Life on the Net: the Reconstruction of Self and Community

Siok Kuan Tambyah, University of Wisconsin-Madison
ABSTRACT - This paper depicts life on the Internet as an unique consumer behavior phenomenon that reveals important issues in the reconstruction of self and community. It is argued that the Internet embodies a technological revolution of the 1990s with its radical dimensions of time, space, social roles and situations, boundaries and communities. The Internet provides anonymity or enacted liminality for its users, which leads to the emergence of the Net Self and Net Communitas. Anonymity further plays out into the dialectics of freedom versus control, and security versus vulnerability. Future research ideas are suggested.
[ to cite ]:
Siok Kuan Tambyah (1996) ,"Life on the Net: the Reconstruction of Self and Community", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 23, eds. Kim P. Corfman and John G. Lynch Jr., Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 172-177.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 23, 1996      Pages 172-177

LIFE ON THE NET: THE RECONSTRUCTION OF SELF AND COMMUNITY

Siok Kuan Tambyah, University of Wisconsin-Madison

ABSTRACT -

This paper depicts life on the Internet as an unique consumer behavior phenomenon that reveals important issues in the reconstruction of self and community. It is argued that the Internet embodies a technological revolution of the 1990s with its radical dimensions of time, space, social roles and situations, boundaries and communities. The Internet provides anonymity or enacted liminality for its users, which leads to the emergence of the Net Self and Net Communitas. Anonymity further plays out into the dialectics of freedom versus control, and security versus vulnerability. Future research ideas are suggested.

INTRODUCTION

Ever since the term "information superhighway" was coined in 1992, it has become a byword in our vernacular, and enjoyed a growing presence in the media (Freedom Forum Media Studies Center 1995). The computer industry leaders, Microsoft, Novell Inc. and Intel Corp., envision that the computer is about to become indistinguishable from the TV set. Linking networks of such computers to cable TV boxes will finally lay the groundwork for the information superhighway. An important component of the information superhighway are the existing networks that connect millions of computer users around the globe. Among these networks, the Internet (or the Net) is undoubtedly the most well-known and extensive.

The purpose of this paper is to analyze the consumer behavior facets of the Net as it penetrates the ideological, social and psychological fabric of our modern society. Specifically, this analysis focuses on the reconstruction of self and community, and two dialectics that emerge from the concept of anonymity on the Net: freedom versus control, and security versus vulnerability. Although the Net has been a pervasive phenomenon for a number of years, its consumer behavior aspects have not been fully explored. This paper seeks to address this timely issue as the Net has clearly transcended its basic function as a computer network.

First, I will provide a brief overview of the Net and the services it offers. Second, I describe some key dimensions of the times we live in which form the backdrop for the emergence of the Net as a unique social and consumer behavior phenomenon. Third, I present the Net as a rich tapestry of consumer behavior processes using a framework of rites of passage, liminality, and communitas. These three concepts will then be linked in a systematic way. In this approach, a key Net characteristic of anonymity will be shown to result in a liminal state that can lead to: (1) the reconstruction of self, where the individual takes on the Net Self, and (2) the reconstruction of community, where Net Communitas emerges in a virtual community resulting in a sense of kinship. The presence of both the Net Self and Net Communitas then set the stage for two key dialectics to emerge: (1) freedom versus control, and (2) security versus vulnerability. Their influence on the reconstruction of self and community is discussed. Finally, I suggest some avenues for future research to enhance our understanding and appreciation of life on the Net.

WHAT IS THE INTERNET?

The Net is a "network of networks, tens of thousands of computers connected in a web, talking to one another through a common communications protocol" (Ayre 1994). The Internet Society claims that there are 20 to 30 million active Net users and that the number is growing by about 160,000 users per month (Ubois 1995). The three most common Internet services used are electronic mail, information databases and bulletin boards. Electronic mail enables Net users to send messages to one another electronically. Information databases offer opportunities for learning, business, research and entertainment in many spheres of influence (FARNET 1994). Bulletin board systems (BBSs) are customized online systems where Net users congregate around a modem that allows them to post messages (putting a message on a bulletin board). They began as informal communities but now many bulletin boards have been started by entrepreneurs for business and personal interests. Usenet (User network), a popular segment of the Net, is a public network made up of thousands of newsgroups and organized by topic. A newsgroup is a bulletin board-like forum or conference area where you can post messages on a specified topic. Newsgroups exist for a huge range of subjects, for example, hobbies, social concerns, and so on.

