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Is The Virtual Community A Myth? 248

Berkeley scholar Joseph Lockard (a doctoral candidate in English Literature) claims the idea of the virtual community is a Ponzi scheme, promoted by benighted utopians and elitists who equate access to the Net and the Web with social and democratic enlightenment. This myth has been virtually unchallenged for years, he says, and in a provocative and interesting essay called Progressive Politics, Electronic Individualism, and the Myth of Virtual Community, Lockard claims that it's nothing more than a bunch of hooey. Does anybody out there think virtual communities are real?

In a piercing but cynical assessment of online community, Lockard points (the essay is in the book "Internet Culture") out that cyberspace is by definition expensive real estate. Access requires significant disposable income to cover computer capitalization, the continuing outlays of phone bills, repair and continuing recapitalization. For some, employers pick up the tab. For others, like university students, access is a privilege or perk that comes with tuition.

Nevertheless, utopians mooned over the Net's birth, and the idea of virtual community was one of their earliest delights.

Cyberspace, Lockard writes, arrived "virtually unchallenged as a democratic myth, a fresh field for participatory citizenship." Comparisons to "Jeffersonian democracy" (which I've made more than once) and other universal democratic ideals bespeak a historical naivete and ignorance, he charges, leaving unspoken the hard fact that access capital is "the poll tax for would-be virtual citizens."

Lockard ridicules the "trickle-down technology" theorem which holds that digital machinery will eventually become cheap enough for everybody, just like phones, electricity and cars. That, he says, is pie-in-the-sky rhetoric that completely ignores the gateway stratification and mal-distribution of access incorporated into Net access and modern computing. The individualism and fragmented interests that mark the Net and the Web actually work as an impediment to social cooperation in cyberspace, marking the dominance of class privilege over a truly inclusive community.

Lockard's essay scores more than once. He's right in going after the hype that has surrounded the idea of the virtual community for years now. The tech world is rich and elitist, and becomes more so daily. Apart from developments like open source, which has done much to try and make technology more inclusive (though very few people will ever be able to successfully program) there are few signs yet that the Net is re-vitalizing democracy, or that virtual communities are supplanting or improving upon real ones. online, we see little organized concern for the technologically-deprived, or worry about the inevitable social divisions created by classes of empowered and tech-deprived people. It's already obvious that people with access to computing and the Net will have enormous educational, social and business advantages over those who don't; the latter face menial, low-paying jobs all over the planet.

Lockard also accurately points out that the largest communities forming online are corporate, not individualistic, and their agenda is marketing, not community. He calls the very idea of a "virtual community" an oxymoron.

"Instead of real communities, cyber-communities sit in front of the [late but not lamented] Apple World opening screen that pictures a cluster of cartoon buildings which represent community functions (click on post office for e-mail, a store for online shopping, a pillared library for electronic encyclopedias, etc.)" Such software addresses only a desire for community, Lockard writes, not the real thing.

Materiality is the definition of real communities, and virtual communities can't replicate real ones. He writes, in fact, "... [I]t is precisely this human need for community that is being projected onto cyberspace and exploited, sometimes even with the best of intentions." This comparison is a bit of a stretch, something like comparing Disney World to one's hometown. Apple World never evoked a virtual community, it was just trying to steal some of AOL's business.

But for all the value of this kind of anti-hype perspective, it's too soon to dismiss the idea of the virtual community. Jeffersonian ideals were created by an elite, remember, one of whose leading members was Jefferson himself. The very idea of individual liberty was, at the time, an elitist notion conferred on certain white male property owners (remember, the poll tax and other impediments limited the scope of the trumpeted equality) but not extended to other Americans for nearly two centuries.

Potentially, computing could be used to make voting easier, more honest and even, if information becme more widely available to more citizens, more rational. Online campaigns could, theoretically, be far less expensive, alienating and Washington-centered, as Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura proved a few years ago.

Lockard's argument also suffers from a narrow definition of community. Certainly there are bulletin boards and mailing lists -- from sex sites to San Francisco's WELL, from media-centric gatherings from pet rescue forums to AOL's Senior Net -- that have functioned for some time as very real communities that foster conversation and mutual understanding, spawn friendships, generate support for members in trouble. Topical, community oriented Websites -- everything from, Kuro5shin and to Slashdot -- function as information or true cultural communities as well -- sometimes for idea-sharing, sometimes for material support and information.

The early cyber-gurus definitely got carried away by notions that everything would become virtual, a mistake now shared by all sorts of panicked businesses -- publishing comes to mind -- and starry-eyed utopians. Cyberspace is definitely a new kind of space, but there's as yet no reason to believe that it won't compliment or co-exist with the material kind. So far at least, virtual communities suggest a Middle Kingdom, existing somewhere in the middle between the utopian fantasies and Lockard's dismissive jeers.

Online people do make powerful connections and the virtual realm does permit us to share information (including software), research and commerce and and encounter all sorts of people in all kinds of places -- something that has never been possible before. But when the dust settles, and if the history of technology offers any clues, people will always hang out with their friends, get drunk. They'll still be logging off their computers to have sex, get married, fight with their parents, send their kids off to school and go to the movies, and seek out the company of human beings to meet human needs. The best virtual communities have always complimented that need, not supplanted it.

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Is the Virtual Community a Myth?

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  • yeeeah, all the night long...

    the slashdot killah

  • by Anonymous Coward
    I'm not a sociologist, I only know what I see, and I do not see a community in my neighborhood, only people who fear each other(bad part of SF). My little corner of 5 neighbors or so, we are friendly with each other, but outside of that, everyone else seems scared of speaking or more interested in acting "hard". Online, I don't experience that at all, everyone is open and willing to speak(save for the occasional teenager trying to be Eminem or whatever, or the occasional t.v.tard who figured out how to get online). Most people online are friendly and open. Now, if I live on the same street from someone who will not even return a "hello" on the street to me, yet when I go online, I meet all these people anxious to talk to me, which one is a community and which one isn't? Exactly what the hell is a community anyway? It seems to me that scholars, especially those who aren't in one of the "hard" sciences, seldom live in the real world. Instead, they tend to live in realities constructed mostly from thier perspective, which in thier own eyes, is typically seen as God's own truth. The problem with being a scholar is easy to see. Such a perspective is built upon one of an educational existance. This is far from the common man's existance, and thus, is itself elitist. To argue against the reality of technology trickling down, is ludicrous. It is obviously happening, in a very real and tangible way. Every person I know who has been in this industry more than 5 years, can tell you about giving away old parts to people who coudln't afford new ones. Hell, I personally donated my first XT to someone who was taking it back to the philipines for his poor relatives. Most all of my subsequent systems were given away as I upgraded, to people who could not afford to purchase that equipment. Exactly where are all the computers coming from that are popping up in poor countries all around the world? And new computers, today you can get a fully functional system for 500 bucks, and it only seems to be getting cheaper. What is that if not trickle down? But as usual, we have someone who is himself an "elitist", calling others elitist. This reminds me of the campagin between Bill Clinton and George Bush, where Clinton accused Bush of being an elitist. The hipocricy being that Clinton went to Oxford, not exactly the common man's school. Any social group can be defined as elitist, hell, I could say that members of gangs are elitist snobs, because they certainly seem to act and talk like they're better than everyone and don't seem willing to want to share with outsiders. Elitist: It's just another dumb word that pseudo intellectuals abuse regularly for fun and profit. I'll leave idiotic "scholars" to come up with such complete and utter tripe. I myself, will continue to contribute to my communities, both online and off. I was raised on welfare, but thanks to the computer industry, I make more than anyone in my family before me(actually, more than everyone before me combined). Even with my past of having been abused and poor, in and out of group homes, I have felt nothing but welcome and acceptance in this industry, and I resent some snooty English scholar of all things(yeah, I'm just so impressed with the average community contributions English scholars make, uh-huh) saying that my community is elitist. The door to this community is wide open to everyone, and all you need to do to be accepted is to check your attitude and stupidity at the door(granted, this continues to a problem for a small few, but really, it is thier problem, not ours).
  • by Anonymous Coward

    I'm not even sure that that is the root of the problem. I think that really there are many people out there, possibility a majority who are able to say, "How does this Internet really improve my life."

    When I look at this the major cost of the Internet is time! Many people aleady have a long work week, they are involved in church, school, and (non-virtual) community organizations. Adding a few hours participating in an online community takes away directly from leasure time which is very precious.

  • ha ha ha, unenlightened one.. as an elitist, I must laugh at your lack of education.
  • by Muck ( 2022 )
    this guy doesn't know what he's talking about.. Half of the things he uses to claim its not a community, have never been claimed to MAKE a community.. He says that because we 'log off' to do certain things, thats part of what makes it not a community.. Well, the town I live in, is a community. I go outside of my town all the time to do things. Shop, play, learn, etc. Not EVERYTHING can be done in your community.. it wouldn't be a community it would be a compound... or some type of religious cult. He also claims that the internet is only for the elitists... and thats balogna.. I paid about 600 dollars for a computer, which I can do everything I want to do online. IRC, web surf, read news groups, and login to a unix shell. All of that is a part of my community.. my realm. I know plenty of 'poor people' who spend more than 600 dollars on a bicycle.. or especially on a CAR... I don't think its quite the utopia, that sci fi books would write about.. But it certainly does have characteristics of a community.. or SEVERAL communities. people form together, and do stuff.. for one reason or another.. and yes it may contain commerce (too much if you ask me).. but thats PART of a community. After all.. you can have all the good will, and love, and voting, and all that stuff that you want.. but If you can't buy your groceries, and your bedroom furniture, how long will your community last? (I think the internet would be fine with a hell of a lot less commerce, but that doesn't make it a non-community..).
  • The web only has "forums" not true communities. There is no real interaction on the web, just reaction.

