For Some, Virtual Community is Better Than None At All

By Howard Rheingold

For some people, the disembodied nature of online communication is an illusion and distraction. For others, the Net can be a lifeline. As learners, as workers, as humans, we are social creatures. Those who substitute computerized fantasies for real life have a problem. Those whose real life deprives them of normal social contact, however, can find precious opportunities for social interaction online. Consider Barry and his friend Angela.

Barry Kort ( is a computer software wizard who retired early, lives modestly in the Cambridge, Massachusetts area, and devotes his time to providing kids and teachers with educational resources via the Internet. He is Consulting Scientist for the K12 MuseNet Project of BBN Educational Technology Research Group.

Angela L., a fourteen year old girl in a New England state, is unable to attend school because of a long-term illness.

When Barry found out about Angela, he gave her a modem and an account on MuseNet, "a multi-user, text based, virtual reality system." People type words on their computers and send them over the net, to a computer that helps turn those words into imaginary spaceships, castles, worlds, where people can make up their own fantasies together. Sometimes known in general as "MUDs," (derived from the "Multi User Dungeons" that gave birth to the genre), these online communities can be places of pure entertainment, so compellingly attractive to some people that they engage compulsively and addictively in "Mudding." However, if these Internet communication tools are used knowledgeably, they can make possible new kinds of educational environments, where peers can learn together and teach each other.

Used as an educational tool, MUDs can harness youth's passion for fantasy with real curriculum-based learning. Part of the success of this tool in education is the way it combines social interaction with peers with guided instruction by teachers. For Angela, the Muses on MuseNet were her only social link to a wide variety of peers and mentors.

As anyone can see from her home page, Angela is a normal, articulate, intelligent teenager. Which means that her home-bound schooling leaves out an important part of being a teenager, hanging out with others her age. Along with the ability to create fantasy personas and live in worlds of imagination built out of text descriptions, a MUSE (Multi-User Simulation Environment), can be a place to hang out, socialize, and learn together. It's also a universe where kids can make up their own rules, their own codes to live by in cyberspace. Thanks to the social contracts Kort and other educators have led their students to create, the young people themselves help keep the Muses as wholesome places to congregate and socialize.

According to Angela: "I've been spending a good portion of my time online talking with friends I've made in many different countries. That's helped me a lot, because I feel like I'm not isolated as much. I still go out and do the things I'm able to do, but on the days when I have little energy and don't feel well, talking with my MUSE friends helps a lot."

In the MUSE, Angela learned enough of the programming code to build her own bilingual "robot," a program that automatically responds to messages from people in the MUSE. Dave, Angela's father, noted that Angela's real-life volunteer Spanish tutor, after seeing Angela demonstrate her bilingual bot, said "Now that's how to make language learning come alive!" Together, Angela and her tutor "taught" her robot Spanish grammar. "I'm all for incorporating this approach into Angela's learning," Dave added. "I'm certain that her experience using the MuseNet has been good for her and is getting better and better. There does appear to be a sense of community online."

You can find Angela's bilingual robot, "Caleb," at Oceana MUSE: 4201. For those who want to learn more about MUSEs as educational environments, Kort recommends "Virtual Education" by Jessica Chalmers of New York University School of Journalism.

This article originally appeared in Howard Rheingold's syndicated newspaper column, Tomorrow. Reprinted with permission.

In the year since this column originally appeared, Angela's illness has been diagnosed and she is now on stabilizing medications that once again allow her to attend school and other normal teenage social activities. Nonetheless, Angela and her father remain devotees of online communities.