A Rape in Cyberspace
"A Rape in Cyberspace, or How an Evil Clown, a Haitian Trickster Spirit, Two Wizards, and a Cast of Dozens Turned a Database into a Society" is an article written by freelance journalist Julian Dibbell and first published in The Village Voice in 1993. The article was later included in Dibbell's book My Tiny Life on his LambdaMOO experiences.
Lawrence Lessig has said that his chance reading of Dibbell's article was a key influence on his interest in the field. Sociologist David Trend called it "one of the most frequently cited essays about cloaked identity in cyberspace".
"A Rape in Cyberspace" describes a "cyberrape" in a multi-player computer game or MUD called LambdaMOO, the repercussions of this act on the virtual community and subsequent changes to the design of the MUD program.
LambdaMOO, which is a virtual community still in existence, allows players to interact using avatars. The avatars are user-programmable and may interact automatically with each other and with objects and locations in the community. The "cyberrape" itself was performed by a player named Mr. Bungle (a reference to the band, Mr. Bungle). The user behind this avatar ran a "voodoo doll" subprogram that allowed him to make actions that were falsely attributed to other characters in the virtual community. These actions, which included describing sexual acts that characters performed on each other, went far beyond the community norms to that point and continued for several hours. They were interpreted as sexual violation of the avatars who were made to act sexually, and incited outrage among the LambdaMOO users, raising questions about the boundaries between real-life and virtual reality, and how LambdaMOO should be governed.
Following Mr. Bungle's actions, several users posted on the in-MOO mailing list,
*social-issues, about the emotional trauma caused by his actions. One user whose avatar was a victim, called his voodoo doll activities "a breach of civility" while, in real life, "post-traumatic tears were streaming down her face". However, despite the passionate emotions including anger voiced by many users on LambdaMOO, none were willing to punish the user behind Mr. Bungle through real-life means.
Three days after the event the users of LambdaMOO arranged an online meeting, which Dibbell attended under his screenname (Dr. Bombay), to discuss what should be done about Mr. Bungle. The meeting lasted approximately two hours and forty-five minutes, but no conclusive decisions were made. After attending the meeting, one of the master-programmers of LambdaMOO (with screenname TomTraceback), decided on his own to terminate the Mr. Bungle user's account. Additionally, upon his return from his business trip, LambdaMOO's main creator, Pavel Curtis (screenname Archwizard Haakon), set up a system of petitions and ballots where anyone could put to popular vote anything requiring administrative powers for its implementation. Through this system, LambdaMOO users put into place a
@boot command, which temporarily disconnects disruptive guest users from the server, as well as a number of other new features.
Over a decade later, these events remain the primary advertisement for LambdaMOO. Research students still regularly visit the MOO (often sent there by their professors) and start asking users about these events. They are surprised to find that sexual actions are currently used as a form of affectionate greeting. For example, creative writing instructor Cynthia Brantley Johnson of the University of Texas writes that after a discussion of the Dibbell article and Sherry Turkle's book Life on the Screen, which also mentions LambdaMOO, she has her classes log on to LambdaMOO en masse and congregate "in the 'room' where the virtual rape occurred" before sending them off to explore on their own.
Dibbell continued to participate in LambdaMOO, up to 30 hours a week, and eventually wrote My Tiny Life about his experiences, incorporating the article. He remains somewhat astonished at the impact it has had, saying in 1998, "No piece I had done before had managed to convey as vividly to readers the fact that there was something wild and different going on online, something that might profoundly alter the way they related to words and communication and culture in general."
The article made many people interested in the legal implications of online activity, including Lawrence Lessig, and Dibbell himself would go on to teach cyberlaw as a Fellow at Stanford Law School Center for the Internet and Society.
The article is also considered one of the earliest examples of New Games Journalism where review of computer games are meshed with social observation and consideration of surrounding issues.
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- David Trend (2001). Reading Digital Culture. Blackwell Publishing. ISBN 978-0-631-22302-3. Retrieved 2006-12-16.
- Cynthia Brantley Johnson (Summer 2002). "Assignment One: How's Life in a MOO". 7 (2). Kairos. Retrieved 2006-12-16. Kairos is a refereed journal hosted at the English Department of Texas Tech University.
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- CIS Fellow Julian Dibbell The Center for Internet and Society
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