Initiation: Ethos and Interaction Across the Virtual Landscape of the Xenaverse



In the story of my own entry into the Xenaverse, I describe my growing awareness of the online culture from initial contact with the official Web Site to my learning about the various forms of interactivity through which the Xenaverse becomes a dynamic entity, populated with distinctive characters, heated analytical discussions, self-mocking parodies, and an enormous body of fan-written, non-commercial fiction, from vignettes to full-length novels. Here and on the path of Xena's Breastplate, I explore the various sectors and social groups of the Xenaverse in more depth, presenting further data gathered from April to November 1997. Through the collection of public domain texts and other media and the limited use of the ethnographic tools of participant-observation and informant interviews, both online and some face-to-face, I have pieced together a picture of a unique culture constructing itself through electronic communication, interfaces, metaphors, creative productivity, and dialogic interactivity.


Speed and Ease of Interaction

If Michael Halloran's, Laura Gurak's, and Kevin Hunt's application of group ethos as "habitus," as a kind of collective character, is correct, we should be able to discern variations in ethos from group to group within the Xenaverse culture, especially as various social groups and their collective histories are located in different discussion groups in different places and times. These social forces will become the focus of my analysis nodes. For now, I will delineate how levels of interactivity influence some aspects of the collective character and habitus--ethos-- that certain types of groups Xenites are exposed to when they become part of the Xenaverse culture.



One way to think about how technology influences (but does not determine) the character of discussions and by extension, online cultures, is to frame the range of communications as a continuum directly affected by speed and ease of interaction (see linked diagram). For instance, I would argue that synchronous chat rooms can beat out face-to-face conversations for speed and ease of interaction, particularly multithreaded interaction. While face-to-face interactions don't have to deal with the mediation of technology, in chat discussions more people can talk at once without interrupting each other, and sometimes the pace can be exhausting. The only thing faster would be internal dialogues, or thought. Still, with adept chatterers who are fast typists capable of participating in multiple threads at the same time, fingers can transmit thoughts into the keyboard on impulse, and the return key is sometimes struck before the chatter's conscious mind stops to reflect on what was just typed. I have eight years of chat experience, and I've found that even away from the keyboard after a particularly intense session, when I am thinking hard my fingers twitch. I've been in chats where I have to watch my words scroll up the screen just to see what I typed. The only face-to-face situations I have encountered which approximate the level of interactive, multi-threaded, synchronous discussions of electronic chats were the gatherings I grew up with on my mother's side of the family.



So-called asynchronous electronic discussions allow for longer development of posts before interaction is sought, and here the range is delimited by time. Places one must "visit" to participate in online discussions have greater immediacy and ease of entry than e-mail-based listserv discussion groups, where the missives arrive in the user's e-mail mailbox. As we will see, this affects the overall ethos of the various groups. Usenet discussions can feel more chat-like because the threads are dynamically updated before one's eyes. Web-based discussion boards can take a little longer. While e-mail travels very quickly, entry into e-mail discussion groups takes a greater commitment of personal time, not to mention the small effort to subscribe. Sometimes posts to these groups are longer, more thoughtfully considered, and less prone to flame wars (although not immune!) as we shall see. Also, for very large listserv e-mail-based discussions, some users elect to receive posts in "digest" form, with all of each day's traffic collected into one or more very large files and sent out to digest subscribers. This means that some participants are on "digest-delay," and get their daily updates late in the evening. (In the Xenaverse this delay can sometimes be frustrating when videotape alerts are posted, announcing that one of the stars will be on "Entertainment Tonight," "TV Bloopers," or some talk show, and the digester gets the notice too late to tape the appearance.) These asynchronous discussions and the private e-mail cross-talk they generate still move at a faster speed of interaction than postal mail, or "snail mail." Still, they are all part of this ongoing continuum of communications affected by speed and ease of interaction.


