Carmen Hermosillo, better known as humdog, is the patron saint of online communities, and of all of us whose lives have been mediated by a screen. Or she should be, anyway. The grand original promise of the Internet was that it would finally shrink the world down to a utopian “global village”:
when i went into cyberspace i went into it thinking that it was a place like any other place and that it would be a human interaction like any other human interaction. i was wrong when i thought that. it was a terrible mistake.
This is the opening of humdog’s 1994 essay “pandora’s vox: on community in cyberspace,” which stands out in early Internet writing as both unusually prescient and unusually cynical.
Humdog, according to cyberspace pioneers and commenters Peter Ludlow and Mark Stephen Meadows, called b.s. on the “official dogma” of early virtual communities. No, they write of humdog’s early writing, digital connectivity wouldn’t usher in a “utopia of virtual barn raisings, thoughtful online salons, and democratic town hall meetings.” The Internet, as humdog saw it, was a capitalist hellhole. She’d go on to describe it as little more than a factory for self-commodification — that is, it was a place where people became content, as opposed to where they went to forge authentic relationships with one another.
At the time, the essay caused a firestorm among a certain demographic. It was an insult to Silicon Valley hippies, to the then-nascent class of Internet culture reporters (though they weren’t called that then), and to Internet sociologists. And, importantly, it was an insult to the denizens of humdog’s own online village, the WELL, or the Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link, Stewart Brand’s conferencing system that is today widely called the oldest virtual community.
However, Humdog’s cynicism didn’t come from an analytical distance; it was a reaction to her own experience. And it also isn’t the full picture: Her complete oeuvre suggests that at many times she was hopeful about digital connection. Not only did she see its possibility, but she also believed that she had experienced it herself. It was really because of the hope she had for her online life that it often caused her immense pain, and disillusionment.
Carmen Hermosillo died in 2008, possibly by suicide, becoming a martyr of sorts to the dynamics of e-relationships. Her voice deserves to be better remembered today, as she foresaw the love–hate relationship so many of us now have with each other online — and with the Internet itself.
It’s hard to describe who, exactly, humdog was. She wasn’t “Internet famous” in the contemporary understanding of the phrase. She wasn’t an “influencer” or “content creator,” at least not outside of the niche communities around Second Life and The Sims Online. (I played the latter from the very first day it went online until the minute their servers went down.) Humdog was a reporter for a digital newspaper, The Alphaville Herald, that exclusively covered Alphaville, a virtual city in Sims. And as a cyberculture commenter, she left her dent in our understanding of how people connect online.
She was writing not as an anthropologist or a researcher in the then-nascent field of Internet Studies, but as a digitally native journalist documenting her relationship with virtual communities. In “pandora’s vox,” she writes about the WELL:
i have seen many people spill their guts on-line, and i did so myself until, at last, i began to see that i had commodified myself. commodification means that you turn something into a product which has a money-value…. i created my interior thoughts as a means of production for the corporation that owned the board i was posting to, and that commodity was being sold to other commodity/consumer entities as entertainment. that means that i sold my soul like a tennis shoe and i derived no profit from the sale of my soul.
For humdog, what was happening on the platform was not connection. It was not community. It was the systematic monetization of human interaction under the guise of a utopian project to connect the whole earth. She wrote of “hysterical identification,” which is what happens when one person’s display generates attention and others begin to mimic her. And she wrote of the fetishization of identity and the dangers of mining your inner world for content to post on a platform that needs to make money.
The conversations that happened online and the people who were having them were products sold by platforms like the WELL, which today still charges a monthly fee, and Internet service providers, which usually charged by the hour. You weren’t really paying to be in a place that was intrinsically special, nor were you paying for the potential of a bond. You were paying for access to the drama and the energy and were charged by the hour for it. The people who were already online were entertainment. You pay the membership fee for access to this entertainment and slowly evolve into a player yourself.
In humdog’s view, or at least the one she outlined in “pandora’s vox,” this was a foreclosure on the possibility of authentic connection. What one would encounter on the WELL — the virtual community at the heart of her piece — was not relationships as relationships, but rather what you received in exchange for a membership fee, and what the WELL used to attract more paying customers.
This argument feels cliché today. After the dawn of social media, it has become a truism that “the users are the product,” and the advertisers are the customers. But this wasn’t quite humdog’s argument — she was writing before the truly commercial, ad-driven Internet we know today.
My sense about “pandora’s vox” is that humdog was right about the commercialization of online relationships but that she was being too cynical about it. Of course communities need to have interesting users in order to be successful — what else would attract new people? Cyberspace is not a place like any other place partially because, and especially in the 1990s, you had to choose to be there. People didn’t just happen to be online; cyberspace wasn’t like a coffee shop you could find yourself in serendipitously. And of course communities need to have interesting content in order to be successful too — if the stories people shared weren’t compelling, then what was the point? (But then, maybe this is reflective of my own position online, my own Internet-poisoning from a life spent “logged on.”)
