The friendly inhabitants of cyberspace
© Copyright 1994-2002, Rishab Aiyer Ghosh. All rights reserved.
Electric Dreams #33

One of the defining aspects of society in cyberspace is its extreme informality. Cyberpeople are usually very friendly, but on the occasions when they are annoyed, they don't bother to wrap their barbs in politeness. This atmosphere of community, of ignoring conventional protocol and requiring only common sense, extends beyond breaking the ice in electronic interaction and probably explains the proliferation and popularity of services that people are willing to perform free of cost.

When you ask a simple question in one of the many discussion areas on the Internet, you are likely to get a large number of replies. Some of them will answer your question, some will point to other sources of information, some will criticize you for asking it in the wrong place. All but the most sarcastic of responses will call you by your first name, and many will contain irrelevant details that often spawn new threads of conversation on totally different subjects.

Going beyond informality in discussions, there's the informal, money-free 'economy' of cyberspace where goods and services are traded for no cost, and they become extremely popular. Marketing on the Net by word-of-mouth costs nothing, of course, but time still does. Nevertheless, developers manage to spend time and energy on improvements, working solely for their own satisfaction.

An example is the architecture of the Internet itself. The protocol that allows computers of various types to communicate, TCP/IP, is not a proprietary system owned by some big company. It was developed by people who were then a bunch of enthusiasts, and distributed freely. No patents, few copyrights, and someone or the other has created a public domain version for just about any hardware platform.

There is a huge collection of software available for no cost, or under extremely liberal licensing terms. Inspired by the GNU Public License created by the Free Software Foundation, which believes that support can be charged for but that the software itself should be free, the range of applications available include advanced neural network simulators, ray-tracers that create photo-realistic images based on computer models, utilities for everything from word-processing to encrypting, and Linux, the best implementation of the Unix operating system for an ordinary PC.

Many people with particular interests gather related information and organize them into databases. Many of them are available free, from an indexed database of 50,000 filmographies to a collection of thousands of book reviews. There's even a free Internet patent news service providing patent searches and the latest news on intellectual property issues from around the world.

Then there's the World Wide Web. What now looks like the standard for organizing multimedia information across networks was developed in a nuclear research laboratory. While some companies have tried to sell commercial versions of browsers, the programs that allow people to access the Web, it's those available free that won out and, due to their massive popularity, set the standard.

What can be called the Golden Age of the Internet has demonstrated the benefits and practicality of a society based on informal rules and cooperation. As this age passes into the commercial one of global information highways, the basic structure of cyberspace remains only slightly changed. The best things in electronic life are still, for the moment, free.

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