Chris Funkhouser

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interactive texts


Chris Funkhouser


Casually speaking, a MOO is a text-based "virtual reality" system where many people can connect to a common electronic database and are able create their own "space," objects, characters, and dialog that appear on the screen as descriptions or words in ascii (plain) text. In a MOO, one also navigates through digital constructions along with characters designed and directed by others. Technically, MOO stands for MUD, Object Oriented programming. A MOO combines the Internet’s Multiple-User Dimension (MUD) system with an Object-oriented code that makes it a more dynamic textual zone (though it does not permit the inclusion of visual images). During the first half of the 1990s, there were hundreds of MUDs (if not more), being used for a range of purposes by researchers, teachers, gamers, techno-thrill seekers and the like.

Julian Dibbell, in My Tiny Life: Crime and Passion in a Virtual World (New York: Henry Holt, 1998), a supreme forebear to my book, imparts detailed descriptions and analysis of LambdaMOO (and such virtual spaces in general). Unlike my collection, which foregrounds the onscreen experience and shows the control authors have (and do not have) over this superficial space, My Tiny Life is a deep portrait of LambdaMOO, which Dibbell describes as, “a very large and very busy rustic mansion built entirely of words.” (11) I refer to his book for the most apt descriptions of the territory, as Dibbell absorbed himself in the “culture” of this space over a longer period of time, and masterfully recounts his experience and observations a MOOer. He describes MOOs as “semifictional digital otherworlds” (12), that are “neither exactly real nor exactly make-believe, but nonetheless profoundly, compellingly, and emotionally true.” (17) Dibbell saw MOOs as, “a vast playpen in which they [MOOers] might act out their wildest fantasies without fear of censure,” though his book revolves around an incident in LambdaMOO (a virtual rape) that illuminates the downside of such territory. (23) All MUDS exist, he observes, “in a conceptual twilght zone between the games from which they had evolved and the real-life social meshes they had come to resemble.” (62) Ultimately, asserts Dibbell, LambdaMOO was, “basically a map, and like all MUDs it mapped a place as yet uncharted by conventional cartographic means: the strange, half-real terrain occupied by the human animal ever since it started surrounding itself with words, pictures, symbols, and other shadows of things not present to the human body.” (62) Idealistically, he believes that, “the MOO was a place people came to in part to exercise and share their creativity—to make culture.” (63) Dibbell’s thorough exposition is a valuable study for readers who are interested in the sociological and emotional aspects of MOO phenomena. As an informed, battle-worn study My Tiny Life offers an important view of the complexities of multiple aspects of MOO textuality.

The LambdaMOO logon screen reads:

LambdaMOO is a new kind of society, where thousands of people voluntarily come together from all over the world. What these people say or do may not always be to your liking; as when visiting any international city, it is wise to be careful who you associate with and what you say.

The operators of LambdaMOO have provided the materials for the buildings of this community, but are not responsible for what is said or done in them….

During the period the texts in this book were composed, I ventured into three different MOOs (LambdaMOO, ZenMOO, MediaMOO), all of which are represented here. I learned about the inviting and somewhat mysterious concept of MOO from poet-professor Don Byrd, who encouraged a poetic investigation of the space. Byrd (whose character was “Intensity”) gave me a printout of LambdaMOO instructions, including useful commands in the margins, and suggested that I register a character. Engaging in such explorations—examining various channels within newfound virtual space—was permitted at the fringes of my graduate school research in digital textuality. Friends and teachers satisfied my need for “community” at the time. Had I lacked such privileges, my interests in the MOO may have been completely different: more attempts would have been made to secure new camaraderie and develop interpersonal discourse. What interested me were the aspects of the MOO as a textual tool, a place of creative discovery, and the development of narrative and forms of personal expression in virtual space.

