Interview With Howard Rheingold

By David Kelsey

This interview was conducted in October, 1995, by David Kelsey.

David: How do you define a virtual community, and how is it similar or dissimilar to other kinds of communities?

Howard: A virtual community is a group of people who communicate with each other, to some degree know each other, to some degree share knowledge and information, and to some degree care about each other as human beings, who meet and for the most part communicate through computer networks. Now, that's a bare bones description. You have to be very careful about the word "community" there, and I add people who care about each other to distinguish it from just a network. Now, you can have a community of interests who are people who have a shared interest, who communicate with each other on a regular basis, who don't particularly have a human connection. A group of engineers for a particular company, for example, might fit that description. There is really no need for them to particularly care about each other.
David: So then, by caring about each other, you mean something more than a need to exchange some kinds of information?

Howard: In my book I talk about my discovery of how the people of The Well came to each others' aid in times of crisis, began to get together face to face in the real world, began to become friends. And in that sense there is a potential for real community to emerge. So I think that there's really a spectrum here of community of interests who are strictly sharing information at one end, to people who are indistinguishable from any other kind of real community at the other end.
David: What got you involved in on-line or virtual communities in the first place? What was it about you personally that you found interesting in them?

Howard: Need for human affiliation. I am a writer. I really didn't understand when I set out to be a writer that that's like a sentence of solitary confinement. I stay in a room alone all day. For over ten years, it was in a room staring at a piece of paper in a typewriter. Then I got a computer, and then I started using a modem to transfer text. But it was the possibility of having some human contact during the day that got me started.

There are a number of people in my position who, because of our employment or our geographic location or state of disability, or any number of other reasons, don't have the kind of daily contact with a lot of human beings that people who go to an office or a factory or a college campus have. There are a lot of people who don't have that isolation who find that this is a good way of finding like-minded people. But in my particular instance, it was due to a certain degree of social isolation.
David: Do you think that the kinds of interactions that you have on- line with people within the context of the way you just described it are significantly different than other kinds of interactions, whether it's talking over the phone, or whether it's meeting someone in person? Put more broadly, when people talk about CMC, computer-mediated communications, are these communications a whole lot different than other kinds, in your experience?

Howard: Yes. I think it's important to recognize the differences,otherwise there is the danger of falling into all kinds of different illusions or delusions. It is a disembodied form of communication, even more so than the telephone. The telephone is disembodied; we can't see each other; we can't touch each other. Yet, the human voice does carry a lot of nuance. You can tell a lot about a meta-meaning of people's words by their tone of voice. You can tell a difference often between sarcasm and irony, for example. Those cues are missing when all you're reading are words on a screen. And it is easy to mistake sarcasm for irony, for example.
David: And I've certainly seen some examples of that.

Howard: And I think that when people first start using the medium they need to understand not just its advantages, but its limitations, and to beware of some of the pitfalls. It's an exciting medium that can connect people across all kinds of boundaries that used to be barriers that would prevent people from communicating with each other. But it does have its limitations and one shouldn't let one's excitement for the medium blind one to its limitations.
David: In my own personal experience, I can more easily call somebody a jackass in an e-mail note than I could to get them in my office, look them in the eye and say, "I think you are a jackass." Or, I can avoid conflicts sometimes by refusing to answer my e-mail, or if I'm home, by disconnecting my modem.

Howard: That's correct. The main difference between a virtual community and a family that lives together is that you can turn the computer off. And it's important to keep that in mind. One shouldn't inflate the importance of those connections in that regard. And I think that it's clear that being alone in front of your computer with the time to compose your words is a means of lowering one's inhibitions. Shy people who ordinarily might not say anything in a conversation might have a lot more to say, for example. People who might not be willing to disclose intimate or personal details about themselves in a face-to-face environment might find themselves more willing to disclose those details on-line. And I think that that lowering of inhibitions works both ways. It draws people out and can create a kind of intimacy that's difficult to create in a face to face environment sometimes, and it can lower the inhibitions against being rude to people that we have normally in the face to face world.
David: And we've all seen examples of that on-line.