Web pages can accomplish both "One-to-One" (interpersonal) or "One-to-Many" (mass media) communication, or so it seems. Some have called the interactive features of the Internet "Many-to-Many" to distinguish them from the mass media "broadcast" model (Morris and Ogan). Although I can see "Many-to-Many" interactivity occurring, I still find it a difficult concept to grasp. When I look closely at any given instance of interactivity, I don't "see" the "Many," because in the act of looking, my focus is on the "One," either initiating or responding to the conversation. When I think of "Many" communicating, I tend to think of a Greek chorus, or that scene from Monty Python's Life of Brian where the crowd shouts in unison, "Yes, we are all individuals." Perhaps I am being too simplistic. Bakhtin understands the "Many" as the heteroglossic carnival, the babble in the streets, the penny seats, away from the master narratives and monologic rhetoric, to the place where meanings are multiple and cultural polysemy carries the day. But we can only look at the "Many" from a distance. Look closer, and we see the "One."



>My emphasis, then, is on points of interactivity, both as points of entry with a single source and as interactivity itself blurs the distinctions between sources. Web pages sit on a dividing line between interactive discussions, "One-to-One" or "Many-to-Many" at various degrees of synchrony or asynchrony, and mass media broadcasting, "One-to-Many." Web sites represent points of entry into slower-paced, less interactive discussions, yet web sites have the potential to reach a broad audience as well. However, web sites don't deliver their content in long sustained bursts and then go looking for feedback (like for an hour-long television program or a single television season). Web sites can have numerous points of entry for interaction, even as they potentially may reach a broader audience.


Before I attempt to place mass media, or "One-to-Many" communication in this continuum, I believe it helps to consider the speed and ease of interaction in the original "One-to-Many" format of the classic orator in a face-to-face setting, and in some cases, "Many-to-One" as the audience reacts and interacts. As we will see, fandom cultures, particularly Internet fandom cultures, contribute in an interesting way to the rebirth of this format in an attempt to bridge the interactivity distance and communication barrier created by television, film, radio, and even print. In short, much mainstream mass media creates an unbreachable gulf between performers (as well as the people who support the performance) and the audience. Fans cannot penetrate the glass of the television screen to interact with performers. Fans can write postal mail letters, and now also e-mail fan letters, as well as get e-mail letters from the performers in the discussion groups, or if lucky, chat with a star or support person in a chat room. But even that is not enough, so fandom culture has created a most interesting sort of "event," the Convention, or "Con," as a way to interact with the performers in the old fashioned "immediate" way, on stage, and sometimes "One-to-One" in the autograph line. The most curious aspect of the celebrity Con appearance is the lack of a "show" in the usual sense. A performance is certainly taking place, and tickets are sold, but for the same price as a Con ticket (or less!) one can see an entire rock concert, or a professional sporting event, or even a theatrical stage performance. Instead, Con-goers pay the same amount of money just to see a television performer in person on a stage, without the mediation and unbridgeable barrier of the television screen. Some even travel to such events from across the country or around the world. Fans certainly feel they get their money's worth from the celebrity's stage appearance for an hour-long interactive question and answer session, so the value exchange must be the equivalent of a rock concert or basketball game to the fans who attend such events, and I think that in itself is the greatest testament to the oppressiveness of the barrier the television screen erects between performer and audience.


At a typical Con, there still exists a barrier to the ease and speed of interaction with the performer. That barrier is the stage itself, and the etiquette (and Con rules) demand that people stay in their seats (although a steady stream of fans are allowed a short trip up the aisle for two to three pictures of the star). The audience participates en masse, and sometimes through the yelled comment which becomes part of the "show." The barrier is formally bridged with the microphone at the side of the stage, where fans line up to ask their questions or to gush embarrassingly about how much they love the star. There is a hierarchy in the seating, with front section reserved seats going for $60 to $70, and General Admission seats going for $20. The people in the expensive seats are not only paying for their view, they are also paying for a guaranteed spot in the autograph line at the end of the "show." This is the second way the barrier of the stage is bridged for "One-to-One" interactions. Many fans have commented that they really weren't paying for the autograph as much as the "One-to-One" contact that went with it.