Apart from information sources, the Net also offers many popular culture activities. For example, the Rolling Stones broadcast twenty minutes of live audio and video from a performance at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas (Strauss 1994). Often, Net users interact to collaborate on creative projects, such as writing music (Fiedler 1994), creating art (Bellafante 1995), and playing fantasy role-playing games in multi-user dungeons or MUDs (Ayre 1994).

THE NET AS EMBODIMENT OF TECHNOLOGICAL REVOLUTION

In this section, the Net is shown to be a reflection of the times we live in. Specifically, the Net embodies the compression of time and space (Ellul 1964; Gergen 1991; McLuhan 1964) and fluid social situations, which contributes to the feeling of "no sense of place" (McLuhan 1964; Meyrowitz 1985). These two dimensions make it possible for Net users to interact in an unstructured way at all hours of the day and night, and even preserve a record in the form of hard copy (Roszak 1986). In addition, the Net clearly illustrates the blurring of traditional boundaries, and challenges our established notions of communities. This has an important impact on the way Net users interact on an anonymous basis which results in the reconstruction of self and community. These dimensions will each be discussed.

Time-Space Compression

"We have extended our central nervous system itself in a global embrace, abolishing both space and time as far as our planet is concerned" (McLuhan 1964, p.19).

Time-space compression refers to processes that revolutionize the objective qualities of space and time which force us to alter how we represent the world to ourselves (Harvey 1989, p.240). As the time taken to transverse space (that is, to get from one place to another) diminishes through innovations in transportation and telecommunications (Ellul 1964; McLuhan 1964), time itself ceases to be a measure of space. A natural consequence is that "distance no longer exists and man has vanquished space" (Ellul 1964, p.328). As an embodiment of time-space compression, the Net provides "instant travel" and "real time". The Net enables people from different parts from the world to communicate and exchange ideas immediately with one another without being physically present in the same place.

No Sense of Place

Nothing can be further from the spirit of the new technology than "a place for everything and everything in its place" (McLuhan 1964).

Goffman (1959) describes social life as a multi-staged drama in which we each act out different roles in different social arenas, depending on the nature of the situation, our particular role in it, and the makeup of the audience. Meyrowitz (1985, p.39) suggests that when we find ourselves in a given setting, we often unconsciously ask "Who can see me, who can hear me?" and "Who can I see, who can I hear?" The answers to these questions help us decide on appropriate behaviors. However, Gergen (1991) proposes that technological change has exposed us to such an "enormous barrage of social stimulation" that we are moved to a stage of saturation which substantially changes our experiences of self and other.

Thus it seems that people no longer seem to "know their place" because they no longer have a place in the traditional sense of a set of behaviors matched to physical locations and the audiences found in them (Meyrowitz 1985). Rather than physical settings, social situations can now be conceptualized as "information settings" that are created by electronic media (Meyrowitz 1985). This phenomenon of no sense of place is widespread on the Net where users are enmeshed in myriad information settings. Net users cannot be seen or heard by other Net users. This anonymity enables them to take on new and/or multiple roles and selves. This phenomenon will be explored in more detail in the sections on enacted liminality and the Net Self.

Blurred Boundaries and Transformed Communities

Boundaries, as in the traditional sense, set limits (how far you can go), define the area of contention, and provide some form of enclosure. The word community is derived from the word "common"; the first syllable meaning "together" or "next to" and the second having to do with barter or exchange (Sanders 1994). Communities have been conventionally defined by social markers such as race and income, and usually occupied a bounded, geographical space. Therefore, to belong to a certain community typically involves engaging in a web of relationships and embracing its shared values and goals (Sanders 1994).

