My Tiny Life: Crime and Passion in a Virtual World
An Owl Books Original -- Henry Holt, Inc. -- $14.95 -- Jan. 1999

A Few Words About My Tiny Life, From the Man Who Wrote It

I started work on My Tiny Life in late 1993, when I wrote what is now the book's first chapter: a briefly well-known article called "A Rape in Cyberspace." The story was set in LambdaMOO, a magical mansion that was made of words and existed only in and through the Internet, a thing most people had never even heard of then. The tale itself was as outlandish as its setting: In the living room of LambdaMOO, an evil clown named Mr. Bungle had used the powers of a small voodoo doll to rape several of the mansion's residents, causing them to sexually violate themselves and one another without ever laying hands on them himself.

The whole thing was an absurdity, of course, and would have been rejected out of hand by any self-respecting science-fiction editor. But it was no fiction. LambdaMOO was a MUD, or Multi-User Dimension, a networked database located on a computer in Palo Alto, California. And through that database a globally dispersed population of several thousand real-live human beings had created a small universe in which events as surreal as Mr. Bungle's assault were everyday occurrences.

There was a lot more to be said about that universe, it seemed to me, than I had said in the article. The Bungle affair hinted at strange new ways of being in the world, new paradigms of thought and experience unfolding amid the growing web of computer networks, and I had tried to outline a few of them. But I was only scratching the surface.

So I sought a book deal, and I got one. And the book deal led, in turn, to a three-month "residency" in LambdaMOO -- a summer of daily visits that shapes the narrative of My Tiny Life. What I saw and lived with in those three months is all here: A nascent society stirred and shaken by class conflict, mob justice, rumors of conspiracy, dreams of democracy. A circle of friends bound by disembodied affection, gossip, sexual intrigue, and political passions. An intricate, chaotic geography conjured from the imaginations of thousands of people who might never consider themselves artists but whose collective artistry was a bizarre marvel to behold.

And running through it all, the odd and often unsettling effects my life on LambdaMOO began to have on the life I led outside it -- on my worldview, on my work habits, and most disturbingly, on my relationship with the woman I loved.

Whether all of this added up to a truly new way of being in the world is not a question my book pretends to give a final answer. Much has changed in the few years since I started writing it. Nowadays there aren't many people who haven't heard of the Internet, and the predictions of sweeping cultural change that attended the Net's first burst of popularity have fallen out of fashion. As for LambdaMOO and other MUDs, their simple, text-based interface now seems quaintly old-fashioned next to the splashy, point-and-click veneer of the World Wide Web. They looked like the future once, but now they mostly look like history.

And I guess that's ultimately why I think the best time to read My Tiny Life may be right now. Because in the end it's history we live in, not the future. And if the Internet itself no longer much looks like the future to us, it's still a strange and challenging place for us to have wound up living in -- and we forget that at the risk, I think, of our cultural soul. Now more than ever, when we seem to be resigning ourselves to the Net's seemingly inevitable transformation into a global shopping mall, we need stories like LambdaMOO's to remind us that it could have been, and can still be, something much weirder and much richer.

We need to remember the possibilities; and after the brief life I lived on LambdaMOO, I don't think I'll ever forget.