August 18, 2002

Every rope gat two ends (or why IRC is like Caribbean yard culture)

Category: Anthropology,Research — Biella @ 12:50 pm

Lately I have been spending a lot of time on IRC (Internet Relay Chat) mostly talking with my friends that I have met during my recent travels. I have enjoyed it tremendously, in part because I have been able to maintain and deepen certain relationships but also there is just something about the medium itself that I really love. I was not sure how deep my relationship to IRC ran until about a week ago when something happened to me before I feel asleep that revealed that IRC has had a huge impact on my psyche So, often before I go to bed, my mind just wanders into this space of special imagery in which fond memories will just randomly appear. Basically any moment that I hold a special fondness for might pop up during this period of limbo before I fall asleep. So, the other night, my IRC GUI client just made a cameo appearance in my nightly field of memories and to tell you the truth, this almost jolted me out of my sleepy nebulous state with great concern. I was like “shiiit, IRC has begun to leave a serious imprint on my self.” And since I have spent a lot of time mentally digesting what it is that I love so much about irc and why so many people in the past and present fall prey “the addiction.” Below are some very unsystematic thoughts about the way I have come to think of IRC….

When I first began to think about why IRC was so compelling, my mind wandered to a set of memories that I have not thought about it a very, very long time. It took me to the endless hours I spent riding the morning school van, which I did every year for about 10 years growing up. So, starting at the age of 4 while living in San Juan, the van driver, “Ana” picked my sister and I up at 7:00 am in a banged up Dodge van that fit about 16 people. So, I don’t remember the early years too much but as I got a little older , I used to, believe it or not, *love*riding this beat up van operated by superbly cranky driver with a group of people who were not really my friends in the sweltering heat of the tropics . Caged for 1.5 hours a day in a moving vehicle was fun?? Well, what I liked about it were the conversations especially the ones in the afternoon after everyone was pumped on high doses of sugar. In the van, we had nothing else to do but sit and talk to each other and since we did this 5 days a week, the group developed a dynamic in which these crazy conversations about whatever topic would unfold. Conversation was often rowdy, playful, grotesque nearly always passionate, and meandered every direction, in part because we were all coming from different perspectives thanks to age, religious, and some class differences. None of us would probably elect to voluntarily get together and talk but the forced proximity made for some surprisingly great conversations. Some days I would sit back and chill and listen while other days, I would offer a mouthful, while other days, I would selectively interrupt with a comment here and there. The group style of conversing, the unexpected twists and turns, the multiple conversation, and the playful nature of talking all reminded me of my time on IRC.

Although everyone is usually doing something else on their computer and IRC is often used for practical stuff like organizing, software development, and user forums, IRC conversation also made me think about some other similarities beyond my personal experience riding a school van. It has most reminded me of Caribbean street or “yard culutre” which is characterized by a lot of playful and clever linguistic exchange in a space (the street, the yard, the alley) where people (primarily men) gather to basically shoot the shit and talk a lot of smack.

Though certainly this is not a really adequate historical comparison, this metaphorical comparison can yield some very interesting similarities between some types of IRC chatter and Caribbean “yard” culture and talk. Yard culture designates street or urban street culture in the Caribbean, especially the British Caribbean like Jamaica, Guyana, and Trinidad, a space and form of lived experience that has many different dimensions related to language, status, identity, politics, etc. What I am most concerned about here is the linguistic play and the space of the yard as a means to bring out some of the unique characteristics of IRC.

Present day yard culture and talk is captured nicely in this poem which I will reference in the section that follows. The structural context of yard talk goes back to colonialism and the brutal regime of slavery. Stripped of everything but their bodies, the formation of Caribbean society among slaves, indentured laborers, and their descendants grew from a heterogeneous mixing of various cultural elements based on the bare bones elements of memory and the adoption and especially dynamic refashioning of symbols and the few material resources that were available to slaves and their descendants. And the noteworthy element is that very little was materially available. Slaves were forced over across the Atlantic with materially nothing. Cultural elements were continued and refashioned though such avenues as music, talk, food, religion to produce the heterogeneous and dynamic character that now stamps Caribbean culture. The quality to readily innovate in the face of structural constraints, cultural heterogeneity, and very little access to material resources conditioned the unfolding of Caribbean cultures to be very dynamic, playful, and especially clever. Language and linguistic word play also became an important element given the constraints on bodies, spatial movement, and time that slavery forced upon people. Talk was one cultural resource that could not be stamped out by the colonial masters and thus creole dialects developed and elevated to a poetic art form. These creole dialects not only served as a form of communication and entertainment, but also played into dimensions of political resistance, if only in a lightweight and everyday ways. Creole filled with puns and riddles was a skillful means to create a new regime of meaning and story telling that was not easily accessible to colonial masters. The puns, riddles, and proverbs speed of critique of the powers that be while the act of spending hours and hours talking instead of “working” was and is a means of foot dragging that is not mere laziness but a choice not to engage in the dominant economic system of production.

On the one hand, there are a multitude of ways in which IRC and the space of the yard are diametrically opposed. Yard culture unfolded under the heat of the sun, with bodies in full motion, tone and gesture being an integral facet of the linguistic play. Bodies and movement matter:

And when we talking is like to a special rhythm dat others doh know.
We have to move de whole body from we head to we toe.
Watch how de hands does move as if we killing flies.
And when we vex is cuya mouth or roll up de eyes.
And sometimes is de mouth alone dat does all de work.
Is to hear us laugh out loud when we hear a good joke.
And when we laughing de mouth does open wider dan a carite.
And when it come out with “Oui Foute” or “Mama Yo” it does sound real sweet.
So doh laugh at we and think we antics funny.
Is what we need and use to talk more effectively.
But watching us talking and moving from right to left,
Yuh swear is sign language to talk to de deaf.

