Psychology of Cyberspace - History of The Palace
John Suler's The Psychology of Cyberspace
This article dated Jan 97 (v1.0)

From Conception to Toddlerhood

A History of the First Year (or so) of The Palace

(a multimedia chat community)

I. In the Womb
II. The Early Days at Main

III. Coping with the Masses: Social Differentiation
IV. Extra-Palatial Encounters
V. Conclusion and Encore: Where to? Community or Game?

Historical Moments in Early Palace History

Why write a history of Palace now? It's only a little over a year old.

This is what a few people said to me when I mentioned my plans for this chapter. Part of me thought they might be right. After all, in the grand scheme of things, how much can happen in only one year? But other Palatians were excited about the idea, and when I began reminiscing with them, it quickly became obvious that a great deal indeed had happened. In a tad over a year, Palace went from nascent stage software that Jim Bumgardner pitched to Time-Warner Interactive, to an independent corporation (TPI) responsible for a complex string of multimedia chat communities that are sprouting up all over the internet like enthusiastic mushrooms.

Everyone knows that computers and the internet never stand still. Change comes fast. The Palace is moving right along with the cyberspace revolution - and that first year may be its most critical period. It's a lot like human development. As any parent will tell you, those initial twelve months fly like lightning and the change is almost miraculous. The PalaceChild has grown by leaps and bounds. It's been challenged, stressed, even bruised a few times. In it's attempts to adapt, Palace has evolved habits in thinking and feeling that will shape its future development. Overall, like the human child, it's become a lot smarter and more socially complex. It's also developed a sense of self... a unique identity.

I. In the Womb

Before any entity is born into its world, many fundamental issues must be resolved. First of all, what is this thing? What is its potential? What will it become? Nature, in its infinite wisdom, works out these issues quite efficiently and, well, naturally. When humans create things, the process is a bit more bumpy and uncertain.

Is Palace a Game or What?

Early on, when Time-Warner gave Jim Bumgardner the option of working on either the Palace or "Catacombs of Fear" (a Doom-like game later to be called "Basement"), Bumgardner opted for the latter. Catacombs was more technically challenging and more likely to survive the budget ax, because it was more clearly the kind of recognizable "game" that Time-Warner was used to producing. Apparently, Palace was Bumgardner's true love - and his true destiny - for he soon returned to this project. But the game concept carried over. The "Game Palace," as it was referred to in those early days, was intended to resemble a large mansion or casino in cyberspace where players could meet to play traditional card, board, and table games, chat, flirt, and engage in a legal form of gambling. Basement, as well as other add-on features, could be launched from it. Some of the games in the Palace casino would be moderated (BlackJack, Bingo, Trivial Pursuit, etc.), and some unmoderated (Chess, Checkers, Poker, etc.). Fake "digital" dollars could be allotted and tracked by the program for use in the gambling. This environment was intended for a wide adult audience, and not for teenage computer geeks who wanted a virtual hangout. Essentially, Palace was a hybrid - a cross between an on-line chat area and a multi-player game server.

Against Bumgardner's better judgment, the game concept started to overshadow the idea of Palace as a social environment. One viewpoint at Time-Warner was to create specific fictional characters and storylines to inject into the Palace experience. The characters would appear intermittently and contact with them would immerse users into a Myst-like adventure. For example, one character, "The King," would have been a former Palace janitor who loved to impersonate Elvis. After accidentally poisoning himself by drinking cleaning fluid, he disappeared and was presumed dead - although Palace legend claims that he sporadically reappears, talking and singing, then mysteriously vanishes again. In this imaginary Palace world, users would also assume a persona or fictional identity that they could act out in the fictional plots of the Palace Game.

Bumgardner resisted this attempt to imitate Myst. Instead, he envisioned Palace as a complex networking system that would allow users the freedom to "make of it what they will" rather than impose a specific plot or game upon them. It should be a mirror reflecting the self-image of the user and not a predetermined scenario that forced users to adapt themselves to it. He also envisioned it as a "virtual bar" where singles could meet and socialize in various entertaining ways, essentially a place for dating and flirting - the kind of focus that he felt was underexploited by other software systems.

In the end, Bumgardner's vision prevailed. The Palace became, and still is, primarily a chat world - a SOCIAL world where human relationships are the main attraction. As a result, it works well as an adult environment where flirting and cyberdating is a common experience. Yet the game dimension is still there. People play chess and Geektionary. People play tricks on each other. Reminiscent of the "imaginary world" concept, users do assume fictional identities via the avatars they wear. Unfortunately, in a kind of ontogeny recapitulating phylogeny, newbie guests assume Palace *is* a fictional, Doom-like game where they can vent their pent-up frustrations by sexually and aggressively annoying other people.... at least until a wizard steps in to either correct their deviant ways or send them along the path of The King - dissipation. But this battle of good versus evil is part of the "game" too. It's just another component of that intriguing game we call "human relationships."

Should Palace be Naughty?

The tendency towards naughty, acting-out, and sometimes outright deviant behaviors on Palace has its roots in Bumgardner's early Palace philosophy. Although he avoided the Myst-like game features, he did emphasize that Palace be "cartoony" - which creates a fantasy-driven, "this isn't really real so let's play" feeling. He also insisted that Palace promotes anonymity, or "masking." With their true identity concealed and disguised, people would behave more loosely - an ideal condition for pranks and flirting (and, unfortunately, other more harmful behaviors). Bumgardner predicted that the eventual addition of voice communications would adversely affect the level of anonymity, and probably cause people to be more inhibited. Instead, digital signal processing could make voices sound like a cartoon voice, which would be fun as well as help maintain the anonymity level.

For several months Bumgardner pitched the idea to Time-Warner that "subversion" and "forbidden fruit" be used as a marketing tool for Palace. Users would feel like they were "getting away with something" because the Palace guaranteed anonymity (even the super-user couldn't spy on you or tell who you were). He wanted it to be a product that workers at large corporations would sneak into their office and run on the local network as inter-office goofing around with friends. He tinkered with the idea that lower employee levels could be covertly seeded with the program. He even considered the possible benefits from the publicity of someone suing for sexual harassment on the Palace. If it got to the point where companies banned its use, then Bumgardner felt he would have done his job well.

The potentially naughty and subversive qualities of Palace does indeed make it attractive to fun-loving adults. But yin always accompanies yang. The built-in genetic features that encourage uninhibited behavior also have resulted in some social difficulties. As we will see later in Palace history, a primary force behind the creation of the Wizards was the need to control excessive naughtiness and acting out.

Where will Palace Live?

In the early days at Time-Warner, Bumgardner's team was shying away from the idea of placing Palace on the internet and instead focused on it as a home/office/university chat environment for modems and LANs. They expected the office version to be the most successful, especially since the media at that time was filled with stories about entertainment software policies on office computer networks. A follow-up package for schools, with an education-oriented focus, was also considered. Although it was easy to make Palace work with the Internet, Bumgardner didn't think it would meet with success there due to stiff competition from the "free" software movement. A secondary release phase of the Palace was planned for wide area networks like CompuServe, America Online, Genie, and the World Wide Web. In this phase, Palace would be placed on one or more networks which people could access via modem from their home PC's.

As it turned out, the secondary release phase became the primary mission. The sparkling debut and final home for Palace was on the internet. In fact, an early version of Palace called "Sparky" (which is now the name attached to the smiley face) was first tested as a parasite program on IRC. The decision later to open on the web proved to be a good one. It was the perfect nurturing environment for Palace to flourish. The masses were coming to cyberspace. They wanted chat. They wanted graphics. Palace gave them both. And on the internet, the vision of Palace as a networking social environment could be more fully realized than ever possible in an office setting.

Can Palace Survive?

Palace is not an only child in the world of GMUKs. There was competition from its cousins - as there is always competition in the fast-paced arena of computer software. The Time-Warner team predicted that WorldsAway would be its main rival. It was most similar to Palace in its sophistication, but there were several important differences. WorldsAway required a CompuServe subscription and thus a fee for access time, whereas Palace was free to access and required payment only for the registered software. WorldsAway used a network of powerful servers (CompuServe) to create a single large world, whereas Palace consisted of many, small interconnected worlds, each one at a different internet address. WorldsAway had it's own play money that was used to buy new rooms and props, whereas Palace was a "free" system without restricted economics (the concept of digital gambling dollars was abandoned). Last, but not least, the WorldsAway universe didn't allow you to draw your own heads, props and rooms, or create your own independent sites. Palace did.