Serendipitously, Roddy Potter, a poet and friend who I’ve known more than half of my life (and for a decade before we began to use computers to communicate with each other), had become intensively involved in LambdaMOO subculture, mainly to distract himself from the dissatisfactions of his life. Remarkably, he acknowledges that he was living more in the MOO than in his physical location at the time (New York City). Roddy’s character’s name was Mineral. The title of this book combines a MOO line command (whereis) with Roddy’s character, as I customarily began my forays into LambdaMOO by looking to see if and where he was online and frequently followed his path. Our exchanges are steady and personal. That our kinship began as teenagers, that we have a real-life bond that stems from common interests in music and literature, is germane to this book. Roddy and I had been completely out of touch for many years when Allen Ginsberg, who we shared as a teacher, rejuvenated our connection in 1989. In 1992 I moved back east from California and both Roddy and I were in English doctoral programs in New York (NYU and SUNY-Albany). This period, late 1992 and early 1993 marked my indoctrination into the practice of using computer networks as a publisher and a writer. Though we had different interests in it entirely, I followed Roddy’s leads into MOO space, and this collection would not be possible had there not been such an influence. It became a worthwhile activity, an fresh and hip blip on the horizon.

The motivations and imaginations of the builders and drifters through this entirely ephemeral and plastic zone unquestionably aroused my curiosity. I did not integrate my involvement in MOO into my life as severely as did Dibbell and Potter. Mine was a dalliance in comparison, to no end but to experience and document such unusual, digitally enabled text. Now I attempt to represent the narrative in print for the sake of showing how I interacted with the machines and other characters when given the opportunity to investigate machine-modulated composition via MOO and network systems. This was part of my introduction to communication and community in a virtual space. Initially there was no intent other than research and enjoyment, or any long-range plan of creating a book from the material. However, I quickly found that the texts have a performative quality to them. Preparing for a reading at the Poetry Project (St. Mark’s Church) in May 1993 I decided to present excerpts from these transcripts, which I improvisationally chanted. The audio document of the reading was distorted even further in a recording studio, and released on a cassette compilation by BOOG Lit. Later I performed some of the material in London and also on WRPI-FM radio accompanied with live spontaneous music by James Keepnews.

Only one other time have I seen or heard MOO texts used in a way similar to my own (or what is printed in these pages). Helen Thorington, on a syndicated radio program, was reading stories that she had shaped from experiences and encounters in MOO. In her piece, all of the commands and extraneous text are removed. Thorington’s approach was to smooth out her narratives into a somewhat conventional form of fiction. Documenting and representing the entire textual encounter of a MOO, or as much of it that could possibly interest readers, is an intentional aspect of this book. To incorporate the diversions into the narrative and on the page is not a simple process. Since the logs did not read what I type onto the screen the same way that the computer (server) does, it was necessary to edit or retranslate the pages altogether to remove extraneous words, symbols, and other errors. One example of this that I have left in the book is the “emote” command. In order to represent non-dialogic communication, such as offering a (virtual) present to someone, a player has to type ‘emote gives candy to X,’ which will then show up in the MOO as “Player gives candy to X.” Some information that comes across the screen in the MOO logs is clearly redundant and superfluous. A fair amount of it, if not contributing directly to the MOO narrative, does impact upon the tale of the experience the (co-)author has during “composition” of the piece.

Many questions arise in the process of taking a transcript of events that happened online and presenting them on the page. All of the commands and machine language can be removed and the words can be edited to conform to convention. However my motivations lead me to do otherwise; materials are edited and formatted without masterful models to reference. I have put together scipts and a chapbook of MOO materials, so I have experienced editing MOO texts for the page. In this collection I place some of the interrupting texts in the body of the narrative and others, such as indexes of users logged on while these MOO sessions were happening and commands at a player’s disposal, in a Glossary and Appendix. Though my objective is to bring a facsimile or depiction of the experience of the text to the reader in print, it does not seem necessary to include such extensive (and often unnecessary) materials in their original places. Yet since this is a multi-author document and all I know of the other authors is the information in the Appendix, it seems appropriate to give them “credit” in this way.