Howard: Yes. I think that that would also go in your little instruction book on things to beware of, that it's easier to fire off an insulting message to someone than to say it to their face.
David: But isn't there also another aspect to that, when we talk about groupware or any other kind of electronic storage medium? Aren't I likely to be a little more leery of what I actually type in versus what I might say to somebody in person, which presumably would not then be recorded, but probably not forgotten?

Howard: Well, the problem is that that awareness is something that you have to consciously remind yourself. There are no cues to it in the medium. The medium is informal, in the moment and conversational. It doesn't seem like you're publishing it. You need to remind people that they are actually publishing their words. It's not just a conversation, it's a conversation which is stored. In many instances you don't really have control over who has access to it. Something you write to one person could be spread all over the place.
David: And certainly has been at times.

Howard: I think one common pitfall is not looking at the "to" line to make sure you know who you are responding to in a message. And there are famous instances in which people will say something meant for one person that will seep into the entire company. That can be a big problem. I think the other common mistake people make is sometimes they say something about someone and send it to that person inadvertently. So you need to be aware of who is receiving your message. And you need to be aware that you don't have a lot of control over who is receiving it. These messages can be forwarded.
David: Given that people are going to judge people, whether it's face to face or in any other medium or format, rightly or wrongly, do you think that people should be judged more harshly or with more credibility, or whatever, with what they write or what they type into databases versus what they might say to someone else in person?

Howard: Well, I think it's always important to keep in mind that the person on the other end of the message is a human being. Human beings make mistakes. Very nice people can inadvertently or through ignorance give the impression of not being a very nice person. And people who may not have your welfare in mind, who may not be very nice people, can, through skillful use of the medium, portray themselves as people who are rather more trustworthy than they actually are. So, once again, I think you need to keep the nature of the medium in mind. I think you can't ever really either write someone off as a complete jackass or fall in love with them solely on the basis of what they write on-line, although certainly one can be accurate in both ways on-line. It's not a hundred percent accurate, however.
David: But may at least be accurate for that moment in time.

Howard: Yes. Yes, I do believe that over an extended period of time people reveal themselves to a remarkable degree, no matter how they try to control their persona. Over a period of weeks and months and years people, I think, reveal a lot about themselves through their communication on-line. It's still not the whole person, but it's surprising.
David:What would you say was your most touching and most infuriating experience in the on-line world?

Howard: Well, I'd say there are a lot of candidates for touching experiences. It's been over ten years that I have been communicating with the people on The Well. Now, that's a group that changes over time, but there is a core of people who have been together for a long time. A good friend of mine announced -- it was about a year ago -- that he was diagnosed with cancer, and he said good-bye as the prognosis became worse and worse. And really had a leave-taking on-line in his final days. And, in fact, I did -- because he had become a friend of mine -- see him in real life and visit him on his deathbed, and in fact spoke at his funeral. I've been to three funerals. In ten years, the group of people with numbers in the thousands are going to have some deaths. At each one of those funerals, the number of people there from the virtual community greatly outnumbered the family and friends from the off-line world. And, in that regard, I would in that specific instance debate anyone who claims that there is no reality to an on-line community. You've heard my disclaimers. I think you have to be very careful about the use of community. I don't think that just because you communicate with people on-line, that that makes it a community. But those who would dismiss it I think have not been there at the deathbeds or at the funerals.

There was another instance of someone who is not a friend of mind, who was someone I only knew from her comments on-line -- not a pleasant person, a rather caustic person -- who also announced that she was dying. She was actually a pretty friendless, lonely person. And it turned out that the on-line community organized ourselves and 20 or 30 of us actually spent time with her reading to her and keeping her company. And when she died she did not die alone, as she probably would have if she had not had that contact with the virtual community. So I'd have to say that those experiences -- life and death are the most poignant.

In my book I talk about the incident of the father who announced on-line about his son's leukemia and about the on-line support group. And I talked about several other what we call "barn-raisings," when people in the on-line community get together to help each other in times of distress in the real world. There's one happening right now. There is a very bright young man, fourteen years old, who's been on-line and a very active member of the community who has an opportunity to go to a very good, expensive, private school and his mother has had some financial reversals, and right now the community is in the process of raising the money to send him to school.

And I think those are the things that real communities are made of, and I find that touching. Now, in terms of infuriating, I'll have to say that one of the disadvantages of a virtual community is that you have to put up with an ass much more.