All in all, the Palace design gave more power and freedom to the users to "make what they will" of the Palace experience. It gave them the power and freedom to create themselves, and, if they so desired, their own worlds. With such flexibility and adaptability, Palace had an intrinsically high potential to survive by changing and evolving.

But what would it evolve into?

II. The Early Days at Main

The Palace Main site (also called "Mansion") opened to the public in November of 1995. The first to arrive tended to be immigrants and explorers from other virtual communities, such as the AOL chat rooms, WorldsChat, and Echo. Some had grown tired of the large, impersonal, and snertish chat environments. Some simply wanted to explore new territory. When they first arrived at Palace, they often felt a bit disoriented, or experienced culture shock, since they found themselves coming from much large, usually text-only chat environments into this very small, intimate, and GRAPHICAL world. The visuals were quite overwhelming for some people. They also had a whole new set of keyboard commands to master. The beta-testers, wizards, and the Gods themselves cheerfully greeted the new arrivals and showed them the ropes.

Once they adapted, many of them felt captivated by what they had discovered. They marveled at how the props, avatars, and graphical space provided an enticing new avenue for communicating and expressing oneself (Arctic Frost's hand-made props rarely failed to impress and inspire). They were excited by the idea that they were participating in the pioneering of an entirely new type of virtual community. Most importantly, they were making new friends. People eagerly registered to become members and spent as much time as possible in their new virtual home. Some stayed up almost all night in order to hang out with their Palace chums. Here's how one old-timer described those days:
In the beginning, I was unable to see someone else use my computer; I needed to be online all the time. The same people were in the bar when I came, FO, PH, Chrissy, SJ, Storm, Sleepy and so many others. When I got in the bar, people said hi, joked with you and spoke about things, none too serious. I was in heaven!! In my day to day real life, there is stress, here there was none, just friendship, acceptance and mindlessness. The Palace was the ultimate in companionship, ready and waiting any time of the day or night. Nights when I couldn't sleep, I didn't have to listen to the sound of my own voice playing off into the night. I could come on line and find something else to think about than the work day world.
Many old-timers now sentimentally look back on those first few months as the "good old days." The community was very small (the group "cheered" when the user list hit 40). Everyone knew everyone else. People were friendly, playful, and intimacy developed quickly. With such a small group, the server hummed away happily with very little lag clogging the chat. Jbum and other designers of Palace were around a lot, which made people feel connected to the original creative source of it all.

Some of the old-timers even pine for those good old days. With the rapid growth in the population that would come within the next few months - the "smiley boom," as some call it - much of the intimacy, fun, and excitement evaporated for these old-timers. Although part of the excitement in those early months was the feeling of camaraderie about recruiting new members and building a new world, this pioneering effort had it's down side. Be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it. Expanding the community brought more lag, less coziness, and a waning of the feeling that this was a brand new experience. "Were we really prepared for what it has become?" one old-timer asked. "Sometimes it seemed as though we were virtual babysitters for nonexistent parents." He was referring to another unavoidable problem that accompanied the expansion of the population - the surge of immature (often, but not always, young) people who wanted to use Palace to vent their sexual and aggressive frustrations.

One early historic incident highlighted the snert problem and was an omen of things to come. Some referred to it as "the Rape of Quentin." A female user named Quentin was sexually harassed when another user whispered and spoke out loud obscenities to her, as well as put words into her mouth with the spoofing command. Her strong complaints about the incident, especially on the Palace Community Standards newsgroup, triggered a barrage of postings debating the social, technical and political implications of the incident. Some blamed the rising population of snerts; some blamed the Palace designers for giving too much power and anonymity to guests; some blamed users like Quentin for being thin-skinned and taking virtual experiences too personally and too literally. Should more control be exercised over foul language and behavior - like scripts that filter out obscene words? There were protests against anarchy and words defending the right to freedom of speech and expression. There were debates about "real" versus virtual rape, decency laws on the internet, sexism, and whether Palace was meant only for adults.

Palace officials intervened. In postings to the newsgroup, Mark Jeffrey and Jim Bumgardner expressed their concerns about the incident. Jim also admitted that there was a security problem with guests having too much anonymity. Previously, guests were identified only as "guests," but now distinct ID numbers would be assigned to each new arrival so that it would be possible to keep track of their behavior (especially spoofing) so unruly guests could be identified and disciplined. Guests' ability to spoof was also curtailed, as well as their access to some rooms.

The rape of Quentin was a milestone event. It did lead to software changes that helped control the snert problem, but it's effect was more global. It brought to the surface of public discussion a wide variety of social and technical issues that are still being debated today. Although conflicts sprung up in these discussions, the overall effect of coping with this early developmental crisis was a unifying of the community. The incident motivated people to understand what the Palace experience was about. It motivated them to demonstrate their commitment to improving the community.

III. Coping with the Masses: Social Differentiation

Beginning in the second trimester of Palace history, the population started to expand. 50, 60, 100 people were signing on to Main in the evening hours. Eventually, over 200 people occupied the server each night. The small, intimate community from the early days was being washed over with smiley guests and unfamiliar avatars manned by new members.

In any growing population - be it virtual or "real" - people struggle to find their place among the masses. People want to feel that they belong to a distinct group, and they also want their unique identity recognized within that group. They want to feel that they are contributing to the community - making their "mark" on it. Within the mix of sundry people, they want to acquire some measure of status, position, and power - especially if they've been around a while. They want these things not necessarily to control or dominate others, but rather to feel a sense of personal value and importance. They want to BE SOMEBODY, and not just anybody.

At the expanding Palace, with avs and smileys clogging every room and balloons popping all over the screen, it was a challenge to establish one's place. A fad developed in which people placed copyright, registered, and trademark symbols next to their username in order to "protect" the sanctity of their identity. Soon people were placing a variety of unusual keyboard characters next to their name, as if wearing "badges" to signify some kind of imaginary status or position, or as a way to identify their membership to a particular clique. At the main site, where most Palatians preferred to hang out, a variety of cliques formed to create that intimacy and sense of belonging that is unique to small groups. Often a particular room became their unofficial territory. Some of these subgroups acquired a specific identity - such as the small group of females who hung out on "Women's Beach." One function of this group was to establish a sense of camaraderie among women as a distinctive and valued contingent of the Palace community. Rumor has it that (jealous and/or curious) males in drag attempted to crash their parties.

In the second half of Palace's first year, the subgroupings and social hierarchies became even more complex as the population grew. There would be wizards, PUGsters, and Magi. There would be the colonization of off-main sites. At the top level, the power structure would change giving birth to TPI. And at the "lowest" level, there would be "bad guys" and gangsters.

The Inner Circle: Wizards and Gods

The group of wizards and gods are the oldest and most stable group in the Palace culture. The group existed from the very beginning. At first it consisted of only a handful of people, mostly the team at Time-Warner. During beta-testing, some of the volunteers were asked to join the group. It had a strong impact on the other users:

During the beta, Digital mentioned that Spingo had been made a wizard. I was amazed! I knew by then that some wizards existed, but I assumed them all to be Time-Warner employees. I had visions of this big machine working away in California, making this awesomely cool software. Little did I know that there were a handful of underpaid people struggling to make this cool software a viable, marketable reality. The group had accomplished so much, so I was surprised to discover they were so small and insignificant in TW's big picture. I had visions of grandeur for these wonderful people, which I still pray comes to pass.
Being asked to become a wizard often is a powerful experience for a user. It is an acceptance into an inner circle of the Palace community. It fulfills that need for status, power, identity, and feeling that one belongs. Making wizard meant that you were special and stood out. It meant that your skills and knowledge were both valued and needed in the service of the community. The core of old-timer wizards are those who were selected very early in the history of Palace:
My most memorable early Palace moment was when jbum asked me if I wanted to be a wizard. I was overwhelmed. I remember my heart beating faster, and getting flushed. Wow! Of course I said yes, and he told me that I would be initiated, and when. I was amazed.... I'll never forget my initiation. I was so terribly excited that day, as I waited for the appointed hour to meet jbum on Main. I went to the cafe as instructed, and was totally confused. Where was everyone? Then Spingo came in and whispered to me to utter an incantation and I was magically transported to a room I didn't know existed! It was a hidden room, Murmoorerer, a copy of the Moor. My whole family crowded around the monitor to watch, and I was so excited I could barely type!... As I remember, Coyote, jbum, Digital, Spingo, Sleepy and dChurch were the only ones there that night. Because of the top secret nature of the Wizard Induction Ceremony, I cannot divulge what occurred after that to the general Palace public. Needless to say, it was thrilling, enchanting and hysterically funny!
As the population grew, making wizard became an even more distinctive achievement because one was being selected out of the masses. Wizardship became an important motivating factor for some users. It encouraged them to spend more time Palacing, befriending wizards, and making some contribution to the community that would distinguish them from everyone else.

