Whoosh! Issue 50 - November 2000

THE XENA PALACE: MORE THAN CHAT
By Betsy Book
50th Issue Project
Content copyright © 2000 held by author
Edition copyright © 2000 held by Whoosh!
7423 words



What is a Palace? (01-02)
The Birth of the XENA Palace (03-06)
Palace Events (07-09)
The Demographic Landscape of the XENA Palace (10-11)
The Young and the Not-So-Young (12-13)
How Come We Rarely Talk About XENA in the XENA Palace? (14-19)
Who Are We and What Are We Doing Here? The XENA Palace in a Larger Context of Other Online Communities (20-22)
Social Dynamics in the XENA Palace (23-35)
The Virtual is Real (36-44)
Real Life Friendships (45-48)
Notes
Biography



The Xena Palace: More Than Chat



What is a Palace?

[01] A Palace is a graphic chat environment that lets users move through different rooms and talk to other people from all over the world. An avatar represents each participant in the Palace environment and his or her speech is displayed in cartoon bubbles. Each Palace site has its own theme and each of the rooms usually reflects this theme. At the XENA Palace, the rooms reflect the theme of the television show XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS with names like "Meg's Tavern", "Salmoneus' Market", and "Callisto's Cave" [Note 01]. Although some rooms give the illusion of three dimensions, it is a two-dimensional virtual space and movement occurs within the flat plane of the room.

[02] The Palace software was first released to beta testers in 1995 and has gone through many phases of corporate ownership. The current owner of the Palace software is Communities.com (http://www.communities.com) [Note 02].


Each palace visitor is represented by an avatar. Speech is displayed in cartoon bubbles.
(Click thumbnail image above to enlarge).


The Birth of the XENA Palace

"WHOOSH does NOT do chat!"
- Betsy Book to Kym Taborn, March 1998 (Famous Last Words)

[03] The XENA Palace was launched on May 1, 1998. A few months earlier Bret Rudnick of the WHOOSH Executive Committee had been approached by Alison Marshall of SRT Enterprises [Note 03] about the possibility of an SRT-hosted WHOOSH-operated Palace chat. My first reaction was admittedly snobby. "WHOOSH does not do chat," I said. At that time, I had no intentions to involve myself with another large XENA-related project. My career was taking off and I was faced with less and less time to devote to anything else. However, Alison persisted, Kym Taborn (editor-in-chief of WHOOSH) persisted, and Bret persisted. I relented. Besides, I was interested in the Palace technology. I had included screenshots of it in a paper that I wrote in graduate school so I was vaguely familiar with the concept. I agreed that it might be a good extension of the overall WHOOSH project as a place where we could hold WHOOSH-sponsored chats, talk about XENA episodes, and maybe even have WHOOSH article authors come talk about their papers. Alison promised that SRT would host the Palace for free and provide technical support as necessary so there was nothing to lose.

[04] The WHOOSH Executive Committee made a plan of action. I recruited Tom Simpson (webmaster of Tom's XENA Page [http://www.xenafan.com] and my spouse) to help set up the Palace. We brainstormed about which rooms to include and Bret donated photographs from his trip to New Zealand. SRT Enterprises employees used 3D graphic rendering software for the rest of the rooms. We were in build/beta test mode for the month of April 1998 and we used this time to familiarize ourselves with the software, learning basic commands and figuring out how to make avatars. We made banners and advertised the XENA Palace on WHOOSH and on Tom's XENA Page. By the time we launched on the first of May, I felt fully prepared for this new experience.

[05] Yeah, right.

[06] The truth is that I had no idea what was in store for me. I was completely unprepared for how absorbing and addictive the Palace would become. When the first brave pioneering smiley-faces came in through the XENA Palace gate, I was not sure what to say except, "Hi". Luckily, that seemed to work. Before I knew it, a small group of people began to visit regularly each night. They all became friends quickly. Within two weeks of launch, three of the new XENA Palacers had posted a web page with a lexicon of XENA Palace slang [Note 04]. The mere fact that the XENA Palace had slang within two weeks of its existence completely blew me away. I slowly realized that the Palace was an incredibly powerful online community-creating tool and that it held huge potential as a space for holding online events and much more.


