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Virtual Virtuosos: Play and Performance at the Computer Keyboard
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The Electronic Journal of Communication / La Revue Electronique de Communication
******** RUEDEN ******** EJC/REC Vol. 5, No. 4, 1995 *******


Lucia Ruedenberg
Ben Gurion University of the Negev
The Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Brenda Danet
The Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Yehudit Rosenbaum-Tamari
The Hebrew University of Jerusalem

        Abstract.  This paper is a study of writing,
     play and performance on IRC (Internet Relay Chat).
     We analyse a "virtual party" that took place on
     IRC in December, 1991 on a channel named +weed
     with the topic "sssssssss hmmm wheres all that
     smoke from?" where, for one and a half hours
     participants chatted playfully.  We focus on three
     interrelated, yet analytically distinct types of
     play:  1) play with identity, 2) play with frames
     of interaction, and 3) play with typographic
     symbols.  We adopt a qualitative, textual, and
     micro-sociolinguistic approach, drawing on work in
     discourse analysis, the study of orality and
     literacy, and the anthropology of play and
     performance.  Digital play in our case material
     portrays action through both words and pictorial
     means.  A virtuoso improvisation begins when two
     participants play off each other's creative use of
     icons and words.  In all play there is reduced
     accountability for action.  In the material world,
     masks and costumes at carnival time liberate
     participants; here, the ephemeral, non-material
     medium, the typed text, and the use of nicknames
     provide the mask.  Like all play, digital textual
     play is voluntary, intensely absorbing, done for
     its own sake, and more or less rule-governed.
     Suspension of the traditional coordinates of time
     and space makes cyberspace an ideal "place" for

                          Part 1.

     It was a chilly night in Jerusalem, around midnight in
early December, 1991, when Ruedenberg turned on her computer
and logged onto IRC (Internet Relay Chat) as <Lucia> to see
who else might be online.  A message from <Thunder> in New
York popped up on her screen:

     *Thunder* hi

She messaged him back:

     /msg thunder rehi
     /msg thunder you want to talk?

     "Rehi" is a convention for "hi again" on IRC (Internet
Relay Chat), an interactive chat program for communicating
in real time, via computer, over the Internet.  Ruedenberg,
a graduate fellow at the time, at The Hebrew University of
Jerusalem, had been using this medium for a few months.
<Thunder>, a systems operator and student at a university in
the United States, had been active on IRC for many years.
For him it was early evening in New York, he had plans, and
he let her know he could not chat long:

     *Thunder* I am gonna shower soon
     /msg thunder first laundrey, then shower. hmmm. clean
     *Thunder* well did not start wash yet... have 2 days
     /msg thunder ahah. :-)

     Relations between <Lucia> and <Thunder> had become
somewhat testy.  Ruedenberg, upon realizing the unique
communicative nature of this virtual world, had begun to log
her chat sessions on IRC.  Some of these logs had included
verbal sexplay and not unexpectedly, a power struggle
emerged around issues of privacy and control.  <Thunder>
even phoned <Lucia> once to smooth over ruffled feelings in
"voice."  In the chat that follows, <Lucia> returned to this
unresolved issue:

  /msg thunder so tell me.
  *Thunder* tell you what
  /msg thunder I have to ask yo if you mind my logging
       sometimes or ever, if yo're  on it.
  *Thunder* I just watch what I say :-)
  *Thunder* if there is something I don't want logged that
       I said.. I merely run program and it disappears
  /msg thunder I will not log if you do't want me to
  *Thunder* it does not matter..I will not say anyghint
       I don't want logged since I assume your log is
       always on anyway
  /msg thunder but don't do that if it will kill whatever
       else I have done before you talk
  *Thunder* it will do nothing to the rest of your log..
      it will merely remove the lines with <Thunder> in
  /msg thunder all you have to say is - don't log me.
  *Thunder* and *Thunder* in them
  -Thunder- and -Thunder-
  /msg thunder well...okay
  /msg thunder you have the power to do what you want

     In the brief exchange above, <Thunder> informs <Lucia>
that he has written a little program to excise whatever he
"says" whenever he does not want to be logged.  First
<Lucia> tries to establish some "verbal" understanding but
finally acknowledges his technical ability to control the
medium, a performative skill on his part.

     Then unexpectedly, instead of ending the chat to take a
shower as he had first announced, <Thunder> launched into a
virtual performance on the computer keyboard, inviting
<Lucia> to join him in a dance with words:

Line 53   *** Thunder invites you to channel 1
          *** Thunder invites you to channel 2
     55   *** Thunder invites you to channel 3
          *** Thunder invites you to channel 4
          *** Thunder invites you to channel 5
          *** Thunder invites you to channel 6
          *** Thunder invites you to channel 0
     60   *** Thunder invites you to channel hmmm this
              is confusing
          /msg thunder hmm so much to choose from ! hehe
          *** Thunder invites you to channel -)
          *** Thunder invites you to channel \
          /msg thunder hahahaha
     65   *** Thunder invites you to channel -)
          *** Thunder invites you to channel \
          /msg thunder no way!
          *** Thunder invites you to channel ok..I will
              stop now
          *** Thunder invites you to channel +bagelnosh
     70   *** Thunder invites you to channel +noshbagel
          /msg thunder oh yeah?
          *** Thunder invites you to channel +hsonlegab
          ***Thunder invites you to channel +kinky sex with
             riding crops and handcuffs
     75   /msg thunder I'll think about it.
          *** Thunder invites you to channel +weed
          *** Thunder invites you to channel +weed
          *** Thunder invites you to channel +weed
          *** Thunder invites you to channel +weed
     80   *Thunder* this one is real
          /msg thunder oh yeah?
          *Thunder* do a /whois thunder
          /whois thunder
          Thunder is root@xxxxxxxx (-: Raam / Chundeung :-)
     87   ***Thunder invites you to channel +weed
          /j +weed
          *** lucia joins channel +weed

     Opening a "channel" on IRC signals "Let's relax and
hang out a little while," since it allows people to type
messages to each other without constant use of the /msg
command.  <Thunder>'s playful openings introduce a frame of
experience (Goffman, 1974) that shapes the following
interactions into what we will call a "party" mode.  Within
this frame, participants can enjoy reduced accountability,
and action and utterances are often in a playful mode
(Handelman, 1976).  Giving the channel a name introduces the
meta-message:  "Let's make-believe and suspend belief"
(Handelman, 1976).  Among adults, extended pretend-play is
usually limited to specialized situations such as the
theater, charades, improvisation, masked balls and
carnivals.  In this case, it is the play-frame of IRC.

     <Thunder> began by playing with different names for his
channel, inserting a reflexive comment on himself:  "hmmm,
this is confusing" (line 60).  Then he switched to
typographic symbols (lines 62-63, 65-66) and played with the
word "bagelnosh," reversing the two components of the word
and then typing it backward (line 72).  If one had any
doubts about whether serious conversation was about to take
place, they are now dispelled!  The proposal for "kinky sex
with riding crops and handcuffs" (line 74) offers the
possibility that the "party" could turn into seduction and
"dark play" (Schechner, 1988).

     Finally, <Thunder> settled on the channel name +weed
(line 76), issuing the invitation five times--repetition
being in itself, of course, playful.  After double-checking
on who and where <Thunder> was, <Lucia> "joined" the channel
(line 88).  Here, they chatted for roughly one and one-half
hours, while six other persons joined them.

     Communication on IRC is a veritable "forest of
symbols," to borrow Victor Turner's (1967) metaphor, of
typographic symbols, comprised of such humble materials as
commas, colons, and backslashes.  Resourcefulness at the
computer keyboard is an example of "virtual play" (Aycock,
1993)--a stylized, written form of speech that lies
somewhere between playing an instrument and acting a part.

     Initiates into the world of electronic communication
quickly learn to explore the expressivity of the medium
through creative use of the keyboard, which offers both
lower and upper case letters, numbers, typographic symbols,
and function keys.  One popular example is the use of the
"smiley" icon :-).  Typographic misfires and misspellings
which are a result of writing "on the fly" may also be
exploited for expressive effect.  Experienced in real time
as scrolling lines of text on a computer screen, the digital
play in our case material portrays action through both words
and pictorial means.

