The People You Meet Online
List serves, web forums, and discussion groups are cybercommunities of distinct personalities rubbing digital elbows. Just as a small town might have its old-money patriarch, its moral guardian, a funeral director, the schoolmarm, and the town drunk, standard characters emerge within virtual spaces.
The early months of any interactive online existence resemble an empty stage where Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author stand around as nervously as twelve-year-olds at a junior high school dance. The roar of dead silences often follows formal introductions. Cautiously, a few brave and extroverted souls emerge, venture forth, and shakily introduce themselves. As the community matures, the dramatis personae develop.
The solon of cyberspace, Howard Rheingold, characterized virtual communities as “a conversation in which 16 percent of the people contribute 80 percent of the words.” Every discussion group or mailing list, moderated or not, has its leading posters. The participants who make the most noise in any online community are usually the first to come up with solid information when it’s really needed, pitching in at the eleventh hour.
A handful of list participants take on the leading roles as the prima donnas or leading men. Sincerely interested in the subject matter, they often initiate discussions, dominate them, and are seldom at a loss for words. Often the conversation becomes a jousting match among the list darlings, or one will solicitously ask the opinion of another.
The Contrarian cannot pass up an opportunity to create conflict, often under the guise of honest debate. Viewing himself as the conscience of the lurking silent majority, the Contrarian likewise is rarely without an opinion. That doesn’t mean that the Contrarian always expects to be taken seriously.
Often confused with the Contrarian is the Crusader, who seldom misses an opportunity to weave her whine into any thread. The determined Crusader injects her plaint whenever possible; she can create a nexus between domestic violence and Windows Vista.
Anonymous, often cloaking himself in the chador of an indistinct email address such as HotShot@aol.com, uses disguise as a sword to attack others. Pleas to go unmasked go unheeded, as Anonymous insists that truth trumps identity.
The Promoter is the Ron Popeil of online communities, always trying to sell the community on something, whether it’s a book he’s written, a consulting service he provides, or aid to Kiribati. “But it’s for the good of the list, an offer not available to the public, and there’s a desperate need for the word to get out,” he’ll cry when he’s reminded of a rule barring commercial solicitations. Like a determined Fuller Brush Man, nothing short of banishment can stop the Promoter’s sales efforts.
Amen-to-that never has anything important to add, but always chimes in with an “I agree,” or “Me, too.” Adding comic relief, lightening up tense situations and derailing a thread headed only toward rage, the Rodeo Clown or Court Jester sometimes falls flat but is irrepressible. The Amen-to-that and the Rodeo Clown often have the greatest longevity among list subscribers, are the informal historians of the community, and are valued by other leading players for their supporting roles.
The ListCop identifies himself by shooting off an opening volley with:
I'm new to this group, but I thought it was a forum for lawyers to discuss legal issues and to rely on each other to answer questions. I personally don't have time for the volume of email this list is generating, and I didn't join this group to listen to discussion about movie trivia or baseball. Please refrain from sending me such messages, or I will have no choice but to report you to the administrator of this forum.
The active core will generally attack the self-appointed ListCop, flailing him unmercifully until the ListCop returns to lurking, atones for his petulance, or moves on to another venue.
And then there’s the Good Ol’ Boy who generally takes a noncontroversial stance on just about everything, but he’s everyone’s buddy. Straddling the mid-ground, while adopting an “Aw shucks, I’m just a rube” attitude, the Good Ol’Boy may wisely be more in control of the community than all of its stars.
jennifer j. rose is Vice-Chair of the GP|Solo Division and receives her email at firstname.lastname@example.org in Morelia, Michoacán, Mexico.
© Copyright 2008, American Bar Association.