On the Beach in the early days of the Xena Palace:
May 13, 1998

We've only known each other for 15 days and we love each other already!:
May 15, 1998


Palace Events

"The best part of this Palace is the sense of community and ownership we feel and that we can plan events and celebrations (often at the drop of a prop (G))." - Dragonia, Palace regular since 1998

[07] XENA Palace events include a wide range of Xenite-specific events and Palace community events. Although you can usually find a few Palace regulars online at any given time, the events are where the real action is and the chats and parties can last many hours at a time. Examples of Xenite-specific events include webmaster chats, Bardapalooza parties (with Xenaverse bards as special guests), episode chats, Joxer Nights, and Tropical Storm chats. We have had moderated chats with Danielle "Ephiny" Cormack, Adrienne "Eve" Wilkinson, Alexandra "Aphrodite" Tydings, and the actresses from the Chicago stage show, "XENA Live!" Every month I take my laptop to the Meow Mix bar in New York City during their XENA Night so that Xenites everywhere can participate via the Palace. Our most well attended event so far was the 1999 ARGO awards where we had over 120 attendees.


Webmaster Chat with Beth Gaynor:
June 7, 1998

The first Bardapalooza:
May 30, 1998

[08] Along with the Xenite events, many celebrations and parties are focused specifically on the XENA Palace community. There are birthday parties and virtual weddings. There are trivia contests, avatar contests, and contests to create new Palace rooms. Palace regulars also love seasonal celebrations because it gives them a chance to make creative avatars. Some of the most popular events include Halloween parties, Holiday parties, Summer Beach parties, Anniversary parties, and New Year's bashes. We have had Masquerade parties, 70's Night, 80's Night, Baby Night (where everyone wears their baby photo), and Reality Check parties (where everyone wears a photo of themselves). There is nothing XENA Palacers like better than a good Palace party [Note 05].


The wedding of Slash and Soso:
April 23, 1999

80s Night:
July 20, 2000

[09] The XENA Palace, as a subset of the much larger online Xenaverse [Note 06], is home to many different Xenite groups including subtext and non-subtext fans, XENA fans, Gabfans, Joxer fans, bards, webmasters, Merpups, and more. From the very beginning, I wanted the XENA Palace to be a place where all Xenites would be welcome. The atmosphere is open and welcoming for all new visitors.



One of many Tropical Storm Chats:
June 6, 1999

Gabrielle-Joxer Romantic Society Party:
December 19, 1998


The Demographic Landscape of the XENA Palace

"XENA Palace is special 'cause I never met so many people who were so diverse but still manage to get along completely with each other and have tons of fun"
-Angelfire, XENA Palace regular since 1998

[10] In my opinion, the XENA Palace's greatest strength is its diversity of membership. I have never been a part of any community, online or off, whose membership has included such a great range of ages, backgrounds, and geographical locations. XENA Palace regulars range in age from 11 to 55. They live primarily in North America, Europe, and Australia. They include students, business owners, factory workers, librarians, lawyers, webmasters -- you name it. The event schedules mostly reflect the North American majority, but I try to accommodate the southern hemisphere and European time zones whenever possible.

[11] On a weekend evening, in North American time zones, you will find anywhere from ten to thirty people in the Palace. If there is a big event going on, that number can go up to fifty or sixty. Currently there are anywhere from seventy-five to two hundred XENA Palace regulars who visit the Palace at least once a month. The growth of the community has been slow but steady. No doubt, the growth rate would be higher if I had more time to advertise and market the Palace. Nevertheless, I am happy with the size of the community as it is, and frankly, I would not have the time to administrate a Palace much larger than what we have now. Furthermore, keeping it small keeps it more "homey" like a small town kind of environment where everyone knows each other. This is not to say that we do not like new people. In fact, we are known as being one of the friendliest Palaces around.


A seasonal message from a group of Xena Palacers:
November 27, 1998

The Xena Palace celebrates our second anniversary:
May 1, 2000


The Young and the Not-So-Young

"It's really a great community of people that you can know for life, even if they are a 'bit' older then ya. I mean, you just need to get to know them for a while and everything will be fine."
- Tessa, Palace regular since 1998

"I have belonged to other online communities. I didn't like them very much because many times they wouldn't accept 'kids' as part of the group unless you belonged to some 'teen' thing. I love the XENA Palace because everyone has a great deal of respect for each other and no one is left out of anything. Everyone is accepted no matter what your age, race, or beliefs."
- Gabbie, Palace regular since 1998

[12] One of the most interesting demographic phenomena of the XENA Palace is the wide range of ages present in the community and the dynamic interactions between different age groups. In most other Palaces I have visited, it seems that everyone is in the same age range. Many XENA Palace visitors and regulars have commented on the wide age range of our Palace. Perhaps it stems from the fact that XENA holds an attraction for a wide range of ages.