However, boundaries in our time-and-space compressed world and on the Net are getting increasingly indeterminate and the traditional, bounded community has deteriorated. Take the example of Robert and Carleen Thomas, a Californian couple, who were charged and drew jail sentences for sending pornographic images via a computer bulletin board system. Their prosecution is the first obscenity case in which operators of a computer bulletin board were charged in the place where the material was received rather than where it originated. Their defense lawyer's appeal focuses on the U.S. Supreme Court's 1973 ruling that defines obscenity by local community standards. He maintains that with the advent of computer networks which have no boundaries, the meaning of "local communities" is debatable (Chicago Tribune, 3 December 1994). New radical forms of community such as symbolic communities (Gergen 1991) and virtual communities (Rheingold 1993), have surfaced. These transformed communities are not geographically bounded and are usually characterized by the capacity of their members for symbolic exchangeCof words, images, informationCmostly through electronic means (Gergen 1991). An excellent example is the Well (the Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link), where the sense of oneness in the virtual community also permeates their real lives when Net users attend one another's real-life parties, weddings and funerals (Rheingold 1993). The concept of transformed communities will be further highlighted in the section on Net Communitas.

CONSUMER BEHAVIOR PROCESSES ON THE NET

Although Net users extensively utilize information resources on the Net, their relationship with the Net surmounts rational considerations. Net users interact with the Net in more personal and symbolic ways. Therefore, my analysis does not focus on information processing, the search for and use of information on the Net, and/or the adoption of technological products, although these are important research issues as well. Instead this paper focuses on the relatively more experiential aspects of Net users' consumer behavior (Hirschman and Holbrook 1982, Holbrook and Hirschman 1982), especially pertaining to the reconstruction of self and community. In this respect, this paper adopts the framework of rites of passage, liminality (van Gennep 1960) and communitas (Turner 1974b) as a guide to understanding consumer behavior processes on the Net. Specifically, it is contended that Net users enact a state of liminality during which they engage in deeply symbolic processes related to the reconstruction of self and the creation of Net Communitas.

Rites of Passage, Liminality and Communitas

Van Gennep (1960) describes rites de passage as comprising three phases: (1) separation, in which the individual symbolically detaches him/herself from his/her position in the social structure, (2) margin or transition, in which the individual is in an ambiguous state, free from classification, and (3) reaggregation or incorporation, in which the individual reenters the social structure, often but not always at a higher status level. The intervening phase of margin or transition is also known as liminality. Liminality has been viewed as a state of no-place and no-time where social structure disappears or is simplified and generalized (Turner 1974b). In primal cultures, liminality is a collective experience mediated by culturally prescribed rituals that gave individuals an experience of communitas or shared pyschological support through major status passages (van Gennep 1960). However, in our world of technological complexity and fragmented social relationships, modern commentators have argued that people experience a different, more isolated form of liminality (Turner 1974a).

Turner (1974b) argues that it is in liminality that communitas emerges, either in the form of a spontaneous expression of sociability or in a cultural and normative form, emphasizing equality and comradeship as norms. Communitas bonds people with "feelings of linkage, of belonging, (and) of group devotion to a transcendent goal" (Arnould and Price 1993). The creation of communitas typically begins with minimization or elimination of the outward marks of rank and status (Turner 1969; van Gennep 1960). Then through a shared sacred experience (Belk, Wallendorf and Sherry 1989), such as river rafting (Arnould and Price 1993) and skydiving (Celsi, Rose and Leigh 1993), communitas emerges and bonds individuals together. Communitas is often placed in opposition to structure, which is defined as "the patterned arrangements of role-sets, status-sets and status-sequences" consciously recognized and regularly operative in a given society (Turner 1974b). Structure is the notion of society as a differentiated segmented system of structural positions. In contrast, communitas is the perception of society as a homogeneous, undifferentiated whole. This distinction is important in understanding the dialectic of freedom versus control discussed in a later section.

Anonymity as Enacted Liminality

Many online forums on the Net, for example hobbyist BBSs and some sensitive newsgroups grant anonymity to their users (Godwin 1995). People use handles for their real names and develop personae to go with those handles. Crucial aspects of one's identity which would be involuntarily revealed in a face-to-face meeting can be masked on the Net unless one chooses to reveal them. Net users are judged primarily not by who they are but by their ideas and what they write (Garrison 1994; Seabrook 1994). The impersonality and immateriality of the online experience has a liberating and leveling effect; it blanks out race, age, gender, looks, timidity, and handicaps. It encourages frankness and removes caution (Roszak 1986, p.169; Garrison 1994). The result is that the Net is a community where "information is the true currency of democracy" (Ralph Nader quoted in Long 1994, p.66).