    However, what is interaction but a long chain of actions and reactions? Perhaps the delay inherent in the Net is only now causing people to realize that.

    ...because no one knows how to work and be with one another, they just know how to anticipate and react to the actions of each other. It's a difference.

    And the difference is... ? While it's true people aren't physically with each other, does this really matter? And if they aren't, then is a telephone call "interaction"? And if it is, then why isn't a Web-based forum?
  • I guess he hasn't looked in the phone book too much. There is an organization which takes computer donations, refurbishes them, adds a free internet service provider, and gives them away for free to neighborhood damilies that would not be able to afford them otherwise.

    The interesting fact is that the limit of their output is not hardware, but time, to do the refurbishing. They have a warehouse of donated computers that they just haven't gotten around to yet.

    Of course this isn't the most common situation, but it's happening more and more. Is that elitest?
  • > Usenet started dieing after the emergence of many of the sites like slashdot and it's use of a very unreliable protocol for transporting
    > information around.

    Yes and no.

    Usenet was showing a drop in traffic long before /. ever appeared on the scene. (And AFAIK, /. was the first web site to offer a manageable reader feedback area where people could read & comment on each other's posts.)

    Why this is, I can't say; but I have seen the more serious usenet groups (e.g. comp.mail.misc) fall from several dozen post in a day to less than 10 over a period of a couple of years. Part of this (speaking from my impression) is probably due to spam, part of it due to scaling problems (to offer a full newsfeed in 1996, you needed more than a T1 line to suck all of the articles down -- & many ISPs are falling back to a strategy of contracting their newsfeeds to a third party, & only sucking down those newsgroups that its users read), & part of it due to competition for eyes with the web (``comp.mail.misc? What kind of URL is that? I always go to for all of my computer news! I just click on the links & he tells me everything I should know").

    On the other hand, mailinglists seem healthy & just as vibrant as ever -- at least from the half dozen I am subscribed to. Spam is more easily dealt with, you don't get as many trolls or off-topic posts, but you still have 100% of the kooks & characters the Usenet cabal established for you in 1990!

  • Which is why it's even more important these days for the individual to receive a proper education - it reqiures more and more education just to achieve the rudimentary skills necessary to be a functional member of society (and not a victim of it). Whether they be technical skills, to operate a computer or DVD player, or consumer skills, to avoid being scammed by marketdroids and commercials, or social skills, to avoid getting beat up by jocks or shot by gangsters - the level of skill necessary is greater than ever before.

    And ironically, in many states our public education system is worse than it's been in more than 50 years. I live in CA, and I don't have to tell residents about how bad our public schools are... 49th out of 50 in some studies.

    I dislike the term "virtual community" too. But I've been a member of several, starting with 1200 baud BBSes, sometimes on borrowed equipment, and beyond the cost of getting on I can assure you there's no elitism involved. There's politics, romance, territorialism, backstabbing, mischief, antipathy, and all out hostility, but seldom have I ever witnessed elitism. And when I have, it's always been petty egotism.

    And someone explain to me the ponzi analogy. I don't see it. How am I making money on the latecomers? The way I see it, I bore more than my share of the burden, pioneering. I saw a commercial last nite for a deal that would give me a PC and free internet access, and I don't have to even begin making payments for 6 months. That's real easy to take advantage of, honestly or dishonestly. The barriers I had to struggle past are all but gone. The PC is going down the same road as the telephone, TV, VCR, and CD player. It sounds to me like Katz has found someone else who's as good as turning facts into bovine fecal matter as he is...

  • "Virtual Community" and "Real Community" can not be separated. A community is not an artificial thing with boundaries, it's any place people interact. A telephone call is not a "Virtual Conversation", it's just a normal conversation. The percentage of technology-assisted v's face-to-face interaction may rise and fall in any community, but it's still just a community.

    In addition, where you might currently see an elitist forum distanced by technology, years down the track it may well seem mundane. Imagine a similar description made of a city 500 years ago. There was no way for country folk to visit the city, interact with the city, be part of the city. They couldn't afford to live there, they couldn't afford to travel there. Was a city some elitist clique -- you bet. Is it now? It depends where you live. Plenty of places in the world are still at this struggling level, but for myself travelling 200km in a day is nothing. Travelling half way 'round the world only takes 19 hours.

    So, you might see the 'Net as a private club house, but I might see it as a public meeting place. There are no fixed lines, only distance from your self.

  • I met this great girl on a newsgroup in 1992, and we've been happily married since 1997! I know a lot of couples who met on the net. Some net relationships work, some don't.
  • BTW, its [] not


    Canadian Troll.

  • I think it might have more to do with the fact that is sounds like he worked his butt off learning and absorbing all he could, instead of whining about his "disadvantages".

    Anyone can go from any class to any other class in this country. It's not feudalism where you are born a peasant and must stay that way. Sure it's not going to be as easy for everyone, some start out with disadvantages. But if they spend all their time complaining about their disadvantages instead of working that much harder at learning useful skills, no amount of help will make them successful.

  • That's a nice rant, but what makes you say that? I've noticed quite a bit of varied opinions here (on more than just text editors, for that matter) and very little (if any) references to skin color.

    As for us telling poor people what do to, we all have our opinions on the the state of the world, and we tend to discuss them, but I don't see any of us enforcing our opinion on others. Not many sysadmins are making decisions that affect columbian peasants.

    Are you suggesting that until we force all groups of people (rich, poor, black, white) to engage in /. discussion, we have no right to discuss anything? It sure sounds that way.

  • I love it when priveleged whites in the suburbs think that they live in the same America as those in the inner cities.

    (note: I'm white, so in your eyes this may invalidate my entire comment)

    I know some inner city youths who were in drugs, stealing car stereos, street fighting, etc. One of them decided to try to make something of himself, so he got a job in construction (after interviewing for two years trying to get in somewhere, and getting a GED at the same time) and worked till he had enough to go to a semester of college as a provisional student. He currently completly supports himself and alternated between going to college and working to pay for it. He now has a pretty good job and lives a much better life.

    You know what else, he does all this without resentment toward those who were more "priveleged" than him, and doesn't constantly dwell on how hard he had it. Maybe that is what would fix the inner city. Looking at life as a challange to create your own "priveleges" instead of "I was born disadvantaged, so I'm not even going to try and be successful...someone else should help me"

  • This guy needs to remove his head from his sphincter.

    I know people who are poorer than dirt who manage to afford a cheap (or recycled) PC and AOL access.

    PC prices are continually falling, and internet appliances are available for even less. There is absolutely nothing to indicate that web access will not eventually become as ubiquitious as access to a Television.

    I would like to see this guy back up his claim that web access will remain limited to the elite. It may have been in the past, but it is no longer.

    Just look at the trend in the quality of slashdot postings over time :) No elite here anymore.

  • The web only has "forums" not true communities. There is no real interaction on the web, just reaction. Without ongoing interaction, there can't be any form of community, because no one knows how to work and be with one another, they just know how to anticipate and react to the actions of each other. It's a difference.

    Yes, community, just like anything "e-" or "i-", was just another buzzword that caught on as web companies were trying to figure out a way to make market valuations seem fair, so they'ed spout "but we have this great community aspect going for us".

    dotcoms are dead. their buzzwords should die off as well.

    On another tangent, is it me or is the first JonKatz article around here in a LONG TIME?
  • It is really funny reading through these posts, half of the people are being intelectual about it and the other half are defending their chatrooms because they can go there to get cyber-layed because no one talks to them in the "real world". Aside from it being funny, the whole idea of a virtual world is miscontrued. Virtual communities are merely extentions of reality, you're not talking to a video game, you're talking to real people. I can do the same thing with my ham radio. Go outside, get drunk, stumble. Its fun.
  • I know of a compnay that is creating virtual communities. It is basically IRC on steroids though. They currently have a windows version and are planning on a Linux version as well. The company is [].

    A big product of there is []. IT is really cool after you set up an avitar of your own. You can shop and chat and do all sorts of things, including buying a virtual home and have a virtual job.

    Okay maybe this is not exactly what they guy was talking about. But he did say 'virtual communities' and did not really define what he meant. Sure you can infer, but that only leads to speculation.

    Hey I have virtual friends. People I have only chatted with on line does that count? I do have real frineds too though.

    I don't want a lot, I just want it all!
    Flame away, I have a hose!

  • Some points:

    Lockard ridicules the "trickle-down technology" theorem which holds that digital machinery will eventually become cheap enough for everybody, just like phones, electricity and cars. That, he says, is pie-in-the-sky rhetoric that completely ignores the gateway stratification and mal-distribution of access incorporated into Net access and modern computing.

    Just like they used to only sell cars to the very rich, or electricity to those who were close to town? These don't sound like long-standing problems to me. (Although in the case of electricity, it did take some government intervention to get it all the way out into the country. Government intervention to provide 'net access to all is no less plausible, especially if much of the world's business begins to be done over the net.)

    Materiality is the definition of real communities, and virtual communities can't replicate real ones. He writes, in fact, "... [I]t is precisely this human need for community that is being projected onto cyberspace and exploited, sometimes even with the best of intentions."

    Well, if you can define the terms of the debate such that by definition they are irreconcilable, then why did you need to write a book about it? Community is a meeting of minds, not bodies, and the net is the closest thing yet to a real meeting of the minds. Sure, it isn't everybody's mind yet, but give it time.

    I have to agree with the KatzBot on this one - this naysayer is way off-base. Access to the web will bring about "social and democratic enlightenment", it just may take a while. And it seems to me that it's moving a lot faster than any previous comparable social change.

