JCMC 9 (4) July 2004
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Multimedia Performance in a Computer-Mediated Community: Communication as a Virtual Drama

Charles Soukup
University of Northern Colorado


In this study, I explored the complex multimedia performances of an interactive computer-mediated community. Through the frameworks of Erving Goffman's dramaturgical perspective and Dell Hyme's ethnography of communication, I explored the patterns of multimedia performance of a virtual community called the Palace. The findings demonstrate how virtual architecture, visual context, virtual space/proxemics, and avatars can be used in social interaction in communities on the World Wide Web. More importantly, the analysis represents the multimedia communicative processes that serve to foster and sustain virtual communities. These communication patterns of the multimedia chat community represent a form of virtual dramatic performance in contemporary communication. Based upon the findings, conclusions, implications, and future directions for scholarship are explored in detail.


Scholars are excited, frightened, and perplexed by the characteristics and implications of "virtual" social worlds constructed via new technology (Bakardjieva & Feenberg, 2002). Particularly, the concept of "virtual community" is associated with the opportunity to form aggregations across space and time via computer-mediated communication (CMC) systems such as Internet chatrooms, bulletin board systems, and other multi-user contexts (Giese, 1998; Jones, 1998a; Kolko & Reid, 1998; Watson, 1997). Scholars have offered diverse conclusions concerning virtual communities ranging from the "liberatory" and democratic potential of new technology to the inauthentic and fragmented forms of community online. Unfortunately, these preliminary conclusions regarding the characteristics of virtual communities were produced well before the patterns and methods of communication via new technology had been ingrained and firmly established. Specifically, conclusions were drawn without a detailed understanding of multimedia communication processes. I contribute to the project of describing and understanding virtual communities by answering one primary question: In what ways are multimedia messages performed in virtual communities? In this initial and exploratory examination of a new form of social interaction, I explore the unique multimedia communicative messages of a virtual community on the World Wide Web. Through participant observation methods, I offer a detailed and in-depth analysis of the "performance of community" via multimedia interaction. Further, this detailed examination of multimedia community-based performance evokes broader issues associated with virtuality, reality, and identity.

Given the substantial expansion and evolution of virtual communities in the past decade, particular attention needs to be directed to the performance of community on the World Wide Web. Castells (2000) estimated that "tens of thousands of such [virtual] 'communities' were created throughout the world in the 1990s" (p. 386). Like many other social researchers, particularly ethnographers, I believe that all communities are socially constructed involving the "participatory engagement in a collective practice aimed at constructing collective identities" (Bakardjieva & Feenberg, 2002, p. 182). From this perspective, a virtual community can be understood from the "practice approach" by examining "the ordinary activities of its participants" (Baym, 2000, p. 22). Both individually and collectively, users maintain and change the prevailing notions of the on-line community (Giese, 1998). As Watson's (1997) work demonstrates, CMC users must work together to maintain the group patterns "according to the norms and values established within the community" (p. 110). These "electronic gatherings" require negotiations of rules, norms, and technical procedures (Sproull & Faraj, 1995). Thus, computer-mediated groups "fit the description of an interpretive community actively constructing meaning" (Jones, 1998b, p. 87). I use the term "virtual community" in order to place my research within this larger body of scholarship concerning the social construction of online communities.

More particularly, researchers have begun to explore the performative communication patterns of virtual multi-user CMC communities. Multi-user CMC contexts began with the emergence of multi-user domains (MUDs) that used computer technology to facilitate "Dungeons and Dragons-like" games (Stone, 1995). Over time, the popularity of these gaming contexts created interest in users who were less interested in competitive role play games and more interested in social interaction. MUDs evolved into virtual spaces designed more for text-based social interaction (sometimes distinguished as "MOOs") (Parks & Roberts, 1998). Initial observational (Marvin, 1995) and survey (Parks & Roberts, 1998) data indicated that multi-user domains can sustain highly social and tightly knit communities. More recently, via detailed ethnographic accounts, scholars have examined the construction of identity, specifically gender, in these environments (Kendall, 2002; Schaap, 2002). Of particular interest to this project, researchers have explored territoriality and role playing in text-based virtual environments. Using text, participants can symbolically "move" their characters and objects in order to "enhance the experience of the mud as a virtual space" (Kendall, 2002, p. 47). As a participant observer, Markham (1998) experienced a "more embodied sense of self or presence" (p. 114) via the symbolic movement of characters and objects in a MOO's virtual space.

In addition to the conclusions concerning text-based virtual realities, in this project, I was primarily interested in the multimedia performances of multi-user chat contexts. While a number studies have explored text-based online chat, relatively few researchers have explored the complex and meaningful communication patterns of multimedia chat contexts (Krikorian, Lee, Chock, & Harms, 2000). Danet (2001) provided a fascinating and detailed examination of the transition or shift from text-based interaction to multimedia computer-mediated communication. With a general emphasis on play, Danet's case studies explored the characteristics of digital and multimedia communication. Of particular relevance to this project, Danet examined presentational performance in virtual theatre and IRC art. In real time, participants used text-based visual images to express humor, to establish space, to create presence, and to construct "digital folk art" (p. 350).