     In the first part of this paper we will explore the
ways in which computer mediated communications encourage
creativity and play.  In the second part, we will analyze
the "virtual party" that took place on IRC when <Thunder>
opened channel +weed.  We adopt a qualitative, textual, and
micro- sociolinguistic approach, drawing on work in
discourse analysis, the study of orality and literacy, and
the anthropology of play and performance.  We focus on three
interrelated, yet analytically distinct types of play:  1)
play with identity, 2) play with frames of interaction, and
3) play with typographic symbols.  Like all play, digital
textual play is voluntary, intensely absorbing, done for its
own sake, and more or less rule-governed (Huizinga, 1955).
We suggest that the case material presented in this study is
a transitional form of cultural expression in an emergent
medium.  The suspension of the traditional coordinates of
time and space makes cyberspace an ideal "place" for play.

An Inherently Playful Medium

     Four interrelated, basic features of computers and
computer-mediated communications foster playfulness:
ephemerality, speed, interactivity, and freedom from the
tyranny of materials (Danet et al., in press).  The computer
encourages participants to "fiddle" (Schechner, personal
communication, August 1993).  Thinking primarily of
word-processing, Heim (1987) describes the computer as an
inherently playful medium:

     My stream of consciousness can be paralleled by
     the running flow of the electric element.  Words
     dance on the screen.  Sentences slide smoothly
     into place, make way for one another, while
     paragraphs ripple down the screen.  Words become
     highlighted, vanish at the push of a button, then
     reappear instantly at will.  Verbal life is
     fast-paced, easier, with something of the
     exhilaration of video games (p. 152).

     Similarly, Bolter (1991) describes playfulness as a
defining quality of hypertext forms of literature (composed
of a series of chunks which can be read in any associative

     Electronic literature will remain a game, just as
     all computer programming is a game.
     [Hypertext]...grows out
     games.....the impermanence of electronic
     literature cuts both ways:  as there is no lasting
     success, there is also no failure that needs to
     last.  By contrast, there is a solemnity at the
     center of printed literature--even comedy, romance
     and satire--because of the immutability of the
     printed page (p. 130).

     The subjunctive mode of possibility and experimentation
invokes the frame of "make-believe" (Bateson, 1972; Goffman,
1974; Handelman, 1976).  When this frame is operating,
participants understand and accept the meta-message "this is
play" (Bateson, 1972; Handelman, 1976).  Goffman (1974, pp.
40-41) suggests that activity in the "key" of play is
closely patterned after something that already has a meaning
in a "serious" key, e.g., a strip of fighting behavior is
transformed into a strip of play; participants are not
"really" fighting.  Richard Schechner suggests that play is
being loose with rules and bits of existence that are
apparently set.  We turn them upside down, use them in
unexpected and unplanned-for ways, make them into what they
were not at first intended to be (personal communication,
August 1993).

     All play is voluntary, intensely absorbing, done for
its own sake, and more or less rule-governed (Huizinga,
1955).  The sensual flow of words, experienced by Heim as a
"stream of consciousness" paralleled by the "running flow of
the electric element," resembles Csikszentmihalyi's notion
of play as a "flow experience" in which action and awareness
are fused (Csikszentmihalyi, 1977), as well as Caillois'
notion of "ilinx," a state of "losing oneself" (Caillois,

     The state of being deeply absorbed and engrossed in a
computer-related, two-way activity is often referred to as
interactivity ( Laurel, 1992; Rafaeli, 1988 ). The computer
is experienced as a "second self" (Turkle, 1984).  When two
persons communicate in real time via computers, they often
report a heightened sense of involvement.  One participant
on a discussion list for "virtual culture" explained:

     I must admit that there *is* a certain "spell"
     associated with a net-relationship--there's
     something sensually tantalizing about the slow
     progression of crafted words across a screen.
     (posting to, October 10,

     This seductive quality of the computer has been
described by Stone (1991) as a state of "lucid dreaming," an
"interactive reading" that is a "participatory social
practice in which the actions of the reader have
consequences in the world of the dream or the book" (p. 94).

     Pioneering researchers on computer-mediated
communication in the late 1970's and early 1980's were slow
to notice playfulness in the new medium, or to regard this
as a topic worth investigating in its own right.  Concerned
primarily with the instrumental, rather than the affective
or socio-emotional aspects of communication, early research
focused on its effects on organizational functioning.
Electronic mail (e-mail) with its possibilities for
one-to-one and one-to-many communication, was often referred
to as "teleconferencing" or "conferences."  Such terms are
still quite common among scholars in the research tradition
of organizational communication.  Because "conference"
usually refers to a work-related meeting, designers of the
new technologies, researchers, and early participants may
also have expected the general frame of messages exchanged
to be "serious."

     Some perceived the medium, by definition, as cold,
anonymous, and lacking in "social presence," due to "reduced
bandwidth," and the resulting absence of non-verbal cues
such as facial expression ( Kiesler et al., 1984; Kuehn,
1993; Rice and Love, 1987; Short et al., 1976; Walther,
1992).  There are signs of a rethinking of these issues.
Walther (1992, p. 66) cites suggestions that "social
presence can be 'cultured' among teleconferencing
participants, rather than being determined by the medium
itself" (Johansen et al., 1988, p. 141).

     One of the surprises for researchers on
computer-mediated communication has been the frequency of
features previously thought to characterize oral, as opposed
to written, communication, (cf., e.g., Bolter, 1991; Collot
and Belmore, 1992; Ferrara et al., 1991; Leslie, 1993;
Maynor, in press; Murray, 1991; Yates, 1992a, 1992b).
Electronic text is, like an oral text, "dynamic" (Bolter,
1991 p. 59).  It blurs the boundaries between oral and
written forms of communication.

     Verbal playfulness in computer communications
originated with those who created and continue to invent the
medium, often referred to as "hackers" (Barlow, 1990; Meyer
and Thomas, 1990; Raymond, 1991, p. 15-16).  Dry humor,
irony, puns, and a mildly flippant attitude, along with an
underlying seriousness and intelligence are cultivated and
valued (Raymond, 1991, p. 20).  Electronic mail and
messaging are viewed as a new form of human communication,
better than the telephone and postal system put together;
ordinary surface or air mail are playfully dismissed as
"snail mail" (Raymond, 1991, p. 325-326).  Conventions of
computer programming language (Raymond, 1991), when used in
everyday language, challenge the formalities of English
writing conventions, such as the preference for writing all
in lower-case, even at the beginning of sentences, as well
as the tendency to put periods and commas outside instead of
inside quotes.

     Other forms of verbal playfulness resemble genres of
popular writing, the language of advertising, graffiti, and
personal letter-writing, particularly that of young people.
In electronic communications, capital letters, as in "I
REALLY LIKE THAT!" are usually interpreted as shouting.
Their use is familiar from the comics as a way to emphasize
a word or phrase (Abbott, 1986; Inge, 1990).  Another common
example is the use of asterisks to emphasize words which
convey that an action is taking place (*grins*) or a sound
is being made (*bang*).

     In addition to play with words, there is play with
typographic symbols to express emotion.  *grins* becomes
simply <g>.  Emoticons, such as the basic smile noted at the
beginning of this paper, are used to express humor,
laughter, friendliness, and occasionally, sarcasm ( Mason,
p. 1990; Raymond, 1991, p. 142-143 ). Large collections of
"smiley dictionaries" have been circulating around the globe
for the last decade or more (Blackman and Clevenger, 1990;
Danet and Ruedenberg, 1992; Godin, 1993; Kuehn, 1993; Reid,
1991).  We experience these composite typographic symbols as
gestalts, seeing the whole face rather than the colons,
dashes, etc. of which they are created.