  • Here are those links in link format:
  • So, I've been part of an online community for two years. Help with their web page. We've held get-togethers to hang out. Two of my friends are being "tutored" by me in job searching. I got together with others at a convention. Sounds like a community to me. What people miss is that virtual communities are reflective of and become "real-life ones." There's no division, the two blend into each other. The Internet is just another tool. We'd be better off focusing on what the Internet can do then arguing minutate of definitions on a hideously personal and subjective subject such as this. Now getting people more technical access, THAT'S a worthy goal.
  • 2600 turned their theoretical community based on the magazine and their internet presence into local real communities by encouraging meetings in public places.
  • So far at least, virtual communities suggest a Middle Kingdom, existing somewhere in the middle between the utopian fantasies and Lockard's dismissive jeers.

    With nearly all utopian fantasies and dismissive jeers. The never seem to be as good as the utopiast envision, but never as bad as the alarmist worry about. It's always a mediocre medium and humanity trudges on.

  • At least media wise.

    The Internet makes it very cheap to publish information, but relatively expensive (at the current time) to consume it. This turns the existing situation on its head, where its cheap to buy information (by owning a radio or buying a magazine) but expensive to distribute it (by owning a radio station or being a publisher).

    So the first order effect is to create media empirelets like Slashdot out of financial thin air.

    Of course, nobody at Slashdot takes out my garbage (unless the sanitation engineer reads it on his free time). We need real communities to live in. But to discount virtual communities completely is to discount entirely the importance of information and ideas.

    I am not as excited by the prospect of the virtual communitity as I am at the prospect of the information enhanced community. We're seeing it now with retailers putting in Intranet terminals so shoppers can browse for products not on the showroom or get information about them; town services such as licenses through self serve kiosks and over the Internet; newspapers going on line, and even blue collar workers are getting Intra and Internet access. Cities and towns routinely have websites, which while pretty bad right now, but imagine if every town web site was running a Slashdot style forum. I/T could lower the cost of entry to politics the way it has to publishing.

    Of course, there's still the problems of the have nots.

    There is absolutely no question in my mind that the cost of a fairly powerful information terminal (perhaps something like a current generation palm pilot or Apple's ill fated eMate) will cost less than $50 in about two years. Most of the information have-nots in this country already have televisions which cost more and will benefit them less.

    The bigger problem to entry into this information enhanced society will be literacy and education. People who lack these cannot exploit the information technology enhancements made to normal civic and work life. However this problem is nothing new. The poorly educated are already marginalized.

  • I think that the distinction between 'virtual' and 'real' is a problem. A community can stretch between 'virtual' and 'real', complementing the strengths of both arenas. When I attend a conference I see people I mostly only talk to online. The 'real' and 'virtual' interactions support each other. The community isn't 'virtual' or 'real', only the medium being used to communicate. The community is the people, companies, any thing else, that is interacting together. The only difference is how they are interacting, carrier pidgeon, carrier signal, or carrier wave.
  • I would not be complimenting you if I told you that you used the word "compliment" in place of "complement"; rather, the complement.
    p.s. Jon, you're a native English speaker. You have no excuse.
  • "Materiality is the definition of real communities, and virtual communities can't replicate real ones."

    This is circular. It's not an argument, it's an arbitrary definition. I don't think that materiality has anything to do with community, and it's not fair to redefine words to make an argument.

    Also, internet access gets cheaper every day. Many people can use the internet from libraries for free. So, that's bogus, too.......

    Not that it matters, because inclusivity is not a measure of a community. (It may be a measure of a utopian community, but they don't call it utopia for nothing).

  • Pray tell, how is going online today expensive?

    What, at the minimum, is needed for anyone to go online?

    1. Access
    2. Interface

    Access would be a phone, and a local dial-up ISP. Almost everyone has a phone. Only the extreme poor don't have a phone (why, I cannot understand, since a phone - for local calls only - costs about $30.00 a month - surely one can budget for that amount). Local dial-up ISPs can be found that charge less than $20.00 a month for access. What are we at now, $50.00 a month? Have several people chip in on a single account (yeah, I know most contracts prohibit this, but it could be done anyway) and phone, and you might be looking at $10.00 a month for 5 people.

    Now, the interface. Computers are expensive you say? NONSENSE. I can go down to my local trash bin and damn near pull a complete system from the garbage. If I wanted to actually shop for something, I could go down to a local electronics recycling place, and buy an old 486 and a modem for about $100 - or a VT100 terminal and a modem for less. Heck, for even less - go to a garage sale, pick up an old TRS-80 or Commie, hook up a cheap 2400 baud modem, some comm software, and your TV (everyone has a TV - even if they don't have a phone, they have a TV).


    Provided all you are seeking is information - information that might (just maybe) help you out of your situation, and into something more profitable. Get a simple shell account, use Lynx to browse the web (hell, it is healthier for you that way, anyhow), and Pine/Elm for email.

    If all you are wanting is porn, or some other consumer crap, then you are SOL.

    The internet can help everyone - and anyone can join the discussion. For plain information, it doesn't take anything (much of anything) to use.

    Unfortunately, it is getting harder to find plain dial-up shell accounts...

    I support the EFF [] - do you?
  • Yes, there was a bit a hand waving - I'll admit to that.

    But I still believe that $50.00 a month isn't too much. When I got out of high school, I came here to Phoenix and started working at an Osco Drug Store, earning minimum wage. At the time, you couldn't easily get net access (I didn't get a dial up shell until 93 - I came to phx in 91), so I did a lot of BBSing. Where did that $50.00 a month go? Well, $25.00 went to the phone, and the rest - I spent on books! Actually, truth be told, I spent that much on books every week.

    You could say I had skewed priorities, but I enjoyed reading - and through reading, one could learn what they needed to (esp. today) in order to get on the net cheap - plus, they could simply ask people how to do it. Really - how hard is it to log onto a text shell account? We did it before, others did it as well - what, have people gone stupid (don't answer that)?

    I wasn't really arguing with the whole article, merely the one point in it stating that it was difficult to get on the net because of cost (and the article isn't the first to broadcast this idea - for some reason people think you need an ultra-PC w/broadband to get on, when all that is really required is a used VT100 terminal and a cheap 2400 baud modem).

    I support the EFF [] - do you?
  • I have to ask - what class did you start out in, before you went to art school. Did you start out educated class (not rich, necessarily)? How did you get into computers in the first place?

    The fact that you went through poverty does not necessarily mean that you didn't still start out with intangible class advantages that let you use the cyber community to get where you are.

  • I was involved in the old Genie online service. My portion was the Science Fiction Round Tables, which become a real community where F&SF writers could talk to their peers and fans about their lives and work.

    Genie died, but the community migrated to the web, at and I suggest that an online community able to last over 10 years and outlast its orginal home is real!
  • *sigh*

    In the examples Katz quotes the author as citing, he's absolutely correct. However, those examples are almost completely irrelevant.

    And more irritatingly, there's all this red-herring crap about whether or not technology is accessible to which people. Look: a community of rich, privileged people is still a community. "Community", which has been often and is here being used as a catch-all feel-good word, is ANTITHETICAL to inclusivity. The experience of community arises among people who have a higher-than-default sense of connection with one another, and a correllary to that is that in comparison, they have less sense of connection to the people outside the group. That "sense of connection gradient" basically defines a social wall between "us" and "them", whether in a village or a chat room.

    And a quick review of any basic anthropology text will reveal that a sense of community has little to nothing to do with democracy or liberty. Also irritating about this essay (at least as reported by Katz) is that the people who wrote most rapsodically about the experience of community available on line (Dibbell, "A Rape in Cyberspace"; Reingold, "Virtual Community") were not arguing that community would bring democracy, or any other political system, to the world. They were putting forth the argument from observation that the experience of community -- a sense of belonging, an on-going densely connected graph of interpersonal relationships, the evolution of a distinct (sub)culture -- could happen in a virtual environment.

    We take this for granted now, but once upon a time not so long ago, sociologists wrote, and I kid you not, that the idea that geographically distributed people might be able to form "community" (an idea first broached when air travel became cheap and readily available to certain classes of the 1st world society) was impossible.

    Yes, it is disgusting how corporate interests have tried to appropriate the term "community" to apply to their feeble, sterile websites, and try to sell people a concept of community which is no more community that a listening audience is a "family". But that was never what any of us who were interested in this topic were talking about.

    And basically, it sounds like either this author is a jerk who knows nothing about what he's talking about, or a jerk who has an ax to grind. The first is the case if he really fails to understand he just told many thousands of people "your subjective emotional experience didn't happen, your experience and voice is invalid, this social-emotional relationship you are in has no value" -- of COURSE those people would be insulted and feel attacked. The second is the case if he knows that, and still wants to tell many thousands of people "you're wrong about what you experience" -- the term "community" is a politically charged word, and it looks like he is trying to wrest control of it.

  • Frankly, I think it's vital. But I think in real life (so far) it's worked the other way around: a geographic group of people develop a virtual aspect.

    I live in the Boston area, and know at least 2 "half-virtual" communities (am in one) off the top of my head. I expect there are more. Not being wholly virtual, they aren't necessary visible to the entire net. They don't necessarily want to be innundated with non-local members, so why advertise their presence as such on the www? Also, bluntly, they don't do real-time chat, or exist on web pages: they exist in email.

    What makes virtual community appealing and so interesting is that it allows people to gather by topic, interests, attitudes, or tastes, or some commonality besides geography. So efforts to start virtual communities based on no more basis that "people who live in this town" tend to fail.

    The two half-virtual communities I mention above both have themes other than merely "we all live here". They have more profound connections between the people.

    So to my mind, the question is "how do you help existing communities become half-virtual, to reap the benefits of virtuality?" (there are many), not "how do you found new virtual communities and have them transcend virtuality?"

  • Access requires significant disposable income to cover computer capitalization, the continuing outlays of phone bills, repair and continuing recapitalization.

    So does a real community. In fact, a real community costs more than a virtual equivilent. Why? Continuing outlays of rent/utility/luxury bills, repair and continuing recapitalization, and don't forget the time involved.