While interactive multimedia chat-based contexts have only been accessible to a broad audience for a few years, these environments appear to be the direction of CMC. In fact, dating back to the early stages of the World Wide Web, designers have sought to create multimedia chat contexts for social interaction (Morningstar & Farmer, 1991). CMC users appear to be increasingly gravitating toward the multimedia virtual communities of the World Wide Web (Mendelson, 1997). Initial investigations into multimedia chat indicate complex communication processes at work in these virtual environments (Krikorian et al., 2000; Taylor, 2002). These new contexts combine the graphics and imagery of the World Wide Web and video gaming with the interactivity of Internet chat, thus juxtaposing incredibly popular and influential forms of CMC. Specifically, in preliminary research, the movements of avatars (i.e., a visual representation of the computer user) have been associated with signaling privacy and intimacy (Becker & Mark, 2002) and group affiliation (Taylor, 2002). While computer-mediated communities appear to be moving toward multimedia forms of communication (Soukup, 2000), these multimedia virtual communities remain highly understudied and require continued empirical investigation (Schroeder, 2002). Further, while scholars lament the shift toward "virtual" communication (Mejas, 2001), these multimedia contexts offer radically different ways for people to communicate in groups and form (and perform) unique kinds of culture and community (Waller, 1997). Because multimedia interaction may revolutionize the mediated communication process, preliminary research is essential. Therefore, I posed the following research question:

What are the primary communicative features of multimedia messages in a multi-user, multimedia CMC community?

Theoretical Perspective

As stated previously, for the research project, I conceptualized community as practiced or performed via participation. More specifically, a performance involves those behaviors of the participant that maintain his or her "definition of the situation" (Goffman, 1974). Using the phrase definition of the situation, Goffman describes how an individual perceives "what is going on here" or how individuals organize and frame experience (Goffman, 1974, p. 1). Further, interactants are involved in creating and maintaining dramatic performances, producing a mutual definition of the situation or an "agreed upon" reality (Goffman, 1959). Similarly, the methodological perspective of the ethnography of communication provides a systematic means of studying conventionalized, community-specific communicative performances (Carbaugh, 1990). Generally, the ethnography of communication is concerned with the delineation of communication patterns within the contexts of communities (Saville-Troike, 1989). As with Goffman's dramaturgical perspective, the ethnography of communication advocates the study of a community's conventionalized processes of communicative behavior (Hymes, 1974). Beginning at the level of community, the researcher focuses more specifically on speech situations, acts, and styles (Hymes, 1972).

Methods/Data Collection

In line with the perspective of the ethnography of communication, in this research project, I utilized participant observation methods as a means of understanding communicative performances. From the perspective of the ethnography of communication, communication is understood through the lived experience of the participants of the speech community (Hymes, 1974; Saville-Troike, 1989). In order to observe the lived experiences of the community members, I participated in and observed the interaction of a multimedia community on the World Wide Web called "the Palace" (I describe the Palace in greater detail in the following section). Initially, I signed on, downloaded the free software, created a screen name and avatar (i.e., a personal icon), and entered the space. My acclimation into the community required considerable time interacting as a member of the group. Upon learning the communicative conventions of the group, my membership was welcomed.

Logging ethnographic data often involves observing, interviewing, and obtaining as much relevant data as possible (Creswell, 1998). As a source of data, I primarily compiled a detailed record of the verbal interaction of the room. The "log" function of the Palace's computer software provided a precise record of the text-based interaction that was easily saved and printed. I also saved and printed dozens of images of the interaction that were especially useful in the analysis of multimedia performances. Finally, my fieldnotes recorded both my descriptions of and my subjective impressions of the patterned communication performances. The data collection process continued until the patterns related to the research question were recurring and exhaustive or the themes had been saturated. Over the six months of data collection, I obtained over 800 pages of data from the fieldnotes, log files, images, and other documents.

An ethnographer is interested in analyzing "the patterned regularities" experienced by members of a community (Creswell, 1998, p. 152). While emphasizing the lived experiences of the participants, the data analysis process was informed by (but not guided by) the theoretical orientation outlined above. Further, the interpretation process involves moving beyond the data into theoretical conclusions, personal reflections, and extensions into other settings. In this stage, the researcher creates arguments concerning the broader explanations related to the data. In order to avoid misrepresenting the experiences of the participants, I used a number of verification procedures. In addition to the prolonged engagement in the setting and the process of thick description described above, I also consistently searched for negative cases or exceptions to my conclusions to test the accuracy of the findings and discover unsaturated themes. Moreover, in this research project, I triangulated research procedures and sources of data in order to provide a multi-perspectival analysis (Denzin, 1989). Finally, via self-reflectivity, I self-consciously evaluated my procedures, biases, findings, and conclusions.

Introduction to the Speech Community

While the results provide a detailed description of the research context, initially, I should provide a preliminary orientation to the CMC setting. The participant observations occurred in a chat context on the World Wide Web called the Palace.1 The Palace is designed primarily for "chat" or synchronous (real time) interaction between users. At the time of the observations, tens of thousands of individual users participated in the interaction of the Palace. This "networked community" is composed of hundreds of individual Palaces. A single Palace (e.g., "The Mansion") is a defined space with a series of "rooms" linked together where people congregate. The Palace is a static graphical interface in that the "background" images on the screen remain constant. Users could use the standard avatars (which resemble "smiley faces"), but, more experienced users typically created and collected their own avatars. In my observations, participants typed text that appeared in thought balloons (like cartoons) above their avatar. In order to talk with another Palace member, a participant needed to move his/her avatar to the room where the other participant's avatar was located. Room administrators set the maximum occupancy of rooms, typically between 10 to 20 participants. If the room was full, no additional participants could enter (until someone left). The Palace was free for users to download the software and create rooms. Participants could create their own rooms, but this was infrequent because it required a fair degree of expertise. Further, as I describe in much greater detail in the following section, the Palace involved many multimedia communication cues for the purpose of interaction.2


In the following section, I explore the unique communicative aspects of the Palace's multimedia messages. By multimedia messages, I am referring to the technical features provided by the software that allowed users to "communicate" particular things. Multimedia messages consistently played a significant role in the virtual community. Specifically, in this section, I explore (a) the architecture/design of the space and setting, (b) the construction of a unique context, (c) the use of space and proxemics, (d) the use of props as communicative cues, and (e) the use of avatars.

