: Code 2.0

Jakes Communities

Jakes Communities

If you had met Jake at a party in Ann Arbor (were Jake at a party in Ann Arbor), you would have forgotten him[10]. If you didnt forget him, you might have thought, heres another quiet, dweeby University of Michigan undergraduate, terrified of the world, or, at least, of the people in the world.

You wouldnt have figured Jake for an author indeed, quite a famous short-story author, at least within his circles. In fact, Jake is not just a famous author, he was also a character in his own stories. But who he was in his stories was quite different from who he was in real life if, that is, after reading his stories you still thought this distinction between real life and not real life made much sense.

Jake wrote stories about violence about sex as well, but mainly about violence. They seethed with hatred, especially of women. It wasnt enough to rape a woman, she had to be killed. And it wasnt enough that she was killed, she had to be killed in a particularly painful and tortured way. This is, however unfortunate, a genre of writing. Jake was a master of this genre.

In real space Jake had quite successfully hidden this propensity. He was one of a million boys: unremarkable, indistinguishable, harmless. Yet however inoffensive in real space, the harmfulness he penned in cyberspace was increasingly well known. His stories were published in USENET, in a group called alt.sex.stories.

USENET isnt itself a network, except in the sense that the personal ads of a national newspaper are part of a network. Strictly speaking, USENET is the product of a protocol a set of rules named the network news transfer protocol (NNTP) for exchanging messages intended for public viewing. These messages are organized into newsgroups, and the newsgroups are organized into subjects. Most of the subjects are quite technical, many are related to hobbies, and some are related to sex. Some messages newsgroups come with pictures or movies, but some, like Jakes, are simply stories.

There are thousands of newsgroups, each carrying hundreds of messages at any one time. Anyone with access to a USENET server can get access to the messages (or at least to the ones his administrator wants him to read), and anyone with access can post a message or respond to one already posted. Imagine a public bulletin board on which people post questions or comments. Anyone can read the board and add his or her own thoughts. Now imagine 15,000 boards, each with hundreds of threads (strings of arguments, each tied to the next). That, in any one place, is USENET. Now imagine these 15,000 boards, with hundreds of threads each, on millions of computers across the world. Post a message in one group, and it is added to that groups board everywhere. That, for the world, is USENET.

Jake, as I said, posted to a group called alt.sex.stories. Alt in that name refers to the hierarchy that the group sits within. Initially, there were seven primary hierarchies[11]. Alt was created in reaction to this initial seven: Groups are added to the seven through a formal voting process among participants in the groups. But groups are added to alt based solely on whether administrators choose to carry them, and, generally, administrators will carry them if they are popular, as long as their popularity is not controversial.

Among these groups that are carried only on demand, alt.sex.stories is quite popular. As with any writing space, if stories are good by the standards of the space if they are stories that users of the space demand they are followed and their authors become well known.

Jakes stuff was very valuable in just this sense. His stories, about kidnapping, torturing, raping, and killing women, were as graphic and repulsive as any such story could be which is why Jake was so famous among like-minded sorts. He was a supplier to these people, a constant and consistent fix. They needed these accounts of innocent women being violated, and Jake supplied them for free.

One night in Moscow, a sixteen-year-old girl read a story by Jake. She showed it to her father, who showed it in turn to Richard DuVal, a Michigan alum. DuVal was shocked at the story, and angry that it bore the tag umich.edu on the storys header. He called his alma mater and complained. They took the complaint seriously[12].

The university contacted the police; the police contacted Jake with handcuffs and a jail cell. A slew of doctors examined him. Some concluded that he was a threat. The local prosecutors agreed with these doctors, especially after his computer was seized and e-mails were discovered between Jake and a Canadian fan who was planning to re-enact in real space one of the stories Jake published in cyberspace. At least, thats what the e-mails said. No one could tell for certain what the two men really intended. Jake said it was all pure fiction, and indeed, there was no evidence to prove otherwise.

Nonetheless, federal charges were brought against Jake for the transmission of a threat. Jake said that his stories were only words, protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. A month and a half later, a court agreed. The charges were dropped[13], and Jake returned to the special kind of obscurity that had defined his life before.

