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 Camworld.com, Kuro5shin and myvideogames.com 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.