The Architecture/Design of the Space and Setting

Both the participants and the designers of the Palace constructed unique contexts or scenes for the interaction. Nonetheless, unlike face-to-face interaction, the participants were not limited by the conditions of a material reality. As the following section explores, the design of the Palace helped define the topic, conversational patterns, and movement of the participants.

A unique "culture" formed within each room of each Palace. The visual image of the room was closely tied to the culture of the room. First, the image of the room often dictated the nature of the conversation or the topics of the interaction. Using the visual design of the room, the designers of Palaces often explicitly linked the space to specific topics such as SouthPark (discussions of the popular cartoon television show) and Korn (discussions of the popular heavy metal band). Beyond the simple relationship of the image of the setting and the topic of conversation, the "layout" of the room also played a significant role in the communication patterns of the specific Palace. In many regards, the participants used the image of the room as if it were a real, physical location. For instance, in Figure 1, the visual image of the setting was a swimming pool. Two participants used their "avatars" (i.e., the visual image on the computer screen that represents the participant) to "swim" in the water and "sit" on a lounge chair. Yet, participants were not bound by normal parameters of space and gravity. For example, some participants "stood" on the water without difficulty. As I explore more specifically in the following sections, participants adapted their avatar, movement, and physical position in the room to the visual characteristics of the room. Thus, their performances were defined, in part, by the images on the computer screen.

Figure 1. Sunset Beach Pool of The Mansion.

Not only was the design of each individual room of interest, but the movement between rooms proved quite significant as well. All Palaces have an "architecture" or some logical scheme that connects all the rooms of that Palace together. For instance, the rooms of The Campus were linked together as though a participant were moving around a college campus (e.g., the library room connected to an outdoor walkway which connected to the student union room) and the rooms of Firebird's Forest were linked together as though the participant were moving around a mythic forest (e.g., cottages or cabins connected to forest landscapes). When interacting in the Palace, participants were consistently moving in and out of rooms, creating a constant sense of movement and motion. Participants often asked other participants to "move" with them with comments such as "heya dan. . .wanna go some where [sic] less crowded" and "I feel the call of the Moor."

My primary setting for analysis, The Mansion, had an especially interesting architecture. First, doors linked the rooms together. When participants clicked on the door icon, they entered another room. The dozens of rooms were connected together in an intricate web that had larger rooms as entry points and smaller rooms within the internal structure. Typically, participants entered a central, more "public" room like "Harry's Bar" or "The Hallway" and then moved "inward" into the web toward more "private" rooms. In one instance, when moving inward toward smaller, more private rooms, I entered a small room deep inside The Mansion called "The Spa." In The Spa, I saw two nude avatars placed on top of one another with the backdrop of an image of a spa or hot tub. Immediately, I felt embarrassed and uncomfortable. The "private" orientation of the room was quite evident, so I quickly left. The architectural structure or web of rooms of The Mansion established "levels" of private and public for the interaction.

In many ways, The Mansion had both a physicality and reality (like face-to-face contexts) as well as a surreal or hyperreal quality (unlike face-to-face contexts). Particularly, most rooms, depending upon the size, had one or two "entrances" or links from other rooms. While most rooms had "conventional" entrances such as doors and hallways, in some cases, rooms were entered via images of paintings, windows, and fireplaces. The entrance was determined by the images of the room. For instance, when clicking on the image of a painting on the "wall" of a room, the participant often entered a room with the context of the imagery of the painting (e.g., a painting of a forest was the entrance to a forest setting). One room, the Hallway, perhaps best illustrates the architecture of the Palace. As the image in Figure 2 indicates, the Hallway had a series of doors. The doors opened into "bedrooms." When people entered a bedroom the door closed behind (even making a creaking, closing sound) and locked (i.e., could only be opened from the "inside"). Once inside a private space, the participants were outside the domain of the posted rules (e.g., no profanity and sexual talk) of the Palace. The participants could behave however they desired. Thus, the participants were hidden in a private space. As the Hallway represents, the participants were able to use the "virtual architecture" and design of the space to create specific communication situations. In this example, the architecture of the space allowed the participants to create a private conversation. The visual images of the room helped guide the communication patterns of the community. Further, as the following section explores, the space itself was defined and conventionalized in important ways.

Figure 2. The Hallway of the Mansion.