[13] Still, would you not expect each age range to keep to itself, once in the Palace? Would it not make sense for the teenagers to only want to hang out with other teenagers and the adults to only want to hang out with other adults? This is not to say that this does not happen at all in the XENA Palace, but it is rare. If you go in, at any given moment you will find people of all age groups interacting with each other. There is much mentoring going on between the older and younger Palacers. Moreover, the young Palacers teach the old ones a few new tricks too.

How Come We Rarely Talk About XENA in the XENA Palace?

"XENA was a great way to bring us all together. It gave us common ground to start on, something we all had an interest in that we could talk about. I think that at this point XENA is just a sidebar. It's funny how little we actually talk about the show in the Palace and that we even comment when we *do* talk about the show that's it is odd that we are on the subject."
- Aristo Zandra, Palace regular since 1998

[14] Many things continue to surprise me about the XENA Palace. One of them is that we rarely seem to talk about XENA. To be sure, we hold events like episode chats and themed parties, and we wear XENA-related avatars and play XENA sounds. Nevertheless, true, extended, honest to goodness talk about the show is a rarity. This may be due to the fact that the Palace is up and running 24 hours a day, 7 days a week (for the most part), and it is simply impossible to talk about one thing all the time.

[15] I have been involved in many different types of online communities and in certain spaces like email listservs and newsgroups, there is great resistance to "off-topic" conversation. The logistics of these spaces make this necessary and understandable, but for the XENA Palace, there is no such thing as off-topic chat. People are encouraged to come in and talk about whatever is on their minds, whether it is XENA or non-XENA related. Moreover, even the most hardcore HCNBs (hard core nutballs) [Note 07] must eventually talk about something else. Not that XENA Palace folks do not like to talk about XENA, they certainly do. When the topic does come up, it is great to be in an environment where everyone is familiar the terminology and language of Xenaverse fandom. These are people who know words like "chakram" and who know that "ADITL" is an acronym for the episode A DAY IN THE LIFE, just to name a few examples.

[16] Yet, while the common bond of XENA fandom and knowledge about the show are common interests, the people in the XENA Palace rarely talk about XENA because there are many other things that make up an online community. A community starts to form around the more everyday, unspectacular things like, "How did work go today", "Let me tell you what my mom just did", or "I'm having such a bad hair day", and not shop talk. From these everyday things come a greater knowledge of people. Friendships develop based on simply knowing the everyday details of someone's life. People find out that they have something in common with someone else, something beyond an interest in XENA. Soon deeper relationships grow from the friendships. The nature of conversations changes into subject matter that is more serious. When a XENA Palace regular wants to come in and rant about something, or act goofy because they are in a silly mood, or just hang out silently because they are just feeling quiet that day, they are free to do just that. As Palace regular Undertow says,

"It really helps me whenever I have a problem, or just want to rant about something, because I know people will listen to me."

[17] One of my first big decisions as Palace administrator came when I had to decide whether to install private/lockable rooms at the Palace or not. The Palace existed for a year without lockable rooms and every interaction took place in public rooms that everyone could access. After a year of existence, the community had grown to a point where we had a steady stream of regulars, about 75-100 total. A basic sociology had also evolved over the course of the first year. Friendships had deepened, relationships had developed, and friendship groups had formed. Sometimes people wanted to talk about something privately with a group of their friends without the risk of other people coming into the room.

[18] I agonized for weeks over whether to install private rooms at the Palace. Would this encourage exclusivity and snobbery? Would it make the Palace more "clique-ish"? Would it lead to naughty behavior behind closed doors? Should I even worry about what people did behind closed doors? Some people thought we should add private rooms, some people did not. Meanwhile I continued to deal with the aftermath of incidents caused by not having private space, like people getting their feelings hurt or feeling awkward because they either unwittingly or purposefully stumbled into a private conversation. People were leaving to go to other Palaces to have a private conversation. Finally, I made the decision to add the private rooms. It was not a popular decision with everyone but I believe it was the right one.

[19] Despite my original worries about adding them, the private rooms have made the Palace a more pleasant place to be. People can have deeper discussions without leaving the Palace and the private rooms are not monopolized by hordes of snotty cliques. After adding the rooms, life continued much the same as it had been before with most people preferring to hang out in a public room and chat with everyone. However, when they needed to talk in private the option was there. Looking back it seems silly that this was such a huge, angst-filled decision for me. Sometimes you just have to have faith in your community.


Making "Totem Poles" is a favorite pasttime
of Xena Palacers in the palace...

...and in Real Life!