David: Just one?

Howard: In other circumstances. Over ten years someone who you find very irritating -- well, you can't really tell them that they can't be part of the conversation; they're going to be there. You have to choose to either ignore what that person has to say or moderate the emotional reactions you have to it. And that's a surprisingly difficult skill to learn.
David: I think that's probably difficult for anyone in any circumstance.

Howard: Yes. I think it's somewhat easier unless the person is your employee or your employer or in your work group, to simply avoid them. There is some fascination that prevents you from avoiding someone on line in a many-to-many conversation. Now we do have bozo filters now, or kill files, in which you can simply make what certain people say invisible. The art of just doing that with your mind, just glazing your eyes over and not reading, or mentally adding that grain of salt, that seems to be a difficult skill to really master. Primitive emotions seem to jump up more rapidly than your critical, rational skills can come into action.
David: Let me come back to this question of virtual community and membership and loyalty to it. I know there have been some papers critical of it and I know that you have reviewed at least one of them and have given some thought to it. As I understand it, the criticism goes something like this: how can I be loyal to a community or how can I have a significant investment in a community if I can simply turn my computer off? I can type in a few words and unsubscribe to a newsgroup or unsubscribe to an e-mail list so easily. Where does my investment or loyalty lie in that?

Howard: I think it is a legitimate criticism and we ignore it at our peril. You have to understand the difference between the people you have to live with because they live in your household or live next door, and people you can turn off by turning the computer off or unsubscribing from a newsgroup. It is silly and perhaps emotionally dangerous to ignore this. However, I would say that there's an important difference that is not just a semantic one, but a fundamental one, that is missed in that. One does not have a loyalty to a newsgroup or a bulletin board system, one has loyalty to certain people, and I think you need to focus on that. A community is not something that happens in a computer. It is something that happens between people. And I think to the degree that people participate in a conversation, you can read their words over a period of time, about a number of different subjects, you can establish a feeling about those people. You can establish relationships with those people. Those relationships are no less legitimate than those you have face to face. There is a different degree of reality to them and you have to face that.

I think we are coming into a new world where we have to pay closer attention to our definitions and it is not just semantic. We need to understand the norms. It is entirely possible to treat a newsgroup or a bulletin board system or any other on-line gathering just as an amusement; you can even stir up the ants by poking a stick in the ant hill and saying insulting or provocative things, just for vicarious pleasure, and people certainly do that. What's interesting about these communities is that you can have a gathering of people in which some of them give no legitimacy to the community and use it as an amusement, whereas others have strong personal bonds with each other and when they are in need or dying or want to celebrate something, those people are there for the other people. We've never really dealt with this before, that mixed degree of commitment.

But I think that there is a certain parallel to the outside society in which one does not have a strong commitment to everyone in your office. Some of them are friends. Some of them are good friends. You have a common cause together. So I think we need to examine all of those fine shades of nuance. What I do object to is a blanket dismissal of the possibility of friendships and community forming. That is wrong. This is not a black or white world. It is a world in which there are shades of gray. And a blanket dismissal is just as dangerous as uncritical enthusiasm.

David: Let me pick up on something that you said. I probably can't choose where my office is, in terms of who I sit next to or in some cases who I even sit with at work here. But I can certainly choose what newsgroups or what e-mail lists or whatever I want to look at on the Internet. Do you think that the people that choose to participate in those forums, whether it is an e-mail list, or a newsgroup or whatever, have some obligation to the other subscribers simply because they've "joined" a particular virtual community?

Howard: Before I talk about obligation, I would think that one has a stronger commitment, clearly, if you put your identity and your thoughts and your words out on the line, rather than just reading. There's no doubt about it. You have a more visceral feeling, you have a more tenacious commitment if you are a regular contributor rather than a, well, a lurker...lurker is a kind of pejorative in a sense, a read- only person, perhaps. Obligation. I think it is very complicated. Am I my brother's keeper? To what degree do you have an obligation to other people simply because they are other human beings? Simply because they share the same ethnic group or occupation or nationality? I think that is a rather too complicated question to generalize about from a small amount of data.