An important implication of anonymity on the Net is that it enables users to enact a state of liminality. Net users when interacting on an anonymous basis are symbolically stripped of their status trappings. They are liberated from their role expectations and social constraints. The interaction between and among individuals is thus democratic, vibrant and fluid. It is argued in this paper that enacted liminality can produce two significant processes and outcomes: (1) the reconstruction of self, in which the user recreates his/her identity and personality, and (2) emergence of Net Communitas, in which the user feels a certain oneness with other Net users.

THE NET SELF

Net users do not view the Net as a passive personal computer or a node of a computer network. The Net provides more than an extension of a person's work, hobbies and/or social circle. However, Net users do not merely relate to the technologies on the Net as servomechanisms or are compelled to "serve these objects, these extensions of ourselves, as gods or minor religions" (McLuhan 1964, p.55). Instead they are more purposefully and actively involved in embracing the technologies of the Net, and using its redefining power in constructing their identities. One Net user even described himself as having "mutated into a new life-form" (Romenesko 1994).

Self-extension and self-reconstruction have been well documented in many spheres of consumer research (e.g. Belk 1988; Wallendorf and Arnould 1988). In addition, the re-construction of self has been found to be important in periods of role transitions like immigration (Mehta and Belk 1991) and major life events (Schouten 1991). To these situations, this paper adds the liminoid state induced by the anonymity provided by technologies available on the Net. Net users often refer to their identity on the Net as the "Net Self", as opposed to IRL (in real life). In their liminoid states, Net users assume various and/or multiple roles and personalities, live in virtual worlds and maintain virtual relationships (Garrison 1994). It is argued that this Net Self, by virtue of its emergence during enacted liminality, is also relational, democratic and experiential in nature.

The Net Self is a relational self because it is constructed through relationships, and immersed interdependence (Gergen 1991), as Net users interact with one another on common ground. Net users are acutely aware of their connectedness with other users and how that constitutes a crucial element of their Net Self (Rheingold 1993). In addition, the Net Self is democratic because the technologies of the Net and the anonymity it provides erode specific gender roles (Gergen 1991; Meyrowitz 1985), and abolish distinctions of class and race. On the Net, women, the elderly, the young, the handicapped and other minorities, can be evaluated and respected for their ideas and contributions, and not for their physical attributes. Finally, the Net Self is an experiential self that flirts with fantasy and make-believe. Although Net users do use Net resources for research, education and such, they also indulge in more hedonistic exploits ((Hirschman and Holbrook 1982; Holbrook and Hirschman 1982) such as fantasy games, and the creation of art and music. This is consistent with Turner (1974a) who views liminality as involving the "antistructural element of play, the freedom to experiment with new categories of meaning".

NET COMMUNITAS

Net Communitas or social interrelatedness refers to how an individual Net user bonds with other Net users, and experiences a sense of common, shared destiny. In enacted liminality, users devoid of their social rank and status become freer to connect with other users on a common basis. As a result, Net communitas surfaces. Many Net users testify to the exceptional bonds they feel with the people they interact with on the Net (Rheingold 1993). John Perry Barlow, co-founder of the WELL, found comfort from his WELL community in coping with the death of a loved one. He said, "Those strangers, who had no arms to put around my shoulders, no eyes to weep with mine, nevertheless saw me through. As neighbours do" (Barlow 1995, p.56).

Apart from warm, sociable feelings, Net Communitas also reveals itself in the ways in which basic human needs for community, engagement and dependence are met (Slater 1979). Even many human rights abuses are curtailed because of actions set in motion through the Net. For example, a Russian dissident was released from jail after Net users wrote to the Russian government expressing concern over his arrest (Long 1994). In another touching scenario, a suicial man was saved when Net users spotted his suicide message on the bulletin board, tracked him down in Miami County, Indiana, and notified police to reach him before he killed himself (Boston Globe, 24 October 1994).