     During her first exploration of IRC, Ruedenberg
encountered a :-P from a user in Chicago who explained that
she "stuck out her tongue" at <Lucia>'s efforts to master
the new medium both technically and socially.  While some
initiates to the medium reject emoticons as "in poor taste,"
or in conflict with standards of "good writing" associated
with literate culture, for others, playing with smiley icons
may be a way of signalling initiation and familiarity with
the medium.  It can be disconcerting for "newbies" to learn
that old-timers may already be rejecting "smileys" as passe.
They may already be out of style on Usenet and on MUDS and
MOOS (personal communication from Lee-Ellen Marvin, 1994).

Establishing the Virtual Field

     Electronic communications occur in an abstract space of
telecommunications technology that challenges ordinary
questions like "What time is it?" or "Where age we?"
(Barlow, 1990; Benedikt, 1991; Biocca, 1992; Gibson 1984).
Newcomers to the medium often report experiencing a period
of disorientation or vertigo that can be either distressing
or exhilarating.  The conventional boundaries between real
and imagined worlds have been blurred.

     In "real life," isolation in time and space is usually
necessary for people to become free of everyday constraints
and to lose themselves in play.  Huizinga (1955), for
example, defines play as a "free activity standing quite
consciously outside 'ordinary' life....within its own proper
boundaries of time and space" (p. 13).  Similarly, Caillois
(1961) describes play as essentially a "separate occupation,
carefully isolated from the rest of life" and "engaged in
with precise limits of time and place"--the sidewalk marked
for hopscotch, the game board for chess, the stadium,
racetrack, ring, the stage and the arena (p. 6).  In
"cyberspace" the suspension of conventional coordinates of
time and space provides the perfect insulation to maintain a
play frame.

     In "cyberspace," a sense of place and person are
entirely imaginary.  Shared interests and communicative
style, alone, are used to navigate this space, where, as
Kirshenblatt-Gimblett (1992) has noted, "topic is
place--from _topos_, the Greek word for place":

     virtual places are defined not just by the
     designated topic, be it jazz or sourdough, but
     also by the attitude to topic control.  The
     designated topic may be the address, but the
     attitude to topic control helps to give the place
     its distinctive social character.

     Rheingold (1992) notes that new technologies provide
new "tools for facilitating all the various ways people have
discovered to divide and communicate, group and subgroup and
regroup, include and exclude, select and elect":

     The physical world, known variously as "IRL" ("In
     Real Life"), or "offline," is a place where the
     identity and position of the people you
     communicate with are well known, fixed, and highly
     visual.  In cyberspace, everybody is in the dark.
     We can only exchange words with each other--no
     glances or shrugs or ironic smiles.  Even the
     nuances of voice and intonation are stripped away.

     With the increasing technical ability to transmit
non-textual files over the Internet, play with visual,
aural, and moving images, as well as verbal representation,
as in World Wide Web home pages, is fast becoming a part of
electronic communications.

     How then, do people view this new place--"online"?  In
its present condition, some compare "cyberspace" to the 19th
Century West (Barlow, 1990), a "frontier" peopled by
"computer cowboys" (Hafner and Markoff, 1991, p. 10),
"console cowboys," or "digital explorers" (Levy, 1984,

     It is vast, unmapped, culturally and legally
     ambiguous, verbally terse..., hard to get around
     in, and up for grabs.  Large institutions already
     claim to own the place, but most of the actual
     natives are solitary and independent, sometimes to
     the point of sociopathy.  It is, of course, a
     perfect breeding ground for both outlaws and new
     ideas about liberty.  (Barlow, 1990).

     Others envision a congenial place for relaxed
conviviality ( Coate, 1992; Oldenburg, 1989; Rheingold,
1993; Smith, 1993):

     If you see a net.user with more than one window
     open, chances are one of those windows is linked
     to an electronic cafe....these coffeehouse
     atmospheres are prime spots for chatting or
     perhaps a little gaming or roleplaying (Frost,

     Similar to a "pub," "cafe," "salon" or "saloon," the
electronic cafe is a new kind of "third place" (Oldenburg,
1989), that lies somewhere between "home" and "work,"
geographically, psychologically or socially.  Its character
is determined most of all by its regular clientele and is
marked by a playful mood:

     Within these places, conversation is the primary
     activity and the major vehicle for the display and
     appreciation of human personality and
     individuality....Since the formal institutions of
     society make stronger claims on the individual,
     third places are normally open in the off hours,
     as well as at other times (Oldenburg, 1989, p.

     Finally, many perceive electronic communications such
as IRC, the fax network, Usenet and mailing lists, as
powerful methods for the dissemination of information during
times of crisis (Rheingold, 1993; Ruedenberg, 1994).  When
telecommunications were cut during the Gulf War, Tiananmen
Square, and the Russian Coup, Internet links remained up
(Press, 1992).  In 1991, Muscovite IRC users reported live
at the scene:

     After [channel +report] was used during the Gulf
     War, during the LA riots, during the Tiananmen
     Square incident in China, at least one news
     reporter dropped by the channel in search of
     Russian us a view "from the
     inside" as CNN could never do.  Translating the
     Russian media, and walking the rubble-strewn
     streets, they mediated a glimpse into the very
     heart of the action (Wong, 1993).

     Our experience of the worldwide system of computer
networks that has developed over the past decade (LaQuey,
1993; Quarterman, 1990; Rheingold, 1993) is one of a place
for both work and play where modes of expressive behavior
are created everyday (Myers, 1987).

     Whereas the term "cyberspace" evokes an abstract, empty
domain consisting of machines, information and electronic
pulses (Benedikt, 1991; Biocca, 1992 Gibson, 1984; ), and
the metaphor "information highway" or "infobahn" implies a
domestication of this space for the highspeed exchange of
data, the term "the net" captures the image of people
communicating with each other.  The net is a very social
place.  It catches someone falling through space.  The
"network" and "networking" are concepts that call to mind
people at least as much as they do information.

     Playful forms of expression come to the fore not in
private electronic mail, but in bulletin boards, discussion
lists, virtual classrooms, chat programs, and home pages on
the Web.  In the last five years, researchers have begun to
pay close attention to the linguistic features, expressive
behavior, and playfulness of messages in these modes of
daily communication.

IRC: A Global Playground

     Part pub, part Wild West, IRC is an interactive chat
program where hundreds of discussions occur in real time,
one to one, or in groups, on "channels."  Similar to Usenet
newsgroups, topics range from poetry readings, word games,
and flirting in an imaginary hottub to computer programming
tips, news flashes in times of crises, political discussions
of world events, music fans' chitchat, lonely hearts clubs'
gropings for company, and religious discussions, to name but
a few.  Since full interactive access to the Internet is
necessary to log on to IRC, the majority of participants are
college and university students.

     The original IRC client was invented in the late 1980s
by Jarkko Oikarinen, a student of computer science at the
University of Olutensin in Finland.  Inspired by BITNET
Relay, a chat program for IBM protocol machines, he wanted
to create a similar program for the Unix machine that could
connect to the Internet, so that local users on his BBS
could chat with each other.

     In looking back on his invention, Jarkko (nicknamed WIZ
on IRC) observes that the main problem with IRC is that it
"takes so much time from useful studying and work":

     the bad thing is...irc doesn't take much CPU time,
     or not even very much network bandwidth. it just
     takes a lot of people. and people is the resource
     money really cannot buy. people do not study when
     they use irc. they do not work either.

He commented wryly:

     I'm known as the ultimate cracker who managed to
     program a computer virus which makes students
     graduate later and which isn't stoppable :-)

     At the time of this interview (on IRC of course) in
1991, he was close to completing his own degree, working at
the university hospital on projects related to
computer-assisted brain surgery.  With a smile, he excused

     But it's 2AM... which means it's my bedtime...  I
     try not to stay on irc later than 2, because then
     I wake up too late and don't go to work :-)
     (citations are from a personal interview
     Ruedenberg conducted with him on December 20,

     As with most shareware programs, IRC "just spread
around."  Young computer enthusiasts test their skills,
experiment with the code and periodically create new,
updated versions, most of which are "full of security holes"
that allow users to break into each other's accounts.  With
no real privacy on IRC (or on the Internet in general),
almost any Unix-skilled hacker who cares to listen can
eavesdrop on any other user's conversation.  Channels create
the illusion of intimacy, but as one user put it:

     IRC is fun and sometimes interesting, which is the
     reverse of campus life in general, but IRC will
     *never* be a serious [tool] simply because it is
     not secure and is dominated by kids.