You can form a group in which you can explicitly ask for commitment and obligation. For example, people who are struggling with a substance abuse problem, either themselves or a loved one, well, they have a support group in which one can ask people to have a sense of commitment to each other. People who have a disease, a life-threatening disease, or who are caregivers for those who have life-threatening diseases. I think they intrinsically have a stronger sense of commitment to each other because of their shared experience than people who're talking about stamp collecting, for example. So I think context is important.

David: Is it also possible that people come to on-line media looking only for those people who share their interests and, implicitly, their prejudices, such that those groups will be more alienated from each other, which would be a rather ironic result?

Howard: Yes. Again, you are pulling on a little thread here that leads to something that is deeply woven into our social fabric. The degree of affiliation among people who have differences, that is a major question and problem in American society and in the world. Many people who never heard about computers choose to affiliate strictly with those who share their race or economic class or geographic origins. It is not limited to people on-line. Because you can isolate yourself in your room anduse your computer as a filter it is exacerbated on-line. It is possible for you to completely choose who you affiliate with. Yes, I think there is a danger there.

On the other hand, let's reverse that. Let's say you are a talented mathematics student in a small schoolhouse in Saskatchewan. The Internet now connects you to MIT. Let's say you are the only gay teenager in a small town in which there is a lot of prejudice against that, and you may feel suicidal. Let's say you are an Alzheimer's caregiver and you are the only one in your community. All those people have a strong need to affiliate with people they don't find in their geographic community but who share a certain important characteristic. Computer networks enable those people to connect across barriers of time and space, race, gender, nationality. It cuts both ways and I think we have to understand that is particularly true of computer communications. It is true of every technology. There are benefits and pitfalls and there is the light that technology brings into our lives and then there is the shadow, that we often prefer not to look at. I think you cannot ignore the dangers. But the presence of the dangers does not remove the legitimacy from the benefits.

David: Do you think it is possible that the rise in interest in cyberspace is related to the collapse of other social institutions in this country, or even worldwide?

Howard: Well, again, it's complicated. Clearly, we no longer have communities that we used to have back when this was a rural nation, back when there were not five billion people in the world, back before people isolated themselves in their automobiles and drove on freeways to suburbs where they didn't know their neighbors, back before you had buildings like the Empire State Building, in which 50,000 people may go every day. We live in a different world from the one we used to live in. We've lost many of the places where people informally used to meet, the drugstore lunch counter, the bench in the town square, the friendly neighborhood tavern or coffee shop. Those have been replaced by fast food outlets and malls and freeways.

There are many aspects of the world today that have been inadvertently caused by technologies that we have freely chosen to use because they give us freedom in other directions. I don't think anybody knew when the elevator was invented that we would build these big impersonal alienating cities. Or that anyone knew that the automobile which granted us this great personal freedom would lead to the traffic jams and the alienation that we have today. question.

I think that we have lost a lot of the old fashioned ways of relating to each other. We no longer live in a town where our grandparents knew each other. Americans move six or seven times in their lifetime - major moves. There's been a loss of roots and affiliation and a hunger for community and I think that, yes, computer mediated communications to many people offer a root to connecting with other people again.

David: You have alluded to the question of haves and have-nots. If you look at the demographics of the on-line world, unreliable as they are, they all generally point in one direction and they would suggest that the haves and have-nots argument is not only valid, but is being won by the haves. Do you think this is likely to change in the future? How economically disadvantaged will the have-nots be if it doesn't change?

Howard: Well again, the situation is somewhat more complicated than that. With technology in general, and particularly information technology, you are seeing the emergence of I think three tiers. You have an increasingly wealthy upper tier, not just the super rich, but people like you and I, people who live through our ability to manipulate information. What Robert Reich calls "symbolic analysts." And you find these all over the world. People who have mastery and access to the new communication technology have greater and greater opportunities worldwide.

You are seeing, worldwide, an increasingly large and increasingly helpless underclass in which it is simply impossible for the children of the impoverished to raise themselves out of that situation. You have these vast slums in Mexico City and Manila, and all over the world.

