A Personal Narrative: Growing up in the Swim of Native Hypertext



This dissertation is attempting to enact a nonlinear, hypertextual performance, breaking with traditional forms of academic dissertations. Other nodes in this sector explain the how and why of the hypertextual interface. Here I want to take some space and tell a story of the personal side of how I came to live in and understand hypermedia, how I stumbled onto the Xenaverse. Subsequent sections fold in narratives from the virtual landscape of the Xenaverse as well. This isn't just one story, a linear narrative, but rather a series of tangential yet interrelated vignettes woven together for cumulative effect. Think of this project more as an echo chamber, as themes are uttered, repeated, varied, and sometimes contradicted, all informing each other intertextually.


Any individual is more than a single, unified identity or role, but in this space I'd like to own up to my subjectivities, to who I am at this moment, what links I have to the world around me, hypertextual and otherwise, what I care about, believe in, hope for, what emotional and psychic baggage I bring into the Xenaverse with me. Any study is affected by the researcher's biases and social backgrounds. Here I attempt to situate myself in the social contexts that shape the questions asked and the answers sought. Here I betray my heart, establish my positionalities, my standpoints, the politics of my locations, my privileges and lack of privileges, the cultures I move around and through, and the cultures I avoid. Here my code-switching academic voice meets my other voices. Here academic dissertation meets real life.


On one hand this is a story about how community can be defined. Yet paradoxically this is also a story about living on the road, seemingly unconnected to community. In later nodes, it continues into how one sector of cyberspace, the Xenaverse, has opened possibilities for both community and transience within and beyond its boundaries and into "real life."


I was born in a very small town in rural Wisconsin, in dairy farming country. I grew up surrounded by dozens of cousins, great aunts and uncles, more relatives than I could count, German-Americans mostly. At a young age I was told children should be seen and not heard, but much of the time I was unseen and unheard, because I was fascinated by adult stories. I used to hide behind the sofa and listen to grown-up conversations and gossip. Even before I could understand what was being said, I became good at putting pieces together from a loose assemblage of clues. The habit had two direct effects on me: (1) it was my first introduction to nonlinear hypertextual navigation, and (2) I knew more about who was pregnant and who was having affairs in our town than most little kids. I understood both the up- and downsides of community: the feeling of belonging, of looking out for each other, as well as the backbiting and gossip, the mistreatment of people who were too "different." This mixed understanding of community was in my backbone, deeply ingrained for as long as I can remember.


The matriarchal structures on my mother's side accentuated a humorously nonlinear, fast-paced, highly tangential style of talk. My cousins and I learned to swim in this kind of conversation. Also prevalent on this side of my family was a tendency toward diminished hearing and mild dyslexia. That meant many of our family gatherings were loud and interruptive, and most of us developed the unconscious habit of making associative leaps by spinning out probable meanings for the missing word or sound. We were all contextualizers, for in context we found clues that helped us decipher the missing parts. Much of the time we seemed permanently befuddled when we couldn't make the connection, which led to blank looks and misunderstandings. People who had married into the family from other types of social backgrounds were often confused also, and uncles would leave the room in disgust, saying "You women are just ditzy." At a typical gathering around my grandma's dining room table, playing cards, dominoes, or Scrabble, this "ditziness" was a reason for teasing, which led to laughter, which led to more "ditziness," the point of the game forgotten. The process of playing the game, with the giggly side conversations, was more important than reaching the end point, and certainly was more important than winning. These uproarious gatherings are also the closest correlative in a face-to-face setting I have ever found to the multi-threaded rhythms of electronic chat rooms.