     In her study of IRC, Elizabeth Reid (1991) observes
that participants treat the medium as both a "frontier
world" and a "playground" in which they feel free to
experiment with forms of communication and self
representation.  IRC provides a place to act out fantasies,
challenge social norms, and exercise aspects of one's
personality that would under normal circumstances be
inhibited (Reid, 1991).

     Institutions, on the other hand, often maintain that
IRC is a drain on limited computer resources.  It is banned
at Amherst College in the United States (Kelly and
Rheingold, 1993; Rheingold, 1993).  In Israel, only four of
the seven academic institutions allow unrestricted access.
We gained access from Hebrew University only after
submitting a request to use it solely for research and
teaching purposes.

     In the three years since we gathered the material for
this study in 1991, participation on IRC has grown
tremedously.  A 1993 study notes that the number of users at
any given time increased from 606 in March 1992 to 2316 in
April 1993, with low usage during college breaks in the
United States (Nystroem, 1993).  In April 1994, Laurent
Demailly posted an enthusiastic announcement to the
discussion list for IRC operators that more than 5000 users
were logged on that night:

     I'm pleased to make you notice that the current
     net has successfully reached more than 5000 users
     this night !!!  The 5000th USER was seen from here
     at 04:28 MET (GMT+2) on Apr 21st And, miracle !
     It was *not* a bot !!!  (at least, not a bot
     'look') :  It was weinrib!
     (Eileen Weinrib) on server :Rutgers
     Univeristy New Brunswick, NJ I'll suggest that
     everybody greet this symbolic customer !!  The
     current record is now :  Max 5105, Apr 21 05:53
     MET (again seen from here ( How
     much this ircd can stand ? 7000? 10000 ?  {i doubt
     we'll see the 10000th with current protocol,
     anyway, if it happens, i'll tell you :)} more ?
     ( April 12, 1994).

     Since not everyone logs on every day, and presumably
different people log on at different times around the globe,
the total number of IRC users at the time of completion of
this paper is obviously higher than 5000, though very
difficult to estimate.  To complicate matters, many "users"
are "bots," as noted in the above quote; that is, robot
programs that interact on IRC in various capacities.

     A descriptive file on IRC warns that "the program can
be very addictive once you begin to make friends and
contacts on IRC ;-) especially when you learn how to cuss in
14 languages" (Trim and Lindahl, 1990).  Many young people
do indeed find IRC addictive, so much so that they have
formed a news group called alt.irc.recovery to help wean
themselves from the medium.  Players report losing all sense
of time once they get involved in a chat, leading to
marathons that can last anywhere from 5 to 25 hours!  One
former user reported:

     I came *this* close to ruining my whole future
     because of irc.  It got to the point where that
     was all I could think about... and every minute
     off irc was a minute closer to the next time I
     could sign onto irc.  Every, and I do mean *every*
     one of my friends at that time was from irc, and
     what's sad is I never even met more than half of
     them face to face.  I totally lost interest in
     everything else, and would often lose precious
     sleep because I'd be on irc til 4 am.  God, I
     still shudder when I think about how I let my life
     become so pathetic (posting to alt.irc.covery

     Another user ascribed her addiction to the anonymity of
electronic communications:

     as I found myself further and further into irc and
     other similar things, I found that I didn't have
     to do some of the things which I *did* have to do
     in real life in order to be accepted.  I didn't
     have to dress up.  I could claim to be anyone I
     wanted to be (something which I didn't abuse as
     much as many people do) and suddenly, people found
     me "beautiful" because of my way with words.  I am
     not physically beautiful, and never could be
     described that way.  I was a little intoxicated,
     if that's a good word (posting to alt.irc.recovery

     On IRC, as in all play, there is reduced accountability
for action (Handelman, 1976; Honigmann, 1977; Turner,
1986a).  The potential for subversiveness on IRC and other
chat modes is similar to other forms of adolescent play and
expressive culture such as comics, graffiti, and jazz, both
in the diversion of the medium to other uses, and in the
actual content produced (Abel and Buckley, 1977; Berliner,
1994 Castleman, 1982; Estren, 1974).  By conventional
criteria, all forms of playfulness are amoral and can be
viewed as threatening to the social order.  Play
communicates "what can be" (Handelman, 1976, p. 186) and is
defined as "unserious," "untrue," "pretend," "make-believe,"
and "unreal" precisely because it is a "fount of unorder
against which the social order must be buffered."  Play is
not permitted to define a moral community, since the
"directions of its transformative capacity are uncharted"
(Handelman, 1976, p. 189).

     In computer-mediated communications, the juxtaposition
of fantasy with high-tech reality has created a post-modern
form of communication, distinguished by a style of playful
rebellion and irreverent subversion (Meyer and Thomas,
1990).  In his study of virtual communities, Rheingold
(1993) views "IRCland" as a cross cultural grab bag of
written conversations, a "global subculture" composed of
artificial identities, quick wit, the use of words to
construct an imagined, shared context for conversation where
"writing is performance" (Rheingold, 1993, pp.176-178).  The
analysis to be presented in this paper leads us to reject
positions of strong technological determinism (Heim, 1987;
Ong, 1982), and to view "regulars" on IRC as pioneers
experimenting with new forms of human expression,
domesticating and transforming technology in creative,
unanticipated ways.

                          Part 2.

     In the next section of this paper we will return to the
case material presented in our introduction.  We will
explore three interrelated aspects of play and performance
on IRC:  play with identity, play with frames of
interaction, and play with language.  A complete transcript
of the chat session, captured through Kermit by Ruedenberg
in December 1991, is available from Ruedenberg or Danet.

Playing with Identity

     Playing with identity in computer-mediated
communications originates from the need for a "userid" in
order "log in" to a computer system.  You need to "tell the
computer who you are" (Steele, 1991, p. xiii).

     Nicknames are _de rigueur_ in network chat programs and
"talkers" such as IRC (Reid, 1991), Compuserve's CB
Simulator Channels, or MUDs and MOOs (Multi-user Domains or
Dungeons) (object-oriented MUDs; cf.  Bruckman, 1992, 1993;
Curtis, 1992; Kelly and Rheingold, 1993; Leslie, 1993;
Rheingold, 1993;).  The use of nicknames resembles oral
forms of communication, such as the Citizen's Band radio
where participants are known by their "handle" (Kalcik,
1985; Powell, 1983).

     Thus, players on IRC will have several electronic
identities.  The electronic address contains a userid that
they need to log onto the Internet.  From there, they log
onto IRC with any nickname they choose.  "Nicks" must be
unique in order to log on, but can be changed once on IRC.
Those with a little skill can customize the information that
is displayed about themselves, other than the address
itself.  Thus, several of the participants listed below have
additional information in parentheses (where normally their
real name appears).  These serve as comments upon their IRC

     The nicknames of the eight players in our log are
listed below in Table 1. To preserve the real-world
identities of the participants, other than Ruedenberg, we
have deleted any information that reveals details about the
mainframe computers through which all participants except
<Lucia> logged on.  Note that nicknames are displayed in
angle brackets, as they appear on IRC:


Figure 1.  Nicknames of participants.

     <Thunder>    root@xxxxx  (-: Raam / Chundeung :-)
     <Kang>       GENGHISCON@xxxxxx  (<Drax the D>)
     <Rikitiki>   rpa3@xxxxxx
     <BlueAdept>  dlahti@xxxxxx
     <Jah>        miksma3@xxxxxx  (Baba)
     <Lizardo>    lizardo@xxxxxx  (Doctor Lizardo)
     <Teevie>     ssac@xxxxxx


     The use of nicknames illustrates one of the most common
forms of play on IRC.  Like material masks at carnivals and
masked balls (Turner 1986a), nicknames (and sometimes the
userid, or other optional components of an electronic
address) not only hide the players' real identity; they call
attention to the person through the expressive power and
imaginativeness of the mask.  Not unlike a "calling card,"
our players choose their nicks and customize their addresses
as textual plumage and markings that they invite us to
appreciate (Gombrich, 1984).  Nicks on IRC, and other
synchronous modes, tend to appeal to fantasy, borrowing
words from nature, mythology, technology, the occult,
comics, children's literature, science fiction, and films
(see Bechar-Israeli, in preparation).

