Social Dimensions of Habitat's Citizenry

F. Randall Farmer
Electric Communities


I was the Oracle, or system administrator for a cyberspace known as Lucasfilm's Habitat during it's shakedown period and paying-pilot test from June 1986 to May 1988. Here are a few observations about the unique social dimensions of online communities. Most of these ideas were composed while I reigned over a small Habitat town named Populopolis, with a population of 500 citizens. The Oracles of the currently operating Habitats: Club Caribe in the United States and Fujitsu Habitat in Japan, have contributed much to later refinement of these thoughts.[1]

What is Habitat?

Habitat is "a multi-participant online virtual environment," a cyberspace. Each participant ("player") uses a home computer as an intelligent, interactive client, communicating via modem and telephone over a commercial packet-switching data network to a centralized, mainframe host system. The client software provides the user interface, generating a real-time animated display of what is going on and translating input from the player into messages to the host. The host maintains the system's world model, enforcing the rules and keeping each player's client informed about the constantly changing state of the universe. The various players connect to the host simultaneously and appear to all be inhabiting the same imaginary world. Thus the host enables the players to interact not only with the world but with each other.

The world is built entirely with objects[2]. There are over 200 object classes, the most notable are Avatars, Ghosts and Regions. Players may either be represented by an animated graphic figure called an Avatar or by a static Ghost icon. Avatars can move around, manipulate objects, talk to each other, send messages to each other via "ESP" and mail, and make graphic gestures. Ghosts, an observer-only mode, do not interact with the environment except to transform into Avatars. Regions hold the players and other objects for one screen of the world.

The Social Commitment Dimension

The entire point of any thriving community is people. Habitat is an interactive environment where people define the parameters of their experience. Thus it is important to understand how people behave in these cyberspaces. In Habitat I observed five distinct patterns of usage and social commitment:

The Passives

The Passive group must be lead by the hand to participate. They want effortless entertainment, like a person watching cable-TV with a remote control. They constantly flit from place to place, staying in any single spot for only a moment.

Easily 75% of the players fall into this category, but they only account for perhaps 20% of the connect time. They tend to "cross over" into Habitat only to read their mail, collect their daily tokens, and read the weekly newspaper (and if given the chance to do any of these activities offline, they'll take it). They show up for events intermittently and only when the mood strikes. Even when they do spend more than two minutes in at a time, they tend to hang around as Ghosts and eavesdrop on others' conversations, rather than participating in the activities themselves. Many special events and activities had to target these "on for just a few minutes" people, and encourage their active participation.

The Actives

The Active group is the next largest, and make up the bulk of the paying customer hours. The active players typically participate in two to five hours of activities per week each. They tend to put Habitat first in their online agenda. Immediately upon entering they contact the other players online to find out the hot activity of the day. They always have a copy of the latest paper (and gripe if it comes out late).

The Active's biggest problem is overspending. They really like Habitat, and lose track of the time they spend in it. This would sometimes lead to Actives cancelling their accounts when a huge bill arrived in the mail, a loss for all involved. The watch word for these people is "be thrifty."

During Fujitsu Habitat's first year of operations the system was only available from 1:00 PM to 11:00 PM local time. The Actives in Japan developed the habit of logging in every day at 9:00, give or take a minute. This way they maximized their social activity (since they knew everyone else was doing the same thing) but minimized their connection costs (since the system shut down at 11:00). Fujitsu Habitat usually reached peak load by 9:15. Over half these players would still be online at closing, when the host was yanked out from under them. Even now, after two years of 24 hour host operations, this peak persists.

The Motivators

The real heros of Habitat are the Motivators. They understand that Habitat is what the players make of it. They throw parties, start institutions, open businesses, run for office, start moral debates, become outlaws, and win contests. Motivators are worth their weight in gold. One motivator for every 50 Passives and Actives is a wonderful ratio. Online community builders should nurture these people.