Who Are We and What Are We Doing Here? The XENA Palace in a Larger Context of Other Online Communities

"It's impossible to really compare [other chat environments to the XENA Palace] because XP is so much more visual, which increases the interpersonal inter-relationships -- meaning -- you get to know people a lot better because your [sic] seeing them and getting a feeling of them that's deeper than plain chat."
- eL Pack, Palace regular since 1998

[20] I have been studying online communities for many years, sometimes as a fully involved member, sometimes as an observer, or sometimes simply from reading about them. I have participated in or read a great deal about e-mail lists, bulletin boards, newsgroups, MUDs, and other Palaces. Each community has its own sense of purpose, identity, culture, and rules. Although I knew that the culture would evolve and grow as the community itself grew, I felt the need early on to define a vision of what the XENA Palace should be so that it would have a guiding purpose and identity. In early 1998 when the XENA Palace was in its infancy, I was already familiar with some of the larger, well-known online community pioneers such as the WELL [Note 08], Echo [Note 09], and LambdaMOO [Note 10]. My vision for the XENA Palace was very much shaped by my experience and understanding of these communities.

[21] One of the interesting things I had noticed about all of the early online community pioneers was that the founders and participants of each seemed to view the online environment as a simulacrum of a real life town. Other Palaces model themselves after towns as well, naming themselves "KidsTown" or "CyberTown", giving their regular visitors the title of "citizen" and sometimes even allowing them to set up their own spaces or rooms within the Palace [Note 11]. Some communities went so far as to set up governments and complex legal systems to settle civil issues and disputes. A common theme across all of these groups was that a virtual community represented distinctly utopian possibilities, a chance to create a place that was better than the real world.

[22] Although each of these communities were fascinating and considerable worthy endeavors, I felt that the XENA Palace had a different purpose. If it was not a cybertown, then what was it? My vision for the XENA Palace was something much simpler. I was not interested in creating a virtual town or anything nearly as ambitious as that. I saw it as a smaller area of cyberspace akin to a local bar or community center. It was a place where people could come by and "hang out" as often or as little as they wanted and the focus would remain on having fun with friends rather than trying to create an online utopia. It would simply be a place "where everybody knows your name" [Note 12] and where you could drop by anytime you wanted to socialize.


A surprise birthday party in Meg's Tavern:
January 2000

Some mysterious palace elves surprised us
with Christmas stockings in 1999.


Social Dynamics in the XENA Palace

"The social hierarchy of the XENA Palace is very much like real life with its status, popularity, personality, and cliques. We are all a part of real life, therefore, we bring our social hierarchy and beliefs into the cyber world, the XENA Palace."
- Mel Lemon, XENA Palace regular since 1999.

[23] Another aspect of the other online communities that I wanted to avoid was the overabundance of politics that changed each space so radically and fundamentally from its original personality that it was eventually rendered unrecognizable to the founders and older members. Most online communities eventually experience varying degrees of power struggles and/or radical policy changes decided by committees and subcommittees in a social landscape that gets more labyrinthine through the years. Older members of the community talk nostalgically about "the golden era" of the early days, back when all was simple, new, exciting, and fun. My goal has been to keep the XENA Palace in that pre-political "golden era" as long as possible. This has not been easy. We definitely have our share of politics. However, we have managed to stay "golden" by keeping a relatively small population and through ongoing personal efforts to keep politics to a minimum. I encourage the participants in the community to constantly look inward and examine the social aspects of our behavior.

[24] Sometimes the extremely "hierarchical" characteristics of the Palace software itself work against us. The Palace software was based on its direct predecessors, the gaming environments of MUDs and MOOs. When the XENA Palace first opened in May of 1998, the Palace software had existed for about three years. The terminology that came with the software is telling. The owner of a Palace, the person who had full coding privileges, was called a "god". The staff members of each Palace, who had various disciplinary powers such as muting people and kicking them out of the Palace, were called "wizards" [Note 13]. This had the effect of automatically creating separate "classes" of users in the social landscape: gods, wizards, and users.

[25] Back in 1998, this class system was even more pronounced by the fact that users had to pay a fee for the privilege of wearing avatars. Non-paying new users were generally recognizable by their default yellow smiley avatars, while those who shelled out a one-time fee of $40 had more creative freedom to construct their virtual bodies into any image they pleased [Note 14]. Thankfully, the paying vs. non-paying class distinction was eliminated when avatar-wearing abilities were made free to everyone in July of 1998.

[26] Although the XENA Palace is one of the most new user-friendly places around, some social distinction between a new user (newbie) and an old-timer remains. Gods and wizards are low-key positions in the XENA Palace, but they are still perceived as having social power, to varying degrees, by members of the community. No matter how hard I downplay the distinction and promote a sense of equality, people seem to cling to hierarchical notions of social power. I continue to be surprised by the weight that a "god" or "wizard" title still holds with some XENA Palace members [Note 15].

