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Roger Clarke's 'CyberCulture'

Towards the Analysis That Internet Participants Need

Roger Clarke **

Version of 18 December 1996; rev. 7 September 2011

Prepared to support an Invited Address on 'Encouraging Cyberculture', at CAUSE in Australia '97, Melbourne, 13-16 April 1997

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'Cyberculture' might mean many different things to different people. What I mean by it is the dynamics of the current and rapidly mutating electronic environment in which we're working and playing.

It's very exciting playing in a space we don't understand. But unless we temper that excitement, we're going to be unable to take full advantage of the opportunity to mould a more pleasant future for ourselves. I believe that we need to undertake a serious appraisal of our emergent cyberculture.

A Tentative Analytical Framework

The kind of analysis that I'm looking for would provide an understanding of the various components that make up culture in electronic environments. Here's a list of the kinds of components I think we need [Aside: yes, this does feel uncomfortably like what Asimov sarcastically referred to in his later robotics fiction as the proto-science of 'humanics' ...]:

The roles would need to include the administrator, the community service provider, the newbie, the wannabe, the inveterate radical, the iconoclast, the flamer, the reply-and-regret softie, the 'until-now-I've-always-been-a-lurker-but-...' occasional contributer, the voice of calm reason, the spoiler, and the spammer.

The archetypal individuals who play the various roles would include the nerd, the hacker (in the positive sense, i.e. pro-system technician), the hacker (in the negative sense, i.e. security-buster), the lurker, the school-teacher, the journalist, and the hard-nosed I.T. professional.

The kinds of transactions among individuals that I have in mind might be based on something like speech-action theory, and would include treatise, announcement, idea-flotation (de Bono would call that 'po'), proposition, negation and synthesis; and in a commercial context: invitation-to-treat, offer and acceptance.

Threads are sequences of related transactions. Episodes would be time-bounded transaction-clusters or threads between defined pairs or sets of individuals. Relationships would be the evaluations that particular individuals make of other individuals, based on prior transactions and episodes and on other information (including knowledge from RL/'meatspace').

Groups are sets of individuals who participate on a more or less regular basis and achieve a modest degree of stability over a modest time-period. Group cohesion and longevity depends on shared values, which may derive from many sources, such as common interest (e.g. thematic user groups), common geographical location, shared values or religion, common motivation (action committees), and common language or dialect.

By communities, I mean groups that attain reasonable size, are reasonably persistent, and are reasonably tolerant or pluralistic, in the sense of internalising debates about sub-issues within the group's area of interest.

Individual, group and community behaviour each demand description and classification. This applies to both functional and dysfunctional behaviour. I made a start on some work in this area some time ago, with a set of mini-cases of dysfunctional behaviour. I enlarged a little on that in a paper relating to one particular context, the electronic library, and in another on rights in cyberspace.

I've attempted below some preliminary thinking on behaviour patterns.

Where Would the Analysis Lead?

Building on these basic concepts, the analysis I'd like to see would assess the appropriateness of existing Internet services, such as newsgroups, email, e-lists, FTP, IRC, MUDs, the web, voice-phone, video-phone and broadcast (and would in time move on to the new developments such as conferencing, simulation, visualisation and virtual reality).

Further, the anlysis would identify and examine difficulties that these services present to various people and in various circumstances.

This foundation would enable the preparation of:


Cyberspace isn't one amorphous mass, but a whole smorgasbord of opportunity, activity, interpretation and appropriation (in Gibson's immortal words: 'the street finds its own uses for things'). There are therefore many specific areas ('market segments' if you will) in which serious effort is needed, such as:

But progress will be sporadic and unreliable until we develop a solid understanding of cyberculture.

Some Musings on an Analytical Framework for Net Behaviour

What I'm in search of is an instrumentalist means of developing (or rather, encouraging cyber-communities to develop) control mechanisms over dysfunctional behaviour.

One possible starting-point for an analysis is 'ethics'. But I don't believe ethics drives behaviour. I don't consider it to be capable of delivering a means of predicting human behaviour, let alone designing interventions in the real world. It's a (very agreeable) area of armchair study, which involves undertaking ex post facto examination and rationalisation of human behaviour, and postulating policies for an ideal world, i.e. philosophy at its most irrelevant and unhelpful. [What, me? A utilitarian 'social engineer'??].

There's a term lying around somewhere in psychology called 'cognitive style', which I understand to refer to the manner in which an individual absorbs information, and interlinks it with existing knowledge. [But I might have that wrong!]

I wonder if there would be benefit in starting with a few concepts such as:

I've heard of a modelling approach called speech/acts theory (or similar), and believe that Terry Winograd at Stanford and Fernando Flores were using it at some stage. Is that related to the cognitive / volitional / /communicative styles I'm talking about?

If we could come up with typologies of each of the above styles, that were sufficiently complete, then we would have a basis upon which analysis of behaviour could proceed.

Since the level of analysis is at society or group rather than individual person, it might not harm the analysis if individual people were inconsistent as to which style they used?

An Invitation

If the outline above has a 'pop-psych' ring to it that's too strong for your taste, fair enough: counter-propose something more useful, or grounded more strongly in appropriate disciplines and professions such as behavioural psychology, workplace psychology, social psychology and social anthropology. We're listening ...

Here's a Guide to Cybersociology drawn to attention by students in Delaware in September 2011.

Author Affiliations

Roger Clarke is Principal of Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd, Canberra. He is also a Visiting Professor in the Cyberspace Law & Policy Centre at the University of N.S.W., and a Visiting Professor in the Research School of Computer Science at the Australian National University.

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Created: 13 July 1996 - Last Amended: 7 September 2011 by Roger Clarke - Site Last Verified: 15 February 2009
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