In Club Caribe, there is an official title bestowed on several of those that the operators have recognized as Motivators: "The Guardian Angels." Each receives a male or female angel head, the honor of having the initials "GA" attached to their user name, plus access to a private clubhouse that only they can enter. In return they dedicate themselves to furthering the enjoyment of all participants. When Motivators are ready to make their online community "a paying job" they can become Caretakers.

The Caretakers

Caretakers may already be employees of the host organization, but the best Caretakers are "mature" Motivators. They help the new players, mediate interpersonal conflicts, record bugs, suggest improvements, run their own contests, officiate at functions, and in general keep things running smoothly. There are far fewer Caretakers than Motivators. In Populopolis, there were only three of them.

Again, Club Caribe has an official title for these people: "Club Caribe Guides" or "CCGs." In Club Caribe they wear (ugly) American Indian heads and often receive free online time for their participation. They are on strict schedules and can actually be fired. Caretakers wield a significant amount of political power in cyberspaces because the other players quickly figure out who actually "runs" the system. They often develop followers and fans, or enemies and detractors. In this way, Caretakers often introduce real world politics and egos into cyberspace, and it can dramatically affect the community.

The Geek Gods

The original Habitat operator was known as The Oracle. Having the operator's job is like being a Greek god of ancient mythology. The Oracle grants wishes and introduces new objects and rules into the world. With one bold stroke of the keyboard, the operator can change the physics of the universe, create or eliminate bank accounts, entire city blocks, even the family business. This power carries a heavy burden of responsibility, since any externally imposed change to the cyberspace world can have subtle (and not so subtle) side effects. Think about this: would you be mad at "God" if one day suddenly electricity didn't work anymore? Something like this happened in Habitat. We had Magic Wand objects, and an Oracle-in-training made dozens of them available, for a stiff price: five days' income. This was a problem because the wands never failed, and never ran out of charges. I had always intended to set the magic charges, so one night, during host maintenance, I quietly gave each wand a random number of remaining charges. The next day, when the wands started to discharge fully, the players became furious! Some of them threatened to leave Habitat forever. Simple bug "fixes" can sometimes be interpreted as removing a much loved "feature." Often you can't tell in advance what will happen. Players should be an integral part of cyberspace rule and object changes.[3]

Geek Gods need to be knowledgeable about fantasy role playing, telecommunications networks, political science and economics, among other things. They must understand both the need for self-consistency in a fictional world and the methods used to achieve it. They need to understand something about the real world, since that is where the players come from. They need to know the players themselves, since they are the ones who will make or break the system. Most importantly, they must know when not to wield their power.

Variations on the theme

The developers of Fujitsu Habitat decided to have their Geek Gods operate behind the scenes and not interact directly with the players. All online support personnel operate at the Caretaker level of commitment and power. This separation of powers is more politically stable and allows the programmers the luxury of remaining a comfortable distance from the daily social problems.

The path of Ascension

Passive -> Active -> Motivator -> Caretaker -> Geek God

Encourage everyone to move one role to the right, and the result will be a living, self-sustaining and thriving community where new members can always feel encouraged to become vital citizens.


The Dimension of Being and Nothingness

To consider fully the social dimensions of a cyberspace citizen we need to consider how virtual being compares with a person's existence in the real world.




Level of


(I) Avatar, Account or Handle

(II) Agent, Script of Robot


(III) Observer, Ghost or Lurker

(IV) Dead, Inactive or Sleeping

This chart shows two dimensions: Level of Participation and Connectivity. The four quadrants are labeled with the commonly known names of these states on various online systems.

Quadrant I on most systems represents the "user account," "handle," or "Avatar." This is the most familiar state of being for a person when in a cyberspace. You are logged in, doing things in the universe, even if only sending mail or copying files. You are interacting with the system, and others in the system can interact with you.

Quadrant IV is the next most familiar state: logged out. Most cyberspaces understand this state as "inactive," "dead," "in the Void," or "sleeping." Simply put, nothing happens to or for you while you are not present.

These two quadrants map nicely onto the human experience as awake/conscious and asleep/unconscious. Most cyberspace implementors handle these cases adequately in their implementations. However, cyberspace systems designers often overlook the other two quadrants.