The Construction of a Unique Context

The participants of the Palace consistently constructed their spaces as unique communication contexts. Each room had unique qualities that defined the situation and conventionalized the interaction. First, while the initial designs of the rooms were provided by the owners of the Palace, participants constructed a unique context in a number of ways. Primarily, participants decorated rooms to define the space. For instance, participants often decorated rooms to fit the seasonal holiday such as Halloween or Valentine's Day. Typically, participants saved a "decoration" in their prop file (described further later in the results) and then placed the decoration in the room. Further, participants decorated the rooms to rearrange the virtual space. In Figure 3, the example from Harry's Bar demonstrated both processes. The room was decorated with stockings for Christmas (the decorations were removed by the participants after the holidays). Also, the couch at the bottom of the screen was "moved in" by participants for a more casual "seating" arrangement. While some decorations were fleeting (e.g., Christmas decorations) and others became permanent fixtures (e.g., the couch), the decorations helped redefine the nature of the space. For instance, the couch allowed the participants to create a physically close and socially casual space for interaction. Similarly, the stockings provided a "festive" mood for the conversation of the room.

Figure 3. Decorations in Harry's Bar.

Overall, the participants constructed a "physical context" to facilitate their communicative performances. The visual images of the virtual space guided and facilitated communication in identifiable ways.

Space and Proxemics

Throughout the several months of observations, the use of space by the participants emerged as a tremendously important multimedia communication process. For the participants, the computer screen and avatar represented "space" in a number of ways. Like in face-to-face interaction, the participants indicated the nature of their relationships via the closeness or distance between their avatars. Space was perhaps most vividly demonstrated via "touching" behaviors. Based on the nature of the relationship, participants had clear expectations for the distance between their avatars. In Figure 4, at the bottom of the screen, Zombie Woof and koko (koko's name icon is covered by Zombie Woof) and Chich and Mucus had sustained existing relationships. Participants moved their avatars toward their conversational partners. The more intimate the relationship and conversation, typically, the closer the avatars were in relationship to one another. In one instance, my avatar was placed between two avatars in an intimate conversation. I felt quite uncomfortable, as though I was "standing between" two intimates. I quickly moved my avatar away from the couple. In this regard, the avatar clearly represented the physical self when in the Palace. As in face-to-face interaction, the physical self/avatar was used to communicate intimacy between participants.

Figure 4. The use of space and proxemics in Harry's Bar.

Similarly, while intimates moved their avatars closer to one another, strangers were expected to sustain an appropriate amount of space between avatars. When a stranger's avatar was placed on or very near another's avatar, participants responded, often with great intensity (in order to avoid "overcrowding", administrators limited the number of participants that could be present in rooms). The participants stated comments such as, "move offa me" and "please move" and "getting right on top of people tends to annoy." These space violations occurred in many observations when the room was full of participants. Often, when possible, participants moved their avatar away from strangers when the stranger's avatar was too "close." For example, when a stranger's avatar was too close, Fairy Dust stated, "I was like just harassed." The use of personal space led to a number of examples of territoriality behaviors. Participants defined the space on the computer screen directly around their avatar as their "personal" space. As in face-to-face communication, in the Palace environment, personal space was not defined by explicitly posted rules or enforcement behaviors. Rather, when experiencing "personal space" violations, the participants often became quite territorial. As described above, instead of moving their avatar, the participants sometimes fought to re-establish their space. After the initial confrontation, the "violator" typically moved. The observations indicated a correspondence between face-to-face uses of personal space and the "virtual" uses of personal space.

When the avatars were placed next to one another, the implication of touching emerged. The participants clearly treated the avatar as a representation of the physical self. In one instance, Chich and fran's avatars were on top of one another and Chich stated, "rub rub." On several occasions, participants even moved the avatar up and down next to another avatar to suggest a "stroking" motion. As with personal space, touching behaviors were considered appropriate between intimate participants. When a stranger's avatar touched a participant's avatar, the participant often responded with comments such as "dont rub against me." Perhaps the most extreme examples of touch violations occurred when participants manipulated their avatars to suggest sexual acts such as oral sex and intercourse.

Further, the cohesiveness of the group was indicated via "clumping" behaviors. Particularly, in my fieldnotes, I often described conversation circles or "clumps" that formed in the Palace. As stated above, participants moved toward the participants with whom they were most intimate and currently speaking. Similarly, the participants' avatars often formed clumps or circles of avatars as in the visual examples presented previously of The Hallway (Figure 2) and the use of space (Figure 4). In fact, from my analysis, I found that the couch was moved into the room for the purpose of creating a natural "seating arrangement" for the participants. Regular members
3 expected to have a space in the conversation clump, especially on the couch. When the space was full, the regulars often literally waited on the side of the clump until someone moved and quickly "filled in" the space. Further, the most involved participants in the conversation were central to the "clumps" while the "lurkers" or outsiders to the conversation were on the periphery of the clump. As a participant observer, I observed a significant difference between remaining on the outside of the conversation clump and entering the center of the clump. Participants engaged members of the clump with more questions and direct interaction.

Props as Communication Cues

"Prop" is the term used to describe the specific multimedia communication cues offered by the Palace software. For example, thought balloons and gesture cues (which constituted the vast majority of the props) were of particular importance in the performances of the Palace. The props' primary role in the communication performances involved the regulation of interaction. In other words, like nonverbal cues in face-to-face interaction, props helped dictate the style, rhythm, and direction of the conversation. More specifically, these two types of props, thought balloons and gestures, were used to regulate the interaction.