Making wizard brought about three important changes in a member's Palatial life. The wizards acted as a kind of consulting group to the Time-Warner (and later TPI) team, suggesting changes in software and social policies. Armed with the wizard password, they had the power to change some of the features of the Palace environment (like altering doors or adding automated messages). And wizards had the power to KILL.

Discipling snerts is part of the daily routine of the wizard and a very visible one to the general population. In the early days, when the wizard group and Palace community were small, each kill was discussed. Concerned about power and corruption, the wizards wanted to keep each other in check so they would not overstep their role. However, with the masses arriving at Palace, it became harder to devote such careful thought and discussion to their actions. Snerts appeared in bunches and had to be dealt with as quickly and efficiently as possible. It became apparent that the wizard kill command was not enough. More refined tools were needed - so pin, gag, mute, hide, and the ability to track users were added. Some of these features (mute, hide) empowered the non-wizard member. Other commands, like pin and gag, enabled the wizard to more subtly discipline snerts without having to kill them. Despite these efforts to underplay the wizard's power, some people in the community began to view the wizards as primarily a police force - as authority figures, disciplinarians, parents. A few perceived the wizards as abusive and openly expressed contempt for them. No doubt, some of these reactions were over-reactions, or what psychoanalysts call "transference." But there were discussions even among the wizards about how some of their colleagues - perhaps a few newbie wizards - might indeed be getting a bit over enthusiastic with their kill button.

An attempt was made to recruit women for wizardship in the hopes that they would be less power-hungry and trigger-happy than male members. More importantly, a few wizards and gods (like jbum and Sleepy) wanted to encourage women in general to join the Palace community. Female wizards might help them feel more welcome and appreciated as members. Having an even mix of gender might also dilute the heavy testosterone levels that plagued other chat environments and were threatening to damage Palace. "I'm not sure any of that was true," observed FO in retrospect. "And in the end, the power balance still ended up being heavily male. I think too many truly talented women blend too easily into the background, so are not nominated [to wizardship] as much. And the idea that women would kill less then men has probably been disproven many times over."

The rising snert problem challenged a fundamental element of the Palace philosophy. How much leeway should be given to users "making what they will" of Palace? Where should the lines be drawn in controlling and governing the community? These questions applied not just to aggressive antics, but also sexual ones. Spurred by the Valentines Party in 1996, seductive and partially nude props started to propagate like eager bunnies. What went on behind the locked doors of the guests rooms was one thing, but scantily clad forms in the open public of Harry's Bar and at Gate were another issue entirely. Partial nudity (and even brief moments of complete nudity before one was quickly killed) posed an even greater public relations problem as the crowds grew and the media started visiting the Palace.

Another basic premise of the Palace philosophy was being tested. It was intended to be naughty. It was designed as primarily an adult environment... but HOW naughty and HOW adult? The "propgag" command was created to help wizards strip users of their indecent avatars. But it didn't help solve the more basic problem of defining exactly WHAT is indecent. Supreme court justices have a hard time splitting these hairs. The wizards established some general guidelines (i.e., no visible breasts), but they continue to debate the more subtle issues of what is unacceptable and when to propgag or kill.

Similar debates arose over "hate props" such as Nazi symbols. Should they be banned, or would that be a violation of freedom of speech? Even more slippery was the issue of foul language. Which tainted words like f*** should be automatically blanked out with astericks? Would adults be annoyed with such restrictions? A general rule of thumb followed the often quoted motto of Randy Farmer, a pioneer in GMUK development and an honorary wizard at Palace. "Push the power down." If you're going to restrict what the user sees, hears, or can do, try to build those options into the client software so the user can decide for him or herself (or for his or her children). "Have it your way." Click a button and you no longer will see or hear f*** or have to look at that swastika. Some of these options, like a "propgag" command for members, still do not exist, but other options for filtering one's experience do. Of course, in the trenches, some people won't know about such commands as `mute and `hide, so someone - often an overworked wizard - will have to explain it.

With these challenges resulting from the rising population, being a wizard wasn't as much fun as it used to be. It was WORK - and for most, without pay. Being "on call" to respond to pages - which usually meant someone wanted to be rescued from a snert - pulled you away from your own socializing. Lots of people had questions they expected you to answer - sometimes dumb questions or ones that the user manual already answered. Because you were perceived as an authority figure, people brought their personal problems to you - problems you couldn't solve or maybe didn't want to hear. Some people brown-nosed you, and others regarded you with suspicion and scorn.

To cope with the growing population, the size of wizard group had to be increased. It went from a cozy dozen in the early days to more than 50 a year later. As is true of any working group that increases in size, a whole new set of changes faced the wizards. Factions appeared in their group. Arguments ensued, which sometimes led to the resolution of important problems, and sometimes simply created hard feelings. The wizard group also started to differentiate (officially and unofficially) into levels and types. There were newbie wizards, old-timers, gods, and paid employees of TPI. There were TPI "advisors" to the wizard group and a "wiz chair" who acted as overseer to the group and as liaison to TPI. There were wizards who were skilled at technical tasks; wizards who were good with social challenges, like talking down a snert or alleviating inter-wizard conflicts ("socio-emotional leaders"); wizards who were good organizers and "task leaders"; wizards who showed talent in verbalizing the philosophical aspects of Palace. Some were multi-talented in these areas.

Wizards experimented with automating their tasks in order to lighten their work with the masses. An automated help center was created, as well as an automated tour of Palace. Wizards created scripts that could display pre-written signs containing instructions or warnings for members with questions or attitude problems. Some wizards tinkered with scripts that could kill upon detecting an obscene word, or that would nudge a blocker off its victim. A bot was created that would sit at the Members site, wait for someone to page a wizard, and then report the page to the wizards at Main (where most of them hung out). Some of these changes were necessary and helpful. All of them placed automation in front of the user rather than personal contact with a wizard. The charm of the small, intimate Palace from the early days was wearing off. Knowing who WAS a wizard became more difficult, so the wizards experimented with placing an asterisk badge (*) next to their username in order to help users identify them. Most wizards preferred not to do this. Status hungry members then copied the badge, forcing the Palace designers to change the software so only wizards could don the asterisk. "If you think someone is deceiving you about being a wizard," users were warned, "ask them to add an asterisk to their name."

To counteract the "institutional" feel that was evolving, efforts were also made to rekindle the personal touch. A technical support room, staffed by real-live wizards, was opened. A few dedicated wizards went out of their way to personally nurture the newbies who popped up at the Gate at the Main and Welcome Palaces. And Bumgardner's rule of thumb rarely wavered: use talk rather than scripts. In early 1997, TPI instituted a monetary incentive program for wizards who helped guests and encouraged them to register. Ideally, personal contact would recruit new members more effectively than automated information or simply letting newcomers wander around on their own. But there was a small price to pay for the new policy. While some wizards assisted and socialized with newbies simply because they wanted to, now there was a financial reward for doing so. In the eyes of some suspicious guests, a friendly wizard represented not simply a benign helper or a potential friend, but rather a business strategy.

The history of the wizards is essentially the history of a balancing or juggling act. It's a self-correcting process of steering a middle course between the original Palace philosophy and the necessities of accommodating a growing community and the business behind it. "Let them make of it what they will" versus "Stop them from abusing each other!" "Let them be naughty" versus "Let's not violate public standards." "Let's be friends" versus "How can we deal with all these tennis balls?"