But humdog’s argument was not only about how platforms profit off relationships and drama. She also wrote about something that feels less ambiguous in how it encroaches on an individual’s humanity. It’s what I would call the memefication of the self:
as if this were not enough, all of my words were made immortal by means of tape backups.
What does it mean for us when our words online become “immortal”? What happens when the real, physical person posting disappears? To whom or to what does our posting legacy belong? There comes a point when our digital footprint no longer belongs to us. Our posts and the persona that emerges from their composite — unfortunately, often also buffered by other people’s reactions to them — become separate from the social interactions they were born from. Seen this way, they too become products.
Of course, that real lives can take on new meanings as products wasn’t a new concept in 1994. In pop culture, decades before the Internet, Elvis and Marilyn Monroe both underwent this sort of commodification. And then there are hundreds of historical figures, or, maybe more apropos, characters, about whom we could say the same.
What wasnew in humdog’s argument was the idea that something normally reserved for the hyper-famous, hyper-exposed was now touching ordinary people, and that Internet “communities” would drive this. Consider the legacy of somebody like Zyzz, a bodybuilder who died in 2011 but still remains to hundreds of thousands of people a potent symbol of self-improvement, fitness-bro culture, and the power of the Internet itself. Or consider the myriad of individuals whose posts have been enshrined in Internet history and taken on lives of their own — Boxxy, Overly Attached Girlfriend, Creepy Chan, Cracky-chan, even the political Twitter personality Aimee Terese, who is very much her own person, but exists as something of a meme.
When humdog writes “as if this were not enough,” it is clearly more than a sardonic line in a blog post. It’s a warning.
Carmen Hermosillo’s observations were not made from a distance. All advice-givers, and perhaps all critics too, are talking to themselves.
In a tribute to her in H+ Magazine, “A Virtual Life. An Actual Death,” Mark Meadows and Peter Ludlow explain that she “learned … the hard way” with online relationships. She had her heart broken not once but twice on the WELL, and “each time she stomped out of the community in a huff” but would “eventually come back.” She would self-exile and return with fresh insight into the nature of online interactions.
They note that “pandora’s vox” emerged after she had come down from the proverbial mountain. This little detail — that she was writing from a place of despair — adds color to why the essay upset the WELL so much. It sparked a flame war — an escalating battle of critical and often mean-spirited comments. And perhaps her critics weren’t unjustified in their anger with her. Not only was she dismissing their ostensibly genuine attempts at building an online community as nothing more than strip-mining souls for content, but she was also speaking from a place of bitterness. She herself had poured her soul out to the people she’d met there, poured it into the WELL. It’s likely that her audience, her digital peers, the people she was writing about, knew about her bitterness — and that they reasonably felt it clouded her judgment.
It would be reductive to describe her as just a contrarian to the utopian project. Like the man who warns you about the dangers of women after his divorce, her wisdom changes value depending on your vantage point.
“Pandora’s vox” is best understood in context, as a piece written after heartbreak. But we must also read it in the context of the rest of her work, where we see that disillusion was not her sole experience with online relationships. Shining through her other writing in big bursts are signs that she wasn’t quite the cynic about digital connection that she seemed.
In the piece “Online Lucid Dreaming,” published in 2004, a decade after “pandora’s vox,” she writes:
what i think i see happening is that online interaction is moving with increasing intensity towards becoming a way to explore and talk about those inner and quiet worlds that in the past have only been visible to us in our dreams.
She talks about the online world as a “community lucid dream” — a place of possibility, liberation, and self-realization.
Also revealing are the interviews she conducts with fellow denizens of the virtual worlds in The Sims Online and Second Life. More than mere “players” or “users,” she respects people’s in-game identities, both through her interactions with them in the published interviews and in the way she writes about the environments where these identities are nurtured. Actors on the virtual stage are really actors, politicians running for virtual offices are really politicians, and she takes people’s concerns about their cyber lives as seriously as one would in the physical world.
But then we get “The History of the Board Ho” — “board” meaning message board. Though written in the same year as “Online Lucid Dreaming,” it reads like a spiritual successor to “pandora’s vox.” Here, she expands on the relationship between self-commodification and virtual community. She writes:
people do amazing acts of self-disclosure online. they do it, and i think they do it for one reason only. there is a different economy online and the payout is in attention and in time, not money. attention is the big payout online.
She describes how digital spaces need divas — they need drama — because drama drives posting, and posting is what keeps people online:
the board cannot exist without the board ho. the board ho drives traffic to web. the board cherishes its board hos, and it especially cherishes the diva or queen board ho. the diva or queen board ho is untouchable and can do anything. people know this, on the board, by intuition. the board and the board ho nurture and cherish each other because the board ho drives eyeballs to the board. i am not speaking of unique visits although those are nice. no. i am speaking of repeat traffic.