    Virtual communities, or whatever else you choose to call them, most definitely exist. I regularly contact at least a hundred, probably a few hundred, people and know them fairly well. But I've never met them in person, and so they are a virtual community.

    the end.

    you may quote me
  • I've wondered if there would be any use and/or acceptance of a web site designed to connect the "virtual" communities people have based on interest to the real ones the live in. A place where you register with your location, then can join topic or interest based groups, and you'll be directed toward people that are geographically close to you.

    As nice as people are to talk to online, sometimes you want people to go to a movie with, to dinner with, invite over, or the like, and no matter how much to talk to someone from across the country online, they just can't fit in there. Maybe a way to help alleviate the lack of community people feel in more urban areas?

    Does anyone see any use, anything appealing, about this idea?

  • A Ponzi scheme, also known as a pyramid scheme, is where someone takes someone else's money for participation, with the promise that bringing others into the scheme will return money to those who got in earlier. What money is paid out comes from the monies paid in by those who come in later; there's nothing in between. Ponzi schemes fail, eventually, when the rate of folks who can be enticed to join falls off, and all but those who joined at the very beginning get back less than they put in.

    Widely known examples include the "make money fast" chain letter scams, and Social Security.

  • I'm a Net Admin working in a small town hospital in eastern Oklahoma. My previous job was in sales and tech support (such as it was) at the local Staples. While I did have my share of snobish, well-to-do customers, the bulk of them were "lower class" trailer park folk. You know the kind, they live from payday to payday, and the concept of saving money is as foreign as personel hygene.
    When I would ask them what they intended to do with the machine second most common answer (the first being "Play Games!") would be "I'm gonna get on that internet, so I can get e-mail and see who won the tractor pull up in Tulsa." There are people in this world (and most of them live here in Oklahoma) who, no matter what it costs them or if they can afford it, WILL buy a computer and WILL get on the net. Trust me, I've seen people who couldn't even spell "computer" buy a machine so that they could have net access (well that and play solitaire).

  • Yes, it's somewhat disturbing that people could join a group where they hear only what they want to hear. On the other hand, in many communities conversation isn't only relegated to one specific main theme, and conversation can wander into any human interest, which allows individuals to grow from the perspective of others.
  • This sounds somewhat like doublespeak. Are you telling me you don't listen and respond when others communicate with you -- online or otherwise?

    It takes effort to build relationsips; you can push people away just as easily in real life.
  • Yes, of course everything someone tells you about themselves could be one big lie crafted in their own image to elicit a false relationship.

    Conversely, you can build a trust based relationship, which will give you insight into the mind of an actual person through things like observation of interaction in a group, what others who "actually" know a person have to say about them, etc.

    The same goes for off-line. I have thought I'd known some people, but who I thought they were had been fabricated.

    Besides being able to verify certain assertions (e.g., lying about someone, having something, or facial expressions), there's not much difference in being able to read a persons thoughts.

    I can tell someone is a liar in text when I get to know them, just as in real life.
  • Exactly. It's pretty hard to talk about things other than the game while in it. I've played everquest a few times and there is conversation, but it's not at any level that I woulc consider of any depth.
  • Exactly, the guy is full of shit. Perhaps he should stick to analyzing themes in Shakespeare or get a real education.
  • "When you have that much time between action and reaction, it really kills off the whole aspect of interaction"

    Um, IRC is real time. Same with aim. You can just choose to ignore the interaction much more easily than in person.

    IMO, you're using delay as a straw man without giving any logical explanation.

    I'm in a room on IRC right now with 120 people in it. It would be a miracle to get 120 people to interact with each other in real life at the same time. In fact, interaction is magnified in this case. I can talk about my daily activities to 100+ people at the same time. I talk to people who I do and don't know in real life. I don't really interact differently with close "virtual" friends and "real" friends except where we're talking about an event in the physical or a person we know off-line (because the "virtual" friends just don't know this other person - though they might if he/she came online). The proxy works similarly, in my experience, for physical friends I know that are divided by activities such as work, play, and uni.

    "It's like saying that a bunch of people that subscribe to the same magazine are all part of the same community. They might be. But not at all because of the act of reading the same magazine"

    Uh huh. But let's say I start a generic channel named #blah. At first it's just a few friends I know in "real life". Let's say we talk about programming much of the time. Other people are drawn to this channel on irc to talk about programming. However, over time the conversation is more general and more people come on for other reasons than that, because the conversation is a lot more general. Over time, our irc friends even bring on their own physical friends, spouses, girlfriends, boyfriends, etc. The channel may now be primarily for interaction between community although it still may have a dominant theme, like, for example programming, or tech talk, or warez, or emotionally deprived teen/adult talk; whatever. If you venture on to any fairly large IRC channel, many have turned into little sub-communities where people interact with each other daily.
  • Obviously the author has never played any online games.

    1. If the "virtual community" is a myth, then how does he explain the player run towns in Ultima Online ?

    2. There used to be a tavern on the Lake Superior shard that was called "Silk's Tavern". PK's would stop by and NOT actually kill anyone, since it was a "neutral zone!" A couple of Game Master's noted the popularity, and "blessed" it - they helped decorate it and made the decorations permanent. i.e. trees, shrubs, plates, bar stools, etc.

    3. MUDs have had virtual community for YEARS.

    4. Look at all the "clans" forming in the first person shooters. ie. Quake, etc. They have their own "small community." They "hang-out" in practises, and get together on the "clan matches." The larger community, are the game web sites, focusing on their specific game. i.e. After Looking Glass closed down, some "amatuer" level designers have produced some great Theif scenarios. If there was no community, then there wouldn't be any "excitement" about new levels.

    Granted, the virtual communities in cyberspace has less "power" then the Real-World, but it they are just as real (since REAL LIVE players are involved.)
  • For others, like university students, access is a privilege or perk that comes with tuition...

    First of all, before I post my real rant, I'd like to point out that so-called Academic communities are also nothing more than a ponzi scheme perpetuated by a bunch of elite snobs who think that their colleagues are the best damn people on earth and true enlightenment stems from free access to their published works.

  • Potentially, computing could be used to make voting easier, more honest and even, if information becme more widely available to more citizens, more rational. Online campaigns could, theoretically, be far less expensive, alienating and Washington-centered, as Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura proved a few years ago.

    Right, right, and right. But, how does this constitute a "virtual community?" Looks to me like this is an example of the internet being used to improve life in pre-existing communities.

    Let's think about it. Were there radio communities in the early 20th century? TV and telephone communities in the late 20th? "Hey, I got this new telephone thingy, now I can meet all KINDS of new people!" No. I think the idea that a new technology can magically create a community IS rather pie-in-the-sky.

    However, the telephone in particular has helped me maintain community ties that I made otherwise. For example, I live 2000 miles away from my parents now, but I'm still able to talk to them in real time. It's nice.

    In a sense, the same thing is happening with the internet, especially email and IM. My parents don't use those things so much, but my friends from college do (who I also rarely see in person). I've already had 3 people contact me via email in the past 2 months to come out and visit. Have we formed a "virtual community" because they emailed instead of calling?

    I'd say no. We just used the internet as a tool to maintain our friendship. And that's how I like it. Enough with this argument that the "digital age" is somehow replacing whatever came before. You don't form virtual communities, you virtually reinforce the communities you've got.

  • Apple World never evoked a virtual community, it was just trying to steal some of AOL's business.

    Oh, please, Jon. AOL is about as community as virtual communities get. So what if everyone on AOL is a luser and not at all 37334? That's how real communities are, too; full of dummies. If there are online communities, this is what they look like. And to argue that the opposite is true - that virtual communities somehow bring out the best and brightest, well, that just confirms the essay's thesis: we're a bunch of elitists. Which way will you have it?

  • (Why the hell isn't this "+4, Insightful"?)
    Build a man a fire, and he's warm for a day.
  • So you're saying that the ignorant clerk at the deli counter, who doesn't even know that "1/4" isn't the same as "0.4" can:
    3) Know a 486 from Ru486
    Until said clerk does know the difference, a monthly dose of the latter (assuming said clerk is female) might help improve the world. Parents are the first and most important teachers, and it's mighty hard to teach what you don't know.
    Build a man a fire, and he's warm for a day.
  • An esteemed colleague of mine met his now-fiancee online too, and she just moved to the same city to be with him. Wedding scheduled for the Summer of 2001.

    That said, many online relationships dissolve. I wish you two the best.

  • For some, the participation in an online community constitutes their leisure time. Yes, it may become a problem, but then, so can just about everything else.
  • As usual, the writeup "above the fold" shown on the front page is vague beyond usefulness, or potentially misleading in a way to spark controversy.

    The first thought is "Hey, community exists wherever people go to hang out!" Don't flip that bozo bit yet.

    The article that follows the Read More link isn't about 'virtual community' the way that eBay and slashdot and EverQuest and MUDs are about 'virtual community'. Those are virtual communities, and they each have their own intrapolitical issues to deal with, but have tenuous relationship to the world as a whole.

    The article also isn't about such hybrid political 'virtual communities' like Napster, where the politics inside the community are widely debated as politics outside the community.

    What the author is hitting on is the effect of online communications on the non-virtual community, i.e., the net's promises of Jeffersonian (enlightend) democracy.

    I don't think this is even talking about virtual community. It's talking about community via the net . It's not discussing the formation of subcultures or other communities, it's discussing how the net affects existing community, either as various states, or nations, or as the human race.

    In short, if I read "virtual communities are a myth," I'd scoff. If I considered whether the Internet has really affected the way the world works politically, I'd give pause to think about it. The answer isn't necessarily so cut and dried.

  • So, you're saying that there's no financial or social reason why inner city youth aren't booting Linux?

    If you've climbed up Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs [] far enough to have shelter, and your daily bread, then you're already far better off than many. If you've got a stable family or social structure around you, you're better off still.