You also have a growing middle. You have hundreds of millions of people who are able to live as not even the kings of antiquity were able to live. Again this is true of technology in general. The refrigerator makes it possible for ordinary lower middle class people everywhere to do what only kings could do before - keep their food fresh. This is a complicated situation that has gone back quite a lot of ways and there are a lot of trade-offs.

The question of how do we keep this split from widening is really an overall social question of how we allocate our resources. I don't think except for an extreme minority that anybody thinks it is a good idea to have an increasing divide between the haves and the have-nots. It is when you begin talking about how are we going to pay for educating the have-nots that the political divisions appear. In America, people don't want to pay taxes to keep public libraries open. They don't want tax money being spent even on public universities. The University of California is a great example here. It has been deteriorating rapidly because the voters have time and again said that they don't want to spend more money on taxes. The governor is faced with making decisions on how to allocate those shrinking resources. Public libraries are closing.

I think it is worth noting that the public library system in the United States was not created by the government or by the taxpayers. It was created by Andrew Carnegie, one of the most rapacious capitalists in history. The anti-trust laws, that is the common carrier principle came from Carnegie's habit of owning the railroad and the steel mills and only transporting his own steel and refusing to transport his competitor's steel. He was famous for hiring Pinkerton's to beat and murder strikebreakers. He was really a great example of the disadvantages of capitalism. And what he did with his wealth was go around to all the small towns in America and build public libraries and say to those towns, "I'll build this library, you fill it with books and you pay the librarians." And that is what people have done with tax money for the last hundred years and it has worked extraordinarily well. And now that system is deteriorating. We need to ask ourselves how we're going to finance access.

Now let me add one more thing. You can always count on capitalism, like gravity, to lead in a certain direction. Once you've sold a commodity to all the rich people, if you have still have a profit, by golly, you're going to sell it to the less rich people. The telephone was originally a plaything of the rich. So was the television. There are now more televisions in North America than indoor toilets. We know that the computing power that the Pentagon had to spend a hundred million dollars on thirty years ago is now available on the desk top for less than a thousand dollars. What cost ten thousand dollars ten years ago is now a chip in a ten year old's computer game. It is possible that communication and information technologies will diffuse to a much larger population. I worry and question whether that diffusion will happen more rapidly before this gulf between the haves and the have-nots grows. I think it is a significant question.

David: That's a supply-side answer. What about the demand side? What I see with television and other media that have preceded it are that it becomes quite passive. I have a son, for example, who I think is addicted to the television...

Howard: I have one of those.
David: Much to my dismay. If the next generation is increasingly inundated and becomes submissive, in effect, to passive media, isn't all of this technology, or much of it anyway, not going to be used in the way in which it could be used? The Internet is a perfect example. At least at this point, this is not what I would consider a passive medium, it is quite an active one.

Howard: Well, why are you talking about the future? The last thirty to forty years the most important actor in the political process has been the television camera. We elect our officials because they are packaged for television. The American household, the average amount of time the television is on is something like six or seven hours a day. We are already a nation of zombies. We stare at this little box that tells us who to vote for and what to believe and what to buy.
David: It sounds like you've read Neil Postman.

Howard: I've read Neil Postman and, well, I part company with Neil Postman when he talks about computer networks because I don't think he understands them. But I agree with him when it comes to television - television has altered the discourse of this country and has turned us into a nation of passive consumers. I think that is the hope of e-mail and newsgroups. No matter how shallow or semi-literate one's response is, at least you're moving your fingers. At least you are responding, a couple of brain cells are firing that wouldn't have been firing before. I would much rather see my daughter on-line than watching television simply because the possibility of responding is there. And I don't think that that is the panacea, but I certainly think that given the state of the passive media today, it is a step in the right direction. And I am heartened by the fact that so many college students are spending a certain amount of time sending e-mail, reading newsgroups, participating in MUDs,. Certainly you can overdo any of those activities and people do, but that is a lot better than sitting there watching the television and being a passive consumer.

I think that we have neglected teaching media literacy starting in the elementary schools and continuing through college. We need to teach people about the syntax and vocabulary, the pitfalls and benefits of television and radio and e-mail and newsgroups and MUDs. These are important parts of our lives. We need to learn how to operate them. We are not really teaching that. Most parents just stick their kids in front of the television, they don't sit there with them, they don't explain what a commercial is. They don't tell them the difference between getting shot on television and actually getting shot in real life. I think that that is an abrogation of responsibility on the part of parents and I think it is something that we need to add to our educational system. Media literacy. Media in the largest sense.