IRC occurs in a disembodied space where bodies never interact, gestures are replaced by emoticons, and the constraints of time and space are not all that important. Laughter is not transmitted from mouth to hands and all down the legs but with the short terse symbols and acronyms like:

: )

Yard culture was born out of system of inhumane oppression and poverty while IRC access is that of socio-economic privilege. Yet, though oppositional, they still in some ways seem to lie on the same axis of opposition. Both are very much a result of diasporic tendencies, although in the case of the Caribbean the Diaspora was a historical moment in time that brought disparate peoples together (although there are certainly ohter ongoing Caribbean diasporas) while IRC brings together people together who are physically separated but share similar interests so that the dispersed are placed close together online. It is reminder of the physical diaspora of online friendships and communities that are yet not entirely diasporic as mediums like IRC act as a force against dispersion, cementing people together through dialogical engagement.

Like the street or the yard, IRC is largely a public space where people can just drop in from time to time to see what is going on. It is referred to as “home”by some and the funny thing is that it is not a home away from home but home within home . Another irony and interesting social blurring is that though you are in the privacy of your house, you enter the realm of the public when you type in /join #…. For many, both the yard and an IRC channel is a place where one goes in to check in with friends and banter about for awhile, and banter in a way that is stylized with conventions and social norms. Banter tends to be very lively, audacious, and especially clever. Both spaces offer dramatic human performances in which cleverness and quickness are the mark of a fine show. Tight and short statements often abound in both IRC and yard talk in which meaning is compressed into a statement or acronym. Below are a couple of Guyanese proverbs, proverbs which are often pulled out during yard talk, much in the same way that someone will fling some acronym during an IRC conversation.

1.Fish and cast-net nah friend (meaning: In life it is difficult for you to relate to someone who may be unfriendly or hostile)

2.. Belly full behind drunk. (meaning: After you have eaten and drunken much you tend to become lazy)

3. Contrary breeze ah mek crow and eagle light on one line. (meaning: When there is trouble, enemies are sometimes forced to get together to solve problems)

[ Ok, these are by far more rich that the silly acronyms that make up IRC although who is to say what type of linguistic transformations will occurs because of IRC. Here are the rest of the Guyanese proverbs]

In IRC, I think that people are in part witty and clever to make up for the lack of gesture and tone. It is a way to leave your mark as distinctive. Not to mention that IRC (and prior to these, BBSes, and Usenet conversation) have its historical roots among hacker groups where clever and elegant lingustic word play is encouraged and emphasized. People are really on their toes (or really fingertips), belting out quick and short replies while in the thick of conversation. I honestly can’t comment all that definitively about the humorous nature of yard banter except for the fact that in the past it grew out of context in which it became form of entertainment par excellence when there was little access to entertainment on the plantations pre and post slavery.

Although everyone is usually doing something else on their computer, getting together to chat on irc is sort of like entering “the yard” where there is a bunch of people where there is not much else to do but talk or listen to conversation. The Yard and IRC are spaces that are primarily for talking and nutin’ else It thus make sense that language and linguistic play would take center stage. But chatter is not always fun and games in either places. Virulent conversations will break out, where multiple topics are thrown around, beat up, dissected, screamed at, and generally beaten to death. Status is vied for, legends are built and people are dethroned. Previous points are raised, the pace gets frenetic, and the atmosphere charged. This section from the poem seems to apply nicely to both spaces:

But when things get heated, den de real trouble does start.
Words harder dan rock stone does pass in de brew.
And if yuh only take sides, yuh go get a good ‘busing too.
And some does use de poor ancestors to make dey attack.
Dey would trace de whole family tree from yuh mudder go back.
And when dat doh work, some does turn to the anatomy,
Talking ’bout parts of yuh body dat dey never even see

I wish I could go to some swaaaweet spot in the Caribbean next week to do some further investigative work on this question of the similarities between IRC and yard talk.

* biella wonders if she could ever write that up in a grant. her eyes widen…

Woah, there you go, there was an example of the sort of meta-commentary about your internal thoughts or the nature of the conversation that occurs on IRC and that helps minimize that which gets lost without facial gesture and tone. Is this something that occurs in another form during yard banter? Or is this something relatively unique to IRC? Which then makes me think about how the actual “yard” has moved on line with Caribbean youth who have taken up this new technology both on the islands and to new sites of diaspora such as with the large Guyanese populations in Toronto and NYC. That is a dissertation just waiting to happen…

I think IRC has truly surprised me. I used to lament the lack of street culture in America, where there are not too many instances of people milling in public spaces to consistently meet and interact and have fun (excluding the many ethnic neighborhoods and other random exceptions). And though there is only a small fraction of people online and especially on IRC, it made me feel like a type of playful street culture is well and alive al biet in its own form. And though I might prefer to have a rum and coke in hand and banter while trade winds are caressing my bare skin under the Caribbean sun, I have grown fond of the medium of IRC in its own terms. Given the fact that so many of us are now tied to the computer either for work, communication, it is good to know that there are places to go to in this environment where clever play can take center stage.

1 Comment »

  1. [...] the Caribbean "man of words" and banter on IRC and I think this is worth exploring more. (Interprete Every rope gat two ends (or why IRC is like Caribbean yard culture)) In terms of trolling, hackers, geeks, and the movement: I am aware that not all geeks/hackers [...]

    Pingback by The Politics of Chanology - Page 4 - Why We Protest | Activism Forum — April 29, 2010 @ 4:35 am

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