From the macro-universe to the microcosm, the physical laws of nature are immutable. The forces that propel the galaxy also govern a single cell. And human nature at the millennium offers an analogy to that universal constant: real-world behavior invariably will duplicate itself online. Author Stacy Horn knows this. And readers of Cyberville quickly catch on. That is, society with all its imperfections, indiscretions, foibles, and generosities cannot help but repeat itself on the fellowship of the Internet.
"The first thing we do when we get on line is we recreate the world as we've always known it," Horn tells readers. Horn, founder of a New York cyber salon known as Echo, watched and learned as this online assemblage a village whose occupants alternated between conflict and harmony grew into a familiar network of electronic-era companions and adversaries. Cyberville is the story of the online retreat that Horn nurtured as it evolved into a mirror of society, incurring the same sorts of rejection, acceptance, love, and hate that rules the off-line world. Horn recounts Echoids's struggle with issues such as gender, censorship, sex, and racism online. And the reader, feeling as cloistered as an Echo member, is obliged to take sides, falling on the same real-world social underpinnings that drive the debate.
"This is how communities are formed not by creating a place and putting out a welcome sign," Horn writes, telling how members grappled with one cyber- habitue's anti-semitism. "They are formed and strengthened through the resolution of conflict," she says, "You could say the heart of a community can be found in these conflicts the struggle, the outcome, what is created is the community."
Along the way, Horn's book delivers insights that captivate. On gender: is gender a biological or social construct? Horn wants to know. The question demands an answer when Echo member Embraceable Ewe, a pre-operative transsexual, wants into a women-only conference on the web site. Horn puts the issue to members and delivers a reverie of her own about the differences between men and women. On cyber relationships: "The most important thing I have learned about communities in cyberspace is that it frequently is impossible to have tolerance, something absolutely essential to keeping a community going, without some face-to-face connection." On members in danger of being exiled from the site: Horn says she didn't plan on the bad people. "Why wasn't I thinking about psychopaths? Did I think they would hear about us and very considerately decide to leave us alone?"
Bluntly, in a chapter devoted to the topic of sex, Horn admits she started Echo to meet guys. "It's at the bottom of everything I do," she writes, adding that the pull is irresistible for Horn and Echoids alike. "And it isn't just Echo," she says. "Cyberspace is a most erotic medium." It is, in the end, a lot like the rest of the universe.