A Rape in Cyberspace

A Rape in Cyberspace, or How an Evil Clown, a Haitian Trickster Spirit, Two Wizards, and a Cast of Dozens Turned a Database into a Society” is an article written by freelance journalist Julian Dibbell and first published in The Village Voice in 1993. The article was later included in Dibbell’s book My Tiny Life on his LambdaMOO experiences.

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Lawrence Lessig has said that his chance reading of Dibbell’s article was a key influence on his interest in the field.[1] Sociologist David Trend called it “one of the most frequently cited essays about cloaked identity in cyberspace”.[2]

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Before Dibbell wrote his article in 1993, he started his journalism career by becoming a music journalist. Through his journalism career, he became interested in the phenomenon of the Internet. This interest that Dibbell had of the Internet became the main focus of his writings.[3] His writings included a variety of sub cultures when it came to the world of the Internet and during his exploration, he stumbled on to the online world of LambdaMOO. Dibbell saw LambdaMOO as its own little sub culture that has sub cultures within them, which he thought to be interesting and inspired him to writing about his experience within the game.[3]

Dibbell mentions that his girlfriend at the time played a part in him coming across the story. He came across it by accident when he was trying to get in contact with her over the phone and would not get an answer from her. When he could not get in to contact with her over the phone, he assumed that she would be online so he searched for her in LambdaMOO. When he found her, she had been in a meeting to figure out what to do about Mr. Bungle and that is where the story came to be.[3]

An image of a MUD (Multi-User Dungeon) similar to the one where the cyber-rape occurred

“A Rape in Cyberspace” describes a “cyberrape” in a multi-player computer game or MUD called LambdaMOO that took place on a Monday night in March 1993 and discusses the repercussions of this act on the virtual community and subsequent changes to the design of the MUD program.[4]

LambdaMOO, which is a virtual community still in existence, allows players to interact using avatars. The avatars are user-programmable and may interact automatically with each other and with objects and locations in the community. Users interacted through script, as there were no graphics or images on the MUD at the time.[5] The “cyberrape” itself was performed by a player named Mr. Bungle, who leveraged a “voodoo doll” subprogram that allowed him to make actions that were falsely attributed to other characters in the virtual community. The “voodoo doll” subprogram was eventually rendered useless by a character named Zippy. These actions, which included describing sexual acts that characters performed on each other and forcing the characters to perform acts upon themselves, went far beyond the community norms to that point and continued for several hours. They were interpreted as sexual violation of the avatars who were made to act sexually, and incited outrage among the LambdaMOO users, raising questions about the boundaries between real-life and virtual reality, and how LambdaMOO should be governed.[citation needed]

Following Mr. Bungle’s actions, several users posted on the in-MOO mailing list, *social-issues, about the emotional trauma caused by his actions. One user whose avatar was a victim, called his voodoo doll activities “a breach of civility” while, in real life, “post-traumatic tears were streaming down her face”. However, despite the passionate emotions including anger voiced by many users on LambdaMOO, none were willing to punish the user behind Mr. Bungle through real-life means.[citation needed]

Three days after the event the users of LambdaMOO arranged an online meeting, which Dibbell attended under his screenname (Dr. Bombay), to discuss what should be done about Mr. Bungle. The meeting lasted approximately two hours and forty-five minutes, but no conclusive decisions were made. After attending the meeting, one of the master-programmers of LambdaMOO (with screenname JoeFeedback), decided on his own to terminate the Mr. Bungle user’s account.[6] Additionally, upon his return from his business trip, LambdaMOO’s main creator, Pavel Curtis (screenname Archwizard Haakon), set up a system of petitions and ballots where anyone could put to popular vote anything requiring administrative powers for its implementation. Through this system, LambdaMOO users put into place a @boot command, which temporarily disconnects disruptive guest users from the server, as well as a number of other new features.

It was later discovered that behind Mr. Bungle was not only a young man that attended NYU, but was also a group of NYU students on a dorm floor who encouraged his actions by calling out suggestions during the evening of the rape.[7]

. . . A Rape in Cyberspace . . .

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. . . A Rape in Cyberspace . . .