[27] My view of the Palace as a virtual "Cheers" rather than a futuristic cybertown is important because it sets the tone and provides guidance and scope for the project. In my admittedly biased opinion, it is a vision that has led to the development of a wonderful little corner of cyberspace. We do not have membership or citizenship. People come and go as they please. We do not have elected officials. Instead, we have what are essentially "bouncers" (wizards) and they do not have any official power other than the ability to keep the peace by kicking rowdy visitors out. There is no ownership of rooms or property since giving out room space and/or authoring privileges to all members is simply not logistically feasible. Interpersonal disputes are rare but when they do occur they are usually worked out by the people involved themselves, or if it is escalated up to me it is resolved as fairly and quickly as possible.

[28] The wizard staff is made up of a small group of people who help keep the peace and make the XENA Palace a great place to be. The main duty of a XENA Palace wizard is to help people. They are chosen for their demonstrated maturity and willingness to be friendly and helpful to everyone. They help set a positive tone in the Palace and occasionally have to deal with troublemakers, who are called "trolls" or "snerts".

[29] The summer of 1998 was an interesting time in the evolution of the XENA Palace because there were very few wizards and a large amount of troll activity. We dealt with everything from banal homophobic and racial slurs to troll "gangs" who would come in as a group and lock up the Palace server with scripts. One of the more common but bizarre offenses was impersonating another Palace member, especially wizard impersonation [Note 16]. Eventually things calmed down and these days a troll is a rare occurrence in the XENA Palace. The focus of the staff has turned more to helping new folks out by answering questions and showing them around.

[30] One rule that I have insisted on with the wizard staff is to give everyone, even trolls, at least one chance. Sometimes a new visitor may simply not be aware that they are acting in an annoying manner and their behavior can improve with patience and guidance from Palace members. I have seen this happen many, many times over the past few years and some of my favorite Palace members were once considered "trolls" when they first came in to visit. Having a great group of people on the wizard team who understand this rule and the reasons behind it is one of the reasons that the XENA Palace has been able to keep growing and improving. We work together with the rest of the Palace regulars to keep the Palace in its "golden era".

[31] Meanwhile, the social dynamics of a growing community continue to evolve every day. This is not to say that a social hierarchy does not exist in the XENA Palace, but the dynamics of the XENA Palace social hierarchy are vastly more complex than a "god-wizard-user" setup or even an "old-timer vs. newbie" setup.

[32] I recently asked the Palace regulars if they thought there was a social hierarchy in the XENA Palace. Some people felt that wizards constituted a clique while some did not see it that way at all. All of the responses, however, indicated recognition of the complexity of the XENA Palace social landscape and several people further compared their view of the XENA Palace social hierarchy with "real life". For example, Cynthia Morrill aka "January" in the palace commented:

"I think there is a limited hierarchy in the XWP Palace that is more perceived than asserted. Of course, older palacers, wizards, etc know more people and understand the technology better than newbies and newbies perceive this. When I first visited the Palace I was very self-conscious of being in a new place and needing to get a sense of the people, the general social climate and the possibilities and limitations of the technology. I quickly made friends and soon lost my self-consciousness. People . . . who make a distinct effort to greet and welcome new people not in their guise as 'old hands at the Palace' but rather as outgoing people mediate hierarchy in the Palace."

[33] A palace regular from the UK, Oaky, further described a hierarchy that is based on a kind of cult of personality, inspired by the individual charisma of regular visitors:

"I think there is also a hirearchical [sic] system based around opinion leaders - or perhaps members who have earnt 'respect' in some way. This is much harder to put your finger on cos it is less explicit and is I guess woven into the cultural fabric of our community. It is not really based around AVs or who is in the palace most, although the latter certainly has some influence on the matter, but I feel is based around character…we all know that there are characters in the palace that everyone knows, everyone respects and everyone misses when they are not there..... I feel it is this group that are able to exert positive influence through the 'authority' that they cover as sub-cultural leaders. Interestingly they may not be aware of their influence or the position that they occupy, but take it from me as a rank and file citizen of Xena warrior Palace it is there and it is very real indeed."

[34] In a technologically mediated online world, palace users instinctively recognize that words, actions, and deeds count the most. This is an interesting contrast to the social dynamics of "real life" which are often based more on the surface qualities of looks and beauty. Mel Lemon, one of the many teenage XENA Palace regulars, described how she saw individual personality as the primary qualifier of status in the XENA Palace:

"Status is usually formed by your overall Palace personality and by how the Palace people react to you just like in real life. Your 'good record' is very much a part of your Palace status. Your actions and sayings are judged by everyone and these are what get you liked or hated. Everyone in Palace also has a reputation which everyone recognizes you by. The always happy person, the always depressed person, the smart one, the friendly one, and etc.