Logs of my nearly random movements and temporal encounters in MOO space, along with a Glossary of terms and indexes of users are glued together here. A lot of editing has been done to this manuscript. It began as some 2,500 pages of MOO logs, retrieved during summer of 2001 from a MacIntosh hard drive that had been stored in an attic at my parent’s house in Massachusetts. A lot of these pages/files I can only describe as scrambled line garble, known as “snow”, symbols and characters generated somewhere in the computer-modem-network connection. From my apartment in downtown Albany, I would log in to SUNY’s server on a 2400-baud modem and type the line commands that routinely connect me to databases in California, Massachusetts, England, or other locations. That there would be some nonsensical interference that came to the page was not a surprise! The logs contained enormous formatting irregularities and some of the salvageable content was simply uninteresting or unformed, so some of what is left appears in media res (though many of the sessions are fully intact). Of the three MOO spaces featured in this volume, LambdaMOO (hosted by a Xerox server) is most prominent. I appear as guest and as two characters in LambdaMOO, Marble and Vortex, and definitely consider myself to have been a participant in what Dibbell calls “LambdaMOO’s ant-farm experimentalism.” (61) In MediaMOO (MIT Media Lab) I was a guest (green) at a gathering, and in ZenMOO I successfully took on the identity of Bom Shankar and other monnikers.

One feature of the system (and experience) included here is a running catalog of on-screen difficulties. I have left intact this feature of the logs (which capture everything that occurs on the screen) to impart to the analog reader the types of secondary information that intrinsically accompanies the dialog. The reader experiences to some degree my learning of the systems and space. However, I have attempted to avoid redundancy in these materials through close editing. “Movement” in the MOO happens by typing in directions such as east ( or “e”), south (“s”), northwest (“nw”), up (“u”), etc. Having left all of these lines in the text, I try to subvert confusion on the part of the reader by formatting these commands with bold type. Leaving the commnads I have entered in the narrative in shows readers the results of choices I made (or was required to make) at the time. Presumably, the demarcation will help alleviate the inclusion of such foibles. The only other text formatting that differs from the original ascii logs is that I have indicated a change in “place” by presenting the names of places in italics. I have removed all duplicate descriptions of these places, which automatically appear upon re-entry. Readers should refer to the Glossary to help clarify any unclear jargon.

Primarily my book serves to document one of the different forms of textuality that has emerged as a result of computer technology. Though I claim authorship to this book, having contributed text and uniquely capturing the experience of it, clearly this is a collaborative text and largely I am not the author at all; it is form of authorship can also be viewed as accidental. Since the social function of the space is so overt, most of what transpires does not pretend to invite consideration for its literary qualities. Thus it is logical that a deep narrative is not ultimately attained. Nonetheless, strains of continuity on various levels are present throughout, and a more complex picture is hopefully indicated beneath the surface. Standard components of fiction such as plot and character development are minimal. It is obvious that certain elements of fiction are blunted by the peripatetic tendencies of the genre. Descriptions of virtual spaces and dialog fill the pages with the chaos of the world, overtly acknowledged and shaped here in the formation of character’s words, interests, and identities.

Throughout my contributions to the work, which read “You say, ‘…’,” references are made to energies close to my work as a writer. References to thelemonade (a poetry performance group), We Press, DIU, Ginsberg all essentially reflect the subculture in which I was a participant in “real life.” At the time, I felt inclined—at least as a place to start—to inject/promote these things to the group online. One approach to reading or writing (and capturing) MOO-life might be for the reader to embody the character by playing the role of the person who is saying, ‘You say…’. In Whereis Mineral, that person is unquestionably me because of the real-life orientation of my character(s) as I first engaged in MOO composition. My approach was to be myself in it, bring my personal interests into digital character. Another iteration of the experiment would broaden the self that is the ‘You say’-er.

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