Criticism has constantly been levelled at the unfeeling nature of machines and technology, and their undesirable effects on social relationships and values (Ellul 1964). Roszak (1972) suggests that our technological achievements "leave ungratified that dimension of the self which reaches out into the world for enduring purpose, undying value." There are skeptics who feel that virtual communities do not exhibit the qualities of true communities because they lack human contact, and that computers and networks isolate people from one another (Stoll 1995). On the Net, however, it is the cold, isolating, mechanical technology that does enable the birth of Net Communitas (Herz 1994; Susan Brownmiller quoted in Long 1994). Barlow (1995) suggests that the traditional community as we know it is "largely a wraith of nostalgia", and that it is possible to create a community in cyberspace with the human spirit and the basic desire to connect.

Like real-life communities, virtual communities face certain threats to their cohesion and harmony. Despite Net users' willingness to build and sustain community, the Net faces tensions that threaten to break up communities and break down individuals. These tensions are discussed in the following section.

DIALECTICS ON THE NET

Two main dialectics emanate from the phenomenon of anonymity or enacted liminality on the Net. Dialectics refer to "the juxtaposition or interaction of conflicting ideas or forces" (Random House Webster's College Dictionary 1992, p. 372). Anonymity propagates the fundamental consequence of freedom, which in turn plays out into the dialectics of (1) Freedom versus Control, and (2) Security versus Vulnerability.

Freedom versus Control

The dialectic of Freedom versus Control is an issue in all forms of democracy. This tension has also been noted in consumer research on life themes (Mick and Buhl 1992; Thompson, Locander and Pollio 1990). Freedom has been described as "being free of restriction (having the freedom to make the choices one wants)" (Thompson, Locander and Pollio 1990, p.353) and as being free to explore the opportunities and take the risks life has to offer (Mick and Buhl 1992). In the context of the Net, where an information democracy is purported to exist, anonymity gives Net users freedom to express their views, and simultaneously savor a diversity of opinions and ideas. However, there is also concern regarding the limits to freedom of expression. Debates rage on whether "flaming" (sending online insulting messages), hate mail, viruses, pornography, profanity and defamation, are legitimate forms of free speech (Seabrook 1994; Siegel 1994). In one instance, a college student asserted that it was within his rights to post messages on the Internet about torturing and murdering a female classmate (Chicago Tribune, 10 February 1995; Levy 1995). In another scenario, artists are enthusiastic about the freedom and possibilities of experimenting in a new medium, but are concerned that they would lose control of their works once recordings, texts or pictures are converted to digital form (Wallich 1995).

There has always been considerable difficulty in deciding on the form and extent of control in any democracy, for example, in the realm of consumer policies (Moorman and Price 1989). In the context of the Net, these difficulties are compounded because the Net operates in an environment where conventional notions of speech, property and place take on profoundly new forms (Rothfeder 1994). For example, a new definition of copyright law in cyberspace proposed by the Working Group on Intellectual Property Rights would make using almost everything anyone creates in cyberspace illegal (Wallich 1995).

In response to these tensions, Net users have always maintained that the Net is essentially set up and run as a self-regulating body (Adam Curry as quoted in Long 1994). There is some general agreement that undesirable forms of digital speech are hurting the Net, but there is reluctance to enforce policies that discourage anonymity and curb freedom. Net users contend that censorship and control could be disastrous to what may be the last place where genuine liberty thrives (Garrison 1994). Also, the task of monitoring thousands of networks and bulletin boards is simply unworkable (Godwin 1995; Levy 1995). On a more crucial note, if anonymity is abolished on the Net, enacted liminality is suspended and the reconstruction of the Net Self would be destroyed. It would not be possible for a democratic Net Self to emerge because Net users would be identified and trapped by their social status. Control, by imposing structure on Net interaction, also impairs the formation of Net Communitas. This is because structure differentiates individuals by their status, whereas communitas disregards status and bonds individuals together (Turner 1974b). The Net Self and Net Communitas both require the freedom afforded by anonymity to flourish.