Which leads us to consider the power of the mass media itself, particularly electronically-broadcast media, the media that creates Ong's "secondary orality." Usually the effectiveness, the power, and the efficiency in reaching an audience are the attributes of mass media most often cited, although mass media studies usually include some reference to the difficulty in receiving feedback as an essential characteristic of the medium. That media outlets have to go to such great lengths to get feedback is a strong indication of the barrier between content provider and audience. Letters to the editor, radio program call-in shows, Nielson and Arbitron ratings, focus groups, marketing demographic surveys, and public opinion polls all demonstrate the great lengths that must be gone to just to cross a barrier that in other forms of communication need not, do not, or cannot exist. On our scale gauging forms of communication by ease and speed of interaction, mass media represents the most closed off, one-way communication on the spectrum. I also place in this group, however, the highly publicized celebrity "chats" set up by various commercial providers. While these interactions take place in chat space and allow participants to chat with others "around" them, the moderated format of the chat-- taking questions from the audience, selecting and editing them, and then posing them to the celebrity-- makes these "events" even less immediate than radio program call-in shows.




Now let's return to the Web landscape because its visual metaphor gives a sense of place, a locus, for the other conversations that swirl around it. The Xenaverse could exist without the collaboratively-authored graphical emblems of its presence; it could even exist without the Internet altogether, as the Star Trek fan communities did before it. But with these sites in cyberspace, suggestive visual metaphors take hold, interface metaphors that become fiction archetypes that in turn become models for living in the walking-around-world beyond the Xenaverse. Elsewhere in this dissertation I analyze why this happened. Here I simply want to start to show how it happened.


To begin, let's turn to look in detail at the very prominent official MCA/Universal Xena Site, a site address published at the end of every single episode of "X:WP" as the credits roll. It must take a high number of hits for that reason alone, although the number is not published. Tens of thousands of people have registered to post to the Xena NetForum, yet that number does not really reflect the number of active return participants, since it takes nothing but the filling out of a form for a casual user to sign up, or to sign up multiple times. A better indication of the traffic that the official site gets is its impossibly slow load, even on ethernet connections. Even making allowances for traffic, I am hard-pressed to explain how a commercial web site can be so badly designed by professional marketing and web design people that it repeatedly freezes up some people's computers.


The first time I got the site to load all the way, it had an automatic sound file of the Xena theme music playing, but it kept skipping and breaking up. The site had a complex photographic background screen. I was also amazed at the lack of content at the site, a long wait for very little information. The most substantial link on the page was to the Universal-sponsored, Web-based Xena bulletin board, "NetForum" (or "NutForum," as some people on the listservs call it). Other links went to merchandise offers and a Macromedia Director, arcade-style Xena Adventure Game. A broadcast schedule and production credits listing filled out the page. On my initial visit, I didn't even find the "e-mail pouches" between "archaeologists" who claimed to have found the "Xena Scrolls." The site seemed little more than a signpost, a billboard for the show. I returned to this site again several times during my research period, to make sure I was being fair and not just letting my resentment over the slow load color my opinion of the site. On later visits I noticed the sound no longer played on my machine, but the design of the site and the single layer of content links remained essentially the same. "The Xena Scrolls" were one attempt to add to the content, by providing fictional "back story" in the form of archeological notes. Some fans have claimed to find clues to upcoming episodes buried in the scrolls, and similar attempts to flesh out stories are found at other TV web sites, at soap opera sites, for instance, and in a simulated high school yearbook at "Dawson's Creek." However "The Xena Scrolls" were taken down by Universal, and word on the Net says it happened because new management at Universal New Media were planning to find a way to sell the content, rather than just to give it away. That marketing plan was eventually scrapped, and so "The Xena Scrolls" have just disappeared. On later visits, I did notice a profile-style interview with the acclaimed composer of Xena and Hercules music, Joe LoDuca. More content like this could help to improve the site.






I suppose that, as a commercial site, Universal really could not offer some of the value-added content or resource links to non-commercial sites which do carry such content that Xenites like to collect: photographs, sound files, video clips, etc., since to promote such trading would encourage the violations of its copyrighted material. No, to make the official Xena site more like the non-commercial Xena sites, in other words to match the rhetorical ethos of the marketing vehicle to the prevailing ethos of the online Xenaverse, would mean abandoning the basic tenets of mass media marketing for a different sort of marketing for the Internet, the rules of which are in the process of being written or discovered. Mass media marketing is designed for a primarily passive, captive audience where billboards and slogans rule and the primary content (programming) is delivered through the television. To deliver significant interactive content through a web site would only diminish and dilute the value-added to the original TV programming content through its relative scarcity, or so the reasoning presumably goes. Also, in order for secondary sale items, action figures, trading cards, comic books, to retain their value, it just wouldn't do for Universal to be giving things away for free on its web site, even if all the best web sites in the non-commercial Xenaverse are doing it. The unsuccessful idea of trying to charge for in-depth, interactive "back story" content shows how poorly conventional marketing wisdom understands the Internet. The enormous non-commercial fan fiction library on the Web distributes depth-oriented story expansion for free, and vastly overshadows anything Universal Studios could provide. Universal "back story" material may have the "official" connection, but the current ethos of the Xenaverse demonstrates (and my analysis will show) how minimally bankable that "official" connection really is.


