It's not hard to understand why an adolescent boy might find computing seductive. At a time when sexual pressures and social demands loom threateningly large, the hacker culture offers autonomy, mastery, safety. "The hook is the feeling of power that it gives you: You control a world of your own making," says my friend Steve Adamczyk, an MIT grad who owns a software company called the Edison Design Group. (I'd call Steve a former nerd except that, he explains, "it's like being an alcoholic: You're always a nerd but you're a recovering nerd.") Staying up all night coding software in FORTRAN, as Steve did in high school, was "terrifically appealing to people who don't do so well at controlling the real world, maintaining relationships and all that."
I have watched as someone named Stacey logged onto an AOL book discussion group, introduced herself as a newcomer, then disappeared from the screen for a while. She came back long enough to type out, "What are all these messages?" She'd been flooded with IMs - instant messages directed only to her. The other women in the group pointed out that her female ID had made her a target for attention. It was at this point that, although I had not encountered such treatment, I changed my own ID to something offering no gender clues. The problem, hardly limited to America Online, is widely reported. "You seek out your friends and places you know are safe and harassment-free," an AOL subscriber named Citywoman tells me via E-mail.
If it's tough to figure out what to do about virtual knavery, what to do about a virtual rape? It happened in a computer-generated environment developed by Xerox researchers in Palo Alto, Calif., reachable through the Internet and called LambdaMOO. In this fantasy domain, a kind of multi-authored fictional work-in-progress known to its denizens as "the MOO," a motley array of characters glide through many rooms, doing and saying what users sitting at their terminals (mostly college and graduate students in their late teens and early twenties, three-fourths of them male) tell them to do and say. Last year, in an incident vividly reported in the Village Voice, a crude jester named Mr. Bungle sexually assaulted several other LambdaMOO characters in a rampage of intensifying verbal violence. The ensuing sociopolitical debate was fierce and prolonged.
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