Monday, July 19, 2004

There just isn't a word for it

by Suw on July 19, 2004

Kevin Marks and I have been having an ongoing on-and-off conversation for several months now about the role played by Jeanniecool (and sometimes me) in Joi's IRC channel, #joiito. It's something Kevin has thought about already, once or twice, but neither he nor I can pin it down properly.
What Jeannie and I do, Kevin noticed, is act in the channel as a sort of 'hostess', except hostess isn't quite the right word for it. We greet new people when they enter and help them learn how to use Jibot to create a definition – a mini-CV – for themselves that then provides a sort of on-demand online identity. It's like we marshal a sort of 'esprit de irc' in the channel, keeping the conversation flowing and facilitating conversation.
The problem is not so much in defining our role within the community on #joiito (and, in my case, also on #suwcharman), because that's fairly easy. The difficulty is finding a word to sum it up. It's not 'hostess'. Maybe once it was, but hostess now has a slight nuance of tackiness about it, of inanity – the air hostess with a brain the size of a pea re-joining the mile-high club on a weekly basis. That's not it.
'Geisha' is nearly it, except for the sexual connotations it has. Ok, so Jeannie and I flirt a bit, it's true. We are red-blooded women after all, so what do you expect. But I am sure that neither I nor the majority of non-Japanese people understand fully the role of the geisha in Japanese society, and it's a word I would hesitate to apply to anyone without having that knowledge.
'Landlady' or 'barmaid' might be close to it. Landlady is too authoritarian. Barmaid too buxom. (No comments about our actual buxomness, thank you!). And there's no serving of actual alcohol either, so whilst those two words work within the context of your friendly local pub, they don't quite cut the mustard on IRC.
Then we have 'facilitator' or 'moderator'. Neither of them warm enough for this role. They sound too business like, too clinical. What Jeannie and I do is far more friendly than that.
'Channel mum'. I don't think so. The very last thing I want to be on IRC is some sort of maternal figure, and I really don't think that's what Jeannie and I are.
I'm starting to run out of alternatives now. I'm not the only one.
Kevin says, “I've been trying to express this for ages. It is the key difference between online social groups that work and those that don't and I think you've been hired to do that job at Headshift.”
I have to agree with Kevin there. The successful online social groups that I've been in have tended to revolve around a small number of key people. I think that's just the nature of human interactions – we gravitate to the nodes naturally, to the Joi Itos and Euan Semples and Stowe Boyds of this world, because they are easy to talk to, they are interesting, they are friendly. They are the glue that holds the community together.
But as Kevin pointed out to me, this is a skill which is much undervalued in the UK and US, yet highly valued in Japan. Maybe that's what we need, a Japanese word to express this concept, because I can't think of an English one that does it quite properly. There are always overtones of sex, or alcohol, or authority, or maternality. This role is about none of those, yet it has a hint of all of them in it. There is a hint of flirting, a glass or two of wine, the occasional telling off and the sympathetic support.
There's also an awful lot of geek talk, but that's not my fault.

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