    It's only once you have stopped scraping for shelter, food, love and self-esteem that you can begin to look at cognitive development.

    Only those relative few who have any access to computers can grow a serious interest in computers. Those who haven't had consistent, constructive access to computers will probably find more application in a portable CD player, than in a Linux distribution on a discarded 486.

    Elitism in the 'digital divide' doesn't necessarily mean "small top minority." It just means "not the small bottom minority."

  • From what I gather from the quasi-review, it seems that the author is arguing that because the net is the province of the tech elite that there are therefore no communities.

    Firstly, I would argue that it is not necessarily the case that the "tech elite" own the web. While technophiles are pretty much by default net users, it does not follow the net users are exclusively tech elite.

    It certainly is true that there is an income level cutoff for the majority of computer use, however this is also true of many other commodities that give people status and access (think automobile). Computers are significantly easier to access these days (as mentioned in schools and through employers).

    My family and my wife's family are almost (except for her brother) entirely wired, in spite of over half of them not being technically inclined. Even my often broke, bad luck magnet uncle is wired, as he is very active in his community (his online community has a large intersection with his RL community).

    I see no evidence that the authors assertion in this regard is correct. Given the behaviors of certain people with emails, I'd say that a large percentage, possibly a majority, are not techs.

    Secondly, even if the first argument was correct, it does not follow that an exclusive community is not a community. So what if all you meet are fellow geeks (as unlikely as that is)? What is to prevent these geeks from forming a community? From IRC i have regular (daily) contact with people from germany, norway, netherlands and england. We swap jokes, give book recommendations, make fun of "Survivor" etc. What's not a community about that (and I haven't even mentioned communities centering around gaming, like quake clans, and everquest guilds)?

    In conclusion I'd have to say this author has his head up his ass. If he'd spend some more time actually relaxing and having fun online instead of technophobic ranting, I think he'd actually see the world in a more accurate light.
  • In practice, yes, it does prevent the poor and the uneducated from participating in the life online.

    Thanks for pointing out that the "entry cost" is not merely financial, but also one of education. A functional computer can be purchased for little more than the cost of a television now, and I bet most people in this country have a television. Whether they are likely to spend that amount of money on something that requires learning to use is another question.

    Lockard ridicules the "trickle-down technology" theorem which holds that digital machinery will eventually become cheap enough for everybody, just like phones, electricity and cars.

    Lockard makes it sound like money is the main impediment, but methinks it is something else.

  • You can call yourself whatever you please. I refuse to call YOU an american. I live in Canada, part of North America. If I were Canadian I would call myself such. You on the other hand are your typical USian Right Wing zealot who thinks that all things USian are all things.

    And BTW,

    Democracy2 is probably one of the most unoriginal domain name Ideas I've heard since


  • Who said anything about religion? And I never said I was canadian, only that I live in Canada.


    I bet I know more about Religions (east and west) and Governments (east and west) then you think you know about "democracy".

  • That doesn't do you much good if your city doesn't have telephone service.

    There's a reason that only ~%2 of the world is online.

    Stop your USian centric rhetoric.

  • For those of you who don't have the attention span to read a whole Katz article, let me put it into a few bullet points.

    • Joseph Lockard, a guy with lots of fancy credentials, in such relevant fields as English Lit thinks that "virtual communities" are a "bunch of hooey".
    • He's written a book about it, titled Progressive Politics, Electronic Individualism, and the Myth of Virtual Community
    • His points include
      • It's expensive to belong to an online community. To belong to an online community, you have to be either rich, or skilled enough that your employer picks up the tab.
      • Because of this, people online are elitists.
      • You can't have a real community without materiality.

    • Katz then presents counterarguments:
      • It's too soon to tell anything about online communitites.
      • In the days of Jeffersonian Democracy, individual liberties were an ideal of the elitists.
      • Lockard uses a "narrow definition of community".
      • Sucessful communities include Slashdot, Kuro5hin, the WELL, and AOL.
      • Online communities compliment the need for real life interaction, not supplant it.

    Bottom line. Katz does a decent job of explaining the argument that "The Virtual Community" is a myth, and then debunking it. Unfortunately, this is something most of us already get, already being members of at least one "Virtual Community".

  • Just because people interact, doesn't make them a community. I work with the same people every day. We don't have all that much in common, and I don't condsider them my friends (Good thing I'm a temp.)

    Every weekend I go over to my friend's house, and hang out with her, and her roomates. We are a small group of people, with some very obvious differences, but I think we may be a community of a half-dozen.

    Some people may have a feeling of community here on /. But not all, If so, we wouldn't have 6 posts claiming to be first every time a new article shows up.
    BUT I believe that some here do feel a sense of community. I'm working on it, but not yet.

    One last thing, regarding elitism and the "Digital Divide." Many people say RTFM, well, it's hard to read that stuff sometimes, and they don't answer questions right away, you have to figure out where the answer is. If people were really into making technology for all, they would lend real help, not just give out URLs.
    And the reason that people in the projects don't run a "FREE" OS on a 486, is that there is no way to get it. Where is the only place to get Linux for free? The Internet. That means you already have a working computer with a stable connection. There will never be a truly free OS until the cd's are as available as AOL coasters.

  • Without a doubt, costs exclude some individuals from this "virtual community." But what about the community of individuals in high priced neighborhoods or business communities? Are these not real collections of indviduals who interact in a manner that defines their community structure? The "virutal community" may be an exclusive community, but exclusivity does not make it not a community.

    I think the logical danger that this argument runs into as well is that by the same standards that a "virtual community" could be considered not a community, so could a material community. For example, if members of the community, in the process of living their lives, go to the grocery store and say, "Hi!" to each other from across the parking lot, there is no material interaction. There's visual contact (across the net, no problem). There's auditory contact (across the net, no problem). The only place we fall short on the net is physical contact (often not done in "real" communities) and olfactory contact (done only when the people in your community miss baths and forget their deodorant).
  • BBSs are alive and well, still. The Iowa Student Computer Association [] at the University of Iowa has been running one for ten years now. (I'm running a test site [] for new BBS software for it.)

    Another great example of a virtual community is UNCENSORED! BBS [] which has been dialup since 1988 and both dialup and Internet based for years, up to this day.

    A simple Google search will turn up many, many other BBS systems, and the successful ones can claim to have a virtual community right there.

  • Come on, I've been playing MUDs for years and I have a great deal of friends with whom I converse solely over MUDs, we most certainly are a "community".

    But not only are "virtual" communities real, they're something far more significant than is generally acknowledged. In the case of MUDs, what we see is an interesting new way of communicating between people. What I find fascinating about MUDs is how they distort communications, and how such concepts as idioms and body language map to the new medium. For instance, such things as different "socials" (pre-cooked strings in response to commands like 'grin') and other behaviours that would normally seem mundane take on a whole new meaning. The difference between the 'smile' and 'grin' social, for instance, is vast, but you'd never see that otherwise. Different ways of communicating with people, through private and global communication, by moving around and doing various other things, evolve new forms of humour and new ways of feeling the presence of other people and objects. It's true that most MUD players don't think this, but I think they are generally getting it anyway whether they know it or not. MUDs and computer-based communications in general provide an interesting medium for playing with interpersonal relations and the relationship between people and the world around them.

    I think from this perspective it is easy to see why Timothy Leary came to see "cyberspace" as a way to get to new levels of reality, much like LSD. To neglect the reality of this is silly, all you have to do is play MUDs for a while and you'll know what I'm talking about.

  • ... between real communities and virtual communities is that in real ones, there are a bunch of people with both similarities and differences, and they HAVE TO live together.
    You can have butch lesbians at the convenience store in line behind Jimmy Swaggart. And the checkout guy is a deadhead or whatever.

    Virtual communities are basically groups of people with 'like' interests. More homogenous. In fact, people like virtual communities _because_ they are a contrast to real communities. They aren't the same thing. Two different beasts w/2 different purposes.
  • Let's look at the real reason for the digital divide. People are poor and destitute. Why? is there a shortage of good paying jobs? Not according the current Prez. In fact, we are importing in record numbers skilled labor. Therefore, the poor must be unskilled. By unskilled I mean cannot use Excel. Cannot use a keyboard. Cannot read. Cannot manage time well. In short, they do not have the rudimentary skills necessary to point-and-click, let along do anything else.

    "Here you are Mr. Jon Q. Poor, here's your Maserati have fun!"
    "Cool, I will be the envy of the neighborhood. How do you turn it on?"
    "With a key."
    "Where is the key?"
    "Not my problem, I just distribute Maseratis. BTW, I should warn you it gets 8mpg on the highway, so expect an increase in your energy consumption. It also breaks down frequently for no apparent reason and this is to be expected. You know, the general problems you get with owning a late-model Italian luxury sports car. Oh, and, it's probably not street-legal in 34 states, so you can't drive there."
    "What should I do about it?"
    "Like I said, I just deliver them."

    It is elitest to think capitalization is the only problem at work here. It takes skills to utilize the web. It takes time to learn (and teach) these skills. It's as ridiculous to assume that giving a computer to someone will get them on the web as giving someone a book and expecting them to learn to read by themselves. Waste of time, energy, and capital without the resources to teach rudimentary things (you know, like reading) before you get to the great error message of "This Computer Has Performed an Illegal Operation..." one-time on the way! My mother (neither poor nor uneducated) received this error and was quite convinced the police were on their way.

    Heart in the right place, mind on acid.

  • Well, you're by example living proof of this thesis. If you're not one of the elite, you shouldn't trouble yourself trying to understand those big words. Go away and play with your abacus, you sniveling pathetic non-elitist type, you. I type big scary words in your general direction.

  • I always find it interesting when nay-sayers peek into a given area without benefit of having any *real* grounding in the subject (doctoral canidate in English Lit is somehow a social scientist with a technical background?) So it is with great wonder that I can't figure out why he hasn't learned from history?

