March 17, 2003

From Gerald R. Lucas

In his article “Replacing Place,” William Mitchell suggest three criteria for constructing successful virtual communities: access, visibility, and persistence.[1] The latter, Mitchell explains, is like your house: a place in which you have some personal investment of time and, yes, money. Applied to vitual communities – my word, not his – like interactive spaces for adult play and web sites, this persistence gives us, the users, a reason to not only build these environments, but to continue to use them and construct additions when necessary. Like the capitalistic ideas of property and ownership, we have some vested interest in wanting to make our individual contributions to the community – from a LAN to the whole WWW – as strong as we can make them to inspire others in our community to visit. We want to endow our places with a common “cultural and emotional value” that allows for longevity and familiarity.

Zeppelin flies over The 1920s Berlin Project, part of the virtual world Second Life.jpg

I interpret the notion of persistence similarly to Haraway’s political myth building, like constructing borders around our lands. Yes, borders help to protect, but they also help to define. One of the most frustrating aspects of navigating virtual space is a feeling of its vastness, often causing a sense of vertiginous chaos. The boundless potential of virtuality is perhaps one of its greatest disadvantages for a species that likes to order and compartmentalize. Therefore persistence is not exclusion or identity in my reading, but a banner of affinity, a way of making a contribution to a community, of joining a conversation. Yes, some will not be interested in our spaces on the web, but others will, so what will keep them coming back?

Familiarity. Persistence seems to suggest an individual agency that constructs part of an environment that others can get used to, like a building downtown. This building becomes part of a landscape that people get used to seeing and interacting with; it becomes something familiar and comfortable. While I believe familiarity is important, it also suggests a need for control. If the medium is the message as McLuhan suggests, then what does the book say about the culture that constructs and uses it? This medium is defined and familiar, so it cannot be changed. Once you build a structure, it’s hard to change it afterward. While I would agree that we need a certain level of comfort to function, we must not let that comfort and familiarity control us and our perceptions. Perhaps we will not have to worry about digital environments in the way, after all the Google edifice is only as permanent as the power supply to their servers.

Mitchell’s article seems to be focused too much on capitalistic ideas: that of ownership and property, you know, real estate. His explanations of access and visibility seem more appropriate to a technology grant than a theoretical article. Don’t get me wrong, I know that whenever technology’s involved, economics remains an issue. Yes, I know these ideas are important, but as we see by the current troubles with DRM, the notions of property are changing. Mitchell’s article implies this change, but seems to rely too heavily on the metaphors of marketing to make his point. This is a language that I do not speak well, yet its impact will persist I’m afraid.

Reference

  1. Mitchell, William (2000). "Replacing Place". In Lunenfeld, Peter. The Digital Dialectic: New Essays on New Media. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. pp. 112–129.