The Xena NetForum was another disappointment, another impossibly slow load. While the NetForum site remains popular and an early port of entry into the Xenaverse despite its reputation for flame wars and trolls, it requires a great deal of patience in return for low level interactivity. I characterize the interactivity level as low (even though it is a bulletin board) because of two factors. One is the time required to navigate through threads with the interface. One link connects to a particular threaded topic. Then the user has to take another link to actually see the latest post on that topic. Then she or he has to hop back to an intermediary link just to change topics. It is a frustratingly slow process.


The second problem is social, although it may be influenced by the clunky interface as well. NetForum suffers from a less committed, "touristy" ethos, in much the same way as Usenet discussions such as and alt.binaries.xena-subtext have become known for a "touristy" ethos. There are many postings on NetForum, initiating screenful after screenful of new topics. However, people seldom respond to posts directly, or if they do find an especially enticing topic, rarely does a thread last longer than six responses. The reason is that older topics are continually bumped to the bottom of the screen as new topics are posted. The list of topics itself is a slow scroll. And for the somewhat younger audience on NetForum, it is easier to get attention by posting a new topic than to respond to some old topic at the bottom of the screen. As a result, there is a lot of talk on NetForum, but not a lot of real dialogue or conversation. Many Xenites who have migrated through Usenet and onto the listservs express disappointment with the quality of conversations on NetForum, although teenagers seem to like it. This is in marked contrast to "oral" histories of the Xenaverse such as those compiled by Diane Silver, which show what an influential role NetForum played in the early formation of the Xenaverse.




One reason some Xenites continue to check in on NetForum from time to time, usually from the workplace on faster ethernet connections, is that it has been mentioned by the show's actors in interviews and at several face-to-face Xena Conventions as one place they like to lurk invisibly to get immediate feedback following any given show. That knowledge galvanizes the conversation, but does little to quell the flamefests that NetForum is known for. The relative ease of access also leaves NetForum open to wandering trolls, particularly teenagers or young adults. A number of Xenites in other groups have commented on the younger ethos in the NetForum crowd. One of my 18-year-old informants, an active and respected participant on the e-mail-based discussion group "Xenaverse listserv," told me she goes to NetForum specifically to stir things up, to set people off, maintaining a different persona on NetForum for that purpose.


For those who crave any kind of contact with the actors, a participant on NetForum can always hope that if he puts up something tantalizing or inflammatory in the subject line, he might catch the attention of one of the stars. The effect on the group ethos of the site is that people posture, flame, act out for the benefit of Xenastaff (known ubiquitously online as The Powers That Be, or TPTB for short), yet don't really listen to what anyone else is saying. NetForum functions more as a sounding board than anything else. One Xenite even observed that more young men are drawn to the contentious atmosphere of NetForum (and by extension, to the ethos of Usenet as well), while women, particularly aged 30 and older, and lesbians, migrate to the more sheltered e-mail-based listservs, moderated lists, or private/special interest groups. This woman, requesting anonymity for fear of inflammatory retaliation, believes the presence of these younger, less mature men keeps the topic of the lesbian subtext between Xena and Gabrielle more vulnerable to explicitly homophobic flames.




Another, more recent addition to the official site is the Real Hollywood Chat, a web-based suite of chat rooms. While it is a general chat service for all television programs under the umbrella of MCA/Universal, there is always a Xena room listed, and some of the non-commercial Xena sites have begun to link to it as well. This site was available with a slightly different interface during the original period of my study. I attended a celebrity chat there and left cursing "ichat," java, and html-based chat interfaces, and more particularly commercial providers (People Magazine/Pathfinder and UltimateTV also use the "ichat" interface). These sites clutter up the interface with six to eight frames (most endlessly cycling banner advertisements), to the point that users can't type because of screen lag. The chat window doesn't refresh as often as the advertising windows do, defeating the entire purpose for the chat: speed and interaction.