First, thought balloons were a fascinating tool in the communication process. Thought balloons were the space in which the participants' typed text appeared on the screen (much like a cartoon character). The introduction on the Palace website states, "Click the Balloon Selector button to choose a balloon style. You can talk normally, shout, or whisper to a specific individual. The default state of your cartoon-balloons is the normal talking balloon." For public chat, the Palace software provided three types of thought balloons that appeared in a standardized form for all participants. Each provided a specific communicative cue. In Figure 5, the two most common thought balloons, the standard balloon (to the right of the screen) and the exclamation balloon (in the center of the screen), are demonstrated. Further, on the left side of the screen, directly below the arrows, was the tool bar where participants chose their thought balloon.

Figure 5. Thought balloons as gestures.

Each balloon represented a particular communicative style during the observations. The standard balloon represented an ordinary declaration. As the name indicates, an exclamation balloon represented an enthusiastic or energetic comment. The "bubbles" balloon represented a thought to oneself, much like a cartoon character. The balloons provided specific nonverbal cues concerning the style, purpose, and intensity of the communication. If a participant sought to articulate an enthusiastic greeting, an ordinary comment, or a thoughtful reflection, he or she chose the corresponding thought balloon.

Similarly, participants used props to form gestures in Palace settings. Users' "prop bags" or "prop files" included dozens of animated images and sounds they had collected when interacting in the Palace. Like avatars, participants gathered their own unique collection of props while interacting in rooms. The images were easily copied and stored in the prop bag when observed by the participants. The diverse images included items such as flowers, food, clothing, jewelry, and symbols (e.g., peace, money, and musical notes). At various times, much like in a theatrical production, participants used the props as a part of the performance (e.g., exchange flowers). One common "gesture" involved the placement of the bold letters "BRB" (be right back) over the avatar. In these cases, participants used props to indicate their movement away from their computer (i.e., I'll be right back to the computer). Further, sound effects were used to represent aural cues such as a kiss/smooch sound, giggling sound, and applause. In a noteworthy example, dot stated that she was "too shy" to talk to a romantic prospect and French Lace responded with a clucking sound, like a chicken. Immediately, dot replied, "lol, no im [sic] not a chicken, im a coward."

The props and other software features were a means of regulating interaction in the Palace. An example noted earlier in the results highlighted this regulation. In the Hallway, when participants entered and left bedrooms, sound effects (the creaking and slamming of a door) automatically indicated participants entering and leaving private bedrooms. The audio cue clearly indicated the private nature of the interaction. Similarly, even when in public spaces, by clicking their mouse directly on another participant, a user could "whisper" a comment privately to one other participant. When whispering, a comment only appeared on that member's computer screen. Thus, due to the nature of the user software, private and public conversations occurred simultaneously. These "covert conversations" in the Palace's rooms were an unstated element of the interaction. In this regard, the software helped regulate the respective private or public nature of the interaction. As I explore below, avatars were also a means of guiding interaction.


The introduction on the Palace website states, "Your Avatar is an image you choose to represent yourself in the Palace." While participants usually used the same screen name when in the Palace, participants switched their avatars quite often. The avatars played a role in the participants' communication performances in key ways.
4 More specifically, the "participants," in Hymes' (1967) taxonomy, were best reflected via avatar use. In many ways, avatars provided a means to discover and represent an ideal self/role in the virtual community.

I discovered several types of avatars in my participant observations. The majority of the avatars were either cartoons or photographs of young and attractive European Americans. More specifically, the style and fashion of the cartoons and photographs indicated hip and financially secure Americans. The cartoons and photographs were also often of celebrities ranging from television actors (e.g., Mathew Perry and Pamela Anderson), to movie actors (e.g., Mel Gibson and Winona Ryder), to musicians (e.g., Dave Mathews and Shania Twain). Avatars also involved famous cartoon characters such as Winnie the Pooh and Tweetie Bird. Finally, some avatars were symbols and images of almost anything like suns, guns, hamburgers, and cars.5

Searching for and trading avatars were very important features of the interaction. To clarify, within the Palace software, each member of the Palace had an avatar list or a storage area where he or she placed up to thirty or forty avatars. Participants (unless they were quite new to the Palace) rarely used the default "smiley face" avatars; rather, most Palace members were consistently adding, deleting, and modifying their avatar lists. The process of changing the avatar list involved a number of important themes. First, participants spent time in avatar Palaces such as Cuz's Cove, Avatars Anonymous, and Avatars R Us. Avatar Palaces were Palace contexts that stored thousands of avatars (like a library) for participants to copy. I spent several observations exploring the behaviors associated with the avatar Palaces. The avatar Palaces were consistently full of people searching for new avatars. The avatar Palaces were organized as a series of rooms, usually labeled topically (e.g., male avatars, female avatars, and cartoon avatars). In each room, participants clicked on a button and their avatar switched to an avatar in the room's catalogue. The participant continued to "try on" avatars (in the language of the Palace) until he or she found an avatar he or she liked. When a desirable avatar appeared, the participant clicked on "save" in the avatar list and the avatar was stored.

Participants also searched for avatars in social rooms such as Harry's Bar. When participants saw an interesting avatar being used by another participant, they asked to copy the other participants' avatar. The posted rules even explicitly stated, "Anyone cloning people without their consent will be permanently banned from this Palace." As the language suggests, the avatar was closely tied to the participant's "ownership" of self. Nonetheless, the avatar was not typically considered the participants' "intellectual property" and Palace members virtually always allowed other participants to copy their avatars.6 A typical request for an avatar involved a comment like, "can i have ur av? pleez." These requests for avatars were common and often involved specific "parts" of an avatar (the program allowed participants to cut and paste parts of avatars together). Some of these strange requests included, "anyone have a good head for this [avatar]" and "rose may i have those pants?" Often, like a sort of Dr. Frankenstein, the participants pieced together avatars while interacting in the room.

