Community Via E-Mail List
by Mark Tribe
RHIZOME INTERNET is an online resource for information and critical writing in the field of new media art. It comprises two email lists and a complementary web site.



To call online communities "virtual" is misleading. Online communities can be every bit as "real" as those that meet in physical space. To my mind, a community is a group within a group, a collection of people who share an interest or a struggle or some other significant common denominator--a cluster of individuals who have something in common and communicate with one other.

In the United States, we speak of the black community, the gay community, the Jewish community, and the financial community, but no one ever mentions the "white community." Why is that? I think it's because communities are defined as much in terms of difference from the larger whole as they are in terms of the commonalities community-members share. Unlike societies, communities don't necessarily have rules. Communities are soft, shifting aggregations of horizontal relationships. They are neither hierarchical nor vertically integrated. In this sense, communities can be considered rhizomatic. "Rhizome" is a botanical term, and describes a horizontal, root-like stem that extends underground and sends out shoots to the surface. Rhizomes connect plants in a living network. Grass is a rhizome. Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari developed the concept of the rhizome to describe non-hierarchical networks of all kinds. In A Thousand Plateaus, they write: "In contrast to centered (even polycentric) systems with hierarchical modes of communication and preestablished paths, the rhizome is an acentered, nonhierarchical, nonsignifying system without a General and without an organizing memory or central automation, defined solely by a circulation of states." It is interesting to note that corporations are now deploying the concept of the rhizome to describe their restructuring processes.

RHIZOME INTERNET is a New York-based organization dedicated to fostering international communication and community in the field on new media art. The common denominator that links the RHIZOME community together is an interest in new media art. We have two email lists--RHIZOME RAW and RHIZOME DIGEST--that serve as a forum for announcements, questions, and various forms of critical writing. Our ambition has been to create a comprehensive online resource for information and critical writing in the field of new media art. To that end, we have built a Web site that serves as an interface to a databased archive containing selected edited texts from the email lists and other sources, as well as images and animations that are linked to relevant sites on the Web. In the near future, we hope to begin an experiment with associative filtering and grouping systems to enable more flexible communication channels.

Because members of the RHIZOME community are geographically dispersed, and because most of us use computers on a daily basis, it makes sense to use email as a tool to facilitate interaction. What email lacks in sensory richness, environmental atmosphere, and interactive complexity, it makes up in convenience, efficiency, and speed. People are pretty imaginative, and manage to enrich the poverty of the medium with a density of meaning. A lot can be conveyed with words, after all.

I started the first RHIZOME email list on February 1, 1996 on the Desk server in Amsterdam. Since then it's grown to about 600 subscribers from 25 countries. I made a decision early on to moderate the list to keep the content-to-noise ratio high. As the list grew, people started to post more frequently and to respond to one another. As the flow of mail increased on the list, some people started to complain that they couldn't keep up. They suggested that a weekly digest would be more convenient. So I posed the question to the list, asking subscribers to let me know what they thought. Most wanted a weekly digest, so we switched and called the new format RHIZOME DIGEST.

Almost immediately, the discussion slowed to a standstill. People continued to post announcements, statements and reviews, but stopped responding to each other's messages. It was clear that the digest format inhibited interaction. Something about getting an individual message from a specific person encourages one to hit "reply." So we decided to offer a second list, called RHIZOME RAW, that would be totally unmoderated and unfiltered. Right away about 30 people switched over. Recently, this list has actually been growing faster than RHIZOME DIGEST. Perhaps the most surprising thing is that, even as RHIZOME RAW has grown, the noise level has stayed really low. If anything, it seems that the quality and relevance of what people have been writing has *improved.* Perhaps what we're seeing is actually the self-regulating function of community.

I see this self-regulation, if that is indeed what's going on, as a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it has produced a focus and a "level of discourse" that makes the list very productive. On the other hand, I can't help thinking that it also represents an internalization of discursive authority that represses dissent and difference. In Foucaultian terms, this self-censorship is an effect of power--simultaneously productive, in that it maintains a "high-level of discourse," and repressive, in that it excludes marginalized voices.

In Foucault's analysis of the panopticon, power is both concentrated in a visible center and internalized by each surveilled subject on the periphery. In the networked environment, power disappears and is disbursed throughout the system. It is interesting, and more than a little disturbing, to think of the fin-de-millenium networked community as the poststructural reincarnation of an 18th-century, panoptic French prison.


Mark Tribe (mark@rhizome.com) is the founder of RHIZOME INTERNET. An artist, he has produced performance, video, virtual reality and Web-based projects. He spent 1995 in Berlin, where he made art and worked as a Web designer at Pixelpark GmbH. Documentation and links to his work can be found at (http://www.thetribes.com/mark/mark.html).



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