I dont care so much just now about whether Jake Bakers words should have been protected by the Constitution. My concern is Jake Baker himself, a person normed into apparent harmlessness in real space, but set free in cyberspace to become the author of this violence. People said Jake was brave, but he wasnt brave in real space. He didnt express his hatred in classes, among friends, or in the school newspaper. He slithered away to cyberspace, and only there did his deviancy flourish.

He did this because of something about him and something about cyberspace. Jake was the sort who wanted to spread stories of violence, at least if he could do so without public account. Cyberspace gave Jake this power. Jake was in effect an author and publisher in one. He wrote stories, and as quickly as he finished them he published them to some thirty million computers across the world within a few days. His potential audience was larger than twice that for the top fifteen best-selling novels combined, and though he made nothing from his work, the demand for it was high. Jake had discovered a way to mainline his depravity into the veins of a public for whom this stuff was otherwise quite difficult to find. (Even Hustler wouldnt publish the likes of this.)

Of course, there were other ways Jake could have published. He could have offered his work to Hustler, or worse. But no real-world publication would have given Jake a comparable audience. Jakes readership was potentially millions, stretching across country and continent, across culture and taste.

This reach was made possible by the power in the network: Anyone anywhere could publish to everyone everywhere. The network allowed publication without filtering, editing, or, perhaps most importantly, responsibility. One could write what one wanted, sign it or not, post it to machines across the world, and within hours the words would be everywhere. The network removed the most important constraint on speech in real space the separation of publisher from author. There is vanity publishing in real space, but only the rich can use it to reach a broad audience. For the rest of us, real space affords only the access that the publishers want to give us.

Thus cyberspace is different because of the reach it allows. But it is also different because of the relative anonymity it permits. Cyberspace permitted Jake to escape the constraints of real space. He didnt go to cyberspace when he wrote his stories, in the sense that he didnt leave Ann Arbor. But when he was in cyberspace, it allowed him to escape the norms of Ann Arbor. He was free of real-life constraints, of the norms and understandings that had successfully formed him into a member of a college community. Maybe he wasnt perfectly at home; maybe he wasnt the happiest. But the world of the University of Michigan had succeeded in steering him away from the life of a psychopath except when it gave him access to the Net. On the Net he was someone else.

As the Internet has grown, it has produced many more opportunities for Jake-like characters characters that do things in the virtual world that they would never do in the real world. One of the most popular MMOGs is a game called Grand Theft Auto. In this game, one practices committing crimes. And one of the most troubling uses of video chat is the practice of virtual-prostitution by children. As the New York Times recently reported, thousands of children spend hundreds of hours prostituting themselves online. Sitting in the privacy of their own bedroom, using the iSight camera their parents gave them for Christmas, a 13-year-old girl or boy enacts the sexual behavior demanded by the audience. The audience gets their fix of sexual perversion. The kid gets money, and whatever psychological baggage this behavior creates[14].

It is impossibly difficult to look across this range of Jake-like characters and not think that, at some point, the virtual has crossed over into something real. Or, at least, the virtual has real effects either on those who live it, or on those who live with them[15]. When Jake was prosecuted, many First Amendment defenders argued his words, however vivid, never crossed into reality. And no doubt, there is a difference between writing about rape and raping, just as there is a difference between an actor enacting rape and actually raping someone. But I take it that all concede a line is crossed somewhere as we move across this range of Jake-like characters. If a parent was untroubled by the virtual prostitution of her son in his bedroom, we would not understand that to be principled free speech activism, even if the only prostitution was the son describing in text how he was molested by those in the chat.

But my point is not to draw lines between the acceptable virtual dual-lives and the unacceptable. It is instead to remark that this space enables more of this duality. And though part of this duality is always only virtual, and sometimes only words, real-space regulators (whether parents or governments) will feel compelled to react. The Net enables lives that were previously impossible, or inconvenient, or uncommon. At least some of those virtual lives will have effects on non-virtual lives both the lives of the people living in the virtual space, and the lives of those around them.


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