A rhetoric of freedom characterises much of the literature dealing with online communities: freedom from fixed identity and appearance, from the confines of geographic space, and from control. The prevailing view, a combination of futurism and utopianism, is that the lack of order in cyberspace enables the creation of social spaces that will enhance personal freedom and advance the common good. Sherry Turkle argues that computer-mediated communication allows us to create a new form of community, in which identity is multiple and fluid (15-17). Marcos Novak celebrates the possibilities of a dematerialized, ethereal virtual architecture in which the relationships between abstract elements are in a constant state of flux (250). John Perry Barlow employs the frontier metaphor to frame cyberspace as an unmapped, ungoverned territory in which a romantic and a peculiarly American form of individualism can be enjoyed by rough and ready pioneers (“Crime” 460).
In his 1993 account as an active participant in The WELL (Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link), one of the earliest efforts to construct a social space online, Howard Rheingold celebrates the freedom to create a “new kind of culture” and an “authentic community” in the “electronic frontier.” He worries, however, that the freedom enjoyed by early homesteaders may be short lived, because “big power and big money” might soon find ways to control the Internet, just as they have come to dominate and direct other communications media. “The Net,” he states, “is still out of control in fundamental ways, but it might not stay that way for long” (Virtual Community 2-5).
The uses of order and disorder
Some theorists have identified disorder as a necessary condition for the development of healthy communities. In The Uses of Disorder (1970), Richard Sennett argues that “the freedom to accept and to live with disorder” is integral to our search for community (xviii). In his 1989 study of social space, Ray Oldenburg maintains that public hangouts, which constitute the heart of vibrant communities, support sociability best when activities are unplanned, unorganized, and unrestricted (33). He claims that without the constraints of preplanned control we will be more in control of ourselves and more aware of one another (198). More recently, Charles Landry suggests that “structured instability” and “controlled disruption,” resulting from competition, conflict, crisis, and debate, make cities less comfortable but more exciting. Further, he argues that “endemic structural disorder” requiring ongoing adjustments can generate healthy creative activity and stimulate continual innovation (156-58). Kevin Robins, too, believes that any viable social system must be prepared to accept a level of uncertainty, disorder, and fear. He observes, however, that techno-communities are “driven by the compulsion to neutralize,” and they therefore exclude these possibilities in favour of order and security (90-91).
Indeed, order and security are the dominant characteristics that less idealistic observers have identified with cyberspace. Alexander Galloway explains how, despite its potential as a liberating development, the Internet is based on technologies of control. This control is exercised at the code level through technical protocols, such as TCP/IP, DNS, and HTM, that determine disconnections as well as connections (Galloway). Lawrence Lessig suggests that in our examination of the ownership, regulation, and governance of the virtual commons, we must take into account three distinct layers. As well as the “logical” or “code” layer that Galloway foregrounds, we should also consider the “physical” layer, consisting of the computers and wires that carry Internet communications, and the “content” layer, which includes everything that we see and hear over the network. In principle, each of these layers could be free and unorganized, or privately owned and controlled (Lessig 23). Dan Schiller documents the increasing privatization of the Net and argues that corporate cyberspace extends the reach of the market, enabling it to penetrate into areas that have previously been considered to be part of the public domain. For Schiller, the Internet now serves as the main production and control mechanism of a global market system (xiv).
Checking into Habbo Hotel
Habbo Hotel is an example of a highly ordered and controlled online social space that uses community and game metaphors to suggest something much more open and playful. Designed to attract the teenage market, this graphically intensive cartoon-like hotel is like an interactive Legoland, in which participants assemble a toy-like “Habbo” character and chat, play games, and construct personal environments. The first Habbo Hotel opened its doors in the United Kingdom in 2000, and, by September 2004, localized sites were based in a dozen countries, including Canada, the Unites States, Finland, Japan, Switzerland and Spain, with further expansion planned. At that time, there were more than seventeen million registered Habbo characters worldwide with 2.3 million unique visitors each month (“Strong Growth”).
The hotel contains thousands of private rooms and twenty-two public spaces, including a welcome lounge, three lobbies, cinema, game hall, café, pub, and an extensive hallway. Anyone can go to the Room-O-Matic and instantly create a free guest room. However, there are a limited number of layouts to choose from and the furnishings, which must be purchased, have be chosen from a catalog of fixed offerings. All rooms are located on one of five floors, which categorize them according to use (parties, games, models, mazes, and trading). Paradoxically, the so-called public spaces are more restricted and less public than the private guest quarters. The limited capacity of the rooms means that all of the public spaces are full most of the time. Priority is given to paying Habbo Club members and others are denied entry or are unceremoniously ejected from a room when it becomes full. Most visitors never make it into the front lobby. This rigid and restricted construction is far from Novak’s vision of a “liquid architecture” without barriers, that morphs in response to the constantly changing desires of individual inhabitants (Novak 250).
Before entering the virtual hotel, individuals must first create a Lego-like avatar. Users choose a unique name for their Habbo (no foul language is allowed) and construct their online persona from a limited selection and colour of body parts. One of two different wardrobes is available, depending on whether “Boy” or “Girl” is chosen. The gender of every Habbo is easily recognizable and the restricted wardrobe results in remarkably similar looking young characters. The lack of differentiation encourages participants to treat other Habbos as generic “Boys” or “Girls” and it encourages limited and predictable conversations that fit the stereotype of male-female interactions in most chat sites. Contrary to Turkle’s contention that computer mediated communication technologies expose the fallacy of a single, fixed, identity, and free participants to experiment with alternative selves (15-17), Habbo characters are permitted just one unchangeable name, and are capable of only limited visual transformations. A fixed link between each Habbo character and its registered user (information that is not available to other participants) allows the hotel management to track members through the site and monitor their behavior.