    Oh, wait, they don't teach that in public schools mistake.

    The crux of what's troubling our poor, frustrated bard: technology -- *ALL* technology -- causes a "speeding up" relative to our surroundings:

    • The club freed the caveman from having to strangle his food...the spear made it easier to kill from a distance.
    • Our daily lives got faster because we could live farther away...along with 5 or 6 million of our closest friends, hence traffic jams.
    • Computers were going to set us free of the drudgery of everyday life; instead, we've all become techs forever tinkering and tweaking our box to be "just so."

    Increases in efficency have only led to more thinking and scheming of how to get even more from a given tool, or how to build "the Next Great Thing!"

    So, to steal a line from the late, great Clara Peller: "Where's the Beef?"

    A virtual community is still a community of *people* -- whether it's neighbors who meet online in a chat room to discuss a Neighborhood Watch, or if it's a group of people scattered all over the planet discussing the newest PC game. "Virtual" just indicates that they aren't meeting in The Real World. Back in my day, we used to call that "writing a letter to a friend." Any shared space -- physical or metaphysical -- can be used to exchange ideas (or gossip or bullshit or whatever)...kinda like what your supposed to do when you matriculate at university.

  • The problem with so-called "communities" on the Internet is that they're really just associations. Clubs. Chowder societies. Nothing passes between the members but talk, and while talk is an important part of community it's not the end. The ends of community are responsibility, stewardship, and protection of shared resources.

    Look at any active web board, mailing list or other online "community" and you'll see many participants trying desperately to create something for which they'll have joint responsibility. They'll want an "official" webpage, an archive, an award: anything to give them a sense that they're doing more than talking.

    So, are there real online communities? Sure. Look at the Open Source movement, a community of people who talk a lot, but who also build things for which they're jointly responsible: code bases, archive sites, indexes, FAQs, etc.

    Why do you consider yourself part of a community in the neighborhood where you live? Is it because you talk to the people there and share the same hobbies with them? Hell, no. If you met most of these people anywhere else you might not give them the time of day. It's because you have a common interest in protecting what's yours: your houses, your kids, your streets, your peace and quiet.

  • People who probably wouldn't stop to help me on the side of the road, will take ten minutes to reply to my stupid newbie questions and walk me through how to compile my LAN driver.

    They don't care what race I am, or who I am, for that matter, they just help because they're protected by their anonymity, just like I am.

    As for social enlightenment, I can get all the info I want on the web, but what I listen to is my choice. I feel better informed thanks to the internet. You might disagree.

    BTW, what would an English-Lit PhD know about the online community (said the French Lit Major).

  • How many businesses have now jumped on the bandwagon and put up web sites hoping to rake in the big bucks?

    Most of them.

    How many of those sites have failed?

    Most of them.

    Whats the problem? People are buying into this whole "virtual community" as a something great and new. In fact, those businesses that eventually succeed online are going to be the ones that realize that the Internet doesnt mean you have to change your whole business. The Internet is simply a new tool to do the same thing you have always done. Just like the fax replaced mail for most written correspondance, so is email replacing the fax and the phone, and the Web is replacing catalogs (and trips to the store).

    Existing businesses already have a real community of their customers. Dont redo everything, youve obviously done something right to this point. Simply give them another alternative in how to do business with you.

  • 'nuff said. More politics than you can shake a stick at.
  • On the net you can meet people who are far away. I communicate with people who live in Serbia, in Croatia, in Austria, in Greece... You can get a very different view of what's happening in the world (e.g. in Serbia) when you have contacts like this. And on the internet, these sorts of contacts are easy (relatively so) to make.

    Sure - they are people, too, but that's one thing which is a lot easier to forget when you just read newspapers and watch TV news. There *is* a different quality of these communities.

    For example with the naming controversy over the republic of Macedonia - wouldn't it be interesting to ask a Greek friend or two what they think? And then maybe a Macedonian? How would anyone go about this *before* the internet?
  • What is a community today anyway? Simple answer - it's a targeted advertising group. That can certainly exist online, can't it?

    Forgive me for being cynical. In the corporate world, the only group of people are a group of people to be advertised to.

  • Of course there is! /. is proof enough for me.
  • promoted by benighted utopians and elitists who equate access to the Net and the Web with social and democratic enlightenment.

    Indeed, these people should have read USENET news over the past decade to see that people ordinary people feel no commitment to the internet. DotComs are dropping like flies, which seems to underscore this. Conceivable that the utterance "Your momma is a troll and your papa flamebait" is an observation rather than insult.

    I did wonder if the .net would be the next evolutionary step, measured by where the family eats dinner:

    Primative: Around the fire

    Prior to 1920s: Around the dinner table

    1920s-1950s: Around the radio

    1950s-1990s: Around the TV

    1990s-?????: Around the computer

    Chief Frog Inspector

  • Slashdot itself is an example of the virtual community. So far, there hasn't been an example of any kind of pyramid scheme at all (except for the troll and L337 H4X0R posts building up).

    Personally, I would throw this moron's dissertation in the trash can.

  • Well, when asking "Are virtual communities real?" just examine the meaning of the word virtual and you'll see the difficulty. Virtual _means_ not (quite) real. Quasi-real, if you will. Having a certain functionality or aspect of the real thing, but being sort of a simalacrum.

    I'd say no community that is solely virtual is really complete. I can think of several communities who have alot of their dialogue and commerce in a "virtual" way. The contemporary a'capella society of america was one of the first I ran into (or realized this about). I came into contact with it through usenet (, but quickly was introduced into a local organization, and attended conventions. There was a real a'capella community that transacted much of its communications virtually. But you could -- and this is key, you very likely WOULD -- get to meet others face to face, if you reached a certain point of participation.

    (One of my Math teachers saw the "scientific" community this way, too: he had one-way virtual dialogues with Newton and Euclid. And he even saw religion this way, too: one way dialogues with Isaiah, Luke, and others).
  • I, too, regularly converse with a bunch of people I have never met IRL through e-mail. Most of them are "friends of friends" that got sucked into our e-mail lists. There is an old joke about the difference between a friend and a best friend. A friend is someone you can call to help you move. A best friend is someone you can call to help you move ... a body. I kinda define "community" the same way. If these people I have never met were coming into town and needed a place to crash, I "know" them well enough to invite them over. I would like to meet them all face to face. If I need something (information wise), I would never hesitate to ask them. In a way, they are like virtual neighbors. I might add that I am fortunate enough to live in a real neighborhood community where I know most all of my (physical neighbors) and we spend a lot of time gossiping on the porch or the front yard, have block parties, pick up each other's kids from school and babysit if the need arises, etc.
  • i am constantly at odds with friends who believe that community is the killer app of the net. frankly, i tend to disagree. they look at the many to many principle as being a major pioneering move of the internet generation, while i feel it is simply a fixed-up partyline; hardly the app i believe the history books will speak of.

    although more compelling than one to many communications (ie. television, radio, etc.), the killer apps of the net lie not in the expediency of communication or even in the newfound routes or options, but in the shared concept of information - that is - that no idea ever dies in our whirlwind. we have afforded ourselves the ability to communicate from the many to the one, and to actually have the receiver be the principle of that equation. YOU are your own community, and any virtual community is merely a part of your individualistic outlook, communication and information circle. the focus is on the individual in our new world, and i say this feeling very lonely in this basement office on this cold fall day.

    1. S I T E []
      1. U N S E E N

  • Virtual communities like Slashdot exist, and they closely mirror the meatworld communities out there: we have assholes, snobs, suckups, and all manner of other lowlifes, as well as the sorts of people who make community participation worthwhile. The only problem is that, because the vitual community so closely mirrors the outside one, they both will suffer from the same inability to make the real political change that everyone seems to crave. It's different, but deep down, it's just the same. Wake me up when history stops repeating itself.
  • Yes, which is why -- repeat after me -- the web is not the internet. Yes, "the web" is mostly a non-interactive, eyeball-driven, point-and-drool, entertainment-for-the-masses medium. I'd say that /. and k5 and other
    community-driven weblogs are the closest you'll find to breaking that paradigm. On the web.

    Ever tried to get any information out of slashdot (I mean really get any sizeable information out of it that can be access a month or more after a sotry is posted). I have tried to deal with this problem. Slashdot just dosn't scale well to getting long term access to information. What would be closer to better access for information to achieve in an archieved method is almost, kindof, not quite there at e2 []. Although it dosn't lend itself well to noninteractive retrieval means (get's stuck in a rather anoying infinite loop on a random node link for your information).

    However, there's still Usenet, there's still MOO, there's still email ... there's still a lot of things. I wouldn't knock the idea of a "virtual community" that quickly. Most of the people I consider my closest friends in the
    world are part of my "online" community.

    Usenet started dieing after the emergence of many of the sites like slashdot and it's use of a very unreliable protocol for transporting information around.

    There is far too much control over the mechanism involved and too much propensity for error. The utility is extremely low hell you're not even guaranteed to get all your messages. Also you have to be "subscribed" to a server to allow for access. There aren't in fact archives of all the data in question. Very bad karma.

    What would make it much better is if you could access any information you wanted and post anything you wanted via any open portal that had everything that was sent into the system instead of relying on the famed "generosity" of sysadmins. Slashdot is a good method of this but it's too centralized and too prone to be ruined by some unforseen event. Now if you took a protocol like a search engine/napster method but allowed for many access points using rudimentary interfaces on the web accessible via text based machines then you would truly have something.

    I have always seen usenet's exclusiveness as a means to "keep the rabble out" more or less. You don't have any guarantees and there is no guarantee of point to point communication pure and simple.

    MOOs are created around a central point and are still not very reliable.
  • by Danse ( 1026 ) on Tuesday October 03, 2000 @08:34AM (#735292)

    They have an abundance of time, not of money.