     On many grounds there is no need for us to disguise the
identity of participants any more than they have done so
themselves on IRC, which is by definition a "public" space.
Anyone can check on the address of another user with a
simple /whois command.  In addition, participants can change
their nicknames at any time while they are on IRC.  Finally,
anyone can make a log of a chat session, either through a
log feature on the IRC client, or by capturing it through
their communications software.

     All these conditions argue for treating material
gathered in a log from IRC as public and therefore not
ethically problematic for researchers.  Nonetheless, as
noted in our introduction, what is perceived by participants
as private or public, on IRC and on the Internet in general,
is another matter.  By deleting that part of the address
that links a user with a login site, we are respecting the
possibility that our participants may wish to remain
anonymous.  Because <Thunder> is so central to the
activities analyzed here, we obtained permission from him to
publish this paper and to use his nick; the other six
persons, however, were not consulted.

     Of the eight players identified above, we will examine
the nicknames of five of them which appear in the excerpts
of the log that we will analyze below:

<Lucia>     (Lucia Ruedenberg)

     Any user on IRC could type /whois <Lucia> in order to
see who she is.  The address reveals that she was logging on
via an IBM mainframe (vm1), at the Hebrew University of
Jerusalem (huji), in the academic domain (ac), in Israel
(il).  One might try to ascribe meaning to "soulr" (e.g.,
"Ruedenberg's soul") but in this case, the code was simply
an abbreviation assigned to all students from overseas
universities (sou + lr for Ruedenberg's initials).

<Thunder>      root@xxxxxx (-: Raam/Chundeung :-)

     According to <Thunder>, he stole his nickname from his
dog whom he had named after the character "Thunder" in the
comic strip "Underdog."  The name evokes associations to
power, control, loud noise, even fear.  By using "root" as
the account from which to logon to IRC, <Thunder> not only
hides his real life name, but displays the fact that he is a
system administrator.  "Root" is the original "superuser"
account included in the initial set-up on any Unix machine,
from which a user can supervise and control the system.

     At the end of his address, <Thunder> has inserted an
additional name composed of typographic symbols (-:
Raam/Chundeung :-).  Two "smiley" icons, mirroring each
other, embrace two foreign words.  "Ra'am" is "thunder" in
Hebrew and "chundeung" means the same in Korean.  The
symmetry of the two facing smileys echoes the pairing of the
two words for "thunder," which evokes a couple or a
relationship.  Thus, one of the forms of playfulness here is
with language as code.  In addition, <Thunder>'s use of
"smiley" icons is a visual or graphic pun:  the end-brackets
serve both as the smileys _and_ as conventional brackets for
the text enclosed within them.  He thus recycles the
"smiley" back to its originally functional character as an
abstract typographic symbol, while retaining its playful use
as emoticon.

<Kang>    genghiscon@xxxxxx   (<Drax the D>)

     <Kang> has three kinds of nicknames in his/her
electronic address.  The IRC nick <Kang> is the name of a
Klingon character from the television series _Star Trek_.
The userid "genghiscon" is obviously a play upon the name
Genghis Khan.  "Khan" and "con" are homonyms in American
pronunciation--words that sound the same though spelled
differently.  Thus, <Kang> is playing with the relationship
between spoken and written language.

     "Con" is also a computer term that stands for "console"
(keyboard) as in the "copy con" command in DOS.  Moreover,
the "con" suffix can also be read as "convention," i.e., a
conference meeting; science fiction, Star Trek, Dungeons and
Dragons, and computer culture conventions are often referred
to as "cons."  In addition, in English, the term evokes "con
man"--one who swindles, tricks or deceives--derived from the
word "ex- con" or "convict."

     <Drax the D>, appended to <Kang>'s address, may be a
reference to a character in Dragons and Dungeons--imagery
that is popular in interactive genres such as MUDS
(Bruckman, 1992, 1993; Curtis, 1992; Kelly and Rheingold,
1993).  Since the nick is placed between angle brackets, it
is logical to assume that <Kang> uses <Drax the D> as an
alternate nick in some interactive mode.

<Rikitiki>     rpa3@xxxxxx

     Little is known about <Rikitiki>'s nickname.  One
association to it is to a character in Rudyard Kipling's
_Jungle Books_ (Kipling, 1961), who is a mongoose:

     ...rather like a little cat in his fur and his
     tail, but quite like a weasel in his head and his
     habits.  His eyes and the end of his restless nose
     were pink; he could scratch himself anywhere he
     pleased with any leg, front or back, that he chose
     to use; he could fluff up his tail till it looked
     like a bottle-brush, and his war-cry as he
     scuttled through the long grass was:

     Another association is to Tom Lehrer's song,
"Rickity-Tickity-Tin," popular with college students in the
late 1950's and early 1960's.  A third is to George Bernard
Shaw's play "Man and Superman," in which the heroine, Ann,
disparagingly calls a character called Octavius "Ricky Ticky
Tavy."  Today's college students may no longer be familiar
with Tom Lehrer's cynical songs; Kipling, on the other hand,
may still be favorite childhood reading.

<BlueAdept>    dlahti@xxxxxx

     _Blue Adept_ is the name of a novel by science fiction
writer Piers Anthony.  The author is immensely popular with
young adults, mostly men, in the United States, and well
known for extended puns and word play.  The nickname
<BlueAdept> plays with typographic conventions, eliding two
adjectives that are normally written a space apart (a nick
must be one word), and capitalizes them when normally they
would not be capitalized.  The name also invites
associations to a phrase like "Blue Angel" or to some comic
strip character similar to "the Green Hornet."

     Perhaps the most interesting thing to note about all
these nicks is that it is impossible to know if a player is
male or female.  Retaining her real name, <Lucia>,
Ruedenberg is the only person to choose an obviously
gendered nickname in the group.  Others might doubt if that
is her real name, or that she is female, but they have no
way to check this.  Ruedenberg had spoken once with
<Thunder> over the telephone so we know that he is male, and
she knows that he is male.  Knowing that more men than women
participate in IRC leads us to infer that most, if not all
of the other players are male.

     There is no overt clue to the age of our participants
either, though based on their conversation, it is easy to
assume they are college students, or at most in their early
thirties.  Except for <Thunder> and <Rikitiki>, students at
the same university, the other six participants were all
geographically dispersed and, to the best of our knowledge,
strangers, not only in real life, but electronically as
well.  We know that six of the participants logged on from
the United States.  One person was in Finland, and <Lucia>
was an American in Israel at the time of this log.

     It is usually a matter of chance who is already on IRC
when an individual joins the crowd.  For example, <Lucia>
did not know that <Thunder> would be online when she logged
on.  Similarly, they had no advance knowledge of who would
join their channel.  While individuals may encounter a few
familiar "faces," most people on IRC are strangers.  Thus,
IRC and other synchronous modes of digital communication
have something in common with face-to-face encounters where
chance comes into play (Caillois, 1961):  card games or
lotteries, singles bars, pubs, and large private parties.

     The disinhibiting effect of such anonymity can release
strong positive as well as negative emotions.  Sudden
episodes of conflict can erupt, referred to as "flaming"
(Danet, in press; Lea et al., 1992; Raymond, 1991; Reid,
1991; ). Participants are free to be other than themselves,
or they can be more of themselves than they normally
express, especially when they adopt nicknames (
Bechar-Israeli, in preparation; Bruckman, 1992, 1993;
Leslie, 1993; Reid, 1991; Rheingold, 1993, chap. 5).

