Meditations on identity in the spaceland of MOO

September 11, 1998

HIGH WIRED: On the Design, Use and Theory of Educational MOOs Cynthia Haynes and Jan Rune Holmevik University of Michigan Press 342pp Pounds 34.00 and Pounds 14.50.

ISBN 0 472 09665 6 and 0 472 06665 X.

This collection of essays is a useful resource for anyone interested in teaching on the Internet, but there are also personal stories hidden between the lines.

Involvement in virtual communities often seems to lead to personal transformation, as in the case of Pavel Curtis, programmer-turned-social administrator.

In 1990 he became fascinated by MOOs while working as a programming researcher at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center. By the end of that year he had created the now famous society of LambdaMOO and his life had changed forever "Something big had happened, you understand." Today he describes himself as a "wizard, judge, community builder and wild-eyed visionary with delusions of anthropology".

It is a strange power which enables one to create an entire world simply by writing lines of code, and one not without responsibilities. As the builders and administrators of a large online community, Curtis and his fellow programmers found themselves frequently forced to legislate on social issues far removed from the world of bits and bytes.

But what is a MOO (MUD, Object Oriented) - or MUD (Multi User Dungeon/Dimension) as it is sometimes called? At its simplest it can be described as a way to communicate instantaneously via the Internet with people anywhere in the world. You use a rather old-fashioned technology (Telnet) to log in to an online space, and when there you create an identity and an environment for yourself purely by describing them in text. Type in a few easy commands and you will soon find yourself chatting with the other inhabitants of this imaginary but very real society.

Virtual communities do not only affect the people who run them. Everyone who visits a MOO comes away touched by the experience, and classroom sessions are no exception. The usual teacher/student relationship can sometimes be intensely productive for both parties, but put that same pair into a virtual environment where all that each knows about the other is that which they have chosen to reveal in text, and a heady interaction is almost bound to occur. Indeed, when Cynthia Haynes and Jan Rune Holmevik, editors of this volume, created their own educational community, LinguaMOO, they took their responsibilities very seriously. They were well aware that, as Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor and social researcher Sherry Turkle says in her introduction, a MOO offers "a space for growth" - a moratorium away from the conventions of real life; a "time out" for experiment and expansion. Good educational concepts which can be used to powerful effect but which can also be risky to handle and need some control in their application.

The essays in this volume cover a lot of ground, from the practicalities of designing and setting up a MOO to meditations upon artistry and the theoretical framework of life in a virtual community. The emphasis is always on the educational environment, with detailed information on how to organise online classes, tutorials, conferences and collaborative projects. It is the ideal hands-on guide for teachers ready to step out into cyberspace.

Sue Thomas is the author of five books and she recently completed a novel set in a MOO. See her website, BECOMING VIRTUAL at http://www.innotts. co.uk/thomas/virtual.html for a further exploration of LambdaMOO. She is also director of the trAce Online Writing Community, based at Nottingham Trent University. http://trace. ntu.ac.uk

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