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The Real in the Virtual—Speech, Self and Sex in the Realm of Pure Text

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'Virtual Reality' (VR) is a terminological umbrella for an assortment of technologies that are lumped together under one broad label. Internet Relay Chat (IRC) is a text-based VR that does not involve the use of data gloves and 3-D objects. IRC communication takes place via strings of text typed in by its users. Unlike face-to-face communication, IRC conversations lack the nonverbal component of language. This lack is, to some extent, rectified by the use of paralanguage techniques. Despite the paucity of nonverbal and social cues, IRC users are able to engage in a variety of activities. IRC culture is essentially a culture of play and imagination, as the users take advantage of the lack of information about other users to fill in idealised details and images of their own. However, IRC is not merely about play. Data on identity experimentation illustrate that some users leave IRC with newfound knowledge about their self-identities, and about the social world and its workings. With the IRC experience, boundaries between the 'real' and the 'virtual' are sometimes blurred, and some participants are no longer able to view the world in terms of binary divisions of 'real' and 'unreal' and 'human' and 'machine'.


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