Social computing appears to be a very general term that describes systems where humans interact with each other through a technological medium (the most obvious being a computer), but not directly through each other. Beer and Burrows provides the most relatable examples through their paper, including wikis, folksonomies, mashups, and of course social networking sites. The latter of these seems to be the subject of most attention and rightfully so. While going down the timeline figure presented by boyd and Ellison in their paper, I realized that I have used to some extent at least ten of the networking sites listed, four of which I have spent at least one active year on. Admittedly, I was a little disappointed that so much attention was given to these networking sites. Perhaps part of this disappointment was due to my first experiences with social computing, which did not concern any of these sites at all, nor did it concern online chat programs or MUDs. In fact, my experiences started with a small site dedicated to gamers, which have since then led me through quite the revolutionary and evolutionary world of social computing.
It was fourteen years ago when I first started searching information regarding a game I played. I was young and did not have money to buy a guide, nor did my parents really care to support the degradation of my already spectacular studies in school. A few minutes of searching Yahoo brought up an amateur-looking guide, hosted through the website GameFAQs (www.gamefaqs.com), which was created by a fellow gamer by the name of Jeff Veasey. I didn’t care to pay much attention about it back then (actually, I didn’t care to pay much attention to it up until now), but the origins of the website was a primitive approach to larger social intent. The premise of GameFAQs was to host an extensive collection of video game guides, or FAQs, but not ones written and distributed by professionals. Rather, it sought those FAQs written and donated by the average gamer. These guides weren’t formal and difficult to understand, rather, it was as if we were receiving advice from a friend. It was this unique aspect of the website that slowly gathered gamers into a comfortable area where they could rely on each other for help.
I don’t want this to be a history lesson on GameFAQs, but I certainly believe its origins can be classified by social computing. People did not have to chat with each other in real time or observe a profile to garner a mutual understanding or to communicate; what we understood was simple, that there were others like us and we were happy to help one another. Tenopir reports that online databases may have the potential to threaten our culture. To Andrew Keen, whom Tenopir reports on, perhaps websites like GameFAQs are a potential threat to our culture. Keen describes the internet as muddying up accurate resources with less reliable representations from the general public. I do hope then that Keen can also see the potential in resources shared by “amateurs”. The general public deserves to obtain more knowledge through sources other than those professionally admitted. Maybe Keen doesn’t pay much attention to video games in general. He should. For better or worse, video games and gamers are now a permanent and significant addition to our culture. As for academia purposes, sure, you have to keep the scientific from the generic, but anyone serious about going into academia should already understand this.
Onwards then. As Beer and Burrows states, cultural digitization moves fast and back then when the internet was more innocent, revolutionary ideas in the computing world either died instantly, or grew exponentially. And Veasey’s new idea for GameFAQs, called message boards, grew exponentially. These boards allowed us to create a topic post, and have others respond within it (nowadays, they call it forums). It felt akin to meeting a long lost brother when the boards were introduced. Suddenly, we had this option of sharing words with the people whom we’ve sought help from and have helped out. I could talk to hundreds of other gamers about the games we loved, and thank those who have contributed guides. It was definitely an exciting experience. It was still only the beginning of my affair with GameFAQs, though. It wasn’t until the social message board were introduced that I realized I was part of something more significant.
The social message boards were a set of new boards that did not necessarily relate to gaming, rather, it was a place for gamers to discuss other topics. Among the most popular ones were “Current Events”, “Random Insanity”, and “Life, the Universe, and Everything”. I took home in Random Insanity beceause the established community within that board was inviting and as one can guess from the name, you could talk about almost anything. There were, of course, some rules and regulations to the type of topics and language allowed, but at our age, we weren’t exactly talking about intercourse yet. How fast that innocence ended. Our little community of 12-14 year olds quickly hit that age where we needed to discuss more than just games and TV shows. We had to discuss sex, drugs, and school. Our only option was to move onto a more mature board. That board was, and is “Life, the Universe, and Everything”, or more affectionately known as LUE . It was actually Dibbell’s article on the LambdaMOO incident that incited all the memories I had within LUE and thus urged me to share my online social life that is GameFAQs. More specifically, it was Dr. Bungle that reminded me of all the evil I had witnessed within that particular message board. As much as it was a place for me to grow, it was also a place where I grew cynical of the world. This might seem pretty heavy for some seemingly random message board on the internet, but I assure you it had a heavy impact on me growing up in the digital age.
LUE was definitely something else. It was a brewing pot for teenagers that could hide behind online personas and talk about absolutely everything in life. From there grew friends, enemies, and topics about genitalia. Those who couldn’t handle the frankness of such a board stayed back in Random Insanity and the gaming boards. This isolation from less “cooler” boards gave the LUE community an elitist view. This was the internet equivalent of a clique, and it was, interestingly enough, developing on a site dedicated to game guides. And at my age, being part of such an online culture phenomena felt surprisingly good. I did not personally know anyone, but regardless, I belonged there and we were a family. Good things tend to come to an end, though, and LUE quickly spiraled into something nasty. We were a rebellious and troublesome community, and participated in planned events such as a prank calls, invading and flooding other newly developing forums on the web, and, perhaps most serious to creator Veasey, the invasion of us “LUEsers” to other boards within his own website. He had inadvertently created a community which he cared for and shunned. Many times he threatened to close LUE if we kept this behavior up, but the bluff was called every time. The most shameful event LUE participated in was the final straw for Veasey. It was the invasion of a LiveJournal (a networking site), which belonged to the parents of a girl who had taken her own life. This particular LiveJournal asked for support from the girl’s friends and family. They received that, and more. They received the hurtful taunting of over a hundred unidentified personas, which was eventually traced back to GameFAQs, to a particular board which it hosted. Needless to say, Veasey, as the creator and face of GameFAQs, was ashamed and infuriated. He did not shut down LUE, but he prevented new members from accessing the board, and enforced a new set of posting regulations just for it. Although I am glad to say I wasn’t a part of the LiveJournal event, it definitely lead me to think twice about the type of people I was interacting with. That such online socialization could bring such hurtful consequences was terrifying. Although Dr. Bungle’s explicit incidents played off of harm within a virtual community with virtual personas, the harm LUE brought upon those parents of the LiveJournal was intent from real people.
Perhaps what I’m trying to come across with this essay of a blog post is that social computing can take many forms. A simple FAQ sharing site turned into one of the most prominent online cultures that I was a part of. Although the LUE message board on GameFAQs has died down since being fenced off, that did not stop one of the original members to create a spinoff website of the board. I may or may not be part of that new website, but I can say that I still go to GameFAQs today for help on some of the online games I play. These online games, though, are almost an entirely different subject in the extensive realm of social computing. Maybe another blog post some day.