Quadrant II describes robots and agents. These are entities that act on your behalf when you are away. The MUDs and MOOs[4] are leading the experimentation in this area of cyberspace consciousness. Of course, this raises some questions about responsibility for actions. What happens when a robot, acting in your name, does some cyberspace property damage? Or steals? Or worse yet, "harms" someone? Also covered by this quadrant is the concept of "autocollusion," creating extra, fictional personae for the sole purpose of collecting their resources and handing them over to your primary persona.

Quadrant III describes what is by far the most overlooked state of a cyberspace inhabitant's makeup, the "ghost," or "lurker" state of existence. In this state you are an observer only, hiding just out of sight, and would prefer that others not bother you or even know that you are watching. In Habitat you could enter the Ghost state instantaneously: your body would disappear from the screen, to be replaced by a single small icon in the corner of the screen representing you and any other people who were also watching as Ghosts. These people can usually be found hanging around in any large, public access cyberspace.

Online personae and real world personality

Cyberspaces, because they are anonymous, present people with a unique opportunity for people to present themselves in any matter they desire. Shy people can experiment with being bold or they can present themselves as a member of the opposite sex. How often are these alternate personalities accepted or rejected? How often are people 'just being themselves' in these online worlds? Why do people do it? These questions personally intrigue me and require further study, but I've collected some interesting data:

In December of 1990, I met face to face with a group of fifty Fujitsu Habitat citizens about their Avatars. During one part of the discussion I asked:

1) Do you think of your Avatar as a separate being, or is it a representation of you?

Half said they thought of their Avatar as a separate being. The others said it was their 'self'.

2) Do you act like your usual self when you are in Habitat, or in ways different from real life?

Again the results were fifty-fifty. This was no surprise to me, as I thought I had simply rephrased and inverted the first question. Then I realized that several that had selected 'self' for the first question had not selected 'self' for the second question! The actual distribution was as follows:

My Avatar is a representation of..


another being

In Habitat I act...

like myself



unlike myself



Only a minority (26%) prefers to project themselves fully into the online universe. Clearly, cyberspace citizens feel empowered by the technology to experiment with social interactions They feel safe enough to try on a different skin. Given that the current players are mostly affluent, male, and computer savvy, will these statistics remain meaningful when people with other interests arrive?

Other Social Dimensions

Other social dimensions of cyberspace citizenry that should be considered include sense of place[5], point of view[6], government, economics, politics, religion, crime, punishment, inclusion, ostracism, and spontaneous social organization[7]. These are the issues that Habitat's citizenry care about.

To end, it seems that "people are people," even in cyberspace. But these online communities, with the individualism and anonymity they provide, produce a unique culture, combining fictional constructs and personalities with people and their real world expectations.

[1] I am indebted to Oracles Layza, Tsuo and Z'd from Fujitsu Habitat, along with GGCs JZer0, Becky, GaryM, and GA Thistle from Club Caribe for their observations of, and/or participation in these communities.

[2] A detailed review of Habitat design goals, successes, and failures appears in The Lessons of Lucasfilm's Habitat by Morningstar and Farmer, published in Cyberspace: First Steps, MIT Press 1991, Michael Benedikt, ed.

[3] More stories about operational subtleties appear in "The Lessons of Lucasfilm's Habitat." op cit

[4] MUD stands for "Multi-User Dimension." MOO is "MUD-Object-Oriented." They are text-only, player extensible cyberspaces. Dozens are available world-wide via the Internet. I suggest LambdaMOO, run as a research project in secure programming languages by Pavel Curtis at Xerox PARC. Telnet to, port 8888.

[5] No Sense of Place, The Impact of Electronic Media on Social Behavior, by Joshua Meyrowitz, Oxford Universiaty Press 1986. Recommended reading.

[6] Detailed in "Cyberspace Colonies", by Farmer & Morningstar, presented at the Second International Conference on Cyberspace.

[7] Stories about these are in "The Lessons of Lucasfilm's Habitat." op cit