Security versus Vulnerability

The second dialectic of Security versus Vulnerability reflects tensions on the Net when freedom results in users taking advantage of one another or harming one another, and in doing so, destroying Net Communitas. This dialectic reflects a common occurrence in democracies and has been documented more recently among the many problems associated with information technologies (Bloom, Milne and Adler 1994, Morris and Pharr 1992). This dialectic arises because in the Net setting, anonymity affords privacy to Net users, but it also lends a cloak of secrecy to those who abuse the rights of others. Net users, individuals and organizations alike, take risks whenever they interact on the Net. They are vulnerable, for example, to having their accounts "fingered", "spoofing" (having someone electronically impersonating them), vicious pranks, and terrorist-like attacks by hackers. Victims can suffer the dissemination of misleading information, damage to personal reputation, and criminal activity (Godwin 1995). Recent cybercrime cases such as the hacker gang headed by "Phiber Optik" (Slatalla and Quittner 1994) and the exploits of Kevin Mitnick, a notorious hacker from North Carolina, who hacked the WELL's electronic mail accounts, and used the WELL as a screen to launch anonymous attacks on networks throughout the Net (Hafner 1995; McGrath 1995), have clearly exposed the fragility of the Net that accompanies its prevailing freedoms.

These freedoms have also exposed the underlying fragilities of many democracies. Specifically while the underlying freedoms expressed in democracies like the Net insure equal access and equal liberties, the system is, in fact, not without its sources of systematic discrimination. For example, Net users who identify themselves as women, and/or use handles/names that are obviously female, are especially vulnerable to online animosity and sexual harrassment from men (Kantrowitz 1994, Tannen 1994). Net users react to this vulnerability in many different ways. For instance, many women hide on the Net by simply reading messages others have posted and not posting any of their own ("lurkers") or when they do talk, use male pseudonyms (Herz 1994). Women also select Net sites they are more comfortable in, such as East Coast Hangout (ECHO) (Herz 1994) and Women's Wire (Online Access January 1995).

In response to the threats to security, the government has devised the Clipper Chip which encrypts messages as they leave Net users' computers (Levy 1995). However, the Clipper Clip met with resistance from Net users who view the device as an intrusive surveillance attempt of the government. Also, groups like pedophiles, cults and pornography clubs can use the device to avoid detection and conceal crime (Levy 1995; Seabrook 1994). So, despite the vulnerabilities Net users are exposed to, they appear to place a premium on their freedom that far outstrips the perceived benefits security measures can offer. Moreover, like democracies, distinct mechanisms for protecting vulnerable subsegments have evolved that allow them to participate in a marginalized manner. At the same time, this participation has spawned the development of distinct and well functioning subcommunities.

FUTURE RESEARCH AND CONCLUSION

Apart from the issues raised in this paper, there are additional research areas which would be fruitful to pursue. First, in line with the call for consumer research that is sensitive to the feminine voice (Bristor and Fisher 1993; Hirschman 1993), research on gender issues on the Net should consider how the reconstruction of self differs for women on the Net. It is suggested that women tend to look at the usefulness of technology, and they want machines that meet people's needs (Kantrowitz 1994). In contrast, men tend to be obsessive about the technology itself, and view machines as extensions of their physical power. However, there may also be a softer male side emerging on the Net as men find it easier to open up on electronic mail (Tannen 1994). Second, the intricate interplay of power and democracy should be studied as they impact who gains access to the Net. Researchers should contemplate how the Net can avoid becoming elitist and hegemonic, and how the Net can be made available to all consumers without discrimination (Kadi 1995; Ratan 1995; Stuart 1995). Especially valuable would be research on power and authority structures within cyberspace communities and how they influence access to and control over the creation and communication of information. Also, studying the impact of emerging Net technologies on countries with varying stages of development would yield useful insights in this area of research. Third, the juxtaposition of reality and virtuality presents itself as an interesting arena of consumer behavior. There has been debate on whether virtual communities dilute the meaning of real communities (Smolowe 1995), and how Net users commute between and manage the two (Stoll 1995). Moral linkages among people, and ethical issues at personal and communal levels are potential areas of research.

The research issues outlined above are a fraction of the many challenges facing consumer researchers studying the Net. Despite the difficulties of making the Net safer and more available to all consumers, its ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity strike intensely responsive chords in modern humankind. As the Net commands a growing presence in consumers' lives, it will undoubtedly continue to forge deep consumption meanings for Net users and communities. However, as it does that, like all democracies, it must also find a way to balance the delicate trade-offs associated with freedom that all communities must grapple with.

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