mr_Bungle, however appalling, are nothing like rape or sexual assault in real life. But the truth of this perception is really dependent on the existence of a solid boundary between real life and virtual reality worlds. If the meaning of the events that occur in LambdaMOO really lies “in the gap between” real life and virtual life, then there is an element of reality to the transgressions of Mr_Bungle which helps explain the seriousness of the community’s reaction.

Additionally, I found Dibbell’s perspective on sex as a Foucauldian exchange of symbols – rather than a specific physical act – as a compelling explanation not only of the feelings of violation experienced by other LambdaMOO members. The interpretation of sex as a symbolic exchange also makes it easy to see why cybersex is possible and, to many people, satisfying. Despite the fact that cybersex essentially lacks all of the physical interactivity we usually think of as comprising “sex” in full, it’s an effective and dynamic way of exchanging the kind of symbols that can bring about sexual pleasure and enjoyment.

The Dibbell piece also explored the issue of how to deal with the kind of problems created by the nonconsensual exchange of these symbols. The response of the LambdaMOO community was rapid and heated, but ultimately ineffective. The discussion of whether the real world legal authorities could be brought to bear on the case of Mr_Bungle was extinguished pretty quickly – the question remained on the table who should regulate transgressions on Internet community, and even whether they should be regulated at all. This was the major issue of the text for me. I think Dibbell’s example of LambdaMOO made it clear that the methods available to virtual moderators are very limited, and, at the same time, the image of allowing the legal restraints of the real world into that space would spell the end of a certain kind of freedom and anonymity that so many MOO users would find repellent.

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