Obviously, the nature of "self" was significantly related to avatar use. Consistently, participants switched their avatars, in many cases in the middle of conversations. The presentation of self via the avatar was interdependent with the scene or context. For instance, participants chose photographs of people in swimsuits for the spa and photographs of people in formal wear for the nightclub. In addition, the avatar was often chosen to meet the demands of the space and the talk. For example, if the talk in Harry's Bar was sexual or flirtatious, participants often switched to avatars of people in lingerie (women) or shirtless (men). If the talk centered around a particular topic (e.g., The X Files), a participant often switched to an avatar related to that topic (e.g., an image of David Duchovny).

Further, the visual image became the "physical" representation of self when in the Palace. Whatever happened to the avatar was talked about as though it also happened to the person. The above discussion of space violations vividly demonstrated the link between the self and the avatar. In addition, the notion that a person is "naked" when their avatar is naked further demonstrates the fact that the avatar had a perceived physicality. In perhaps the most extreme examples, some participants used photographs of themselves to represent themselves online. In one instance, Rohan discussed his avatar:

Darkstar: whose your av of
Rohan: myself
Darkstar: if your serious u are lucky to look in the mirror and see such a sexy reflection
Rohan: beauty is in the eye of the beholder

The link between the self and the avatar was consistently evident throughout the observations. If a participant's avatar had some attribute, participants spoke as though the participant had that attribute such as, "blue has no elbow." Often, participants received compliments related to their avatars that suggested that the compliment was based upon observations of their physical body such as "looking good, KOKO!" In a vivid example, Mic stated, "bear you have quite a view there dont yah" when Dah Bear and Raven's avatars were positioned on the screen (in Figure 6). As the image demonstrates, dah Bear was described as "looking up" Raven's skirt.

Figure 6. Avatar representing physical self.

When in the Palace, the avatar image was defined as the physical representation of the self. Often, in the Palace discourse, the line between the avatar and the participant's body was blurred.

The identity used within the Palace was, in many ways, an idealized form of self. As noted earlier, participants spent significant amounts of time searching for avatars to represent themselves when in the Palace. Most participants suggested that their avatar had some relationship to their face-to-face identities. As dotty stated, "i try to get avs like me." Nonetheless, as I stated earlier, the avatars were of very attractive, even famous, people. In this sense, the avatar sometimes represented an ideal version of the real self. I realized this in my own search for avatars when I often chose avatars of very attractive men (much more attractive than I perceive myself to be) with some physical features similar to my physical body such as hair color, build, etc.

In summary, the multimedia messages provided fascinating communicative cues in the virtual community. The multimedia messages allowed participants to interact in ways that simulated face-to-face interaction and in ways that would be impossible in face-to-face interaction. Particularly, the technical features of the Palace provided the opportunity to send unique messages concerning context, space, touch, conversation regulation, and self-presentation.


The multimedia messages were closely tied to Hymes' (1967) concepts of scene and participant. Scene (i.e., the physical setting, definitions of space, and context-specific conventions) was demonstrated via the visual contexts and architecture of the Palace. Participant (much like Goffman's presentation of self) refers to sociocultural group members' identities, roles, and sense of self (Saville-Troike, 1989). Clearly, the avatar represented the participant's role in the interaction while in the Palace. Further, as Hymes argues, scene and participant are interdependent (Hymes, 1967). That is, an individual's role is often defined by the situation while the situation is often defined by the characteristics of the participants. Unlike the face-to-face scenes and participants described by Hymes, a virtual environment allows for dynamic and fluid scenes and participants. In a virtual context, a scene can change with relative ease to meet the requirements of the participants and a participant can change with relative ease to meet the requirements of the scene. In other words, unlike the fairly stable and consistent settings of the material world, in the world of CMC, the setting can be altered relatively easily. Furthermore, unlike the fairly stable identities of face-to-face interaction, in the world of CMC, an individual can change her/his identity relatively easily. As I examine below, the uniqueness and fluidity of the scenes and participants in the multimedia CMC environment may help foster a virtual community. Particularly, I explore the characteristics of the virtual drama and virtual community, the nature of self, the nonverbal norms, and the functions of the interaction.

In general, the participants' performances sustained the virtual "drama" (in a dramaturgical sense) of the room. Primarily, the participants created a "virtual" definition of the situation. Goffman (1974) described the definition of the situation as the way actors describe, organize, and frame experience in particular contexts. Unlike face-to-face contexts such as bars or churches, in the Palace contexts, participants were able to create new, virtual definitions of the situation. Not constrained by a pre-existing physical environment, the participants were able to creatively construct the context. By altering the space with decorations or images, the situations were defined uniquely in each room of the Palace. Other scholars have explored the construction of context-specific group norms and spaces in online environments (Feenberg, 1989; Soukup, 1999). Similarly, the participants constructed a unique definition of the situation. Like all "spaces" both real and virtual, the defined situation guided behavior. This supports the scholarship of Postmes, Spears, and Lea (1998) who have argued that CMC involves highly context-specific behavioral norms. If the space was associated with a pre-existing physical context such as a casino or pool, the participants were typically expected by the other participants to meet the dress, role, and talk conventions of that space. In other words, while the spaces and situations were constructed more creatively, dynamically, and virtually, the functions of the defined situation in the virtual community (i.e., to define roles and behavioral norms) remained relatively consistent with the practices associated with face-to-face interaction.