Despite the confusions and conflicts that arise when grappling with these polarities, the wizard group continues to prevail as an essential organizing nucleus of the community. Within the ever-changing, somewhat chaotic population at Main, it is the most stable subgroup with the widest knowledge of Palace life and the longest memory for Palace history. As such, it provides continuity and unity for the community. The creation of the wizard e-mail list and the wizard paging system enhanced the group's unifying influence. Off the Palace, the wizards "gather" on the list to discuss technical and social issues, to support each other, and simply to hang out. At the Palace, wizards anywhere on the site can communicate with all other wizards through the paging system. Other users can also send messages into the system, but cannot see anything the wizards type. Even though the users are scattered through the various rooms of the site, doing their own things, there is a hidden, behind-the-scenes overlay of "wizard-awareness" that helps unify the site.

The problems, challenges and changes experienced by the wizards was not unique to their group. As the Palace population grew, what happened to the wizards reflected what was happening in the community as a whole.

For an even more in-depth discussion of the wizards at the Main site, see this article.

PUGsters Unite: The Palace User Group

In the summer of 1996, the Palace User Group was created by Myotis and a handful of his fellow Palatians, including Carol, Drover, Skeezil, River, Finchy, Blondie and Mila. In its earliest stage, the group had a grass-roots, revolutionary spirit. There were problems at Palace and the early PUGsters took it upon themselves to organize and address those problems. One member described an air of "secrecy and paranoia" that surrounded the group. They were not sure how the wizards and gods would react to their mission. When one meeting was crashed by a stranger, they thought they had been "caught." Occasionally they even changed their usernames.

Shortly thereafter, when some of the founders of the group were invited to be wizards at Main, the group became a bit destabilized. They reexamined their goals and rallied as a vehicle to serve and unify the entire Palace population. It's mission was to create a mailing list (listserv) where users could more easily share ideas and discuss issues than is possible in the rather cumbersome balloon-popping chat environment. It also planned to conduct monthly "real-time" meetings at the Palace. As such, the PUG was the first attempt at an organized group of non-wizard Palatians. For those who weren't wizards, it was a place to belong and to feel some sense of efficacy. Here's how Myotis summarized the beginning of the PUG:
We were fed up with the problems that the palace had then, and not being wizards we had no real way of dealing with them, so we started to meet and discuss, and before we knew it we were beginning to organize. Finchy came up with the idea of a listserver, and we voted on it. I approached jbum and was met with great support for the project. Shortly after that, a lot of us made wizards at main, and there was a lot of feeling from some that we had achieved our goals, that there was no need for the group anymore. The group split into factions for about a week, and then through (once again) group discussion we reaffirmed that making wizard was perhaps some of the personal goals, but the group needed to have a higher calling, to represent the Palace populace as a whole. That is what formed the large group we now know of as PUG.
The monthly "real-time" meetings of the PUG were well-attended and successful. In the first few weeks, the listserv also ran smoothly and enthusiasm ran high. Then the problems started. As the number of subscribers sky-rocketed, the list became flooded with postings. People started complaining about having to download all the spams, personal communications, and irrelevant messages. People started arguing. What was the purpose of the list? What was the purpose of Palace? Intellectual duels flared up, especially about anti-social behavior at the Palace and the perceived abuse of power by wizards. People attacked each other, the wizards, and TPI. The boundaries of the PUG became unclear because some people assumed it was a natural extension of TPI. It wasn't, in their eyes, a grass-roots user group, but just another organ of the establishment - probably because they saw wizards from Main in charge of the PUG. Out of that need to establish a place, voice, and sense of influence for oneself apart from the masses, people drew lines in the sand and hopped on bandwagons in an "us" versus "them" struggle. Once started, it seemed almost impossible to put out the flame wars. The list needed a lot of "mothering" (moderating) which severely strained the time and energy of the PUG officers, who were a handful of volunteers who never planned on having to referee a free-for-all.

The PUG leaders addressed the list's problems from several angles. A digest was made available, which made it easier for subscribers to download and read numerous messages. More efforts were made to moderate the list. In the most drastic move, the leaders created two separate spin-off lists - the Deep-Thoughts and Palace Announcements. These additions helped siphon off some of the numerous postings. In the case of Deep-Thoughts, it also diverted and isolated some of the intellectual discussions that tended to generate lengthy messages and heated arguments. Deep-Thinkers were also encouraged to post their messages on the Palace Community Standards newsgroup rather than to the PUG list. The attempt to move intellectual debates off the list may indeed have reduced the flame wars; it may also have dampened the community's awareness of basic issues and controversies in the Palace philosophy.

By January of 1997, the number of messages and flames on the PUG list subsided considerably. Some of the users who had thrown up their hands in disgust and unsubscribed eventually rejoined the list. The PUG also became a bit more bureaucratized, with a published charter that outlined election procedures for PUG administrators, rules for behaving on the listserv, sanctions, and appeal procedures. No doubt, the social chaos that had erupted on the list was one factor that had inspired the officers to inject more structure into the PUG experience.

The PUG continues as the single most important forum for collective communication within the general population of the Palace - including members from all Palace sites across the internet. It helps satisfy that need for a sense of community among all Palatians, as well as unifies the consciousness of the Palace community.

The changes experienced by the PUG list resemble those seen in many listservs - seen, in fact, in almost any ongoing group, including the Palace community itself. There is an initial enthusiasm and evangelistic urges to recruit more people. Newcomers are greeted with generosity and patience. Then the group grows in size and diversity to the point where opinions differ, cliques develop, and people start stepping on each others toes. In this "storming and norming" stage, as social psychologists call it, the group's conflicts center on differences of opinion and the search for agreed upon rules about how to behave. Eventually, if the group reaches the mature, fully functional stage of development, it is flexible enough to accept diversity and work through any new conflicts that arise.

Disneyland Opens: The Magus

About the same time that the PUG was forming, Arctic Frost, Dr. Xenu, Wizzard, and Peter were debating Palace politics on the Community Standards Newgroup. One thread focused on whether the wizards were too powerful and elite. With only a handful of people being invited to the wizard group every few months, many talented and dedicated Palatians felt they were being overlooked and under-empowered. In another thread about the purpose of Palace, Dr. Xenu suggested that it is like Disneyland - an entertainment center where people come to enjoy themselves. Each user selects his or her own preferred form of entertainment, and Palace provides the flexible setting. It was an idea reminiscent of the original concept of the Palace Casino where a variety of games were available.

Arctic Frost put the ideas from these two threads together and founded the "Magus." She had always wanted the wizards to sponsor entertainment activities, but they were preoccupied with helping new users and monitoring the rooms. She also recognized that many people were dissatisfied with the wizards because they wished, openly or secretly, that they were wizards too even though there was very little chance they would ever be selected. The Magus, an alternative to wizardship, could be a distinctive volunteer organization that assumed responsibility for organizing Palace activities rather than complain about the "establishment" not providing any. It was an attempt to empower the populace and shape the Palace environment:

So keeping in the defines of the 'DisneyLand' theory, I wondered why not set up a group that created what it wanted in it's own "booth" at "DisneyLand". Those that liked DisneyLand as it was could ignore the booth. But those that wanted more from DisneyLand could have the option of getting it at this booth. This booth being responsible for itself, thus relieving the Wizards of having to create something that the majority of people had no need for.
Arctic Frost anticipated that the group might succumb to the same fate she had witnessed in other online worlds. The Magus might be a fad that would die out, or dissatisfied Magi might split off to form their own groups, resulting in a handful of factions. "But that didn't happen," Arctic stated, "Instead I stumbled onto something wonderful." The group became quite cohesive and organized a number of very successful events. For the "Link Parties," the Magus set up links on Main that automatically transported users to special events at other (non-TPI) sites, the first being WWNS. For the first time in Palace history, the effort to draw significant numbers of people off the highly popular Main site and onto other sites succeeded. The live "rock concerts" - the first, again, being at WWNS - were particularly successful. When off-stage, the performing musicians would socialize with fans at the Palace. These concerts were then topped by the historic "24 Hours on the Palace," originally suggested by Kent Starr. For the 24 Hours, the Magus created a complex set of links, tours, and events that networked a variety of Palace sites from around the world. It was an undertaking unparalleled in the history of Palace social events and required the coordination of dozens of volunteer workers.

The Magus attracted to its ranks a number of very talented and motivated Palatians. People were eager to join and submit their ideas for new events. It's membership reached a 100. It became one of the major forces behind the colonization of off-main sites.