No doubt many families are socialized to sustain multiple conversation topics simultaneously, as well the linking of long tangents on seemingly unrelated topics that somehow loop back to associationally connect with another thread, from 5 minutes ago or 30 minutes ago. My background is not unique, but I have met people who feel discomfort and disorientation in what for me is a native style of conversation. As a child I even could feel the difference from my mother's to my father's sides of the family. People on my dad's side were highly linear and often silenced tangents with "I'm talking here!" Men were more dominant and authoritative on that side of my family, and at large card parties consisting of mostly relatives, the rule was to win at all costs. Certainly people's experiences range across a spectrum. It is notable that the labeling of nonlinear thinking as "ditzy" and associated with women brings a derogatory judgment against this style of thinking and conversation, as something outside of the dominant patriarchal culture.


I was immersed in this familial community environment until age 12. Then my parents moved us to a place as culturally different from our town as we could get: Alaska, which in the late 1970s was just heading into the pipeline boom.


At first I reacted badly to the move because so many familiar connections were taken away. I was young enough to adapt quickly, and as a teenager I enjoyed the freedom in being out from under the constant observation of the small town.


Alaska in the late 70s was an unusual place. The sparsely-populated state was like one big boom town with a rugged individualist ethos and few zoning laws. Strip malls went up overnight. Most of the people I met had just moved up from the lower 48 also, within the previous five to ten years. There were few old houses, but lots of new subdivisions and spec homes. Alaska didn't attract an ordinary sort of person, at least not in the lower 48 sense. Sometimes it seemed as if the state were full of Jack Nicholsons from that last scene in Five Easy Pieces, hitchhiking north on a semi, ditching his family, girlfriend, not even bothering to take his coat.


To say that the social structures in Alaska were loose would be an understatement. They were practically non-existent, and for many people that was the reason they moved to the state. Misfits, black sheep, social outcasts, ex-hippies, radical libertarians, and just plain cranks all seemed to find a home in Alaska. Divergent, extremist views were prominent, and polemic carried the day more often than not, from the local bar to the public hearing. Folks were highly interactive and critical of anyone who thought he or she was better than anyone else, from elected representatives to the local preachers. Petitions and referendums were popular, on issues from moving the state capitol out of Juneau to eliminating all taxes to legalizing marijuana. For several years zoning laws couldn't get passed because people demanded autonomous control over their land. Bumper stickers proclaimed "I don't give a damn how they do it Outside" (Outside is Alaskan slang for the lower 48). People seemed to feel that they had a clean slate, that they were reinventing social and political structures to include people like themselves, especially if their views were too divergent to be accepted Outside.


In short, coming of age in Alaska in the early 1980s was a good preparation for life in cyberspace, the boom town of the 1990s.


When I left Alaska to strike out on my own in the lower 48, I found that I also adapted easily to life on the road, whether driving six days straight down the Alaska Highway, or returning to visit the various places I had stopped to live for a time: Georgia, Arkansas, Wisconsin, New York. I had a truck with a camper shell on the back and sometimes lived out of it for whole summers.


Constant motion, the picaresque journey, a quest for redemption, these are also archetypes enacted by Xena and Gabrielle, both on the television program and in cyberspace. These themes strike a chord with many in the Xenaverse, and online they find a playground to act the themes out while still keeping a strong sense of connectedness on the journey through the people they meet. Thus they combine a need for community and place-ness with periodic motion in the slipstream of the Information Superhighway.


I came to think of Road as Place, and community as something I carried with me, in my backbone. This loosely-held but necessary connection to community was reinforced by an experience only a small percentage of the population can really understand: entering the gay and lesbian subculture and finding community in a group that was usually either dispersed and invisible or persecuted. My own experiences of bigotry usually came at the hands of that small town community ethos such as I had grown up with, stereotypically like "Mayberry RFD," with little tolerance for diversity.


Stephen Doheny-Farina makes a good case for locating "real" community in a tangible physical space, with physical co-presence. It seems to resonate strongly with his lived experience and definition of what a "real" community is, rather than the thin shadows of community in cyberspace, which he warns us against. While some have cited developments in cyberspace that link people in a synchronous "third place" between private and public, or between home and work, Doheny-Farina finds such claims to be overstated, putting too much faith in what he calls an "impoverished bond."

