Julian Dibbell: My Tiny Life: Crime and Passion in a Virtual World


Julian Dibbell
My Tiny Life: Crime and Passion in a Virtual World
Owl Books

It was Mr. Bungle who committed the first known act of virtual rape. His crimes took place on LambdaMOO, a program that allows Internet users from any corner of the globe to take the shape of characters in a virtual world. Some come to chat and flirt, others to explore, and others to build the world around them. To the extent that this world is based entirely in text--typed phrases scrolling across Telnet windows--what could be made of Mr. Bungle's act of attributing an action to another player by creating text on users' screens? Mr. Bungle's work ranged far beyond the juvenile spoofs that would result in annoying sentences such as "Moondreamer scratches herself" or "Moondreamer farts." No, Mr. Bungle's intentions seemed to become far more disturbing, as he scripted lines like, "As if against her will, Moondreamer jabs a steak knife up her ass, causing immense joy. You hear Mr. Bungle laughing evilly in the distance." It did not take long for word of Mr. Bungle's actions to flit across Lambda's database of users, and for a debate about their ethics to arise.

To start, there was the undetermined nature of a crime that hovered between a real-life sexual assault and an unwanted exchange of vile words--not to mention the appropriate fate of the offending character, whose account was owned by an NYU undergrad. But beyond that was the fact that by forcing LambdaMOO to reach consensus on social control, Mr. Bungle's actions had thrust the ad-hoc online community out of its embryonic innocence into the bright light of self-governance. What do you do, after all, when you're given a chance to build a government from scratch? And what are the rules of a society when even its physics can be rewritten?

In My Tiny Life: Crime and Passion in a Virtual World, Julian Dibbell skillfully narrates the story above and chronicles the social and political life of LambdaMOO in the wake of Mr. Bungle's offense. In doing so, he discovers that geography, identity, and gender are shockingly slippery concepts. What truly distinguishes My Tiny Life, though, is its fascinating cast of characters. Take HortonWho, who after being banished from LambdaMOO, planned attacks on it from another Multi-User Dungeon (MUD) entirely. Or Finn, who inadvertently introduced racial conflict by creating an entirely new body type for players to inhabit. Or Niacin and exu, who engage in a torrid, mind-blowing, gender-shifting love affair, until Niacin is forced to break it off because its intensity threatens his real-life relationship. "We were boy/girl, boy/boy, girl/girl, I was boy and she girl and vice versa... We did every possible combo," Niacin tells Dibbell. "We were like that for [weeks], shifting genders and bodies, fucking like mad, totally in love."

The skeptic's response may be that these people simply need to get out more, though My Tiny Life is well-grounded by Dibbell's sensible and sympathetic prose style. And although he's venturing into a world "in which the social construction of reality wasn't a matter merely of academic dogma but of basic physics," he is sometimes reluctant to draw the bold conclusions that his discoveries demand. Dibbell's passionate writing lacks the giddy rhetoric of other Net theorists, and he makes a suitably ambivalent guide into a world where everything and nothing is for real.

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