Similar to the PUG, however, problems arose. When TPI hired from the ranks of the Magus volunteers, the group became destabilized. Not everyone could be paid to work for Palace. Apparently, miscommuncations between TPI and the Magus may have contributed to the hard feelings that developed amongst the Magus members. Later, Arctic Frost herself was hired by TPI - but not to run the Magus, which discouraged some top Magus members who then left the group. As Arctic Frost explained, the big events that the Magus attempted also were turning out to be more than the Magus could handle.
Unfortunately, as wonderful as the 24 Hours idea was, it also served to nearly kill the group. These professional activities, though important and needed for the successful colonization of off main sites, also called for professional work. The whole concept of having normal people doing extraordinary things was unraveling. These ideas were just way too big for the Magus set up. I had a handful of people having to do way too much work. So I closed down to restructure. The new structure now allows volunteers of every level to be involved. Not just the mega-talented. So far it is evolving and going slowly as I had foreseen. I am extremely satisfied with the new structure. Albeit we do not get the limelight like we used to, this is how it should be.
The Magus did not escape some criticism from other Palace members. These members felt that the creation of the Magus intensified the trend towards a class system. They believed that the Magus - by forming a distinct group and placing a "badge" placed in front of their username (the ? symbol) - encouraged others to do the same. Intergroup competitions and conflicts were the result. FO clearly summarized this view:
You see, up until then, there was really only two classes of Palatians (though some would dispute this): Members and Guests. Yes, there were Wizards, but we were primarily members who were given some added gun power to help monitor the halls. Most of us did not wear any special symbol or names to distinguish ourselves from Members. In fact, probably most of the population didn't even know who the Wizards were (this may still be true). Heck, even after Jbum massaged the software so only Wizards could wear the "*", most Wizards go without. The initial result of Magus was an eruption of other groups that created turf wars across TPI Palaces. There was the ?Magus, the anti-Magus group, the Legion, and a host of other folks who started plopping symbols on their names or wearing special props (parrot heads, for example) to stand out as a "class" of Palace users (some for the good of palace, others representing the evil corrupt side of Palace).
Some supporters of this viewpoint did not see the PUG in the same light. Quietly, behind the scenes, the PUG simply encouraged all users to communicate with and help each other. The Magi, according to this viewpoint, wore special symbols and announced their membership to make themselves feel that they belonged to a "special" group - "special" often implying "better," which leads to competition and conflicts. As such, critics of this aspect of the Magus felt that the formation of such groups, though probably inevitable, should not be encouraged by TPI officials, including TPI-site wizards who are extensions of the company. While acknowledging that the Magus in many other ways has made highly positive contributions to community, FO added this observation about human nature:

In the end, humans are too vastly egotistical to ever truly live in a class-less society (even in an online environment). Most folks want to "belong" to that special class that is a notch above others or allows them to stand out in some other way. In that light, Magus obviously fills a void many people seem to be missing as just a plain-vanilla member.

If members are allowed to "make what they will" of Palace - as the original philosophy suggested - then these kinds of "egotistical" strivings surely will surface for some users, in some way, shape, or form. It *is* human nature.

The Colonization of Off-Main Sites

Once the masses started to arrive, they crowded together mostly at Main, with relatively few migrating to the other Palace sites that were being created. The large population there was partly due to the fact that Main was the default connection setting in the software, so guests automatically were deposited there when they first signed on. But sites-savvy members also liked to hang out at Main, and trying attract anyone to other sites proved to be an especially difficult task.

Why didn't they want to leave Main? The horrendous lag from the over-crowding often made conversing tedious, or impossible. The place was overrun with the "tennis balls" that some members viewed as annoying, clueless, second class citizens. A few reporters from the media - overwhelmed by the crowds, the lag, and the buzzing confusion of text balloons popping all around them - concluded that Palace was interesting and entertaining, but serious conversations and the development of friendships looked impossible in such an "impersonal" environment. Surely, other new arrivals came to the same conclusion.... And yet, the population grew and very few wanted to move off to other sites.

A variety of factors may have contributed to the Main mania. As its name implied, Main developed the rock solid reputation as being the "main" site. It was the center of the Palace community, the original Palace, the "happening" place where EVERYONE hung out. Crowds draw crowds. It's a positive feedback loop. If you liked a large party atmosphere, as opposed to the much more intimate gatherings of other sites, Main was the place to be. Some people DO enjoy Times Square on New Years Eve. If you wanted to meet new people, Main had a much larger, more diverse group to browse. If you wanted simply to be around other people, but remain anonymous while relating somewhat superficially to others, Main provided that opportunity too. It's feels much less socially awkward to quietly slip in and out of a room at crowded Main than at other smaller sites. For those who hung around longer, and talked to people, they slowly realized that this place indeed wasn't superficial or impersonal at all. There were friendships, romances, conflicts, and quite a few other interpersonal dramas going on here. Beneath the confusion and crowds, there was a complex community to explore. Surely, that enticed some users to stay around. They wanted to find out more, maybe even establish their presence and make their own mark on this community.

The other TPI sponsored sites included Members (for registered users only), Haunted (a haunted house theme), and, Welcome, which was created almost a year after the opening of Palace and intended for new users. Haunted was almost always a ghost town, here and there visited by one or two wandering souls who would pop in for a few minutes, then disappear. Welcome also remained empty, until it became the default connection setting in the client software.

Members was intended to be an alternative site for users who wanted to avoid the crowds and guests of Main. But in the first few months, it also remained nearly vacant. To tempt some people over, a unique feature was added - the ability to create one's own room, complete with a name and a graphic backdrop of one's choice. Theoretically, this feature should have tempted many Palatians, who generally love graphics as a way to express their individuality. The status and power of having control over one's own room also should have been very enticing. Yet only a handful of people took advantage of the opportunity, resulting in small, often fleeting, enclaves of subgroups at the site. The attraction of Main was still too great. If you wanted a graphic backdrop for your room other than the standard Palace pics, you also had to SEND it to people so they could see it when they visited. It was a bit too inconvenient for many people. Even when software changes made it possibly to automatically download the graphics upon visiting a room, the number of private rooms didn't increase significantly. Another inhibiting factor must have been operating - perhaps the fact that you had to sit in your newly created room and wait for people to come visit you. If you disconnected from the site, your room would vanish like Shangrila. This too was a drawback. For many people, the attraction of Palace was that you could pop in at almost any time and find people to hang out with. Prearranged meetings were not the norm.

Eventually, small, very cohesive groups did develop at Members - like the Family. A small Palace subculture developed. Some of these groups claimed particular rooms as their territory, such as the Red Room. Guests who serendipitously stumbled on these intimate gatherings usually were greeted warmly. As a result of this friendly reception, some stayed and claimed Members as their home, rather than going to Main. When groups such as the Family disbanded or moved to other sites, thus removing a social nucleus to attract new users, the population at Members once again would drop, leaving behind a few very small groups. Some of these groups had a rather cultist, xenophobic, or "outcast" quality. They would wear counter-culture props or quickly boot visitors out of the room. When a few members gave obscene names to their rooms, the wizards began discussing how members seemed to be slipping into the category of "lost cause." One way to salvage the place, the wizards thought, would be to take it over and turn it into a Wizard Palace, much like the Magus had its own Palace.

The only TPI site to rival Main in population size was Welcome. Initially intended to serve as a gathering place for new users, it attracted only a few visitors. That changed when the Palace client software was altered so that Welcome became the default connection setting, rather than Main. Now guests showed up in droves. With the constant stream of new people arriving, some decided to stay and make Welcome their home. A new community developed. The Magus saw this as an opportunity and focused its efforts on cultivating this new blood. Arctic Frost believed they had potential as "worldly" Palatians who would call Welcome their home, but would also be willing to visit other non-TPI sites:

I can give up on Main and my desires to get them off Main for good reason. We now have Welcome. There we started anew. On Welcome it's population freely visits other sites. They do not soley play on Welcome and find the joy of bouncing from one site to another. I constantly run into them everywhere. Main, Welcome and off-main sites. They are so worldly, I love seeing it. Yet, it hasn't turned into a jump off point. Welcome is constantly populated with a community of it's own.
As a result of their link parties and sponsoring of special events, the Magus succeeded in stimulating the growth of some non-TPI sites. Over time, their mission changed slightly. Arctic Frost's philosophy became more Darwinian. She believed that the non-TPI world must shape its own destiny: strong and determined sites would survive, while inherently weak sites "must die for the good of the whole." Rather than artificially (and futilely) propping up a weak site by their outside efforts - which might weaken other sites - the Magus instead provided information and resources to help site developers help themselves. This was the purpose of the Magus Palace. Visitors are free to try out and "steal" scripts for their own sites - and many do. Wizards at the Magus Palace are chosen not for the purpose of monitoring snerts, but rather for their skills at building a site or their willingness to learn how. "We also are trying to get sites to recognize they will not get their populations from Main," Arctic Frost explained,"Main is Main and you will not grow a good site by using it's population to fashion your own."

