"Social Norms and Implications of Santa Monica's PEN (Public Electronic Network)"

This is a transcript of a presentation which I (Kevin McKeown) delivered at the 99th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association at San Francisco in August of 1991. It's also available from the Center for Advanced Study in Telecommunications, 3016 Derby Hall, The Ohio State University, Columbus, OH 43210-1339; reference CAST Working File 1994-001.

Subjects covered include:

Two and a half years ago, the City of Santa Monica threw the switch on a world-wide first: a computer teleconferencing network operated by a municipal government. Other local systems exist, but none coming from City Hall. For instance, the Cleveland Free-Net is run by a local university. A city network in Sendai, Japan, is actually operated by the Chamber of Commerce.

The city opened PEN, the acronym for Public Electronic Network, on February 21st, 1989. Within two weeks, over 500 residents had signed up to use the free system. There are now almost 4000 registrants.

The head of the City's computer department, Ken Phillips, intended the PEN system primarily to link residents to City Hall, providing information and answering questions. In reality, PEN has grown to be much more of a citizen-to-citizen phenomenon, with a culture of its own.

PEN consists of three parts. First, there's a comprehensive read-only data base of city schedules, events and the like. Second, there is a mailroom where private messages or "E-mail" may be exchanged. Third is a conferencing area, where residents may participate in city-sponsored discussions of local issues, or begin public discussions of their own. Much to the city's surprise, the data base accounts for only one tenth of PEN usage, with the mailroom garnering twice that, or 20%. Almost 60% of activity on PEN occurs in the public conferences, where a distinctive set of online social norms has evolved. Those norms are the focus of this presentation.

If I had to pick a single word to characterize the impact of PEN on Santa Monica, it would be... "empowerment." Online, where traditional social cues are lacking, individuals become equals, judged on the strength of their ideas. A study of PEN by a group at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School of Communications, led by Dr. Everett Rogers, concluded, quote, "Surprisingly, the use of PEN is not related to the traditional socio-economic characteristics that have predicted computer usage in past research. Age, income and education are unrelated to frequency of PEN use, and only education is strongly related to adoption."

One factor strongly favoring this universal empowerment is the availability of nineteen PUBLIC terminals, located in libraries and other locations. Remarkably, 20 to 25 per cent of PEN usage comes from those public terminals. That has had a significant impact on local political issues. For the first time, the voices of the otherwise disenfranchised -- including the homeless -- are being heard by the community.

Because on PEN group members display no obvious cues to social status, everyone is granted participation without prejudice. Let me cite a specific example to illustrate that point.

In late 1989, after reading PEN comments from homeless individuals about the difficulties they face in breaking the cycle of joblessness, some PENners formed a PEN Action Group. They -- including several homeless persons -- found that lack of early morning showers, access to clean clothing, and storage space for belongings were major hurdles for the homeless seeking jobs. They developed a proposal called SHWASHLOCK, SHWASHLOCK being an acronym for SHowers, WASHers, and LOCKers. SHWASHLOCK was put before the Santa Monica City Council in May of 1990, and the Council appropriated $150,000 for a temporary facility. The City has since indicated a permanent SHWASHLOCK will be part of a proposed centralized homeless services center.

Note that the otherwise "hidden" homeless THEMSELVES were part of this process from start to finish, because of the "level playing field" their ideas enjoyed on PEN.

This changed nature of civic participation has also affected local politics. Via PEN, Santa Monicans can debate opinions on issues before the final decisions are made, and there is convincing evidence that online discussions have affected local votes. Months before the November, 1990, elections, ballot statements for all 30 local candidates were posted on PEN. Voters could discuss the hopefuls' positions on the issues, many weeks before the usual media profiles and ballot booklets were available. The debates were unique in that anyone could speak up, at any time -- a function of the atmosphere of equality on PEN.

A major issue in that same Santa Monica election was the proposed construction of a luxury hotel right on the beach, the first such hotel on the seaward side of Pacific Coast Highway. The nature of PEN allowed *individuals* to voice their opinions on the hotel, which became a bellwether for development in general. The hotel proposal was defeated.

Contrast this to the usual campaign, where only those few with access to mass media or money for campaign advertising get to be heard. Again, PEN changed a "social norm".

Even in this non-election year, PEN discussions continue to flourish on ongoing social issues such as homelessness, city planning, zoning, and changing the city charter. Elected officials remain active online, sometimes in unexpected ways. Just this past week, I posted a note on PEN about a leaky faucet. One of Santa Monica's City Councilmembers wrote back describing exactly how to fix it, and even offered to loan me the tools!

PEN has also reached into our schools and changed the social perceptions of our children. A program at one elementary school introduces kids in a Gifted and Talented Education class to computer communications. Another at a high school attempts to put "at-risk" teens in touch with the possibilities outside of gangs, drugs, and violence. And through a global program called KIDS-91, local ten- to fifteen-year-olds made PENpals in 31 countries from New Zealand to Lithuania. On May 12th, they connected with their peers around the world, via computer and video phones, from Santa Monica's Electronic Cafe International. For these kids, the power of PEN is already PART of their social norm.

