I have set up this page to provide more information on the presentation I gave at the GNA Forum on Thursday, July 16, at 1900 GMT (3 PM NY time).

If you wish, you may view the workshop transcript. Thanks to Sam Kritikos of GNA for preparing it. :-) Below is the prepared text without comments from the audience.

Presentation Title

Souls Touching Across Wires: The Emotional Design of Online Communities
by Barbara Steinberg, Founder and Moderator, The Web Sociology List

Hello, it is a privilege to speak with you today. Thank you very much for having me.

This presentation is the result of three years' life experience on the internet. I don't see my online life as an essay, but rather a maze of stories and thought-conclusions leading into the unknown. Who will I meet whose world view will change my life? Souls touching across wires isn't about conversation. It occurs when someone expresses their inner power online and gives you a philosophical, emotional, or intellectual tool that changes you forever.

You can no longer see the world the same way for having known them, and you would have never met them if the internet had not allowed you to meet, souls first. Even though communication takes place with words, the other person leaves a spiritual imprint with you, which goes beyond words.

This is the gift, and sometimes the danger of the internet. But this emotional exchange takes place, many times, in online communities. And so when you are creating one, you have to think about what part of people's humanity you want to reach and what you want to do with it when you get there. This is what I mean when I talk about emotional design.

The community I created out of these ideas is the Web Sociology List, or Socks. Currently, it is a mailing list with a web site that has a gallery, writers corner, chat room, and FAQ. As I gain more technological tools as a student at the Interactive Telecommunications Program at NYU, I plan to create a more interesting interactive chest of drawers to put the Socks in. :-)

The Power Relationship Between Moderator and List Member

The power relationship I chose for Socks came out of an experience I had on the first online community I was part of, New York Online. That was that somone flamed me really badly. I had been there for three years. I wrote beautiful pieces for them. I thought I was valued. When I wrote to the community owner, he never returned my mail. He was becoming a media star, and I was just a list member. I did not agree with his low assessment of my value. So I said to myself, what if you had a community where the members were more important than the moderator? What if you turned the authority balance inside out? What if you moderated tone instead of content?

I found that the secret to making Socks work was give the power away. I gave the community to the members. When everyone realized that this gift of community was sincere, that I would not try to hold power close to myself, they started to trust me and eachother. They started making the emotional connection to the stake they had in the community, and the revelation of life stories which creates "souls touching across wires" began.

The members give me the privilege and gift of leading Socks in a way that will best serve their interests as they are expressed in the messages. The members can take this privilege away at any time. Because I trust them with this power to throw me out, they give me back the power to lead. I lead Socks with the reflection of power.

One would think this power equation could not exist in large, commercial communities. But I wonder about that. I remember when Steve Case of AOL already signed contracts with marketing agencies to sell email addresses to them. $10 million agreements. He wanted to alter the huge percentage of revenue that came from subscriber fees and get more from advertising. He stealthily inserted this provision into the terms of service. The press got wind of it, and there was a firestorm.

AOL members felt they had a stake in their online lives at AOL, and they howled in protest at Case, who wanted to sell their email addresses to commercial interests. As they constituted 80% of AOL's income at that time, Steve Case had no other choice but to rescind this business idea. I don't think an online community can ever be an autocracy. I think Steve Case forgot that as people feel their stake in, or dependence upon,a community increases, the autocratic power of the moderator to go against the community's will decreases.

So I am very interested in what this esteemed audience thinks.

Whether a moderator admits it or not, don't members really have the power to throw him/her out by not consenting to be led? Aren't the "will to leadership" and "consent to be led" two equal parts of a delicate emotional balance, which has to be worked out -- in whatever myriad of different combinations -- in order for the community to work?

The Balance Between Revelation and Privacy

One of our list members said that self-revelation was a balance between paranoia and stupidity, and you had to figure out where you were on the scale. :-)

Early in our community's history, we developed a strong bond of trust with eachother, and people started talking about things like their mental illnesses, deaths in their families, being falsely accused. We even survived an abortion discussion, although, looking back, it still amazes me that we did. One woman wrote about her fight with depression and how it was resulting in job discrimination at her web design firm. She mentioned she was bringing an EEOC suit against her employer.

The Web Sociology List is on the same subscription page and server as The Web Design List, which has 2000 professional designers on it. One of the lurkers on Socks knew this woman's boss and forwarded the message to her. The woman almost got fired.

I thought I was going to dig a hole and never come out again. I was sick. "What have I done?" I asked myself. Did I get so caught up in the joy of trust, did we all?, that we lost our heads? Possibly. We had big discussions about it.

From those discussions, I came up with the concept of "informed decision," which we put in the FAQ. It states that although it might be therapeutic to reveal a personal story and get support, there are risks involved. Sometimes severe consequences, such as a sullied professional reputation, might result from something you reveal in an online community. It is the responsibility of every list member to weigh these risks and make an "informed decision" about how much they are comfortable saying.