     Huizinga (1955) has suggested that play promotes the
formation of social groupings that surround themselves with
secrecy and stress their difference by disguise or other
means (p. 13).  In real life, the effect of masks and
costumes at carnival time would be the paradigmatic example
of such anonymity and freedom (Turner, 1986a).  As we
pointed out earlier, in the present case it is the
ephemeral, non-material medium of computer-mediated
communication and the dependence on words alone that provide
the mask.

Playing with Frames

     When players log onto IRC, they are moving into
multiple meta- communicational frames of reference (Bateson,
1972; Handelman, 1976).  The human ability to activate
different frames of concentration and focus is reflected in
the invention of "windows" and "multitasking" on the
computer.  Multitasking means to work on several tasks
simultaneously, to switch back and forth between them,
"loading and running several applications at the same time"
(Sheldon, 1992, p. 13).  In ordinary life we do this without
thinking; we may write while listening to music, or cook a
meal while carrying on a conversation with someone.
Similarly, but somewhat less obviously, we may create and
maintain two or more definitions of reality over a stretch
of time.

     The notion of multitasking is useful in examining
communication on IRC, with one important difference.  While
computer windows can be kept running simultaneously, they
remain independent of one another.  Technically, one can
"be" or "act" in only one frame at a time, which is
"foregrounded" while the others are "running in the
background."  IRC may be only one of many windows open on a
player's workstation.

     In contrast, human beings can function in more than one
frame at the same time.  The nesting of experiential frames
of existence is such that an action within one frame can
also have meaning within the larger frame that incorporates
it (Turner, 1986b).  We should be careful of reifying the
frame, or the definition of a situation as "established" in
any final sense.  On the contrary, frames are fluid,
dynamic, highly contingent, and need constantly to be

     We have identified five frames of experience in our
case material:  1) real life, 2) the IRC game, 3) a party
frame, 4) the pretend frame, and 5) the stage frame.  A
hierarchical relation among these frames is shown
graphically in Figure 2.


Figure 2. Five frames of interaction.

*                     1. REAL LIFE                         *
*     ************************************************     *
*     *               2. THE IRC GAME                *     *
*     *   *************************************      *     *
*     *   |           3. THE PARTY CHANNEL     |     *     *
*     *   *   ****************************     *     *     *
*     *   |   |       4. PRETEND-PLAY     |    |     *     *
*     *   |   |   ********************    |    |     *     *
*     *   *   |   |   5. THE STAGE   |    |    *     *     *
*     *   |   |   *------------------*    |    |     *     *
*     *   |   |                           |    |     *     *
*     *   *   *--------------------------*     *     *     *
*     *   |                                    |     *     *
*     *   *------------------------------------*     *     *
*     *                                              *     *
*     *----------------------------------------------*     *
*                                                          *


     We view the five frames of interaction on IRC as nested
within one another.  >From within the "party" frame,
participants can join more than one channel simultaneously
and conduct parallel yet separate frames of conversations.
>From within any of the four inner frames, participants can
step "out of frame," and into "real life," while still
logged on and interacting on IRC.

     "Real Life" outside IRC is everyday life, grounded in
physical space and time.  In this frame, players are
accountable for their physical and verbal actions, for the
well-being of their bodies, and for their social
commitments.  By dint of being alive and functioning, the
participants in our log are in the "real life" frame of the
workaday world (Schechner 1988).  Participants can step "out
of frame" and into real life at any time, while still logged
on and interacting with others on IRC.  Our log is filled
with references to "real life," as the participants discuss
the voice mail system at their university (line 271-349),
their love life, the price of hamburgers at Burger King
(line 360), or politics in the Middle East (lines 686-696).

     The "game" begins when participants log on to IRC.
Certain skills and rules must be followed in order to
participate.  "Real life" is moved to the background and at
this point participants don their nicknames.  There is no
pretense or "fooling around" at this level, just as there is
no need to fool around when people play chess.

     Any interaction made possible by the constitutive rules
and commands of IRC occurs by definition within the frame of
"playing the game."  IRC provides a set of tools for many
different kinds of writing-based language or symbolic
language games (Wittgenstein, 1968).  The "talk" on IRC can
be serious or playful, in the frame of make-believe or the
frame of the real world.  Thus, when <Lucia> and <Thunder>
met, having just logged on, he let her know that he may have
to log off soon to shower or do laundry, a reference to
"real life," to which <Lucia> responded in a play frame,
calling him a "clean boy."

     The "party" started when <Thunder> opened a channel
named +weed.  The name implies a theme which is articulated
further as the topic (Line 90):

  *** The topic is: sssssssssssssss hmmm wheres all that
      smoke from?

     Setting a topic is in the hands of the channel
"operator" (chanop) and he or she can choose to share such
powers with others on the channel.  In this case, both the
channel name and the topic signal relaxing and having a good
time together.

     <Thunder>'s use of language opens the "pretend-play"
frame.  At first glance one sees only the letter "s"
repeated many times.  The "sssssssssss" conveys the hissing
sound of inhaling and exhaling smoke between one's teeth.
In addition, the graphic contours of the "s" conveys the
visual look of spiralling smoke.  Finally, /s/ is the
initial letter of the word "smoke!"

     The strategy of writing out sequences of letters to
convey sounds, as in "grrrr," "oof," "bam!," is a well known
convention in comic art where three main types of language
convey narration, dialogue and sound effect (Abbott, 1986,
p. 156; Inge, 1990, chap.2).  Another striking and very
common feature of synchronous, and some non-synchronous,
electronic modes is the third-person description of one's
own action, marked by a pair of asterisks (Blackman and
Clevenger, 1990; Godin, 1993):

     Line 107  <Thunder> sssssssssssssss *passes joint to

     This echoes a convention in the comics, where the
narrative portion of the individual frame of action is
usually graphically marked off, appearing at the top or the
bottom of the frame in a separately demarcated space.  Here,
the narration is inserted in the dialogue.

     It appears that third-person descriptions by speakers,
of their own actions, within their own contribution to a
dialogue, are a unique characteristic of computer-mediated
communications, and a first in the history of synchronous
interpersonal communication.  We have previously encountered
such forms only in playwrights' directions to actors or
directors in the scripts of plays, and in comics as a means
to add a dynamic quality to the representation of action.

     Within the "pretend" frame of playing with language,
<Thunder> makes virtual "moves," not unlike charades or mime
(Hamblin, 1978) that others must decode in order to join in.
Soon after <Lucia> and <Thunder> settled into their
"channel" and "topic," <Kang> dropped in (line 123) and
quickly figured out the game:

Line 126  <Thunder> ssssssssssssss *passes joint to Kang*
          <Kang> thanx dude *puff* *hold*...........
     138  <Thunder> kang exhale.. you will die :-)
          <Kang> *exhale*
          <Kang> ;-)
     145  <Thunder> *as smoke fills the channel again*
	  *** Thunder sets the topic to: sssssssssssssssssssssssss
          <Kang> :)
          <Thunder> yes
          >that was cute
          >I liked that
          >it was very funny
          <Kang> :)
          <Thunder> we had better be careful kang.. it is
               getting into the topic.. it will soon spread
               to other channels.. they will see the smoke
     156  <Kang> they might be sushpishus

     <Kang> produces third-person descriptions of his own
actions, using a row of periods to representing holding his
breath.  *Puff* and *hold* may be either nominalizations or
infinitives, the names of the actions, or even first-person
verbs with the pronoun "I" deleted.

     One of the signs of performance is the presence of an
audience.  <Lucia> "smiles" in appreciation.  <Kang> "winks"
and "smiles."  <Thunder> remarks that they had better be
careful--the smoke will "spread to other channels" and
<Kang> further simulates the effect of the drug by
intentionally misspelling "suspicious" (line 156).

     About an hour into the chat, <Rikitiki> and <BlueAdept>
join the party, settling comfortably into the conventions of
this pretend play.

     	      *** Rikitiki joins channel +weed
	      <Rikitiki> Hi.
	      <Thunder> ssssss hands joint to rikitiki
     Line 204 <Rikitiki> *inhales deeply*
	      <Rikitiki> wooooooah..
     	      *** Thunder sets the topic to:
	      <Thunder> here we go again
          214 <Rikitiki> *exhales slowly*
	      <Kang> hey rikitiki
	      <Thunder> it is back into the topic

<Thunder> reasserts his topic for the newcomers.