And now I have to admit... There *is* a dark side to the Force.

The same relative anonymity and detachment that preclude prejudice on PEN also disable the social feedback on behavioral norms that usually shapes and distinguishes a "civilized" community. To put it simply, otherwise nice people can get downright nasty.

Online "flaming" has been mentioned before; it occurred even on the government ArpaNet system in the '70s, and was described and documented in the 1978 book "The Network Nation" by Hiltz and Turoff. Flaming is the use of personal attack and ridicule, and afflicts PEN as much as any other teleconferencing system.

That surprised us, a bit. When PEN was set up, we consciously decided to require the use of individuals' real names, which are automatically appended to every response and message. Given that most PEN participants live within two miles or less of each other, we hoped that flamers would be dissuaded by the very real possibility of a knock on the door in the dead of night. Great theory, but it didn't work.

One of the most curious phenomena on PEN is that flamers who would seem to be deadly personal enemies on the computer can still meet face-to-face and be entirely civil, even friendly. Is this compensation for the online discourtesies? A real fear of, in person, finally being popped in the chops? Or, does it indicate that the personal attacks are meant in jest, as some strange form of entertainment not apparent to a third-party observer?

For example, a conservative and fundamental Christian family named Swanson was cruelly mocked on PEN, or so it seemed. A user inspired by "The Simpsons" went so far as to start a discussion called, "The Swansons." PENner after PENner came online to say that comparing this family to "The Simpsons" was in poor taste... but when Dane Swanson, the father, came on line, he wrote this: quote, "I enjoy your sendup of me. And I am honored. I vote you guys keep this. Where else on PEN can I read about myself and what people are thinking of me."

Certainly not all online attacks can be seen as frivolous. In the Los Angeles Reader this past May, writer Judith Moore describes her experiences on The WELL, a San Francisco-area service. She says, quote, "The WELL has become my soap opera, a day-to-day drama in which I am also an actor." But what happens when a writer on such a system incorporates other users' identities into his own dark fantasies? That happened on PEN.

Some males on PEN, mostly adolescents, began writing public sexual scenarios in which various PEN women were subjected to domination and other degrading behavior. Remember, PEN is operated by the City of Santa Monica, and as a local government the City has to be *very* careful not to infringe on free speech. So what can be done when unwilling individuals are subject to the indignities of publicly posted sexual fantasies? Were these just hormonal aberrations, or a deliberate attempt to intimidate women and force them off the PEN system?

Well, I'll tell you about the PENFEMMES in just a moment. But it's time to wrap this up and draw some conclusions.

You've heard about several telecommunications systems this morning. What makes PEN different? In what way do its social structure and online culture set it apart?

One difference is ACTIVE participation. On a typical teleconferencing system, those who write and contribute to the discussion are outnumbered four or five to one by those who only read, traditionally called "lurkers." According to the Annenberg study I mentioned earlier, over one third of PEN users participate on city issues, and over one half in other PEN conferences.

Another difference is participation by women, which brings me back to the PENFEMMEs. Lori Collins-Jarvis, in a study of "Gender and the PEN System," also done for Annenberg/USC, found that fully 35% of PEN users are women. Compare that with the 15% reported for the Cleveland Free-Net, which seems representative of most similar computer systems. Collins-Jarvis states of PEN, quote, "...female registrants were just as likely to be technologically familiar, politically interested and educated as male registrants...". Why does PEN enjoy more equal participation?

Some of the credit surely goes to the aforementioned PENFEMMEs, who reacted to those attacks and adolescent fantasies -- not by slinking away -- but by joining together online and face-to-face. They chose to systematically ignore their attackers, AND vowed to start more woman-related discussion on PEN. This action has made PEN a more interesting and female-friendly environment than most networks.

PEN, unlike most systems spread over wide geographical areas, has the potential for forming face-to-face friendships. The Rogers/Annenberg report discovered heavy PEN users had made seven in-person friends via PEN, and twice as many online.

PEN tends toward action, where other networks tend toward talk. I opened a discussion on homelessness on the international system CompuServe, and ported messages back and forth to the HOMELESS conference on PEN. On CompuServe, only theory was offered. On PEN, users suggested solid solutions.

Finally, PEN has gone well beyond the usual communications channels typical of electronic networks, and originally anticipated for PEN as well. Graduate student Kara Kapczynski, in a paper prepared for California State University Northridge, concluded that among these unexpected connections were bridges between City Hall and the homeless, and between individuals and other individuals in the community. PEN has people talking -- to each other.

Thank you all for the opportunity to tell the PEN story, and I hope I'll be able to answer any questions you may have.

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