In the second half of the first year of Palace, several popular non-TPI communities began to solidify and thrive - some before the existence of the Magus and without much outside assistance. Most sites grew by word of mouth communication among friends. Some of the earliest were the Finch Nest (opening in December of 1995) and Cybertown. Later, others appeared, such as Mexchat and the Hideout. At the one year anniversary of Palace, in November of 1996, there were dozens of Palace sites and more appearing each week. The sites vary widely in their graphical theme, culture, and norms about acceptable and unacceptable behavior - some with a stable community, some just a hangout just for a few friends, some vacant, some commercial, some privately owned, some with a specific mission or hobbyist focus, some just social taverns. Almost all of these sites have a daily attendance much lower than Main, which recaptures the small, intimate atmosphere of the early days at the Palace. Although not all of these small communities will necessarily welcome newcomers, users (including old-timers) who have grown weary with the crowds, unruly behavior, or "impersonal" feel at Main can experience (or reexperience) the "good old days" at these other sites.

With the colonization of off-Main sites, Main must redefine its own identity. Ph's Horse described the different philosophies on this issue. Some view Main as a "melting pot" for various factions of the Palace community, which means it should provide a variety of interesting experiences (scripts, props) that will appeal to as many people as possible. A quite different philosophy is that Main should serve as a jumping-off point to other sites, which might work best if the site is a "plain vanilla" flavor that encourages users to migrate elsewhere. A third possibility, which is the course Main seems to be steering, falls somewhere between these two views.

If Palace is to survive, non-TPI sites must continue to develop. Everyone in an expanding community cannot live on the same block. Old-timers have speculated about a variety of ways to improve the community-wide growth of Palace. Newbies connecting for the first time could be directed to different sites, although excluding them completely from Main might turn its population homogeneous and stale. Members need the ability to locate and communicate with people/friends across sites and servers. Transportation links between sites need to be more extensive and easy to use, especially linking abilities built right into the client software rather than located on servers.

Palace is at a critical stage in its development. The software does intrinsically shape many of the elements of the Palace atmosphere, so that there indeed is a basic universal Palace language and experience. But the software is also very flexible. Site developers can "make of it what they will." Down the road, will Palace evolve into a collection of disparate communities with little contact among them? Or will the creation of a comprehensive infrastructure of interconnectivity among sites result in a overarching meta-community?

Snerts and Gangstaz

As the masses arrived at Palace, the need to establish one's own identity, and to feel that one had some kind of power or influence, was not limited to good-doers. Snertdom also is an attempt to be unique and exert control. Bad boys (and girls) want to be somebody too, and they achieve that goal by being bad. Playing the role of the alienated rebel and the antagonistic underdog can feel very special and powerful. Being around large, fluctuating crowds while having only a number for a name makes guests especially vulnerable to snertdom as an identity-seeking tactic. Their anonymity creates the identity frustration that leads them to acting out, as well as disinhibits them to misbehave. The fact that some members treat them as second class citizens only makes matters worse. One guest, frustrated by the prejudice he perceived among members, verbally lashed out against them while attempting to rally his fellow guests. Here's a log excerpt, complete with the guest's shouting caps:

As distasteful as this fellow was, he did have a point. There was a growing tendency to treat the guests as hated lower class citizens, which reflected the need of such members to feel important, special, and powerful (a very common dynamic in the "real" world of racism and social class struggles). The prejudice ranged from mildly derogatory or dehumanizing terms for guests ("guesties" and "tennis balls") to blatant expressions of hostility (a prop consisting of an ax buried in the head of a bloody smiley). Eventually, TPI and the wizards clamped down on such prejudice. It wasn't good for business. It wasn't humane.

In other words, members can be snerts too. In fact, snertish members are more likely to succeed in their efforts to establish a presence and feeling of power by ORGANIZING. Gangs, or "ganstaz" as Dr. Xenu calls them, are yet another symptom of the expanding Palace community. A classic example was the "Legion." With an abstruse character symbol placed next to their username (their "colors"), they attempted to create havoc by verbally abusing members, bombarding people with nonsense whispers, and forcing lag by flooding the server. There was much debate among the wizards about the outbreak of this social malady. Should Legion members be killed at sight and banned, or would that only turn them into vindictive martyrs? Should more efforts be made to reason with them, maybe even invite them to do something constructive for the community so they could feel like they belonged? Were they just a bunch of bored kids who were simply a nuisance, or were they serious hackers who could harm the Palace? Was there anyway to encourage snerts to go elsewhere?.

The wizards entertained two different viewpoints. There was the "Nazi" position, which advocated the "kill on sight" tactic. Then there was the "Bleeding Hearts" approach, which took a more sympathetic, nurturing turn. The two viewpoints revert back to those same basic elements of Palace philosophy. Just how much should users be allowed to "make what they will" of Palace? And just how naughty should they be?

For a very comprehensive discussion of deviant behavior at the Main site and the wizards strategies for managing it, see the article entitled The Bad Boys of Cyberspace.

Revolution at the Top: The Creation of TPI

Business wise, the increase in the Palace population was a good thing. On July 1, 1996, The Palace, Inc. announced its formation as a new private corporation, with Mike Maerz named as president and chief executive officer, Jim Bumgardner as chief technology officer, and Mark Jeffrey as director of commercial marketing. Investors in the company were Intel, Softbank, and Warner Music Group - although no company had a controlling interest. Now no longer a small component of the Time-Warner giant, the Palace team could exercise more independence and freedom in pursuing its vision.

The transition would bring some difficulties, though. As is true of any organization, stressful changes at the top tend to reverberate downward through the organization. And this was happening at a period in the Palace history when the social structures for handling the increasing population were already strained, resulting in a bit of social chaos. The community needed a guiding hand, or at the very least the feeling of security in knowing that the higher ups were hearing their concerns. The TPI officials, extremely busy trying to get their company flying, did their best to respond to those concerns, but complaints about their failure to post messages to the PUG list were frequent and bitter. The wizards and the Magus also did their best to run intercept between the community and TPI, but they were a bit overwhelmed by the masses too, and they were limited in what social and technical changes they could make. Permission from TPI, usually Jim Bumgardner, was the final "go ahead" - but communications from TPI via the wizard mailing list were also fading. To the people "below," the people at the "top" seemed less available and less in touch with what was going on in the community.

The breakdown in communication between TPI officials and the community resulted in some unfortunate incidents. A good example was the "Red Dog Incident." When the release of a new version of the Palace software was announced, Red Dog - a user known to quite a few members - posted a message to the PUG list in which he suggested that everyone should flood the Palace server. Supporters of Red Dog took his comment to mean that he was enthusiastic about getting the new software and wanted to encourage everyone to download it. But one Palace official, alarmed by the possibility that people may indeed flood and crash the server, temporarily banned Red Dog from the PUG list. A very lengthy and angry debate broke out on the list. Some people were outraged at what they perceived to be the insensitive, power-wielding tactics of an overly protective and out-of-touch authority structure. Others felt the ban was understandable. Some saw the community taking sides in a vehement "us" versus "them" battle. Throwing up their hands in disgust, they dropped off the PUG list.

The Red Dog incident was a symptom of Palace's growing pains. TPI officials were over-worked and unable to be as attentive to the community as they would have liked. The community was also frustrated and feeling a bit helpless in the face of all the changes ensuing from the rising population. Members had some legitimate complaints, but they also needed an avenue for displacing their frustrations. The seemingly distant and uncaring TPI - the "bad parent" - became a logical target.

