When author Howard Rheingold wrote The Virtual Community in 1993, "the common wisdom of that time... was that only socially crippled adolescents would use the Internet to communicate with other people. Perhaps I put a rosier tint on my portrait of online socializing in reaction to the stereotype. Perhaps prospects for life online were brighter then, seven years before the dotcom era. And perhaps I've grown more critical of ideas I once proposed, out of more prolonged exposure to their shortcomings."
It's difficult now to describe the climate of the 1980s when the the culture of online communication came under a recurring barrage of media and political criticism for undermining culture and authority, and promoting unchecked depravity and destruction. There was Time Magazine's famous child-porn cover, and the movie War Games, in which a young hacker nearly triggered a nuclear war. Before corporations figured out how much money could be made, much of the country was scared witless by computers, and their fear translated easily to the Net. The journalists and first-generation Net advocates Rheingold refers to were constantly forced to defend the Net against attacks from the offline world, a state of intense cultural conflict that did promote myopic views.
The virtual community has changed incalculably since. E-commerce overwhelmed the idea of information liberation, and technology itself became the point, rather than a byproduct or tool. Enormous new v-communities did emerge, but for profit: sex and auction sites, financial services and retailing, Go.com, Yahoo and AOL. Social technological movements like Open Source and file-sharing also created revolutionary kinds of communities, systems and Weblogs, but for the most part concentrated on information-sharing, peer-review and other information changes and services. Information -- more of it, and ever-cheaper -- became the point of most communities, as well as the driving force behind the growth of the Web. Technology was no longer the only the means, but increasingly, the end.
Where Rheingold wrote about communities in which people connected with one another, these new sites helped people connect to information. In fact, non-utilitarian communication is often greeted with contempt: if it's not about technology, it's a waste of bandwidth. It's almost as if the next generation of e-dwellers understands, without having to be told, that life online offers one kind of community, the offline world another.
(Note: Lots of people e-mailed after the first part to offer examples of some virtual communities that work: Typical were messages like the one from Nancy, who wrote: " I belong to one -- the Delphi textside service. For years I have conversed, gotten help, commiserated, con-congratulated with these people from all over the US and the world. They are my family. When Delphi went Web only (except the telnet textside service is being allowed to die a natural death) they almost lost me. The Web doesn't work very well, IMHO. I want a nice text console! It feels right, like the old BBS I used to use, now defunct. I love my Delphi family. Occasionally we meet in the flesh, but we have been meeting virtually since 1984 (I joined in 1994).")
John Lester of Massachusetts General Hospital wrote that " I have been running a community for people suffering for Neurological disorders at Harvard and Massachusetts General Hospital for the past 5 years. We have about 30,000 posters and 400,000 regular readers, and it is thriving. It has literally saved human lives."
" ... More and more, my community members are meeting in the PHYSICAL world. It is truly amazing and beautiful."
But health problems bind people together in a particular way, and people who are dealing with them form some of the most powerful virtual communities. For others, it's more problematic. Rheingold himself grasps the central questions that always gnaw at the idea of the virtual community: "Is the use of the phrase 'virtual community' a perversion of the notion of community? What do we mean by community, anyway? ... Is the virtualization of human relationships unhealthy? Is online social behavior addictive? Most important, are hopes for a revitalization of the democratic public sphere dangerously naive? Will Internet-based publishing and communicating decentralize the distribution of political power and influence, or will many-to-many-media be dominated by a few?"
Questions like this reflect the particular context in which idealists like Rheingold operated and encountered cyberspace. Contemporary Net dwellers might pose a different set of questions, more practical and technological ones. Rheingold and his generation were deeply influenced by the 60s, whose sweeping and sometimes profound social evolutions are taken for granted by younger Net users.
Perhaps as the means of communicating -- especially IRC's and IMessaging programs -- make messaging so simple and instantaneous, the sense of a distinct new way to communicate erodes.But it wasn't always so: The WELL, for example, was very much a reflection of San Francisco at the time, a magnet for idealists and cyber-hippies as well as digital entrepeneurs. Many of the early WELLbeings, as they sometimes called themselves, were not particularly interested in technology; they sought the community that technology might make possible. Clustered in the Bay area, they also created a significant non-virtual component to life on the WELL. They were always meeting one another at parties, picnics and public events; having affairs; having feuds; recommending books and movies and dentists and restaurants and chili recipes. This seems oddly squishy to most large open media communities operating today, or even to smaller, more individualized weblogs, but it's not long ago that many computer users were drawn to the idea of using the online tools to strengthen their personal lives and relationships.
That sensibility is perhaps the single biggest casualty of the dotcom era when it comes to virtual communities. As the number of Net users has multiplied and become much younger, online communities have become more entertainment-driven, bigger and more impersonal. Contemporary Net users have fewer illusions about the virtual community, a different understanding about what the Net is and isn't good for. They don't necessarily expect to make close friends and share their deepest feelings online. They are skeptical, cynical perhaps, about humanist ideals for cyberspace.
And the virtual community faces a daunting list of ethical problems. In the third edition of Computer Ethics, Deborah Johnson of the Georgia Institute of Technology lists a few ethical issues facing online gatherings of people: vandals, trolls and script kiddies who damage sites; theft and extortion; flaming and spamming. She might also have added issues relating to misrepresentation of identity, intellectual property and accuracy. Into the Second Generation Internet, there is nothing like consensus on how to deal with any of these issues.
Then, too, there is growing dichotomy in the economics that different kinds of virtual communities face. Communities on the Net aren't like hippie communes: they are expensive to design, operate and access. They need to have some financial as well as social underpinnings, especially in the age of AOL/Time-Warner, when commercial "communities" offer access, information and all kinds of other services as a carrot for buyers.
One of the ways in which younger Net users separate themselves from their elders is by seeing themselves as apolitical, cutting-edge technologists. Perhaps this is because so many of their elders talked incessantly about revolution, but didn't manage to make one. They, on the other hand, are creating a revolution and don't seem to know it.
Next, Part Three: Redesigning the Virtual Community.