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Roger Clarke's 'The Neighbourhood'

The Neighbourhood">Roger Clarke

Version of 17 March 1997

© Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd, 1997

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A person committed to a physical neighbourhood picks up the occasional bits of rubbish that blow down the street, reports dangerous tree-branches, notices unusual events, and generally smiles at people occasionally.

Have we achieved this sense of neighbourhood in virtual life?

Something that's been bothering me lately is the emergence of a 'them and us' mentality in cyberspace. One major example is the 'community' versus 'commerce' debate.

From its inception as a research tool, the net had a feeling of community about it. Many people believe that that's what the net's about.

Now that there's a substantial infrastructure in place, a lot of products and services, and a lot of people, 'commercial interests' have discovered it. Companies and individuals who want to use the net to sell things perceive netizens not as people, but rather as prospects and customers.

The reaction among many community-oriented people has been straightout rejection of commercialisation, and denial of the very idea that people should be able to promote and sell things. So there's a head-to-head, good old adversarial battle in train.

Does it really have to be that way? My personal view is that, provided we design things properly, communities and commerce can co-exist on the net.

Okay, maybe I'm biased. On the one hand, I'm a member of the net-community who contributes to e-lists in my areas of interest and competence, and provides community-service web-pages; and on the other I'm a consultant who makes his living consulting to companies and government agencies about the strategic and policy aspects of things like electronic commerce and digital money.

Another aspect of 'them and us' in cyberspace is the concerns that many of us 'old hands' have about the 'newbies' that have been flooding onto the net.

Frankly, it takes a bit of net-savvy to get around in this place, sorry space, without tripping up other people, and ourselves. So part of the 'neighbourhood watching' theme will be an examination of some of the silly things people do, and how we all need to understand and respect the norms of the cultural expedition that we've ventured upon.

I've been gathering bumps and bruises, and the collection can be seen at It's a whole menagerie of what I quaintly call "instances of dysfunctional human behaviour on the net": flaming, mail-bombing, spamming, incitement of racial hatred, pornography, harassment, stalking - somehow viruses, worms and hacking seem outdated and unexciting.

The purpose of the catalogue is not just to have all of our nightmares in one place. The more that we understand about misbehaviour in virtual neighbourhoods, the more we can guide one another into reasonable practices, and the more value we can extract from our experiences there.

I think we're at risk of asking the wrong question. What matters is not why people do these things but rather "how do we sustain a modicum of couth in our dealings with one another?".

We've had many thousands of years to evolve patterns of behaviour IRL. Flashing eyes and clenching fists, the other bloke's mates moving menacingly towards you but drifting just outside your field of vision - only the seriously thick and seriously psychopathic miss those sorts of signals. The other kinds of signals are pretty clear too - like eye-contact avoidance, sagging shoulders, and looking for the door. The dominant dog forces the other one to cringe and expose its jugular in subjugation, but most humans settle for more symbolic submissiveness.

Now go looking for the analogues in cyberspace. Hard to find, aren't they?

Not that text is quite as bereft of passion as some people make out. 'Emoticons' may be pretty basic, but with a little imagination, you can convey with [%=)] that you're a Kraut who's happy when he's drunk, or with ($-(} that you're bald, bearded and hungover.

And if you've ever tuned in to IRC or MUDDs (I'm old enough to remember that there were once two 'D's), you'll appreciate that it doesn't need sound or graphics to get the blood-pressure up.

The problem with communications mechanims on the net is that the safety-valves either aren't there, aren't used, or aren't yet understood. We need to re-engineer our interfaces so that they're less self-focused, and instead tempt us to think about our audience. Our habitual focus on Human-Computer Interface design (HCI) should be adjusted to Human-Computer-Human Interface (HuCHI?).

Unfortunately, some of our most commonly-used interfaces have become frozen in time. For all their innovativeness, versions 3 of Netscape Navigator and Microsoft Explorer looks pretty-much like those sorts of products did when they started. And their email components are pretty primitive. Where are the semi-intelligent agents warning us that we're broadcasting, not replying to a single originator? where are the flame-filters? and where's the support for threads?

The worry is that if we don't mature into self-managed communities, then the flamers, the spammers and the stalkers will be quickly followed by the jackboots and the vigilantes. Maybe that's as inevitable IVL as IRL; but many of us are hopeful that we can keep the net a pleasant place to be.

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The content and infrastructure for these community service pages are provided by Roger Clarke through his consultancy company, Xamax.

From the site's beginnings in August 1994 until February 2009, the infrastructure was provided by the Australian National University. During that time, the site accumulated close to 30 million hits. It passed 65 million in early 2021.

Sponsored by the Gallery, Bunhybee Grasslands, the extended Clarke Family, Knights of the Spatchcock and their drummer
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Created: 2 March 1997 - Last Amended: 17 March 1997 by Roger Clarke - Site Last Verified: 15 February 2009
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