I spend this time detailing specifics of the MCA/Universal Xena Site in order to show the marked contrast between most of the commercial, professionally-produced entries into the Xenaverse market and the non-commercial, fan-created sites which are also taking very high traffic. These unofficial sites are creating a web audience that professional marketers ought to covet, since these are people who strongly identify with the show and are repeat visitors to many other web sites in the Xenaverse. I collected many instances of the non-commercial Xenaverse vastly overshadowing, outdesigning, and out-producing the commercial Xenaverse.


America Online (AOL) is another common commercial entry point for many Xenaverse initiates ( and are both common but not predominant suffixes on e-mail addresses in the Xenaverse). The Powers That Be (TPTB) are known to frequent these spaces as well. In the Xenaverse at least, AOL is known more for its simple and powerful chat interface and the social groups it has spawned, rather than for its bulletin boards. Again, one of the most galvanizing factors for the popularity of the AOL public and semi-public Xena Chat Rooms is that one of the lead writers and producers for the show is known to occasionally drop in, going by the handle of "Tyldus." I have a transcript of one such chat session with Tyldus (Steven Sears) following the airing of "The Bitter Suite," an ambitious and risky one-hour musical version of "Xena." While this sort of interaction does not happen very often since the Xenaverse has grown so large, it does lend an air of specialness to the AOL chats.




The AOL interface makes chatting easy for new users, but after a while many become disenchanted with busy signals. Discussion threads have run through various groups complaining about "A-Oh-Hell." AOL, Real Hollywood, UltimateTV, and People Magazine/Pathfinder, all commercial chat providers, also host celebrity "chats," a number of which I have attended and recorded with either Lucy Lawless or Renee O'Connor. I put the word "chat" in quotations because while there can be cross-talk in virtual "rows" of the "auditorium" (AOL), these "chats" are little more than moderated live interviews with the audience providing questions. The commercial web-based chat interfaces all have the difficulties I described above, with the People/Pathfinder site the most poorly designed, with nine frames and an interface that cycled so slowly I could not type, even an hour after the celebrity chat with Renee O'Connor was over (149 participated in the audience). I had to type one letter, wait several seconds, then type the next letter, and so on. On an UltimateTV Chat with Lucy Lawless, a perky moderator told us at the start, "Alright everyone, hit 'Reload,'" and when we did, the entire system crashed for an hour and a half (after which, the chat limped on, with fewer, albeit die-hard, participants). One might think that the commercial providers would be more concerned with interactive interface design and functionality than filling windows with constantly cycling billboard advertisements. On the other hand, perhaps the sheer numbers of Internet Xena fans caught them completely unprepared and overwhelmed the system. The force of the marginal, Internet-based audience that has made "X:WP" a hit appears to have caught a lot of people by surprise, not the least of which are the mainstream marketers.





In all, Xenite initiates, who usually hit the commercial services first, are most likely to find poorly constructed interfaces, numerous intrusive advertisements, and a younger, more "touristy" ethos. Luckily, these problems do not necessarily persist in the non-commercial Xenaverse. Web sites and social forces are present to help steer initiates to the more rewarding online experiences, where the virtual culture is more developed at a sophisticated level and where something approximating community has a chance to grow. AOL's Xena Chat Rooms have a good number of "regulars" who give it a cozy, friendly feel for people willing to subscribe to AOL. Many do find community there.