	      *** BlueAdept joins channel +weed
	      <BlueAdept> howdy doody...
	      <Thunder> ssssssssss gives joint to blueadept
	      <Kang> howdy doody doobage ya mean
	      <BlueAdept> <toke> thanks...
	      <BlueAdept> <passes joint back to thunder>:
     Line 296 <BlueAdept> Nothing like a fat ganja spleef
                          to brighten
		one's day
	      <Kang> :)
	      <Kang> hey pass it my way
	      <BlueAdept> And after last nite, I really needed it..
	      <BlueAdept> (got dumped last nite.. a drag... and
                   not the
		good kind of drag)

     <BlueAdept> may have been "dumped" the previous night,
or not.  The point is not what really happened but that the
material is presented as if it represents some event in the
physical world of "real life."  There is a clear social
dynamic to this virtual party, that develops over time, not
unlike real-life parties.  People don't all arrive at once.
Informal chatting slowly builds to an engaging interchange
between a few individuals.

Playing with Language

     Once one masters the constitutive rules of the basic
IRC game, as well as the conventions of expression in the
electronic medium, a contest may emerge, where skill is
important on both technical and aesthetic levels.  In our
case material, contest is neither totally unregulated nor
totally stylized or dictated by the rules.  It is an
improvised progression that moves from verbal to
increasingly graphic representations as <Thunder> and <Kang>
alternate taking the "stage."  <Thunder> begins by
elaborating his topic line "sssssssssssss" until it evolves
into a graphic representation of dissipating smoke:

     	      <BlueAdept> takes bong from Thunder and hands
                        it to Kang
     Line 365 <Thunder> *gurble gurble gurble* sssssssssssss
	      <Kang> yea!
              <Thunder> I was not done with it
              <Kang> sorry . here ...
              <Thunder> sssssssssssssssss
    	  370 <Thunder> sssssssssssssssss
              <Thunder> ssss
              <Thunder> ss
              <Thunder> s
     	  375 <Thunder> wow

   This is followed by an unexpected, serendipitous pun:

              <Thunder> gives bong to kang
              <Kang> ;)
    Line 397  <Thunder> need to pack a new bowel
    	      <Thunder> heheheheh
              <Thunder> ehhehehehe
              <Thunder> what a typo
              <Kang> not bowel!!!!
              <Thunder> need to pack a new bowl
              <Thunder> hehhehehe
              <Kang> okay
              <Kang> *pack pack*
              <Thunder> that is shitty pot I would say if it
		was packing a bowel
              <Kang> ha!

     <Thunder> had a slip-of-the-finger:  instead of "bowl"
he typed "bowel."  "What a typo!" he chortled, in line 400.
Kang was quick to pick up on his mistake.  <Lucia> did a
double-take and <Thunder> corrected himself, "laughing."
<Kang> "packed" the bowl for him.  Then Thunder elaborated
on the pun, introducing "shitty" as a negative adjective to
go with "bowel" and "pot."  This word play, unlike other
examples discussed so far, is the spontaneous byproduct of a
"typo," a typing error.

     Mistakes in the mad rush of adding one's contribution
to the ongoing dialogue are an important source of humor on
IRC.  Tumult, agitation, improvisation, joy, and immoderate
laughter are the spontaneous manifestation of "letting
oneself go" (Caillois, 1961, p. 28), a result of the
moment-to-moment quality of this textual happening.
Improvising with the resources of the keyboard, the players
in our log respond with ingenuity and spontaneity to the
unfolding of "unexpected situations" (Hodgson and Richards,
1967, p. 2).

     In any given encounter on IRC, it is a matter of chance
how skilled the various participants will be in manipulating
symbols in cyberspace.  In our case material, <Thunder> and
<Kang> are particularly well matched, and spur each other on
to invent increasingly imaginative representations.  A
"taste for gratuitous difficulty" emerges (Caillois, 1961,
p. 27), not unlike sports and other "real world" forms of
competitive play such as verbal dueling (Caillois, 1961;
Gossen, 1976; Huizinga, 1955; Labov 1972):

     Line  416  <Kang> *inhale* *hold* .....................
                <Thunder> :-)
                <Kang> :|
           420  <Kang> :|
                <Kang> :\
                <Thunder> heheheh
                <Thunder> heheheheheh
                <Thunder> that was great
           425  <Kang> :/
                <Kang> :)
                <Thunder> hehehehehhe
                <Kang> *exhale*
                <Kang> :0
           430  <Thunder> :|   :|   :\sssss   :)
                <Kang> hheeeheee
                <Thunder> :-Q :|   :|   :\sssss   :)
                <Thunder> heheheh
                <Kang> ever ... mmmmmmm.... heard of
                       Gainesville Green?
           435  >:-) cute
                <Kang> my hometown!
                >never heard of it
		*** Thunder sets the topic to: \:-Q  :-|  :-|  :\sssss :-)
                <Kang> ha!
           440  <Thunder> uggg
		*** Thunder sets the topic to: \ :-Q  :-|  :-| :\sssss :-)
                <Thunder> there we go
                <Thunder> the : was a problem I needed a \

     The contest began in earnest when <Kang> drew from his
repertoire an icon not widely used in ordinary e-mail, the
colon and a pipe :|.  He performed it twice and added a
backward slash :\.  Neither <Kang> nor <Thunder> needed to
say explicitly what the icons mean or why <Thunder> chuckled
in appreciation.  <Kang> smiled while inhaling, and reverted
momentarily to the verbal *exhale*.  But then he tried to
improve on the improvisation.  He zipped out from his
repertoire of icons the figure zero for an open mouth.

     Inspired, <Thunder> mimicked <Kang> by putting the
whole sequence together on one line, using the seldom-used
icon :-Q for a "man smoking a cigarette."  Next, <Thunder>
put this sequence into the "topic" of the channel (line
438).  As if fiddling with the props or resetting a "scene,"
he put one final touch on the sequence (line 441),
separating the first \ from the rest of the line.  By
resetting the topic, <Thunder> summarized their
improvisation into a one-line coda that served as a
conclusion, a meta-comment upon their performance.

     The meta-message in competitive play is:  "Look at me!"
or "Look at us, and at what we can do!"  Accountability is
subordinated to agonistic and aesthetic considerations that
have much in common with Bauman's notion of competence in
oral performance:

     Performance involves on the part of the performer
     an assumption of accountability to an audience for
     the way in which communication is carried out,
     above and beyond its referential content....the
     act of expression on the part of the performer is
     thus marked as subject to evaluation for the way
     it is done, for the relative skill and
     effectiveness of the performer's display of
     competence.  Additionally, it is marked as
     available for the enhancement of experience,
     though the present enjoyment of the intrinsic
     qualities of the act of expression itself.
     Performance thus calls forth special attention to
     and heightened awareness of the act of expression
     and gives license to the audience to regard the
     act of expression and the performer with special
     intensity (Bauman, 1977, p. 11).

     In the case presented here, the activity is a
collective, interactive enterprise that peaked with the
improvisation using icons.  While showing off, the players
expressed pleasure and admiration for their performative
skills.  <Thunder>, aware of himself as the object of
observation, asked for validation:

     Line 511   *Thunder* so have you been loggin all this?
                <Kang> *puff* *hold* .....................
          514   *Thunder* I have been trying to make your log
                          very colorful
                <Kang> ouch!
                <Kang> *koff* *koff*
                /msg thunder well you have been very cute

     The playful, pretend frame of make believe blurred with
"real life" as the chat reverted back to verbal exchanges.
<Kang>, unable to see <Thunder>'s private messages to
<Lucia> continued in the pretend mode:

     Line 538 <Kang> here lucia *hands bong* *long reach
                     (over ocean)*

     As he attempted to draw <Lucia> into the action, <Kang>
took explicit account of both the imaginary play frame where
they were having the "party" and <Lucia>'s geographic
location, somewhere "over the ocean" at a computer screen.
Next he did a "reality" check:

     Line 592 <Kang> lucia=female as i suspect?
          637 <Kang> so lucia single long?