There’s our world-weary Carmen again, offering an argument whose logic feels intuitive to us today, when our communication media have so permanently shaped our interactions that we think in tweets, encode our memories in Instagram grids, and process trauma by recording TikToks. This is the Carmen who is angry about online mediation, who sees it as inherently exploitative, as a symptom of a world that has lost touch with humanity. This is the Carmen who probably would have, and very well might have, called Stewart Brand and his WELL full of it. One has to wonder what she was going through when she wrote that, and there is a question hanging over her writing from this period about which is the truer humdog, the cynical one or the hopeful one.
Nothing was more revealing of humdog’s true feelings about virtual life and the relationships made there than her writing about her experience in the Slaves of Gor subculture — a style of erotic, BDSM-inspired online role-playing that was inspired by John Norman’s Gor pulp series and became popular in Second Life. Humdog writes about the emotional intensity of her connection to her Gorean master, about how he was “perceptive and intuitive in the extreme” and how “he also scared me.”
In the second installment of a 2006 essay series called Confessions of a Gorean Slave, she writes:
Several people in SL [Second Life] have commented to me that they expect, at some point, to hear that someone has committed suicide over events/relationships in SL, and they say that because it is their feeling that [SL’s creators] appear oblivious to [the] human cost of entry/experience in SL. Think about it.
For people not already immersed in the world of Second Life, here is what she is getting at: Online relationships can be extremely emotionally intense, but Second Life developers and people who keep its virtual environment running either don’t know or don’t care how much of their very real emotions people pour into it. She is also, perhaps, suggesting that it’s not a game, that it is a place like any other in the sense that it demands real human cost and investment, but that place just happens to be in cyberspace.
Again, she shifts the blame to the platform, but it is no more Second Life’s fault that people fall in love on their platform than it is a coffee shop’s or a university’s when people fall in love there. That doesn’t mean that the medium doesn’t modify the texture of the relationship; of course it does. But it makes one wonder: Was humdog’s criticism really directed at Second Life, or was it a misdirected frustration with the emotional intensity she was experiencing?
According to Mark Meadows and Peter Ludlow, humdog’s relationship with Riz, her Gorean master, “extended out of the virtual world and into the physical world.” It’s unclear if they ever met in meatspace, but they at least spoke on the phone several times a day. She became consumed with it.
Carmen’s friends grew worried about her and “waited for the relationship to collapse and for her to leave Second Life,” just as she had left the WELL. Indeed, the moment everyone saw coming did come.
But humdog didn’t just stomp out of Second Life to go write another essay. She didn’t just delete her accounts; she didn’t just nuke her avatars; she didn’t just say goodbye to all that, only to return with fresh insight.
In Carmen’s obituary, Meadows and Ludlow talk about how she would at times say that if she wanted to die, all she had to do was stop taking her heart medications to manage her lupus. One day in 2008, Carmen did just that. The two writers speculate:
Was it passive suicide? The evidence is circumstantial, but compelling. Her online accounts, profiles, and avatars — at least 9 of them — had been canceled in the days before she died….
The thing that killed Carmen was the thing she spent her entire online life warning us about.
It was the thing she seemed so self-assured about in “pandora’s vox”: we are not forging genuine relationships. We are selling ourselves. The cost is our emotional and psychological well-being.
In a blog post penned shortly after her death, her sister wrote that she believed Carmen’s death wasn’t a suicide, as Meadows and Ludlow suggested; rather, she was too afraid to treat her health condition. We’ll never know. All we have are humdog’s words, made immortal by the Internet, the composite of a woman we can know only through the remains of her online presence.
So was Carmen Hermosillo a searing critic, someone who saw through the fantasy of Silicon Valley’s “cybernetic meadow”? There is one way to read humdog that suggests she was always asking if the connections we made in cyberspace were real or illusory, and that she was leaning toward “illusory” — that our commodification online also meant that our real selves were somehow separate. That it only seemed like we were making friends, but when really, what we were doing was constructing a spectacle.
But reading humdog’s oeuvre, it seems more likely that she had her answer all along and just didn’t want it to be true. I suspect that she only wished that relationships in cyberspace were an illusion. She was not mistaken when she said all relationships become commodities in cyberspace — but that doesn’t mean they couldn’t also be real. I also suspect that knowing that those connections were real was a deep source of pain in her life. She was Holden Caulfield, crying “phony!”
Carmen Hermosillo knew in 1994 what so many of us learned too late. The curtain doesn’t close on digital relationships. You don’t log off and leave them online.
Robert Loryan, in a prologue to a collection of humdog’s work, writes that “The internet is a dead place with no life in it.” But cyberspace wasn’t dead for Carmen; it was very much alive. The “terrible mistake” she writes of in “pandora’s vox” is not a mistake of commodified virtual communities, but the mistake we all make when we allow ourselves to feel anything for anyone.
The lie of cyberspace is that it’s an escape, that it’s a sandbox for play, that it’s outside of ourselves. Yes, cyberspace is another place, perhaps one with different rules, or different possibilities. But when you feel in cyberspace, you also feel in real life. That you can change your skin — your avatar — does not mean you can also change your soul.
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Selling the Drama