    Not bloody likely. If they're poor and not working, then yeah... they may have time. But they probably won't have any inclination to learn anything. If they're of the working poor class, then they probably have the inclination to learn, but they don't have the time or money since all their time is wrapped up in trying to make enough money to stay afloat. My family was somewhat like this.. except we were more of a lower-middle class, paycheck-to-paycheck living family. Still are really. It's very hard to get out of it once you're there. Any unforseen problem can start you on a downward spiral too, which makes you spend your time trying to get back to where you were before. Families that are worse off than mine was certainly aren't likely to have the time to devote to learning computers when they are spending their time trying to put food on the table and keep a roof over their heads. I got lucky when the company my mom worked for threw out some old computers and we got one of them (286/12mhz(IIRC), 1 meg of ram, CGA monitor, 10MB HD). It was the summer before my senior year in HS. If it weren't for that, I might not be typing this right now.

  • by SoupIsGood Food ( 1179 ) on Tuesday October 03, 2000 @07:28AM (#735293)
    I flunked out of art school. Twice. Having no skills and no ability to hold down "normal" jobs, I used to live off $400 a month in the early nineties. That's $4800 a year, so far below the poverty line, I couldn't even see daylight from where I was.

    $150 of that went to pay my share of the rent and utilities every month. $20 of what was left went for a dial-up shell account at a local ISP. I used a 5 year old Macintosh (with a black and white screen!) to get email, read news, chat on IRC and log onto the local BBSs. Two years later, and I had saved up enough ($500) to buy another five year old Mac, this one with a color graphics card and a monitor, and whoah! Web browsing!

    In this day and age, all the computer equipment you need to get you online can be had for less than $100 if you shop carefully. Operating systems (Linux, *BSD, BeOS, QNX, Mac System 7) can be had for free. Net access is $15/month, or free if you can put up with the advertising.

    So, tell me again how online access is open only to the "monied elite".

    I'm now a Unix sys-admin and collumnist for online Macintosh trade journals. I make more money than my parents do. I would never, ever, ever have had the opportunity to make something of myself without net access, and without the support and advice of people I know only through the internet.

    The "cyber community" is NOT the private reserve of the priveledged, and has done more to level class structure in the United states than anything short of the civli rights movement and the Emancipation Proclimation.

    Think on that.

    SoupIsGood Food
  • by isaac ( 2852 ) on Tuesday October 03, 2000 @07:40AM (#735294)
    Virtual communities are real in an intellectual sense. I certainly know several people online I would consider friends, though I've never met most of them in person. We are a community, in that sense.

    But I see where the author is coming from - this virtual community of friends can't affect in any meaningful way my physical environs. They're not part of my meatspace community, and to some extent, they sap my intellectual energies away from the people and institutions of proximate geography I might otherwise be more involved with, but for the internet.

    Therein lies the danger - when people abandon their physical community for a virtual one, they leave their meatspace quality of life in the hands of other interested parties. This is how crack houses happen, how fundamentalists get elected to school boards, how zoning laws institutionalize race and class distinctions - smart people who could make a difference just don't pay attention. A virtual community is fundamentally no replacement for a real one.

    Don't get me wrong, I don't lay the blame at the foot of the internet exclusively, so much as I do at our society's increasing tendency towards isolation. I do think internet use can be empowering, especially when used for grass-roots media (I love what the folks at are doing, even if I'm not thrilled with their hysterical tone at times - but then "they" are a loose collection of volunteers, mostly, and they still manage better coverage of many issues than professionals). I don't buy the hype of its grand transformative powers, though - the same things were said about television. ("But it's a one-way medium! The internet is different," I hear you say. Tell me about it in 10 years when you can't find an ISP to host your controversial web page about [whatever] because of liability concerns. So you can host pictures of your cat. Real empowering.) The internet, like the real world, is what we make of it - no more, no less. If we try and substitute virtual interactions for knowing your neighbors and local politicians, though, we're going to wake up with a headache one day.


  • by Angst Badger ( 8636 ) on Tuesday October 03, 2000 @08:01AM (#735295)
    The net certainly provides communities as "real" as those existing in the real world. Of course, in the real world, people can live densely packed in aparment complexes and tract housing and not know the names of their nearest neighbors.

    There are technological boundaries to be sure -- despite the great strides we've taken, the web is by its connectionless nature an awful way to build responsive, interactive tools -- but communities as such have largely ceased to exist in the wealthy, technologically-advanced, highly-mobile cities of the western world.

    The question I don't think anyone is asking is whether the majority of people even want a community. Atavistic throwbacks like Jon Katz (and myself, for that matter) dig the idea of place and history and community, but I don't think most people do, or they wouldn't live the way they do. Those who do want community have their work cut out for them resisting the centrifugal forces of the modern world. Whether it's possible on the net misses the bigger issue of whether it's possible in the world anymore.


  • by RebornData ( 25811 ) on Tuesday October 03, 2000 @08:16AM (#735296)
    The problem with the discussion about this article is that there's no shared definition of what "community" means among the posters. I participate in several things that could be broadly described as "virtual communities", but are very, very different beasts.

    /. is a community in that it's a place where a specific group of people with a common identity (broadly, geekdom) post information of common interest to other people like them, and "discuss" that information. I put "discuss" in "quotes" because there's no extended dialog- one post per user is the norm, maybe with a followup for clarification. What's missing the the element of personal relationships- most "communities" are really best defined as a conglomeration of personal relationships between the participants, which is almost nonexistant on /. and nearly impossible in a group of this size. But it still clearly has elements of community.

    I am on several mailing lists that consist primarily of former friend and peer groups from "real life". I graduated from college six years ago, and despite the fact that we are spread across the country and world, the group of close friends I had there interacts on a daily basis using one. We support each other in times of trouble, carry on deep conversations as if we were all hanging out in some bar, and generally keep up with what's important in our lives. This very much is a real-life community of personal relationships that has been strengthened by Internet technology.

    These are just two examples. They are both radically different from each other, but fall under the broad definition of "community". I bet that the author of this book has a very specific definition of what he means by "community", and I'm guessing that it's something entirely different than the two communities I've described above. Unfortunately, what this definition is was not communicated clearly in Katz's review. I guess the lesson is not to get your panties in a wad over someone else's interpretation of a work on a complex topic like this... read it for yourself before spouting off.

    Of course, this wouldn't be true to the /. community norms...
  • by Zulfiya ( 44302 ) on Tuesday October 03, 2000 @08:08AM (#735297) Homepage
    Lockard also accurately points out that the largest communities forming online are corporate, not individualistic, and their agenda is marketing, not community. He calls the very idea of a "virtual community" an oxymoron.

    Yeah, and the largest phone systems belong to corporations, too. That doesn't invalidate the telephone as a mode of community interaction.

    I think what they essayist missed here is that "virtual" and "community" are both stand-alone concepts. A community is a group of people who are interrelated, one way or another. "Virtual" (in the sense it is being used here) is the way people communicate. The "virtual community" isn't going to "replace" regular community any more than literate communities (remember, near universal literacy is a modern phenom) replaced spoken communities.

    Computer literacy makes a similar gap in society now as traditional literacy has made in the past. And, consider, even now, the literacy gap between economic classes. If that gap hasn't gone away, do you expect the computer litaracy gap to vanish so easily?

  • by goliard ( 46585 ) on Tuesday October 03, 2000 @09:05AM (#735298)
    The question I don't think anyone is asking is whether the majority of people even want a community.

    That's an excellent question. I think the answer eventually boils down to "Yes, but", though one learns a lot by asking it.

    Communities have costs as well as benefits. Whether any given individual desires to be in any given community depends entirely on the cost/benefit calculation that person makes.

    I think that just about everyone has a strong appetite for community, but our "state of the art", if you will, in communities is so poor, that they deliver on their benefits only feebly, while their costs are high.

    For instance, western culture is terrible at the issue of diversity (not just racial or religious, but any difference). This means community demands of conformity are often total, in absense of other forces. Most people are wise enough not to put all their emotional eggs into a basket so easily tipped over: if the slightest failure to conform means you lose your effort investment in that community, why take the risk?

    In short, the reason that community has suffered in western culture is that it has not kept pace with the changes in culture. Our cultural implementation of community is archaic and does not fit modern values or situations.

  • by ackthpt ( 218170 ) on Tuesday October 03, 2000 @07:49AM (#735299) Homepage Journal
    So you're saying that the ignorant clerk at the deli counter, who doesn't even know that "1/4" isn't the same as "0.4" can:
    1) Learn how to install, config and navigate Linux
    2) Figure out how to set up ppp or whatever to connect to a free ISP
    3) Know a 486 from Ru486
    4) Accurately differentitiate "1/4" pound of PCs from "0.4" pounds of dirt

    It's not really fair to use the economic yardstick, since even the dumbest can find a job and make enough to buy a bargain PC at Best Buy, with one of those Compuserve or MSN rebates, almost for free*.

    The difference is in training and education, (note: not to be confused with intellectual, elitist, Jefferson-wannabe) to even know how to get tied into the internet. Let alone they don't just babble away in an AOL chatroom, rather than ponder deep thoughts (Steven Hawking, f'rinstance). Once their online, see if the interation with Anonymous (or not-so-anonymous) people thoughout the internet turn them into a gaggle of enlightened souls.

    *Free now, but $480 over the next two years...

    Chief Frog Inspector
  • by JeremyYoung ( 226040 ) on Tuesday October 03, 2000 @07:08AM (#735300) Homepage
    He seems to point at the "Digital Divide" as a major reason why online "communities" are for the elite, the wealthy. What hogwash. 1) Linux is free. 2) There are free ISP's. 3) Linux runs well on old 486's and pentiums. 4) 486's and pentiums are dirt cheap, cheaper than a portable CD player.
  • by Wraithmaster ( 232886 ) on Tuesday October 03, 2000 @07:48AM (#735301) Homepage
    I would like to point out that virtual communities are not entirely homogenous. Look at this very site, for instance: A good part of the discussion here is composed of people debating issues from opposing viewpoints. For example, I am not a Libertarian, and so disagree with other /. members on many political issues--indeed, I was involved in a very interesting little discussion about voting not long ago. I think it is precisely this diversity of opinion that appeals to many members of virtual communitites.

