Joseph Westfall’s article What is cyberwoman?: The Second Sex in cyberspace (Ethics and Information Technology, 2000) presents an interesting point that is often glossed over in discussions of online space:

Cyberspace is not a place. Although interactions occur in cyberspace, there is not ‘there’ at which the interactors can find themselves together. Cyberspace only exists for anyone communicating in cyberspace. (Westfall, 2000: p161)

The first reaction to this is probably a resounding “Duh! Of course cyberspace doesn’t actually exist.” But I think there is a lot to unpack here.

Human beings are taught to be “completers” from birth. Scott McCloud insightfully points out in Understanding Comics that early games such as “peek-a-boo” help teach infants that while a person might disappear from view, they still exist. He goes on to point out that while we can’t see the world behind us, or lets say Tokyo for that matter, we know that both are there. We complete the unseen world. And that completion is an act of projection of our imagined ideas of how that world should be.

We do the same thing in most of our technology mediated communications. When I call someone on the phone, the simultaneity of conversation invokes images of the individual on the other end of the line and some rough approximation of their surroundings. And these images impact the overall phone interaction. For example, should the person I am speaking with become mad, typically my image of them displays the anger on its face. Typically sections of the conversation are geared to helping create these images. I often ask, during the course of a conversation questions like “Where are you?” or “What are you doing?” Each of these betters refines the image I form of my partner in conversation.

So why would it be any different in the online space? While the chat room is only a mediator, its interface and the related language of chat causes it to be conceptualized as a quasi-physical local. Tackling the latter first, we need look no further than the common parlance of referring to the chat environment as a “room.” The room metaphor immediate conjures the notion of a physical space, invariably four walls, a door, possibly a window or two. Further the use of phrases like “switching rooms” or “I’m in X room” further reinforces this notion.

The software interface also serves as a constant reminder of the simultaneity of interaction. Most chat programs display the usernames of all other visible chatters who are also in the room with you at the same time. So, before any text appears within the actual chat window you are already aware of the presence of other chatters. Obviously, the flow of conversation within the window further instantiates the copresence of other chatters, as do public notifications of chatters entering or exiting the room.

All of this creates the image of a shared space that we then fill with imagined images of the people that we are chatting with. And it is this desire to create these imagined images that bots, and other chatters for that matter, rely on. The mechanics of idenity, however, is a subject for another, soon to come, post.