While the non-commercial Usenet discussions remain plagued by trolls, Internet Relay Chat (IRC) Xena discussions are friendly, lively. They appear to be somewhat protected from casual tourists and trolls by the difficult-to-use IRC client/interface. IRC in general has a reputation for sex talk and contentiousness, but that has not carried over into the IRC Xena chats. In particular, #xenitepub, hosted by the erudite and outgoing "Lord Nelson," at times can simulate the feeling of a stimulating salon, IRC-style. Lord Nelson is also a regular presence in AOL Xena chats, and I have "caught" him with AOL and IRC chat windows open simultaneously, participating in two different chat interfaces at the same time. AOL chats can be particularly challenging even for adept multi-taskers because of a side feature called "Instant Messaging," or "IMing." Instant Messages open private chat windows for side conversations while other chat windows remain open. The night I was speaking with Lord Nelson in an "IM" window he was also active in those other windows. Another evening in #xenitepub on IRC with Lord Nelson and friends, there were present three people with graduate degrees, one very bright twelve-year-old from the UK, and several fan fiction authors. IRC seems to reflect a more male atmosphere of people who are computer professionals, yet the IRC #xenitepub chats tend to be reflective and considerate of other participants. (For instance, participants seem generally careful not to reveal details or "spoilers" of shows that other participants have not yet seen in their syndication market or time zone.) Some former "pubbers" have told me that romantic or sexual cruising does take place on #xenitepub, but that it does so in private messages that are invisible to the general conversational flow. While other discussion spaces in the Xenaverse tend to support a predominantly female and lesbian-friendly atmosphere, I have met a disproportionately large number of women also who are computer or technical professionals, reflecting the demographics of the Internet at large.




While many Hardcore Nutballs find a home in a favorite discussion group, they still rely on the Web for most of their activities in a dynamic interdependency between the two. Certain signposts and stomping grounds are referred to quite commonly in the discussion groups. As I've already mentioned, NetForum and AOL Chat Rooms are two often mentioned commercial fixtures. Below I describe some of the most popular non-commercial sites.


Two of the most common entry portals into the non-commercial Xenaverse Web are Whoosh! and Tom Simpson's Xena Page. Tom's site visitor count is well over one million, and I am told he takes close to 8,000 "visitors" a day. Editor Kym Taborn reported to me that Whoosh! gets approximately 60,000 hits a month (files downloaded site wide), and approximately 2,000 "visitors" a day. Several times Tom has had to change Internet Service Providers (ISPs) because the carriers couldn't handle his traffic. One ISP he was using had advertised unlimited disk space and unlimited hits for one low fee, never anticipating that an individual site would actually get that much traffic. Once Tom's site became so popular, the ISP ( chose to change the terms of service for Tom's Xena Page. The ISP, Simplenet, is currently the provider of choice in the Xenaverse, although a movement is afoot to boycott Simplenet for its treatment of Tom's Site, illustrating the loyalty fans feel to the site. When he moved to a second provider which advertised similar terms of service, he found out almost immediately that the site provider had also lied in its promotional materials. At the time of this writing, Tom's virtual domain name at is still looking for a permanent home.


Whoosh! is a most interesting and comprehensive independently run online fanzine and resource center in the Xenaverse. Officially known as the publication journal for the International Association of Xena Scholars (IAXS), Whoosh! takes its name from the campy and overdone sound effects that have become the television show's trademark just as "Bap!" and "Pow" in cartoon boxes were for the 1960s television series "Batman." Every time Xena or Gabrielle move their heads suddenly or swing their arms, it is accompanied by a "whooshing" sound, one of many silly sound effects used, particularly in fight scenes. Whoosh! is edited by Kym Masera Taborn and a volunteer editorial staff. Staff writers for Whoosh! have been lucky enough to get unprecedented access to the production staff of "X:WP" for frequent exclusive interviews, usually conducted by Bret Rudnick, who is a physicist in real life (IRL). Rudnick also had the opportunity to travel to New Zealand to be an extra in a scene (which later got cut). Several of the pictures he took of the Xena sets became incorporated into the three dimensional design of a graphical chat space, the Xena Palace, cosponsored by Whoosh!, Tom's Xena Page, and SRT Enterprises and designed by Tom Simpson and Betsy Book, the webmaster for Whoosh!



Other Whoosh! articles take a scholarly or pseudo-scholarly tone, exploring archetypal characters, themes (such as an all-Amazon issue), or controversial episodes (such as "The Bitter Suite" issue). Whoosh! also hosts one of the most detailed episode and production credit guides in the Xenaverse, complete with multiple episode reviews or "spoilers," as they are called. There is also a comprehensive Xena FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) section which includes some links to the Xenaverse. While not on any Web Rings, Whoosh! has initiated a Xena Banner Exchange program which also features links to other sites in the Xenaverse. "Whoosh!" has gained a reputation as one of the highest quality independent fanzines beyond the Xenaverse as well, with write-ups in the mainstream media and links on a number of prominent "cool site" general interest hot-lists.