Scholars have argued that virtual environments free people from the constraints of face-to-face interaction and allows computer users to create ideal contexts for interaction (Fernback, 1999). Most interestingly, in this research project, the construction of the visual space with decorations and images was a means of creating community. The process of constructing the space not only defined the space itself and defined the nature of the interaction, but also created a bond between those members mutually constructing the space together. Stated another way, the participants bonded around the notion that they were building a physical and symbolic community together. Unlike traditional/face-to-face communities that inherit a pre-existing structure and history, the participants were able to construct a new form of community. Via the process of constructing the community, the participants also built cohesiveness.7 Baym discovered similar processes in a text-based newsgroup (r.a.t.s.) that constructed group identity "through ongoing communicative practice" (p. 114). Unfortunately, while a number of scholars have explored the functions and characteristics of text-based virtual communities (e.g., Cherny, 1999; Schaap, 2002), the multimedia communication processes used to develop virtual communities remain relatively unexplored. Below, I examine a number of multimedia communication processes that appear to build virtual communities.

The use of multimedia messages provided the participants with unique, "virtual" communication cues within the virtual community. Unlike the text-based interaction of MUDs and MOOs, the images of the Palace provided a more graphic representation of space, movement, and the body. For instance, researchers exploring MOOs sometimes describe a "spatial metaphor" (Dillenbourg, Montandon, & Traum, 2003) suggesting a symbolic relationship between text and space. Further, scholars have identified the importance of textual naming (e.g., screen names) in MUDs for symbolically representing the self (Schaap, 2002). In fact, Kendall (2002) described the reliance on text in MUDs as initially "disorienting" because, in many ways, text-based CMC requires learning to read a new language. On the other hand, the interaction of the Palace relies heavily on images that more "intrinsically" and graphically represent a material reality. Particularly, the avatar (a photographic image) was intimately tied to the participants' representation of self and body. Changing one's avatar involves a much more radical transformation than merely changing one's clothes or jewelry. When a participant changes avatars, every physical representation of self (e.g., hair color, skin color, gender, clothes, height, weight, attractiveness) may also change. In practice, for the participants, the avatar was the physical self. Goffman (1959) was largely concerned with how the individual is able to present the "self" in everyday life. As scholars like Turkle (1997) and Walther (1996) have discovered, unlike face-to-face interaction, in a computer-mediated context, actors are not nearly as bound to physical cues such as race, gender, or status. Certainly, the use of avatars during my observations supports these propositions. At times, the participants constructed identities that were ideal versions of themselves. Unconstrained by preexisting constructions of their identity or a stable and fixed context, participants could perform roles unavailable in face-to-face interaction.

My observations extend the preliminary scholarship related to CMC and identity in an important regard. As other scholars have argued (Turkle, 1997; Walther, 1996; Wynn & Katz, 1996), the participants in my observations creatively constructed virtual identities. Once constructed, the actor's character (in a dramaturgical sense) becomes embedded in the drama or the virtual definition of the situation. Similarly, Baym (2000) observed that, "online identities are inherently social creations, situated within the online social whole" (p. 202). This observation is echoed by Schaap (2002) who argued that a participant's identity "perpetuates and reinforces the illusion of realism" (p. 54). In order for the drama to function, the actor must play a role or character that fits the drama of the virtual community. Supporting Goffman's (1959) original conceptualization, the participants' identities sustained the fragile order of the "virtual" situation. As Goffman stated, "the object of the performer is to sustain a particular definition of the situation, this representing, as it were, his claim to what reality really is" (p. 85). In this way, the participants' performances of identity sustained the virtual definition of the situation.

Similarly, the use of space involved a graphic representation of a physical environment. Nonetheless, the participants evoked expectations associated with face-to-face interaction. Often, as other scholars have observed (Bromberg, 1996; Giese, 1998), the participants drew upon the expectations and conventions associated with the "real-world" or material world in contexts such as in Harry's Bar. Further, the use of space relied on the well-defined expectations of proxemics and touch discovered in face-to-face environments (cf. Hickson & Stacks, 1993). In other words, when the participants experienced a space violation, they were referencing their expectations of touch and space learned in face-to-face experiences. Stated even more specifically, the patterns of the computer-mediated space appeared to follow closely the personal space patterns associated with Americans originally described by Hall (1959). Participants moved toward conversation partners and clumped in conversation circles. Like in face-to-face environments, if the participant sustained a certain degree of intimacy with another participant, certain types of "touch" or uses of "personal space" were appropriate. In fact, the immediate and visceral responses to space violations of the participants indicated that the participants often utilized the norms and patterns associated with nonverbal expectancies in face-to-face contexts (Burgoon, 1983).

