Scenes of chaos and joy: Playing and performing selves in digitally virtu/real places
Szafran, Denice Joy
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Since the creation of the World Wide Web, researchers have attempted to understand the larger cultural and societal implications of this "space that is not a space" on identity, community, expression, and behavior. Ethnographies and analyses of bounded online gathering spaces, however, contain little concern focused on the expressions of play and performance that do not involve gaming universes, nor on how these newly crafted understandings of appropriate behavior translate into physical spaces. What is play and performance online? Is this understanding limited to those who inhabit that space, and how does it affect similar actions in real spaces? This research examines the hypothesis that use of cyber technologies does indeed alter expectations of the nature of play and performance in public spaces, and that it subtly manipulates the understanding of those public spaces themselves. The means by which to investigate this presumption presented itself through a culturally influential digitally coalesced spontaneous gathering of individuals formed to express themselves in public spaces - flashmobs. These gatherings are intentional, created digitally, and possess emergent properties: they arise as result of repeated interactions between the multiple diverse members who share decision making and form loose structure consensually, creating some new "whole" of an event from the seemingly random chaotic parts. Working with this relatively recent phenomenon offered the opportunity to investigate the question What does it mean? Meanings implicit and explicit in this autotelic signifying practice, its co-option of (and movement through) the urban public areas delineated through the performance, the intersubjective dynamic between participants and audience, and the subtle interjection of underlying cultural scripts, appeared to arise from the unique interpretations aggregated through individual and collective online habitation (where do you go when you go online?). This assumption provided a second line of inquiry: Has electronic communication and connection afforded and influenced this expression? This research explores the digital communities and connections that bridge the gulf into real space physical expressivity in the form of flashmobs as enmeshed entanglements that define public spaces as places, constitute expressions of collectivity and identity in their movement through public places, and create liminality and communitas as digitally dispersed groups coalesce, dissolve, and reemerge. Examinations and analyses of online inhabitants' conceptions of cyberspace as a "real" place or space find that they alter and/or reinforce understandings of the physical and virtual as not oppositional, but as points on a continuum, where liminality is no longer a marked category but a plethora of experiences intertwined with the normative. Through all the laughter, evictions, connections, secrecy, silly costuming, and dance, there emerged a common thread, one quite ancient and yet, through the affordances of rapid communication, new in its digitally influenced form and function: communities of people, collaborating to decide and define how their world works.