In the Xena Media Review, Tom Simpson said "[he] would never have moved half way across the country if it hadn't been for [his] involvement in Xenadom."

"The only reason I'm currently living in Brooklyn is because of watching the show Xena and interacting with people online," Tom says. "If I hadn't e-mailed Betsy Book a while ago and offered to do buttons for WHOOSH, I'd still be living in Salt Lake City, and never would have tried to start a new life out here," he told the interviewer for the XMR.




In addition to moving to New York, Tom's life was further affected by his involvement with the Xenaverse, attending Xena Conventions and Xenafests and publishing full reports and pictures on his site, as well as gaining further notoriety as Xenaverse webmaster supreme. I was a member of several online listserv discussion groups when the announcement of his engagement to Betsy Book, webmaster for Whoosh!, came over the cyberwaves along with a slew of congratulations. But ethos for this couple can be gauged in a less conventional way as well. At the face-to-face New York City Hercules and Xena Convention, during a question and answer session with the show's star, Lucy Lawless, Tom and Betsy came up to the microphone and told her how they had met and gotten engaged through the Xenaverse. The happy story earned them both hugs and pictures with the star, not to mention the collective envy of the assembled crowd of 700 to 1,000 people.



Tom's page is very successful because it meets the needs of two significantly different audiences at the same time-- the Web tourists, or first time hits, and the Hardcore Nutball Xenites, or repeat hits. In that respect it fills a need that was left unaddressed by the Universal Studios site. One of those needs is to court "newbies," or newcomers to the Xenaverse spaces. Tom's site is friendly, accessible, well-organized, and a terrific jumping-off point to a wide range of Xenaverse webs. It gives one an excellent introduction to the depth and breadth of the Xenaverse.


But the elusive "repeat hit" is the coin of the realm for any Web designer. What does it take to keep people coming back, to make them "need" your site so much it isn't just on their bookmark list, it is a well-worn path? Beneath the friendly introductions and links to other sites remain some of the most substantial and dynamically-updated content in the Xenaverse. Tom serves the Xenaverse Collectors with a huge picture archive (screen captures, publicity and convention shots, and fan artwork), sound archive, and video clip file. He has a simple little Shockwave game upline called "Shoot Joxer," to help fans take out their frustration on a character who has generated a great deal of controversy and a number of flame wars in the Xenaverse. The teaser that led into the game said "Shoot Joxer. You know you want to." The player could choose bullet or cannon sound effects. The most recent addition to the site is a multiple-room graphical chat environment using Palace software and graphics generated from actual photographs from the Xena sets in New Zealand. Tom's site also has one of the largest and most respected fan fiction sites in the Xenaverse, including the prestigious monthly fan fiction award series, the "Editor's Choice" awards, also known as the "Eddy's." Taking more than a gigabyte of memory space, Tom's site is one-stop shopping.



My only difficulty with Tom's interface is on his index for fan fiction. Stories are set up alphabetically by author, with no way to distinguish between "general" fan fiction and "alternative" fan fiction. There are also no blurbs or synopses connected to the index, telling the reader a bit about the story before she dives in. For this reason alone, Tom's site is primarily a story archive and award site. This is a problem with other well known fan fiction archives as well, such as Mary Ds "Bard's Corner" or "Jane's Alternative Fan Fiction." While the archives at these sites are substantial, the size of the sites makes the interface crucial, and the interface design can be unwieldy and lacking in summary information and cross-links. When readers are picking their nightly fan fiction story (as many have told me they do), they usually go to a comprehensive and cross-listed index site such as the one initiated and made famous as the mother of all fan fiction indexes, "xenos Fan Fiction Index" (which has since moved and changed into xenabat and bardeye's "Xenaverse Codex," the designated keeper of xenos's code when she retired from the Xenaverse). Or else they go to a fan fiction review or "What's New" site, such as "Lunacy's Fan Fiction Reviews" or Shadowfen's "What's New."


Where else does a Xenaverse initiate go? That depends on what she or he is most drawn toward. One can branch in many different directions. One can go to huge overview links listings, such as Logomancy's Xena Site or Xena Online Resources, two of the most complete and helpful sites. Xena Online Resources is maintained by Michael Martinez and his team of webmasters. This site also keeps the best count of total sites in the Xenaverse, although assuring the accuracy of such a count is an impossible task.


