Cyberspace refers to the nonphysical environment created by joined computers interoperating on a network. In cyberspace, computer operators interact in ways similar to the real world, except cyberspace interaction does not require physical movement beyond typing. Information can be exchanged in real time or delayed time, and people can shop, share, explore, research, work or play.
The Internet forms the largest cyberspace environment, housing many sub-environments within it. These include the World Wide Web (Web), USENET newsgroups and Internet Relay Chat (IRC).
The Web is the most popular destination, consisting of millions of websites where a visitor can find virtually anything. He or she can also create a personal site to host information, pictures, movies, music or interactive forums. Web forums allow people to have conversations in a bulletin-board-style interface. Interested parties respond to one another by posting comments to topics. The forums are public and are a very popular way to socialize in cyberspace.
USENET newsgroups can be read through dedicated USENET websites or with a newsreader. A newsgroup is similar to a Web forum, except that each newsgroup has a single, dedicated topic. There are over 100,000 newsgroups and counting, so one can find a group dedicated to virtually anything of interest. And while Web forums and newsgroups are both fine for short, chatty comments, newsgroups are excellent for lengthy debates. In USENET cyberspace one can share hobbies, find support groups, get quick personalized answers to hardware or software problems, or engage in any number of other discussions.
IRC is yet another area of Internet cyberspace that offers conversational interaction between computer operators. The difference is that IRC offers real-time chat. Within seconds (or milliseconds) of hitting the ENTER key to post a reply, the participant’s response appears in the public “chat room.” IRC is akin to a party-line phone conversation, except it requires typing rather than speaking. Instant Messaging (IM) is similar to IRC in that it is instant, and email is also instant, though the receiving party might not collect the mail right away.
While all of these online environments can be considered cyberspace, virtual reality reflects the most literal definition. In this form of cyberspace participants see actual graphic space and computer operators interacting within that space as “avatars” or characters. One can walk, run, fly, create objects, buy virtual real estate, shop for clothes or items the avatar can use, develop a business, build a home or art gallery, talk with other avatars, go dancing, or do any number of other activities. Virtual reality realms, such as offered by Second Life, are so compelling, many people find them addictive.
Games can present a type of virtual reality known as simulations (Sims), or environments that parallel real life with striking realism. While Second Life has characteristics of fantasy, many games attempt to be as realistic as possible. Others incorporate horror, such as monstrous villains. Technically, single player games do not qualify as cyberspace as they lack networked interaction, but the definition has been essentially blurred to include any electronically generated environment.
The word “cyberspace” first appeared in William Gibson’s award-winning, Neuromancer (1984). The book is a futuristic sci-fi tale about a washed-up hacker feeding off self-destructive habits, when he is unexpectedly hired to do a seemingly impossible job for compensation he can’t afford to turn down. Ironically (or not), many futuristic details in the book parallel modern life, and certainly this term has imbedded itself deep in contemporary culture.