David: We're still trying to teach them how to read and write in North Carolina.

Howard: Well, that's the larger question. We're living in a society in which you can watch television, you can look at the little icons on the little signs, you can pretty much get through life without having to read or write. I don't believe that democratic society can exist if the level of literacy falls too low. You can do many things with pictures. You can't write a constitution, you can't understand the rights and responsibilities of citizenship just with pictures. You need to be able to talk, you need to be able to understand, you need to be able to write and you need to be able to read. No question about it. I think the battle starts with simple literacy. But it does not end there. I think media literacy is right up there.
David: What do you think about the potential for the entertainment conglomerates, with the assistance of big business, to turn the Internet into a passive medium as well? Do you think censorship and surveillance are going to be big issues? Will the Interet continue to be an active medium or is it going to end up a passive medium like all the others?

Howard: Let me deal first with censorship. I think we are in great danger, because of the ignorance of the American citizenry, and the failure of American journalism to inform citizens about the nature of the new media, of falling prey to demagoguery. Senator Exum and his Communications Decency Act is not really about protecting children, it is about power and control. Censorship is a real danger. It comes from those in government who want to have the power to force their views of the world on others. It is a danger in the medium; it is a danger to democracy. And the fact that very few citizens know much about this means that they are vulnerable to fear mongering. Certainly the Leahey Amendment is a much saner amendment than the Exum Amendment.

Let's look into ways of giving parents and schools the means of determining what is decent for their households or their community, rather than giving up that responsibility from the family and granting it to the government. It is paradoxical that some of the same people who very strongly want to get the government out of our lives are now trying to create a government bureaucracy to determine what is decent to communicate. There is a long judicial history, certainly going up to the Supreme Courts in this country, about the limits on how government can restrict freedom of expression, even particularly abhorrent expression. But because of our ignorance of the medium, we're very close to making laws that the Constitution has found to be unconstitutional in other media, in this medium. I think that is a real danger.

Surveillance is a real danger. It is much broader than the Internet. It goes to smart highways, it goes to sophisticated information gathering about people's purchasing habits, direct marketing, the grocery store. You go to a supermarket, you buy a bunch of goods that are bar coded, you pay with a credit card, you have now created a database that is very useful. It is useful to people who want to sell things to you. It is useful even to people who want to know your political views.

Smart highways, everyone would like to not have traffic jams, just breeze through the toll roads without paying. Do you really want to create a database in which the government knows where everyone is at all times? There are a host of privacy and surveillance issues that are coming along with new technological capabilities that we as a nation are not equipped to deal with because we are ignorant of those issues. The technology is moving faster than our knowledge, faster than our social institutions are moving to address it. And I worry about that.

As for the Internet becoming commoditized, I think there are two issues there. One is the danger that the ownership of the news media is becoming consolidated into a smaller and smaller number of people and corporations. If you just took Bill Gates, Ted Turner and Rupert Murdoch, for example, you have three individuals there who have an inordinate amount of power over what people can see and hear. We're seeing increasing consolidation of megacompanies that not only produce entertainment, but news, and not only produce the contents, but own the means of delivering it.

As long as we can maintain a common carrier principle, that those who own the pipeline don't have the power to censor or control access to those who provide content, then I don't think we have a danger. But when ownership of the means of distribution is coupled with ownership of the contents and the power to determine what competing contents can travel over those media, then I think we are facing some real dangers. I think the nature of the technology and the nature of the Internet moves in a very opposite direction. I think we are seeing signs that Bill Gates, who is pretty clearly someone who has an extraordinary talent for monopolizing whatever business he is in, is understanding that the Internet is something that works in the very opposite direction. You cannot really control it, it loses its value to the degree that you control it.

I have hope that millions of individuals putting up their web pages, starting newsgroups, all over the world, will create a new kind of many- to-many publishing culture that will continue to exist at the same time that this kind of top down feeds them more of the same crap. Entertainment, infotainment, disinfotainment culture wheels into place to deliver the same old product that Hollywood and television have gi