"Popular palace people are usually those with good personality as well, but some gain their status or popularity by their overall niceness, doing things (avatar making, etc.) for others, and having good avatars themselves. This is much like judging a person by their looks and personality in real life."

[35] I also asked the Palace regulars if they thought that "cliques" exist in the XENA Palace and if so, did they think this was necessarily a good or bad thing. I got a variety of interesting responses. Most recognized that there were groups of people who tend to hang out together more than others and some were comfortable calling these groups "cliques" while others felt that the word "cliques" was too strong and that a term like "friendship groups" was more appropriate. One regular, "Spearmaiden", said that there are definitely cliques, but that clique membership and the way that cliques interact with other cliques is different from her experience in the offline world:

"First, it is just basic human nature to build relationships with people that we enjoy being with more than others, for whatever reason. And in spite of our best efforts, a certain amount of social hierarchy will occur within any group. However, unlike rl [real life], the Palace allows people to move in and out of cliques relatively easily. In essence, we get to try on a new "outfit" according to our whim. Unlike rl, most people belong to more than one clique. Also, unlike rl, there is virtually no hierarchy amongst the categories. For example, in rl, there would be the popular crowd who would rule, with the geek crowd coming in a lowly last. Within the Palace, aside from you and the wizards, it is hard to say that any clique presides more than the other. In short, it is more of an egalitarian setting, with cliques showing respect for other."




The Canadian contingent takes over!:
May 26, 1998

Rocky Horror Joxer Night:
June 16, 2000


The Virtual is Real

"I have met people [in the XENA Palace] who have touched my heart and enriched my life. Even though I've not met some of these people 'in real life' the friendships I have gained are very real and very precious." -Shadowfen, Palace regular since 1998

"Other palaces I've been to are more about living out a fantasy life and cybersex. I think people are more consistent with the way they are in real life at Xena's." -Anonymous palace regular

[36] Despite the term "virtual", a virtual community is just as "real" as any other real-world community. There are living, breathing human beings behind the avatars. The Palace acts as a filter through which social interactions occur, but the interactions themselves are not born of cyberspace. People make friends, hang out, fight, fall in love, gossip, bond, and goof around, just as they would in a face-to-face, real world community. There is a wide range of different personality types in the Palace. Some people are outgoing and friendly, while some are shy and quiet. Some people have more social skills than others do but everyone is generally a friendly sort and anyone who exhibits anti-social or troublesome behavior is not considered a "popular" community member. This is particularly interesting in the context of a community that consists of a great number of teenagers, for whom "popularity" is often a pressing real-life concern and the ways to go about attaining popularity are not always consistent with behavior that is socially acceptable to adults. I have always been impressed with the maturity and intelligence exhibited by the teens who are regulars at the XENA Palace. From what I understand of the social dynamics in other Palaces, this is an unusual thing.

[37] For both teens and adults, the Palace can be a place to experiment with your own personality and to let go of the mundane-ness of real life by representing yourself as something you aspire to be. Many people wear avatars of people, animals, or fantastic beings that they admire and wish they could be more like.

[38] In John Suler's fascinating online psychological analysis of Palace avatars [Note 17] he astutely points out how avatars can represent aspects of someone's personality:

"Like masks of any kind, avatars hide and reveal at the same time. Behind it, people can conceal some personal things about themselves, but the av also selectively amplifies other aspects of their personalities. It may reveal something about the member that otherwise is not immediately obvious - maybe not even obvious if you met that person in real life. Maybe not even obvious to the owners themselves." [Note 18]

[39] One interesting thing to note is that Suler is talking about real/offline personalities, not online cyber-personas. This taps into what I have always seen as one of the most remarkable things about the Palace: its ability to amplify and clarify real life personalities through the lens of the online medium.

[40] The Internet is famous (and infamous) as a space where people experiment with different aspects of their personalities. Sometimes this means the fabrication of an online persona that lets someone explore previously untapped parts of a personality. Sometimes it simply means putting extra emphasis on already existing but dormant personality traits. In the XENA Palace, the latter scenario is more common. Anyone who "misrepresents" themselves by claiming to be someone they are not in "real life", including age, gender, and national/cultural identity, is seen as an offender who has betrayed the trust of the community. People are encouraged and expected to behave like their "real" or offline selves and, through the encouragement of other Palace friend, to develop the positive and unique aspects of their personalities.

