Thursday, July 06, 2006
While several blogs and social spaces undergo upheavals and meltdowns, a little-known place on Usenet (outside of its denizens) called alt.callahans has thrived as a balanced, dynamic community of people who, regardless of the face they choose to show, generally bring a minimum level of honesty to their dealings with each other.
For those of you not familiar with the term, the "callahans" part refers directly to the work of Spider Robinson and his vaguely located (on Long Island somewhere off 25A) Callahan's Saloon. It is important to understand the foundation of that cyberspace, not because it takes its genesis from a fictional establishment, but because it takes the nascent ideas of a remarkably insightful writer and applies them with vigor to the only place in Real Life where diversity and access are maximized.
A.C., as we Patrons like to call it -- or sometimes The Place -- is not a paradise. It is totally public, completely unmoderated, requires not even minimal access to browse it (it is easily found in Google Groups, and a Google registration lets one post to it); it is subject to spam (more about that later) and there is absolutely no external enforcement of any sort.
How, one may ask, does it work? The simple answer is consensus, and the shared root of this word with consent is very important to remember.
The aspect of consensus, what makes The Place work without explicit controls like a rules of conduct, is that the people bring with them the same socialization that they acquired in real life. Courtesy has the same priority; freedom of speech is fiercely supported; and in no situation for any reason can anyone claim to speak for everyone, let alone a majority. Every voice is given its due.
An excellent case in point is this very post. If I could get a representative mixture of people from A.C. to comment here, the distribution would be roughly even: some will agree with me, some will disagree with me, and the rest will say "Yes/No! But..."
The conventions of The Place are indicative of the base culture it maintains. There is the chalk line, a place from which one may declare a toast of any sort, on any subject, with the implicit understanding that politely worded questions will be accepted (or not, but with an equally polite "I wanted to toast, but I don't want to discuss it..."). There is the Danger Room, where one may publicly let the flames and fur fly, and entry is by explicit invitation only. There is the Harsh Light of Reality [tm], a device used on occasion when the fantasy has gotten a bit carried away, and someone wants to make a point with no room for misunderstanding.
And yes, there is plenty of fantasy involved. There are kissing threads, in which a wide range of styles and types of smooches are described in great detail (and where certain denouements get left undescribed). BBQ buffets, wine tastings, food fights, story threads with multiple authors, several of Spider's characters from his stories fulfill useful roles as foils or sounding boards... I could fill two posts with further descriptions.
The last thing I wish to mention is the affectation by some of us (myself included) to post in third-person narrative, complete with dialogue and exposition. This by itself is, for me, the clearest indication of the grounding in reality and the commitment to truth that sets A.C. apart from other online communities of my acquaintance. People make an unusual effort to be understood the first time. They bring details to their writing that are not usually available in text-only media, that convey things we take for granted in face-to-face encounters.
This finally leads me to the point of this post. I've had an ongoing debate over the validity of online relationships with my friend Lady Belle, who has graciously given me permission to link to the latest incarnation of that debate. I recently pointed out to her, and for my own benefit, that the two loves of her life -- including her husband -- were encountered for the first time on A.C., and the other recent tumult in her life (me) steered her there in the first place.
Go ahead, scratch your heads. I've implied that online relationships can work, and further implied that my friend Belle takes the opposite stance, when in reality our positions are just the opposite. I cast a very jaundiced eye on cyber connections (with The Place being the exception that proves the rule, IMO), while she swears by her online friendships and takes them very seriously. We found out recently that each of us has edged towards the other, taking a less extreme view than we previously held. I suspect, when I allow myself some objectivity, that the true value of online relationships is somewhere in the middle, and that I may need to rethink my view of A.C. as the exception that proves anything... except that it is indeed possible to have worthwhile connections with others that start online, can be maintained online, and that need only that final physical connection to validate the rest, not just to make them possible.
If you've read this far, and you find yourself curious about this strange place where people really don't care what your real name is, but do care to know you, this general information website is a perfect place to start, particularly since it includes information about other incarnations of The Place besides Usenet, and will also help you find the FAQs (called All Abouts) and provide you with some historical background and a few words from our Creator himself.