This put the responsibility for the revelation decision on the list member and took it off me, which was a great relief. The net is a world of infinite random possibilities, and I couldnŐt be responsibile for these kinds of disasters. I still feel emotionally responsible for the first one. I was just learning then and trusted "trust" too much.

Has anyone here had any similar experiences? Any wisdom they picked up along the way?

The trust balance: Case in point: The reactions of the community of problem drinkers to the man who confessed to murdering his daughter

This is one of the most fascinating stories I have ever read about an online community. Recap: A member of a self-help community for problem drinkers reads a confession that a man murdered his daughter. She called the police, and went against the opinions of most community members. The man is now in custody. This case raises an incredible number of issues.

1) The murder confession: He let her watch her favorite videos, got drunk, set the house on fire, climbed out the window, and put on a show of shock. Quote from the email confession: "Dammit, part of that show was climbing in her window and grabbing her pajamas, then hearing her breathe and dropping her where she was so she could die and rid me of her mother's interferences."

2) The tendency of community members to see situations differently: This community was a self-help group for problem drinkers. Some thought that he was experiencing a fantasy out of guilt over his divorce. Others thought he should be comforted because the crime was long past. Others thought it was a murder confession and called police.

Questions: Do you think objective reality is difficult to ascertain in an online world because it is entirely made up of a sharing of views, which are by nature subjective? None of the members had any hard, tangible evidence. No one had ever met him.

What was it about his confession that would make you believe it? Another subjective judgment? Or, is there something about the way someone writes something that is *different* if they are talking about something that really happened?

The flame war: After the murder confession, someone wrote, "This is just repulsive stuff," bla bla bla. I won't go on. Y'all can imagine it. The moderator's judgment: The moderator, a psychologist, believed that the man was expressing a fantasy because he wanted to be punished for surviving the accident. The moderator thought the man might have invented a false memory. He sent him private mail.

Some people were outraged at the moderator's judgment.

Trust Issue #1: Trust is probably the most important factor in what makes online communities work or fall apart.

Question: Can there ever be too much trust?

This man trusted people so much he told his darkest secret, if indeed he was telling the truth, which now a trial-by-jury requiring hard evidence will determine. Maybe this guy just went too far, trusting too much in a place where everyone wasn't equipped to deal with it. The balance between revelation and privacy might not have been worked out yet.

Trust Issue #2: Some of the people who disagreed with the members who turned this guy over to the police asked who did it. Two camps had formed. One member wrote to the other side in private mail. The recipient posted his private letter to the whole list and flamed the guy.

For me, posting private mail to an entire list is a harmful, malicious breach of trust between community members. It is a symptom that something is wrong at that moment.

And yet, there is a distinct possibility that I would have called the police.

Trust betrayed and trust realized in two very different permutations.

Email as evidence in a trial: An email community is a collection of subjective opinions out of which people's true characters are revealed.

A court trial uses protocols of evidence collection, argument, and judgment by a jury to try to determine objective reality.

However, no one had any hard evidence that this confession was true. The man did not have a lawyer present when he made this confession. etc etc. And, he is pleading not guilty at trial.

Should this email be evidence in this court trial? Maybe it should since it started the chain of events that created the need for a court trial. Maybe it should not because the nature of email confessions do not fit the requirements for evidence in a trial.

This was an incredible story with an amazing number of issues raised.

What would I have done? So that gets me thinking of what I would have done if anyone posted a murder confession to Socks. I think I would have started asking around to see if this guy had a psychologist, if there were any newspaper reports corroborating the story, etc. If, after gathering as much evidence as I could, I determined that this confession might be true, I would have called the police.

I wrote to the list that I was not personally equipped to deal with people who invent false memories of child murder and post them as confessions. I have limitations. I am not a psychologist. I would probably freak out if someone made a graphic confession to murder on Socks, and didn't qualify it with: "This is a story I wrote." or something else to that effect. However, if someone wanted to write a fictional account of murder and state this at the beginning, it was another issue entirely.

I wrote that people reveal a lot on Socks, but there are some things that are kept private, too. Everyone draws their own line, and this informed decision about revelation and privacy is one we have talked about many times.

I think the balance between trust and privacy is a delicate one, and it takes a lot of time and commitment from the ensemble of contributors in a community to find one that works for them. Posting murder confessions would not work for Socks. I didnŐt get any disagreement on the matter.

Questions for workshop participants:

What would you have done?

Where would you come down on this issue of how to judge truth from fantasy in an online post?

What criteria do you use to tell the two apart?

What are your thoughts about this story?

The balance between debate and going too far--when to let go of an argument and why

Last summer, I was away from email while on vacation for 3 weeks.

An older woman came on the list who had experienced a great trauma. Her 1-yr-old niece had been murdered. Taking this experience in hand, she used it to justify a political opinion in favor of tough measures against sexual offenders.