Third places are lived with all our senses. If I had to pick a physical analogy for a MOO, I would say that it most closely resembles an airport bar: it may have bartenders, it may serve drinks, it may even have a brass rail and a piano, but most connections among its clientele are fleeting, and its purpose is primarily to offer momentary gratification to transient individuals. (72)

As Doheny-Farina notes, this transience pervades cyberspace, a fact I don't dispute. Yet if people are forming bonds that are richer than an encounter at an airport bar, should that connection be discounted simply because they don't share physical co-presence?


Tharon Howard explores the many difficulties of defining communities when applied to what he calls "networked texts" (NT). In attempting to develop A Rhetoric of Electronic Communities, he notes the "spacial" emphasis of many communitarian definitions of community, and asserts that the "spatial" emphasis really cannot be applied to the somewhat unique circumstances in which networked interactions take place. He does not believe, however, that it should prevent us from asking if it is possible to call online groups and collectivities "communities" (115). Instead, Howard focuses on an interplay of binaries between "individualistic and constitutive approaches" to the subject in community, and role of determinism and resistance.


My own definition of community went beyond the limits of "place" long before there was a cyberspace, out of necessity. It had to or I would have found myself adrift in my travels. I couldn't afford to limit myself to communities of "place" because that would have meant doing without community altogether. The gay community replaced my hometown in my backbone in order to spare myself the rejection I feared would come when rumors about me got out in my hometown. My childhood memories of spider bikes, elm boulevards, and kindly neighbors will always be with me. And I agree with Doheny-Farina that physical co-presence is still very important at some point. Even in the Xenaverse there are regularly scheduled face-to-face gatherings, Xenafests and Xena Conventions. But if social circumstances make such meetings impossible, perhaps cyberspace has enough "placeness" in it to suffice. Some people argue that the gay community isn't a "real" community either. I have seen its community ties stretched very thin, in the distance and friction that grows up between lesbians and gay men in large cities, or as social cliques form, creating difficulties for newcomers to enter the community. Others have commented that the small, interrelated, and closed-off subculture bears close resemblance to small town communities with their often suffocating gossip and soap opera drama, even in larger cities. The lesbian magazines even have a name for it. They call it "dyke drama."


Some people have the luxury of being able to disregard unpleasant aspects of the gay community and turn away from it. But a subculture is better than nothing at all if you are a gay person lost in a landscape of intolerant Mayberrys, a nightmarish distortion that can be a downside to everything Doheny-Farina values in physically located communities. I've seen a local gay bar firebombed in Arkansas. A student of mine, the leader of a campus gay group in Georgia, was bashed, his roommate shot in the rear end, the bullet ricocheting between his pelvic bones and lacerating his sex organs. I lost a job for being gay. But most revealing, I know, as do many others in relatively small towns and cities, to walk fast when I cross the street to go into a gay bar. One can't be sure if the approaching car will slow down or speed up, and both developments are ominous. Some of the forces undermining physically-located communities are economic, or rather, directly related to impersonal whims of capitalistic forces that impose worker transience. However other forces, such as conformity, intolerance, and oppressive social mores sent people who didn't fit in to places like Alaska, to places like cyberspace. It seems the need for community will not be denied, even if it is forced to move away from Main Street.


See, I know I can stop at a rest area on one of my endless drives, meet the eye of a woman who returns the knowing look, drop a few code words, and we can sit and talk for a while in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night. Contact. Yes I do call that "real" community. Like secret handshakes, these insider codes have sustained gays and lesbians through hard times of homophobic oppression, and while some younger queers may have no memory of the deep fear that walks into the closet with us, the insider codes remain as signifiers of the subculture, like African American spiritual hymns: signifiers of oppression, yet also signifiers of resistance and courage.


Actually, I haven't thought of gay culture as community since the late 80s. My gay and lesbian friends and I call it family. By the early 1990s my "family" boxed out the eastern half of the United States. But I always seemed to be living in the interstices, the roads in between.




The Ballad of the Internet Nutball: The Xenaverse in Cyberspace

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