[41] Although there are those who visit the Palace and keep it intellectually and emotionally separate from their "real" lives, the XENA Palace often has therapeutic effects on its visitors which are successfully integrated into offline life. I have heard many stories from XENA Palace regulars who have told me how much the Palace has changed their lives. The most common story that I hear over and over again is of the person who has learned to conquer shyness and has gained a sense of self-confidence in the Palace through positive reinforcement from Palace friends in the online medium. Furthermore, they have been able to transition their newfound social skills and self-confidence into the "real" world with positive "real life" effects.

[42] In Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet [Note 19], MIT psychologist Sherry Turkle outlines case studies of Internet users who use their online personas to work through real life psychological difficulties. Of particular relevance is Turkle's case study "Robert" who used the Internet as an environment where he could talk about his feelings and work out issues of identity in a positive and constructive way, which led to an improvement in his real life [Note 20].

[43] There have been similar cases in the XENA Palace that usually revolves around issues of identity and the realization and eventual real-life actualization of a "better" self. The correlation of Turkle's case studies to XENA Palace users is not an exact fit, since her subjects' primary Internet activity was online role-playing via text-based role-playing games called MUDs which involve a higher degree of fantasy than the XENA Palace. However, I maintain that the comparison is a valid one and would even argue that the Palace environment has more therapeutic possibilities than a MUD because there is no overt role-playing. Instead, as mentioned above, people are expected to act like their "real" selves and therefore are that much closer to real-life integration.

[44] Of course, not everyone reaps positive therapeutic effects from the Palace and not every story has a happy ending, just as Turkle's MUD-players met with varying degrees of success when trying to integrate their online life with their real life. As Turkle says, "The outcome depends on the emotional challenges the players face and the emotional resources they bring to the game. MUDs can provide occasions for personal growth and change, but not for everyone and not in every circumstance" [Note 21]. The same is true for the Palace. Online life is what you make of it.


Keeping it real at the "Reality Check" party:
August 22, 1998

Regressing into infantile behavior at Baby Night:
September 25, 1999


Real Life Friendships

"When I go to the XENA Palace it's like going to see my family. It's there that I learn more [of] my english and it's there that I meet my love."
- Grizou, Palace regular since 1999

"The Xena Palace is a great place to chat. People there are your friends. They will help you when you need it... if you are feeling down they will make you laugh. And through alot of the chats I've had there I've come to accept being a lesbian and that there is nothing wrong with me like I thought there was before. I met my girl friend and my true love there. The xena palace will always have a special place in my heart."
- Anonymous palace regular

[45] The Palace may not serve as a therapeutic space for everyone who visits, but after all, this is just a wonderful surprise bonus of our virtual hangout. It is not the main raison d'etre of the XENA Palace. At the very least, the XENA Palace provides a refreshing counter to the popular view that the Internet has a negative influence on people's social lives. The relationships that are formed in a virtual community have very real implications for its members. After bonding in the virtual world, the need to connect in real life is very powerful. Many XENA Palacers have met each other in person. We have at least one large official gathering every year for the Palace anniversary along with smaller gatherings that happen at various times throughout the year [Note 22]. The real life gatherings have added a deeper dimension to the friendships and have served to enhance the sense of community.

[46] Sometimes real life meetings lead to greater real life changes. Several people have developed long-term relationships from their initial Palace friendships. Some Palace regulars have moved across state and country lines to be with their new life partners, whom they met in the Palace. One of the happiest occasions I have ever attended was the real-life wedding of BS and Dragonia in Toronto, at the first anniversary gathering of the XENA Palace in May 1999.


Wedding attendees for BS &and Dragonia's wedding:
May 1999

Xena Palacers meet at the NYC Xena Con:
February 2000

[47] As much as I wish every story could have a happy ending, that is not always the case. A few people have told me that they wish they had never set foot in the Palace, for its eventual effect on their real lives was more negative than positive. Sometimes reality does not involve a happy ending.

[48] Still, I believe that most people would say the XENA Palace has touched their lives in a positive way. Who could have predicted back in 1998 that this project would take on such a life of its own? Yet, when I said "WHOOSH does not do chat", in a way I was right. The XENA Palace does much more than that.


A Xena Palace Family Portrait:
August 8, 1999

Xena Palacers at the 2nd Anniversary gathering in New Orleasns:
May 2000


Notes

Note 01
The rooms in the Xena Palace come from a variety of sources, including Bret Rudnick's vacation photographs from New Zealand, the imagination of SRT Enterprises' technical team, the default Palace room selections, and from original artwork by Palace regulars. The creators of the XENA Palace were careful not to violate copyright rules with the installation of each room.