An initiate, ready to move beyond browsing and at least lurk in some discussion has a path of least resistance: the web-based bulletin boards and chats. Unfortunately these non-commercial web boards and chats are not natural gathering places, not a "third place;" thus they are often empty. This is one primary advantage which NetForum and Real Hollywood have over non-commercial offerings, the prominence of the Universal name "Xenite Message Board" and chat room (now defunct), which was empty every time I went there. Sometimes certain appointments are set for particular subjects like fan fiction. Web discussion boards do get some traffic, but interest is difficult to sustain in great numbers on these sites. As I mentioned above, Tom's Site and "Whoosh!" co-launched a graphical chat site using "Palace" software ( which is seeing some traffic in the summer of 1998.




An initiate can find out how to reach other non-commercial Web-based and Usenet bulletin boards at the large resource web sites such as Xena Online Resources. Locations of Internet Relay Chat rooms, America Online chat rooms (and special times when a Xenastaff member might drop in), and Web-based chat rooms are listed. Subscription information is also posted about the various e-mail-based listserv discussion groups such as the "Xenaverse Listserv," "Chakram," "Flawless," and "Gabchat" as well. These types of listings go a long way toward bringing a surfer into contact with the ongoing conversations that make up the heart of the Xenaverse culture-- Hardcore Nutballs talking with other Hardcore Nutballs. And because of the personal voice, frequent updates and repeat traffic to many of the most popular and interactive Web sites, there is also a sense of dialogue between the more stable messages of the Web sites themselves, especially in the presence of a number of different Web rings.




A Web Ring is a script that links sites in a chain, so the users can travel from Xena site to Xena site, forward or backward on the ring. They are organized around many different topics across the Internet at large. Web Rings attempt to facilitate interaction and a community in the sometimes one-way restrictions of the current Web culture and ethos. The problem is simple: how to get Web pages talking with each other? The solution is not so simple. Most Web conversation begins with casting words and pictures and other media out on the Net and seeing what response one might get: the billboard approach. Pages of links on related topics bring similar sites into proximity with each other for the convenience of the surfer, but don't necessarily facilitate conversations between sites. Most sites have a mail link prominently featured, and more and more personal, topical, and community sites are using free guestbook services as well. I do sometimes send a site owner e-mail, and I get angry if I can't find an e-mail link, just on principle.


Usually the user has the option of going forward or backward one link or five links on the Web Ring. I've surfed around several of the Web Rings in the Xenaverse and have been mostly disappointed. The sites the Rings take me to are usually very amateurly designed, with loud obnoxious backgrounds, garish type, gratuitous, long load-time animations, and very little content. I know I am being unfair because most of the non-commercial Web is like this and I think that is the source of its vitality. For every ten awful non-commercial homepages, there is a diamond in the rough, a marvelously clever, interesting site. And there are a number of rewarding Web sites in the Xenaverse that are NOT simply archives or overview lists of links. "DAx's Museum of Subtext" is one such example. The "History of the Xenaverse" is another. And the fanzine Whoosh! is in a class all by itself. Interestingly, few of these popular non-commercial sites in the Xenaverse display the various Web Ring logo-links. I don't know why that is. Perhaps these are just sites that went up some time before the Web Rings existed.



These are just few of the significant landmarks that make up the online spaces of the Xenaverse. I could not begin to give a comprehensive look at all of them, although in my analysis of Fandom Culture, Community, and Fan Fiction, I will examine the rhetoric of many of these sites in more depth. The icon of Xena's Breastplate will take you on to "Integration: Joining the Primary Activities of the Xenaverse." The icon of Gabrielle's Staff tells a story of my entry into the Xenaverse. Continuing on the path of Xena's Sword will lead into my analysis of this data in Xenaverse Fandom Culture. The Chakram will return you to the Navigational Map.


The Ballad of the Internet Nutball: The Xenaverse in Cyberspace

Copyright © 1998-2021 Christine Boese, All Rights Reserved
Unless otherwise noted, all photos, sounds, and video clips are the property
of MCA/Universal Studios, and appear here for fair educational use only.