Another difficulty involved TPI's hiring from the ranks. Skilled, dedicated wizards and Magus workers did catch the attention of the TPI staff, and they wanted such people to join their team - for PAY. They painstakingly considered each invitation they made, fretting over how the Magus and wizards would react to the choice. Unfortunately, hard feelings and conflicts did erupt when the announcements were made. Some members also were concerned about conflicts of interest. Could TPI staff - especially newly hired TPI staff - remain loyal to both TPI and the community? The underlying assumption, of course, was that the business and the community did not always have compatible interests and goals.

It's an interesting and important assumption to examine. Mark Jeffrey once stated that it's hard to balance business with community. "Without biz, there would be no Palace community; without Palace community there is no biz." How TPI juggles that balance - and how the community reacts - will decide the future of the Palace.

Despite the difficulties associated with the creation of TPI, the development of the Palace community continues to move forward. In fact, as in human development, it is the challenge of such obstacles that provides the impetus for productive change. That which doesn't kill Palace makes Palace stronger. Credit goes to TPI. Credit, as Mark Jeffrey pointed out, goes to the wizards and Magus members who provided the "social glue" that held the community together during the stressful transition. Credit goes also to the community of dedicated members who stayed with and contributed to Palace despite the problems.

IV. Extra-Palatial Encounters

The primary focus or "hot spot" of the Palace community is the Palace itself - a visual chat environment where people converse and play with graphics, scripts, and sounds. However, over the course of its development, the community has spilled over into other realms of the internet, and even beyond the internet. These supplemental forms of communication enrich the community. In fact, it's very possible that a virtual community might even stagnate and eventually die without these other pathways to share information and develop relationships. Synchronous communication on the internet, as in text-driven chat environments, is captivating because everyone is "there" at the same time. The disadvantage is that there is a definite limit to how many words and ideas can be pumped through real-time typed text. In its evolution, the Palace overcame this limitation in a variety of ways.


Newsgroups appeared very early in the history of Palace, with more coming online over time. By the end of the first year, the groups included the Palace Design Forum (for architects of Palace sites), Palace Announcements (where users posted announcements about events), Palace Tech Support, Palace Iptscrae Language (for discussions of scripting), Palace Pserver Operators (for issues related to the server software), and Palace Community Standards. The Community Standards group is especially interesting concerning the social history of Palace. On the TPI web site, it was defined as:
... a forum for expressing viewpoints on what constitutes acceptable and non-acceptable behavior in social cyberspace. What is offensive? How should it be handled? Should it BE handled? WHO should handle it? Here is where you can come together and define what the rules of intra-Palace-server behavior should be.
When it first appeared, shortly after the opening of Palace in November 1996, there was flurry of postings about a wide variety of social and technical issues. After the "Rape of Quentin" incident, the group overflowed with discussions about abusive behavior, what to do about it, and the overall purpose of Palace. Once these discussions died down, the newsgroups postings dropped off dramatically, with long stretches of time with almost no postings at all. Activity once again resurged in the summer of 1996 when the "deep-thinkers" on the PUG list were encouraged to take their debates about Palace philosophy - especially what to do about anti-social behavior at the Palace - off of the list. After a flurry of exchanges, the newsgroup activity once again waned.

Were user's interests in social and philosophical issues simply periodic flashes in the pan? Probably not. Many of the newsgroups experienced low, sporadic traffic, which may be attributed to the intrinsic nature of a newsgroup. Accessing a newsgroup means that the person has to know how to use a newsgroup reader, either a separate program or one bundled into a web browser. It's extra software to learn, extra buttons to click, extra internet locations to find, and therefore a barrier - albeit rather simple - to diving into the postings. But the barrier is also psychological. Even when the newsgroups were made easily available via the Palace web site, activity was still slow. People have to shuffle continually back and forth TO a newsgroup to read and post. It's not a synchronous exchange of conversation, as in chat. Nor does the word come right to your door, as in e-mail. Compared to chat and e-mail, conversing by pinning notes to a bulletin board feels awkward... and lackluster.

Palace Web Sites

Websites devoted to Palace-related topics also appeared shortly after the Palace opened and blossomed over the coming months. Some of the most visited sites, and therefore a "nucleus" of the Palace web, are those created by TPI, the Magus (along with its Palace Newsletter), and the PUG. A variety of other sites also were created by enthusiastic members who wanted to contribute to and make their mark on the Palace world: (1) archives of Palace resources, like avatars, sounds, MIDI files, and scripts; (2) "how to" sites describing methods for creating and using avatars, sounds, MIDI files, and scripts; (3) pages devoted to a particular Palace site, describing its culture, people, and purpose; (4) pages that described specific Palace events, such as the Palace Parties and the death of Robin; (5) bio pages where Palatians would describe themselves and their life at the Palace; (5) various other articles and handbooks about living at the Palace.

These web sites provide something that is not possible in a chat environment - the efficient communication of detailed and/or lengthy information. If Palace chat servers are the taverns of the Palace community, then web sites are the libraries.

Mailing Lists

Mailing lists (listservs) were one of the most powerful extra-palatial communication tools. They became major building blocks of the community. Lists for the wizards, Palace site operators, and iptscrae scripters were created shortly after Palace opened, in early December 1996. According to Finchy, one of the creators of these lists, "It was a major breakthrough, as it really helped to solidify our community and to serve as a record of our trials and tribulations, which there have been a few." The wizard list at first was small, with an intimate group of ten subscribers. A year later, it consisted of almost 60. With that increase in size came the tendency towards schisms, debates, and flaming which are typical in the developmental course of a listserv. The unique aspect of this list is that the subscribers don't merely exchange information, or socialize, or "shoot the breeze" about their opinions and ideas - which are the typical activities of most lists. The wizard list is a WORKING list. The wizards must work together in overseeing and modifying the social and technical realms of Palace. That common bond and necessity of performing a task together helps the group endure and, in its best moments, learn from the conflicts that arise on the list.

Occasionally there have been requests to limit the types of messages posted to the wizard list. No personal bantering. No one-liner jokes. No flames or spam. But in the long run the list remains mostly "free." Bumgardner, who was instrumental in its creation, prefers that the wizards use the list in any way they deem fit. Jokes, flames, and spam are all part of the group process and all potentially solidify the group when openly expressed and discussed. Conflicts are inevitable, as they are in any group, but it is far better to discuss them than it is to suppress their expression, which forces them underground and then to resurface in a much more insidious path.

The wizard list also serves as an important vehicle for the wizards to communicate with the TPI officials, who also subscribe. With the increasing demand on their time, the TPI staff's participation faded on the list, sometimes leaving the wizards wondering whether they were "home alone" without the feedback and guidance they were used to. A wizard chairperson was elected to serve as liaison between the list and TPI officials. Although TPI's presence on the list can enhance communication and productive decision-making, it's growing distance from the list did reflect a basic quality of the list. It is a free-form, independent, non-authoritarian, and trusted (by TPI) forum for the wizards to meet on a level playing field in order to socialize, exchange ideas, hash it all out, and make decisions. These qualities of the list reflect the qualities of the wizard group itself.

The importance of the wizard list as a centrally organizing "mind" of the Palace community is paralleled only by the PUG list, which was created midway through the first year of Palace's history. While the wizard list provides a central point for the "inner circle" to gather as a cohesive group, the PUG provides the same function for the entire membership. Much larger than the wizard list, the PUG listserv at first was difficult to manage. As discussed earlier in this chapter, it became necessary to actively moderate the list, publish guidelines for it in the PUG Charter, and at one point split the list into subsidiary lists in order to control the number of postings and heated debates.