Note 02
Communities.com recently announced that they would be discontinuing support for the Palace software and launching a new product at the end of 2000. We are, of course, anxiously awaiting more information about this new product. Meanwhile, the XENA Palace hosting service, SRT Enterprises has been generous in working with us to keep the XENA Palace up and running for the short term. The long-term fate of the XENA Palace server remains to be seen.

Note 03
Ms. Marshall is no longer at SRT Enterprises but the CEO of SRT, Omar Saleh, has generously taken up the responsibility for keeping the XENA Palace running at their Pennsylvania offices.

Note 04
See KM, Courtney, and Meesta's "Xena: Warrior Palace Chat Dictionary" at http://www.geocities.com/Hollywood/Hills/9361/XCC/dict.html

Note 05
I am always open to new suggestions for parties and events. If you have an idea for an event or would like to use the Palace for your next virtual party or chat, email me at bsquared@echonyc.com.

Note 06
For a comprehensive study of the online Xenaverse, see Christine Boese's dissertation "The Ballad of the Internet Nutball" at http://www.nutball.com/

Note 07
"HCNB" is a Xenite acronym for "Hardcore Nutballs" which is the term Lucy Lawless used to refer to XENA fans in a 1996 post to the Netforum in which she thanked fans for their birthday wishes. The term quickly caught on with fans and it is a commonly-used term in fandom.

Note 08
See Howard Rheingold's The Virtual Community, 1993, Harper Perennial Publishers, for a brief introduction to the WELL, as well as MUDs and IRC.

Note 09
I have been a member of Echo since December 1998. For an insightful peek into Echoid culture, see founder Stacy Horn's Cyberville, 1998, Warner Books.

Note 10
For a first-hand historical account of LambdaMOO, I highly recommend Julian Dibbell's My Tiny Life: Crime and Passion in a Virtual World, 1998, Henry Holt & Co.

Note 11
MUDs and MOOs are actually based on the very principle that each participant gets a certain amount of building privileges and the more status you have in the community, the more real estate you are given.

Note 12
To quote the television show "Cheers" which featured a barful of regular visitors.

Note 13
I always found the terms "god" and "wizard" completely obnoxious. I was happy when the latest version of the software used the terms "owner" and "operator" instead, but by then it was too late. Everyone still refers to owners as "gods" and to operators as "wizards".

Note 14
This is an interesting case of virtual life imitating art, in this case Neal Stephenson's 1991 novel Snow Crash, where a VR world called "the Metaverse" is described in detail, with members wearing different types of virtual bodies that were more beautiful and elaborate according to how much money they paid for their avatar.

Note 15
Much of my "wizard selection methodology" was aided by the very helpful guide at http://www.botzilla.com/house/wiz.html. The official Xena Palace wizard list and wizard selection policy is at http://www.whoosh.org/palace/guide.html

Note 16
I have personally been impersonated several times (hint: if you ever get the urge to impersonate someone in the Palace it is not the smartest thing in the world to impersonate the Palace god).

Note 17
John Suler, "The Psychology of Avatars and Graphical Space in Multimedia Chat Communities or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love My Palace Props," 1996-99, http://www.rider.edu/users/suler/psycyber/psyav.html

Note 18
Suler, http://www.rider.edu/users/suler/psycyber/psyav.html#Types

Note 19
Sherry Turkle, Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet, 1995, Simon & Schuster.

Note 20
Turkle, pp. 200-206.

Note 21
Turkle, p. 200.

Note 22
Palace users who are under 18 are not allowed to attend a palace gathering without having a parent present. Please see "Agent Scully's Online Safety Tips" at http://www.whoosh.org/palace/safety.html for more details.



Biography

Chatty Spice Betsy Book
Webmaster, Whoosh!
IAXS Executive Committee
Member of the original Board of Directors
In RL, Betsy Book is VP of Product Development at Flooz.com, an Internet company in New York City. In the virtual world, you can find her chatting in the XENA Palace under the name "bsquared" and usually wearing some kind of Agent Scully avatar.
Favorite episode: DREAMWORKER (03/103) and WARRIOR... PRINCESS... TRAMP (30/206)
First episode seen: CHARIOTS OF WAR (02/102) Favorite line: Meg as XENA: "Hold it right there! In the blink of an eye I can split the skull of anyone who moves with my trusty...shamrock!" WARRIOR...PRINCESS...TRAMP (30/206)
Least favorite episode: KING CON (61/315)

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