Not getting any answer, he said it a little "louder":

     Line 656 <Kang> SO LUCIA SINGLE LONG?

Still not getting anywhere, he addressed his question to
the group:

     Line 695 <Kang> how old are y'all?

When no reply was forthcoming the party wound down.

     Our case material shows that, bereft of props, players
elaborate on textual and typographic art (Reid, 1991),
stress the poetic function of communication, and foreground
the formal aspects of language (Cazden, 1976; Jakobson,
1960).  In the absence of physical cues, it is harder to
gauge the response of one's audience.  One is forced into a
posture of rhetorical persuasiveness, to focus on what one
says and how one says it.  Reduced transparency of language
heightens meta-linguistic awareness and leads us to treat
words as objects of play in a new way.

     To "speak in writing" calls attention to communicative
competence (Bauman, 1975; Bauman and Briggs, 1990).
Although simplistic notions of the differences between
speech and writing have generally been dismissed in the last
decade (e.g., Tannen, 1982a, 1982b), literate culture of the
last five hundred years has thought in terms of two
contrasting models of communication:  the performed,
ephemeral oral conversation, which may be deeply
personalized, concrete and contextualized, versus the
decontextualized, author-absent written text, frozen in
print and sent out into the world as an entity of physical
and symbolic integrity (Ong, 1982).  Many heretofore
unquestioned assumptions about the nature of speech and
writing must be revised in light of the ways that
computer-mediated communication calls this dichotomy into
question (cf., e.g., Bolter, 1991; Collot and Belmore, 1992;
Ferrara et al., 1991; Maynor, in press; Murray, 1991; Yates,
1992a, 1992b).


     The textual party analyzed above reveals a remarkable
degree of structure and coherence, similar to "real world"
parties, narrative structures, improvisations, and
performative events.  It has a clear beginning, middle and
end.  No doubt, <Thunder>'s ability to perform well on IRC
contributed a great deal to this structure, and the previous
contact between <Lucia> and <Thunder> provided social
rapport.  This rapport was in part shaped by issues of doing
fieldwork in cyberspace.  Unlike real life encounters,
<Lucia> and <Thunder> have never met in person.  Yet, as
noted at the beginning of this paper, <Thunder> had become
so self-conscious about being observed that he invented a
way to control <Lucia>'s ability to log.  As if to
compensate her for this, he produced an improvisation on the
keyboard, a "colorful log" that she was allowed to keep.
<Thunder> has since moved on to other things in his life and
has not been on IRC in a long time.  Interestingly however,
the nickname lingers on and is used by others on IRC.

     If we stand back from the details of the textual
analysis at the heart of this paper, we see that
conviviality is no longer dependent on face-to-face contact.
On IRC, and in other forms of computer-mediated
communications, conviviality is established electronically.
Only sometimes are net relationships followed up by
"fleshmeets" at real life gatherings (Figallo, 1993;
Rheingold, 1993).  Channels on IRC such as #hottub and
#initgame, which have become popular hangouts for newcomers,
have been "running" for years.  Yet they are not
institutionalized in any sense except insofar as
participants recreate them daily.  This suggests that this
medium is indeed an emergent cultural form.

     Whereas other media such as the telephone and telegraph
also enable people to transcend the limitations of time and
space, where new forms of playfulness are flowering (as in
answering machine messages), neither of these has been
particularly characterized by playfulness, nor have they
provided a "place" where strangers meet to socialize and
entire groups of people hang out.  It is primarily in group
forms of computer-mediated communication that playfulness
and conviviality flourish.

     IRC has grown out of a tradition of computer bulletin
boards, shared by their programmers as part of a "visionary
ethic" wherein the computer was a "passage point for
circulating concepts of community" (Stone, 1991, p. 88).  In
her study of virtual culture, Stone (1991) suggests that as
"real-world" anthropological field sites are disappearing,
virtual systems provide a new and unexpected kind of

     incontrovertibly social spaces in which people
     still meet face-to-face, but under new definitions
     of both "meet" and "face."  These new spaces
     instantiate the collapse of the boundaries between
     the social and technological, biology and machine,
     natural and artificial that are part of the
     postmodern imaginary (p. 85).

     Our case material is an example of textual and graphic
creativity and sociability that anticipates future
possibilities for virtual meetings.  Currently, archives of
photographs of IRC regulars are stored at several sites on
the World Wide Web (see, e.g.,;  Most of them are simple
photographs of ordinary people who use IRC often enough to
feel that they inhabit and share this new space.
Participants also send each other digitized photographs of
themselves via email while simultaneously logged onto IRC.
For the most part, people access these graphic files at a
time different from that during which they are participating
on IRC.  Thus, the pictures are not integrated into the
"action" in real time.  Only those with sophisticated
multitasking software--enabling them to engage in IRC
dialogue in one window while looking at archive photographs
on the Web in another--can actually match faces to messages
in real time.

     As technologies become more sophisticated all the time,
communication on IRC has begun to include visual and aural
interaction.  Programs such as CU-SeeMe allow participants
to project a video image of themselves over IRC; VocalTech
allows players to speak to each other through a microphone
over the IRC channel #phone.  In experiments with virtual
theater on IRC by a group called the "Hamnet Players,"
scripted performance of parodies of plays by William
Shakespeare and Tennessee Williams has been enriched by
online graphic images and sound files; those unable to
examine them online during a performance can access them
later, on World Wide Web sites (Danet, 1994; Danet et al.,
in preparation).

     It is not unreasonable, then, to expect that virtual
parties will continue to elaborate upon play with visual and
aural presentations of the self.  Paradoxically, while
increasing sophistication of technologies will certainly
bring exciting new possibilities for experimentation, they
may also result in less remarkable "oral" forms of
communication.  This paper celebrates the ability of IRC-ers
to invent new forms of written speech with such simple means
as the comma, colon, asterisks, and slashes.  Their
refreshing virtuosity has characterized communication in the
virtual world of IRC.


     This paper incorporates portions of a chapter by Brenda
Danet, Lucia Ruedenberg and Yehudit Rosenbaum-Tamari, titled
"Hmmm...Wheres all that Smoke From?:  Writing, Play and
Performance on Internet Relay Chat" in_Network and Netplay:
Virtual Groups on the Internet_, edited by Sheizaf Rafaeli,
Fay Sudweeks, and Margaret McLaughlin, AAAI/MIT Press, (in
press).  This research was presented at the annual meetings
of the International Communication Association, Sydney,
Australia, July 1994, the American Folklore Society,
Milwaukee, Wisconsin, October 1994, and the Israel
Anthropological Association, Ein Gedi, Israel, January 1995.

     We would like to thank the following persons for help
and encouragement of many kinds:  Barbara
Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Eldad Yahel, Madeline Slovenz-Low,
Ken Kurpiewski, Ron Zweig, Noach Shadmi, Moshe Solow,
Schachar Levin, Jacques Leslie, Nahman Ben Yehuda, Noit
Meshorer, Sheizaf Rafaeli, Fay Sudweeks, Margaret
MacLaughlin, Lori Kendall, Lee-Ellen Marvin, Tamar Katriel,
Hagai Katriel, Irit Katriel, Tsameret Wachenhauser, Haya
Bechar-Israeli, Amos Cividalli, and Daniel Golan.  In
particular, we are indebted to <Thunder> who plays such a
prominent role in our study, and who helped us get to know
and enjoy IRC.


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Author Information:  Lucia Ruedenberg
                     Dept. of Behavioral Sciences
                     Ben Gurion University of the Negev
                     Dept. of Communication & Journalism
                     The Hebrew University of Jerusalem

                     Brenda Danet
                     Dept. of Communication and Journalism
                     Dept. of Sociology & Anthropology
                     The Hebrew University of Jerusalem

                     Yehudit Rosenbaum-Tamari
                     Dept. of Sociology and Anthropology
                     Dept. of Communication & Journalism
                     The Hebrew University of Jerusalem
                      Copyright 1995
   Communication Institute for Online Scholarship, Inc.

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