Some people attributed the problems that developed on the PUG list to the intrinsic nature of a mailing list. Unlike chat, people aren't "face to face" with each other on a list. You can click on "send" and not have to deal with the other's reaction until later. In mail you also can say (type) everything that's on your mind. As one PUGster stated, "Its just too damn easy to attack, defame or otherwise flame someone via email.... things are said on a mail list that most would never have the balls to say to someone's face." Some members described how they had seen similar problems develop in other chat worlds that created a mailing list for its users, such as WorldsChat:

... we had great fun there [in the chat environment] for quite a while. And then, when the message board came along, it seemed to change the feeling of the place. It seemed that the flames, the bickering, and the out and out fights that erupted on the board inevitably spilled over to the environment. Many survived this, but many of us also became disenchanted, or maybe even disgruntled and left. I know for a fact that many of us that lived through those times directly attribute the loss of WorldsChat's sparkle to the wars and/or soap opera that broke out on the message board. This is what I see the Palace PUG migrating towards (and more recently, the Deep Thoughts board).
While it's entirely possible that the list problems spill over and contaminate the chat environment, it's also possible that the reverse is true. Although discussion is limited in chat due to the restrictions of type-text communication, chat is nevertheless a powerful social environment. People get juiced up emotionally. In fact, the restricted and as a result AMBIGUOUS communication may enhance the psychological drama. When people aren't exactly sure what you mean, they fill in the gaps with their own fantasies. However, very little of this can be openly discussed due to the limitations of chat. When mailing lists are created, they may open the floodgates for all the backed-up emotions and opinions to surge forward. Ideally, the list may provide the necessary opportunity for more freely discussing and working through these emotional issues. With a whole group of people participating, a variety of opinions and perspectives can be shared - which helps immeasurably with "reality testing."

The storm and stress phase of the PUG list tapered off considerably by January of 1997. But the list continued to be active and productive. Although some may users may be left with hard feelings. the overall effect of the list on the community was positive. At the very least, it acted as a "safety value" for pent up emotions and frustrations. At best, some of the misunderstandings and conflicts spilling over from chat were resolved.

Private E-mail

E-mail reigns as the single most important method for developing relationships online. It is a private communication that allows as much expression as the person cares to put into it. When a relationship grows in a chat world, at some point the pair begins to communicate via e-mail. You have to go out of your way to send an e-mail. It's a personal touch. Compared to chat, people can more efficiently convey information, as well as more easily express themselves. Beneath any chat world, there is an extremely complex network of private e-mail relationships. In that network, people explain, vent, share, decide, plan, and deepen their contact with others. While the Palace may be the conscious focus of this chat community, the underlying infrastructure of e-mail relationships provides nourishment that helps the community thrive.

Real Life Encounters: The Palace Parties

In the development of online relationships, people often reach the point where they want more than an online relationship. They want contact in the "face-to-face" world. Like e-mail, telephone calls and in-personal rendezvous create a complex interpersonal network that enhances the Palace community - except such "real life" contact can be more powerful than e-mail in its ability to help people feel closer and fortify their relationship.

In addition to informal contacts, the Palace community also organized several "Palace Parties" which were held every few months during the first year. In New York, Las Vegas, and then Atlanta, several dozen Palatians would gather for a weekend of socializing and comparing notes on their Palace experiences. The attenders were people who had easy geographical access to the party and dedicated Palace users who were willing to travel to get there. A mailing list was created for the party attenders, as well as a web site where descriptions and photos of the gathering were posted for anyone in the community who was interested in the "recap" of the event.

The number of people attending the parties were relatively small compared to the total population of Palace users. However, the impact of the parties on the community is large. Many of the people who attend these events are dedicated Palatians who spend a great deal of time online and invest much effort in the progress of the Palace civilization. They are the nucleus and social "glue" of the community. At the parties, they have the opportunity to compare their online perceptions of each other to their face-to-face perceptions. They fill out their understanding of each other, in some cases become much closer. The net result is the strengthening of that social nucleus.

Where to? Community or Game?

The first year or so has shown a dramatic change in that virtual experience called "Palace." Where that development will head in the future is an open question. In its second year of existence, the Palace community continues to grow, but that progress is not guaranteed forever. There are dangers within and without. Communities are highly complex organisms that can go awry without appropriate guidance that gives them identity and purpose. Palace could expand into a widespread nation-state of sites with mutually enriching commerce, or decay into a feudal system of isolated, stagnant fiefdoms... or something inbetween. The internal design of the software combined with the internal management of the community will decide that fate. From without, there are other, perhaps even more powerful forces at work. The world of the internet is highly competitive and constantly in flux. Software comes and goes. Virtual communities come and go. Only the fittest will survive. Only those communities that provide what people WANT in a virtual community will survive.

What DO people want? What does TPI think people want? What do TPI and Bumgardner want? The creators and the inhabitants might choose to develop all of the complex political, economic, and social infra-structures that make up a thriving community. But that's a tall order that goes beyond software engineering. Maybe it's not even what will interest the masses. As Palace grows in popularity, there may be a shift towards games, entertainment and feature events as the major attractions. In the winter of 1997, the addition of major add-on features like Auditorium and Shockwave seems to lean Palace in that direction.

So is Palace destined to be a community.... a game.... a mixture of both? The distinction might be irrelevant. The intrinsic beauty of Palace is its design as an open social environment where personal and group identity can draw on fantasy as much as reality. It's an alternative community where people can mix their real and imagined selves to their hearts content. Along the way, all sorts of social, political, and psychological dramas will unfold - as this history of Palace demonstrates. But that's all part of the game.... The community *is* the "game."

Historical Moments in Early Palace History

1. The Day the Palace Changed

That's what several old-timers call the Valentine's Day Party in 1996. The celebration was a special event for several reasons. It was one of the first publicly announced, well-attended parties at the Main site. Most importantly, the Valentine's Party was the first whole site activity that took advantage of Palace's claim to fame - AVATARS. Almost everyone dressed up for the occasion. SEXY props were the order of the day, with scantily clad forms traipsing all over the Mansion. From that point onward, seductive props profligated. Prior to the Valentine's Party, those kinds of props rarely were paraded in public.

CYBERSPACE LESSON LEARNED? Users indeed enjoyed Palace as an adult-oriented, "naughty" place. The Valentine's Party was a convenient trigger for some inclinations that were just waiting to blossom. Some people even think "the history of Palace is the history of sex."

2. Skeezil Fools the Establishment

Skeezil was a well respected, talented, and devoted member of the Palace community. He was invited to be wizard at some Palace sites and even placed in the position of Vice Chairperson of the newly formed Palace User Group. Much to the surprise and dismay of some adult members, Skeezil turned out NOT to be a 26 year old computer programmer, but rather a 14 year old dishwasher/busboy with lots of computer time on his hands.

Major arguments broke out at the Palace and on the PUG list. Was it right that Skeezil had deceived the establishment? Was he pretending to be mature, or was he really mature? Should he be forced to resign from his position in the establishment? Did it matter how chronologically old he was? To some people, even some TPI officials, it didn't matter. But many of these issues are still being debated.

CYBERSPACE LESSON LEARNED? Cyberspace is a great level playing ground where appearance and status from the "real" world falls to the wayside. "Unimportant" people can be heard and recognized, just like the "important" people. Yet, in cyberspace, people are not always whom they seem to be... Or are they?

3. Dodge City: Boom and Bust

Dodge City was created as a social experiment. At this TPI sponsored site, there were no wizards, no rules, no holds barred. You could do anything you wanted without the establishment looking over your shoulder. A haven for naughtiness and snertdom. Maybe even a way to dissociate and contain the snert problem.

Snerts indeed gathered there. Unfortunately, they were not content with a kingdom of their own. They used Dodge City as a staging area to launch raids on Main, where they made as much a nuisance of themselves as possible.

The experiment ended. Dodge City was closed down.

CYBERSPACE LESSON LEARNED? Acting out is indeed acting OUT. Anti-social people will never be content with themselves. They need a more "normal" social structure to act against, thereby defining themselves. No matter what territory you yield to them, there will always be barbarians at the gate.

4. The Death of Robin

The news of Robin's death was announced on the PUG list. She was a regular at the Palace. Many people knew and liked her. However, before her death, many people did not know that she suffered from a very a painful and destructive version of MS - so much so that she enlisted the services of Dr. Kavorkian. A touch of national publicity, and grief, entered the Palace community. Some people wished they had known more about her condition. They wished they could have helped. A memorial service was held at one of the Palace sites and a web page describing her life was posted. At the Main Mansion site, Robin's Garden was erected in her memory.

CYBERSPACE LESSON LEARNED? Disabilities are not always visible online. In some ways, that may be a good thing. In some ways, perhaps not... Another lesson - Palace is a community like any real world community, with all the same triumphs and losses.

See also in the Psychology of Cyberspace:

Life at the Palace - A collection of articles about the Palace chat experience and its communities.

back to the Psychology of Cyberspace home page