    Of course, that being said, I can't deny that the *overall structuring* of these things is somewhat homogenous. For example, you won't find people carrying on long, involved discussions of home and garden care on /. (I don't think). Even so, is that so different from real life? Don't we tend to self-organize into social units based on shared interests and views? For example, nearly all my friends are intelligent, liberal people who are interested in computers and their applications. I attend a university (RPI) that caters specifically to technically inclined students.

    So, you see, virtual communities are in many ways simply logical extensions of existing, non-virtual communities. Mind, I don't think they can ever really *replace* real-life communities--the modes of communication available to us over the 'net right now simply aren't sufficient to simulate real person-to-person interaction--but I do feel that they can become strongly integrated. For example, I have a group of friends who regularly socialize in #gifted on the undernet, but still get together in real life on a fairly regular basis (well, those of us on the same side of the continent, anyhow). In fact, I first spoke to several members of this group on IRC, and later grew to count them among my best friends.

    Okay, that's enough rambling and ranting for now. Until next time,

    Wraithmaster -- Chicken soup for the spleen.

  • by levik ( 52444 ) on Tuesday October 03, 2000 @07:07AM (#735302) Homepage
    I think the entry cost associated with joining the "vitrual community" (I hate that buzzword) of the Internet, cannot really be held against it. In practice, yes, it does prevent the poor and the uneducated from participating in the life online.

    However, this is not something that is inherent to the idea of the internet, rather it is a flaw that evolved during its implementation.

    If internet was accessible through public kiosks throughout the world, and everyone would be allocated personal space to use as their own hard drive, the idea of the internet would not be changed. Just becasue currently you must have your own computer to participate, does not mean that the principles of open communications have failed to provide uniform access to the underpriveleged. Rather, it can be said that no scheme has been developed yet to tap the full potential of the equality offered by the open information system that is the internet.

  • by MaxGrant ( 159031 ) on Tuesday October 03, 2000 @07:25AM (#735303) Homepage Journal
    I'm getting virtually nothing done here at work while I read slashdot. I think that counts too.

  • by Rahaeli ( 234396 ) on Tuesday October 03, 2000 @07:12AM (#735304)
    > The web only has "forums" not true communities. There is no real interaction on the web,
    > just reaction. Without ongoing interaction, there can't be any form of community,
    > because no one knows how to work and be with one another, they just know how to anticipate
    > and react to the actions of each other. It's a difference.

    Yes, which is why -- repeat after me -- the web is not the internet. Yes, "the web" is mostly a non-interactive, eyeball-driven, point-and-drool, entertainment-for-the-masses medium. I'd say that /. and k5 and other community-driven weblogs are the closest you'll find to breaking that paradigm. On the web.

    However, there's still Usenet, there's still MOO, there's still email ... there's still a lot of things. I wouldn't knock the idea of a "virtual community" that quickly. Most of the people I consider my closest friends in the world are part of my "online" community.

    Personally, I think that Russ Allbery [] said it best. If people haven't read his "Rant about Usenet", then I don't think they can quite see just how deeply community *can* run.
  • by Y3HarB-y*qOi!(5Q1 ( 239602 ) on Tuesday October 03, 2000 @07:13AM (#735305)
    You have to understand that the internet is only really the internet when it includes all that one can accomplish with an IP address to meet their needs with. Unattented access to various sites on the internet is one of the things that is extremely nice. Many times I have not have the patience to spend hours looking for something on a web site but sent my trusty web spider to look at it for me. I get all the information and can grep it and look for anything I need. I can print it out and save it for future use and make a great deal of discovery at a later date and all of the data is preserved. I can obtain software that will enable my comptuer not to remain outdated as far as it's functionality. I can garner information from disperate sources that I wouldn't have access to save for the internet's use of IP addresses. A bunch of windows boxes with IE on them dosn't constitute access in the strictest sense. It's also incompatable with the nature of what people really mean when they say online.
  • I've done some thinking and research -- direct observation, experiment, and scholarly -- about this issue. The uncopyedited version of my new chapter for my ancient book, The Virtual Community, is at The new MIT Press edition, including the new chapter and an extensive bibliography for those who care to look at the actual social science research that has been conducted, will be available November 1. 218 The short answer -- it's easy to be glib about the subject, easy to theorize from your armchair, and easy to miss the big picture. I don't claim to have a black-and-white answer, but I do claim to have made a serious attempt to elevate the level of discourse to include the many ambiguities and shades of gray that seem to be lost in the usual "it IS community/it ISN'T community" debates.
  • by SoupIsGood Food ( 1179 ) on Tuesday October 03, 2000 @09:39AM (#735307)
    "Intangible advantages" are intangible, and therefore immaterial and probably imginary.

    All of my extended family are swamp yankees (New England version of "White Trash"). My parents both worked (mom was a nurse, Dad worked for the Navy), so I grew up middle class in a Navy town.

    The people who I first met online (local BBSes in Florida and RI) were =all= from lower or working class families, and got fired from one crap job to the next. The rich folks with computers all paid for a local BBS or AOL, and usually just to leech warez. The people actually forming the communities on the message boards were universally poor (with one exception I know of), and usually came from poor or middle class backgrounds. Some of them were even smart. (Not all of them, tho.)

    There =are= intangible advantages to being smart and a geek. The problem is, It's very hard to grow up geek in Latino or African American cultures...there is less tolerance for intellectual eccentricity than in other social groups. Instead of changing this mindset, fingers usually point to those evil Whites/Asians/Arabs and their cultural elitism as the reason for the tech imbalance.

    But if you manage it, you get the same rewards from the cyber community white, rich people who grow up geek do.

    My ex-boss grew up in the most squalid NYC barrio you can imagine. He's now a veep at a major financial firm with a corner office overlooking the Statue of Liberty. My coworker was black, never went to college, but made more money than I did because he could walk the walk.

    He was arrested on a minor rap no white kid would have been busted on, and promptly fired by the suits in the corporate office. This is why we need cyber communities. The real world ones break the soul and spirit for utterly bullshit reasons.

    (Happy end note: he beat the rap and found a new, better paying job with a contact he got from a...wait for it...friend online.)

    SoupIsGood Food

  • by mindstrm ( 20013 ) on Tuesday October 03, 2000 @07:06AM (#735308)
    Well.. I have the same set of people, whom I have never met in person, who I speak with on a daily basis about a great deal of things, for the past 5 years or so. Are they not part of my 'virtual community'?

    I order supplies at work online, and deal with sales people virtually all the time. I almost never talk to them on the phone.. aren't they part of my virtual community?

    I've never met my stock broker in person.. I look at my account online, email him, and talk to him on the phone (good to do SOME things on the phone)_. Isn't htat kind of virtual?

    And I videoconference with our head office 4000 miles away. Isn't that 'virtual'?
  • by tangram ( 23057 ) on Tuesday October 03, 2000 @09:35AM (#735309)
    You can read Lockard's essay [], or some earlier permutation of it, for yourself.

    Lockard addresses several ideals about online communities. Some of these pertain to whether the Internet will be the Great Leveler, producing a classless, commonly-owned, universally accessible forum for communication. Lockard says this is false.

    Fair enough. The Internet is not free. Getting connected requires owning or accessing a certain amount of equipment, having a certain amount of free time to spend online rather than working, a certain level of technical skill, and basic literacy. The same could be said for living in Wellesly, Andover, Concord, or any of the other upscale physical communities surrounding Boston. The median household yearly income in Massachusetts is about $29K; the average asessed tax value of houses in Concord is around $394K. This is not inclusive. I wouldn't call them diverse communities, either.

    "Cybericity does not replicate material communities in a parallel world where we can reformulate communality." I also agree with this. I don't use the Internet to get closer to my physical community. I use it to get information about it. For instance:

    The Internet does as much for physical community building as the phone book: I go there to find information, which might lead me to go out in my neighborhood. It doesn't create social relationships by itself. I have to go interact.

    Why should online communities mirror geographical ones? Yes, it's important to participate in my geographic community, and it would be swell if folks used the Internet to strengthen participation. This isn't the benchmark for whether something constitutes a community.

    Community is a social process. Lockard is correct that it is more than a mere "electronic affinity group". There are websites I check frequently, like Slashdot or the Boston Globe, and then there are communities I belong to. The distinction is whether one treats the site as a source of information or as a group of people whose input you want.

    For instance, I've run a mailing list for women martial artists for about four years. Some posts are for information, like "how do I train after knee surgery", and are posted because someone out there has that information. Others are for feedback ("I'm facing this situation, what's your take on it") or just social ("wish me luck on my belt test"), because the poster wants to talk about it with her peers. That transformation from information source to peer is what makes it a community.

    So, in summary, Lockard is right that the Internet is not a panacea to the inequities we see in society, nor is it revitalizing involvement in our neighborhoods, though it does contain some elements of that. He is incorrect that a community requires a physical presence.

    On a tangent, I've been pondering over what conditions foster community. Some factors are:
    • Participants building up individual identities. You know who you're talking to.
    • High signal to noise ratio.
    • A magic number of posts -- too many drives people away; too few is just an announcement list.
    • Enough of a focus that you have something to talk about. I've seen very general lists, like "This is a list for the town of X" on eGroups, that fizzle out for lack of something to say.
    • A few alpha-posters that invest time into high-quality posts.

    Any thoughts on this?


Feel disillusioned? I've got some great new illusions, right here!