Three men on the list started taking her ideas apart and speaking in favor of those falsely accused. One had a sister who got into fights at school but hid the truth by telling everyone that he beat her. He had very strong opinions on what it felt like to be falsely accused, but he was also a fiercely logical debater and basically tore this woman to shreds.

She never recovered. She couldnŐt handle it. She was no match for him. I exchanged a lot of private email with her, and at one point I thought it was over. But I was wrong. She had spent three months emailing various people on the list, in private, making one of them weep in front of the computer. She got a lot of people to quit the list, and I never had a shot at doing anything about it because I didnŐt know it was going on. (Maybe one day I should technically run the list myself. Right now, I donŐt.)

When I found out, we had a discussion about "judgment." Is it really limiting freedom of speech if, when someone is expressing an opinion, you ask yourself if they can handle having that opinion held up to the light of objective debate? Some people canŐt handle it. They are speaking from raw, unhealed wounds. We decided that when you can feel that, it is time to let go of the argument.

When would you let go of an argument, if at all?

How do you tap into people's true humanity?

I think you do it by making The Moderator's Promise. Recently I wrote an article on this subject for a student magazine at the Interactive Telecommunications Program at New York University. I thought I would include it in this presentation because it speaks to the kind of commitment members have responded to by feeling safe enough to share their own stories. Here is the article, which was written about my second project, Radio Free Monterey:

"It's on me," said Morry as we sat down in an Italian cafe on an ordinary Tuesday night. Sipping hot chocolate, he told me about this magazine he was starting at ITP and asked me to write something. "Explain what you're doing," he said. "OK," I said tentavively, pondering.

My first reaction, when I tried to organize an answer, was an open mouth with no sound coming out. Catatonic shock. On one level, I have no idea what I am doing. I just follow my heart and listen to what the people tell me, and the answers usually come from the ground. I have learned to recognize what direction an online community should take by understanding the experiences members have in them.

On another level, as the loner girl dreaming in her room, I know exactly what I am doing. I want to reach that state of emotional exchange where people give their trust, reveal what is in their souls, and are changed by the experience. That is what I want. That is what inspires me, and I call it "souls touching across wires."

And so I thought I'd write to you, my fellow dreamer-partners in crime, about the moderator's promise. It is an oath you make with your life to the people who give their souls to your vision. When that bond is made, the group recreates the original vision in their own image. You can never predict how it will come out because each group creation is unique. But the oath is, "I will be here, giving of myself to you, my fellow community members, for the rest of my life."

You can do it in words alone, you can do it in multimedia, or you can do it over a party line on the telephone.

The technology is not really important, for technology is only a distribution channel for emotion, and emotion is what people react to. However, after you have made decisions about emotional design, it is interesting to play with technology and create an online community environment that combines different channels to form a multimedia experience.

That is what I am doing with Radio Free Monterey. It is a web cast radio station/virtual community where chatters in a chat room see and hear a DJ in live audio/video and then both sides talk to eachother. We have a wireless pinhole camera in a box kite ready to fly on Del Monte Beach in Monterey, when the winds permit.

We tested the camera by having it send back pictures to a receiver, whose signal was then pumped into the computer encoding the live feed. The chatters saw the DJ moving about the house, heard rock music playing from the stereo, and chatted about how shockingly disgusting the bathroom looked at night when viewed through the pinhole. A lot of fun was had with this. Chatters never knew where the DJ was going to go next with that camera.

However, the reason a community is forming around this radio station is not because our environment is in multimedia. It is forming because a guy found a stage in broadcasting that offered an outlet for creative expression, which changed his life. The community stage offered him the opportunity to be understood and make a difference, where society did not. Now, he is giving that stage away to others. He made the moderator's promise. "Radio Free Monterey will give voice to the disenfranchised, and running this station is what I want to do for the rest of my life."

He and various other DJs are on 7 hours a day, five days a week, from 5:00 pm to 1:00 am PST. People can connect to the live feed and have a person to talk to. We now even have a phone that allows telephone interviews to go over the live feed, so you can call the station and hear your voice over the computer, while chatting, to yourself? It is a comfortable, zany place. Regular guests include a militia guy and a paranoid schizophrenic.

We had an 18-year-old girl who hadn't drawn in a long time. She just graduated high school and is working as a waitress. On a lark, she sent us this pen-and-ink doodle along with some CDs. I put it up on the site and made a big deal out of it. Where her art teachers at school dismissed her doodles, we celebrated them. It touched her. Her brother sent us a private note thanking us for getting his sister to believe enough in herself to start drawing again.

This is the reward you get for the moderator's promise. It's not a big job in a glamorous new media company. It is not getting your start-up bought out for $10 million. In fact, a lot of the nuts and bolts work of running an online community could be classified as secretarial. You have to respond to people when they want something. You have to want to talk to them and care about them. I spend hours on email. Whether I will ever make a dime off it is unknown at this point. The driving force for me is to use internet technologies to create social structures that touch people, and there are no "if onlys" in my life. That is what I do.

Comments welcome, as always.

© copyright, 1999, Barbara Steinberg

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