While the fact that participants drew upon their nonverbal expectancies from face-to-face contexts may initially seem insignificant and unsurprising, the uniqueness of this finding is magnified by the fact that their physical bodies were never involved in the interaction. The participants' physical bodies were never touched and physically they were miles from the other participants. Even though they were interacting with cartoon images in a virtual environment, the participants felt violated when their "personal space" was invaded. The participants' responses indicate the intensity with which they embraced and sustained the virtual qualities of the communicative performances. The acceptance that an avatar is the physical self and an image on a computer screen is a physical space requires a remarkable degree of suspension of disbelief-or, in Murray's (1997) description of the participant's active and structured immersion into virtual reality, the "creation of belief" (p. 110). Nonetheless, one after another (myself included), the participants suspended their disbelief (created belief) and embraced the virtual experience. In order for the multimedia virtual community to function, the participants must immerse themselves in the computer-mediated environment and accept the virtual drama as "real." In order for the virtual interaction to function as a defined situation, the images on the computer screen must be embraced as authentic or "real." This observation indicates that the "structured participation" (Murray, 1997) of multimedia virtual communities is capable of immersing participants in a virtual environment for the purpose of social interaction.

The displacement and fragmentation of traditional communities in the contemporary world may account for the desire to maintain multimedia virtual communities. The Palace provides the opportunity to construct unique virtual environments for the purpose of informal social interaction. Bromberg (1996) refers to the desire to establish a close social network via CMC as "the promise of connectivity" (p. 147). As Jones (1998a) has argued, "CMC allows us to customize our social contacts from fragmented communities and to plan, organize, and make efficient our social contacts" (p. 11). Perhaps, alienated people long for a connection to a community and social network. Nonetheless, these new virtual environments are quite different from previous communities and social networks. While the virtual spaces of this analysis each had some sort of material world reference point such as a bar or bedroom or casino, once grounded within a "reality-based" framework, the participants were then able to explore new, virtual aspects of self and space that were disconnected from the material world. The "virtual" and the "real" are not so much dichotomized but rather integrated and intersected within the experiences of the participants. The line between a real or tangible physical reality and a virtual or simulated reality was often blurred by the participants' use of multimedia messages. In this research project, the participants utilized a visual image to represent the self in an image-based environment. As Baudrillard (1988) argued, meaning has shifted from direct referents and the "real" to hyperreal simulations. Stated another way, meaning is not in a material reality but rather in images created by media and new technology. In this study, the images created within and through technology guided essential communicative processes such as context/situation, intimacy/cohesiveness, privacy, nonverbal codes, and, more generally, community development. This research project represents an initial and exploratory examination of these new forms of communication. As communication shifts more and more toward simulation and virtuality, scholars must explore the processes and implications of multimedia social interaction in greater detail.

In conclusion, tremendously popular communication technologies are opening the door for new and accessible forms of multimedia communities. As the above analysis demonstrates, multimedia technology offers strange and previously unknown forms of social interaction within virtual communities. This multimedia communication defies previously accepted notions associated with communication processes such as identity formation, the definition of the situation, and nonverbal codes. As our social interaction moves further into cyberspace, communication processes will change in dramatic and unexpected ways. Scholars must continue to explore these unique communication patterns if we expect to understand social interaction and community development in the foreseeable future.


1. For information concerning existing Palace communities, see http://www.thepalace.com or http://www.palacetools.com/.

2. Previously, in a controlled experimental setting, Krikorian et al. (2000) analyzed the use of space in a Palace environment. In their detailed quantitative analysis of spatial distances on the computer screen, the researchers concluded that the distances between avatars on the computer screen play a communicative role in uncertainty reduction, conversational appropriateness, and social attraction. In this study, I build upon their analysis of proxemics by looking at the full range of contextualized communication cues associated with the Palace community. Further, Suler (1996) has also observed the Palace environment as a case study for his online "hypertext book" the "Psychology of Cyberspace." Independently, we observed a number of similar behaviors related to avatar use and nonverbal cues. Nonetheless, unlike Suler's psychological emphases, I am primarily concerned with the theoretical issues surrounding virtual communities, drama, and other communication processes. In this regard, I am building upon previous observations and analyses by evoking unique theoretical and scholarly issues.

3. Regulars, especially regulars who were granted the role of wizard by the Palace administrators, were essential to the maintenance of the community. With special access to software features, the wizards were expected to facilitate conversation and enforce the rules.

4. Recently, Taylor (2002) analyzed avatar use in a similar setting called The Dreamscape. Independently, Taylor observed similar processes associated with avatars including the use of space, touch, and the manipulation of identity.

5. The participants' uses of avatars as self expression were similar to Danet's (2001) findings concerning computer users' self expression via ASCII art images. Danet found that participants' ASCII images came "primarily from everyday life and popular culture" and often involved cartoon characters (p. 212).

6. Because the images the participants used as avatars were copied and pasted from the Web, the avatar images were generally considered publicly available and not owned by any individual, somewhat like a song or book that is considered public domain. The rules concerning requests for avatars were related to the etiquette of the Palace. For a more in-depth discussion of intellectual property issues and digital technology, see Danet (2001).

7. The notion that participants create a bond by constructing an environment together has been used in the field of education to promote learning communities. For example, see Amy Bruckman's "MOOSE Crossing" (http://www.cc.gatech.edu/elc/moose-crossing/).


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About the Author

Charles Soukup is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Northern Colorado. His research has focused on computer-mediated communication, popular culture, and virtual communities. His work has been published in journals such as The Information Society, New Media & Society, and Southern Communication Journal.
Address: Department of Communication, Candelaria Hall, University of Northern Colorado, Greeley, CO 80639

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