Habbo movements are limited to walking, waving, dancing and drinking virtual alcohol-free beverages. Movement between spaces is accomplished by entering a teleport booth, or by selecting a location by name from the hotel Navigator. Habbos cannot jump, fly or walk through objects or other Habbos. They have no special powers and only a limited ability to interact with objects in their environment. They cannot be hurt or otherwise affected by anything in their surroundings, including other Habbos. The emphasis is on safety and avoidance of conflict.
Text chat in Habbo Hotel is limited to one sixty-one-character line, which appears above the Habbo, floats upward, and quickly disappears off the top of the screen. Text must be typed in real time while reading on-going conversations and it is not possible to archive a chat sessions or view past exchanges. There is no way of posting a message on a public board. Using the Habbo Console, shorter messages can also be exchanged between Habbos who may be occupying different rooms. The only other narratives available on the site are in the form of official news and promotions. Before checking into the hotel, Habbos can stop to read Habbo Today, which promotes current offers and activities, and HabboHood Happenings, which offers safety tips, information about membership benefits, jobs (paid in furniture), contest winners, and polls.
According to Rheingold, a virtual community can form online when enough people participate in meaningful public discussions over an extended period of time and develop “webs of personal relationships” (Virtual Community 5). By restricting communication to short, fleeting messages between individual Habbos, the hotel frustrates efforts by members to engage in significant dialogue and create a viable social group. Although “community” is an important part of the Habbo Hotel brand, it is unlikely to be a substantial part of the actual experience.
The virtual hotel is promoted as a safe, non-threatening environment suitable for the teenagers is designed to attract. Parents’ concerns about the dangers of an unregulated chat space provide the hotel management with a justification for creating a highly controlled social space. The hotel is patrolled twenty-four hours a day by professional moderators backed-up by a team of 180 volunteer “Hobbas,” or guides, who can issue warnings to misbehaving Habbos, or temporarily ban them from the site. All text keyed in by Habbos passes through an automated “Bobba Filter” that removes swearing, racist words, explicit sexual comments and “anything that goes against the “Habbo Way” (“Bad Language”). Stick to the rules and you’ll have fun, Habbos are told, “break them and you’ll get yourself banned” (“Habbo Way”). In Big Brother fashion, messages are displayed throughought the hotel advising members to “Stay safe, read the Habbohood Watch,” “Never give out your details!” and “Obey the Habbo way and you’ll be OK.”
This miniature surveillance society contradicts Barlow’s observation that cyberspace serves as “a perfect breeding ground for both outlaws and new ideas about liberty” (“Crime” 460). In his manifesto declaring the independence of cyberspace from government control, he maintains that the state has no authority in the electronic “global social space,” where, he asserts, “[w]e are forming our own Social Contract” based on the Golden Rule (“Declaration”). However, Habbo Hotel shows how the rule of the marketplace, which values profits more than social practices, can limit the freedoms of online civil society just as effectively as the most draconian government regulation.
Place your order
Far from permitting the “controlled disruption” advocated by Landry, the hotel management ensures that nothing is allowed to disrupt their control over the participants. Without conflict and debate, there are few triggers for creative activity in the site, which is designed to encourage consumption, not community. Timo Soininen, the managing director of the company that designed the hotel, states that, because teenagers like to showcase their own personal style, “self-expression is the key to our whole concept.” However, since it isn’t possible to create a Habbo from scratch, or to import clothing or other objects from outside the site, the only way for members to effectively express themselves is by decorating and furnishing their room with items purchased from the Habbo Catalogue. “You see, this,” admits Soininen, “is where our revenue model kicks in” (Shalit). Real-world products and services are also marketed through ads and promotions that are integrated into chat, news, and games. The result, according to Habbo Ltd, is “the ideal vehicle for third party brands to reach this highly desired 12-18 year-old market in a cost-effective and creative manner” (“Habbo Company Profile”). Habbo Hotel is a good example of what Herbert Schiller describes as the corporate capture of sites of public expression. He notes that, when put at the service of growing corporate power, new technologies “provide the instrumentation for organizing and channeling expression” (5-6).
In an afterword to a revised edition of The Virtual Community, published in 2000, Rheingold reports on the sale of the WELL to a privately owned corporation, and its decline as a lively social space when order was imposed from the top down. Although he believes that there is a place for commercial virtual communities on the Net, he acknowledges that as economic forces become more entrenched, “more controls will be instituted because there is more at stake.” While remaining hopeful that activists can leverage the power of many-to-many communications for the public good, he wonders what will happen when “the decentralized network infrastructure and freewheeling network economy collides with the continuing growth of mammoth, global, communication empires” (Virtual Community Rev. 375-7).
Although the company that built Habbo Hotel is far from achieving global empire status, their project illustrates how the dominant ethos of privatization and the increasing emphasis on consumption results in gated virtual communities that are highly ordered, restricted, and controlled. The popularity of the hotel reflects the desire of millions of Habbos to express their identities and ideas in a playful environment that they are free to create and manipulate. However, they soon find that the rules are stacked against them. Restricted design options, severe communication limitations, and fixed architectural constraints mean that the only freedom left is the freedom to choose from a narrow range of provided options. In private cyberspaces like Habbo Hotel, the logic of the market rules out unrestrained many-to-many communications in favour of controlled commercial relationships. The liberating potential of the Internet that was recognized by Rheingold and others has been diminished as the forces of globalized commerce impose their order on the electronic frontier.