Multimedia Research Project Review


Multimedia Research Project Review

This is a review of progress for the dissertation about virtual communities and practical project (2005)


This review considers progress of the research project. First is an outline of aims and objectives of both practical and dissertation, second a project diary and a reflection of progress of the practical component, third a literature review, fourth a conclusion summarising progress and fifth an annotated bibliography.

Aims and objectives


The preliminary title of the project is ‘heyboo’, a multimedia resource centre and forum.

The aims of the project are to provide a website, which will offer an environment to enhance multimedia development skills, through articles and links to resources, as well as a forum, implemented with bulletin board software, where users may post and reply to messages.

Research methods to support the implementation are a survey by questionnaire (see Appendix A), as well as user testing of the product by observation and semi-structured interviews.


The intention of this study is to explore and assess the extent to which ‘real’ community can exist online. This topic is exciting as it is highly contested and for many, online interaction plays an increasingly important role in everyday life. The term ‘community’ is often unquestioned and definition of both this and ‘virtual community’ is central, as assessment of the differences between these concepts can be seen as a catalyst for conclusion. Although the research here can be described as exploratory, it is hoped that somehow a contribution can be given to the ‘virtual community’ debate.

Research methods to be employed are review of secondary sources, that is, books, journals and internet searches, whilst primary evidence will be derived through a focus group, questionnaire, interview and an ethnographic study in ‘chat’ rooms.

Dissertation ideas, which were presented on 29/11/2004 , can be seen in Appendix B.

Project diary

September – 8 October

Researched forum software. vBulletin and PHPBB seem the most popular and well supported. PHPBB is free, but vBulletin from $85 per year. (Has better support and more functionality than PHPBB).

10 October

Researched and contacted several hosting companies including and Considering hosting in USA , because of more relaxed freedom of speech laws and less expensive hosting services. There should not be any significant delay in downloading to UK and inexpensive telephone rates make support viable.

Enquired about hosting a forum using PHPBB or vBulletin. Requirements PHP and MySQL. Unsure if I need more than one database??? This would require a higher-level package - so more expensive.

Install Internet Information Services (IIS) (to enable testing of PHP and MySQL locally). Some problems with XP Home Edition - attempted a workaround using Windows 2000 files. Not working. Considered installing Windows XP Pro.

11 October

Attempted to upload PHPBB to UEL homepages area.

Uploaded software but could not install as a problem with permission to access database. Wrote to the helpdesk to resolve. Considered that support may be an important issue – resolving problems quickly, to move forward. Received a response after 3 days that did not answer any of my questions – will host privately. Also evades UEL liability etc.

14 October

Researching other websites with similar functions and forums:

16 October

Tried IIS again and installed PHP and MySQL.

These do not appear to work. Abandoned, will upload and test on server (hopefully).

17 October

Designed a questionnaire to find out about target user group.

Questionnaire to be developed iteratively. To be handed to a sample group, with an extra page for questionnaire evaluation. Plan to use feedback to improve questionnaire before ‘mass’ use.

Experimented with online questionnaires. Tried

25 October

Discussed questionnaire with supervisor, removed eye sight test question for ethical reasons.

1 November

Supervisor handed questionnaire to some level 1 and 2 students.

3 November

Received back questionnaire. Required redesign, font size increased and ratings boxes size increased. Students had problems understanding the rating questions (i.e. place a number from 1 to 10 in box, do not use a number more than once). Wanted to keep this system rather than rating scales to gain a more definite response. Added an example of how to respond to these questions.

8 November

Incorporated timetable into a Gantt chart (see Figure 1).

29 November

Issued revised questionnaire to level 3 multimedia students. Some students still did not understand concept of rating questions.

8 December

Entering questionnaire data into Excel, considered using SPSS. Sought some advice of how to deal with erroneous data (ratings questions). Although strictly speaking, erroneous data should not be mixed with valid, will still use data, possibly by entering whatever was entered on the questionnaire and add a footnote to the excel file to clarify situation. Despite the erroneous data, there still appears to be useful patterns emerging in data.

15 December

Started to design paper prototypes using Photoshop. Have ideas for two alternative designs at present.

Reflection of progress

A process of ‘interaction design’ provides a framework for project development. This has four main activities: identification of user needs, leading to establishment of requirements, development of alternative designs to meet these requirements, construction of interactive prototypes for assessment and evaluation of ‘what is being built throughout the process’. In this process, users become ‘co-designers’. This is exemplified by needs identification, which aims to understand users and the tasks they need to perform (Preece et al. 2002:12-13) and in turn, results in a set of requirements, statements about ‘an intended product that [specify] what it should do or how it should perform’. (Preece et al. 2002:202,204)

During the early phases of planning and timetabling it was often contemplated that too much time had been allocated to planning/process and hence there was concern that an inferior end product may emerge. This was partly due to inexperience and a difficulty in conceptualising a suitable ratio of planning time to that of execution. However, simultaneously, it was considered that to a significant degree, the quality of the process determines the quality of the product and here, the former is seen as principal.

To improve the quality of the process, development of research skills was necessary. For example, the establishment of user needs and requirements through questionnaires, not only required improvement of questionnaire design skills, but also analytical skills. To analyse the questionnaire, skills include coding of data into Excel, using a coding frame and deciding what information to extract, how to present it, what to conclude and then how to suitably translate these conclusions into the design process. Whilst time consuming, analysis of the questionnaire may derive valuable information that may save much time (and money) later. This illustrates the importance of research, which presumably would be increasingly more important in proportion to the scale of the project.

Frustration was experienced at slow progress and time lost pursuing ‘dead ends’. For example, installing IIS, PHP and MySQL, ironically, would save time by allowing local configuration of forum software, although installation was abandoned, as too much time was required to successfully install them. As it is, these may still be necessary to efficiently complete forum software configuration. Currently this is unknown. This illustrated that methods and tools suitable for one developer or operating system, were apparently inappropriate for others. It was often difficult to know the ‘best’ path to take in any situation and decision making skills were developed through analysis of alternative methods of working. It appears that this cycle of information analysis and decision is necessary in pursuit of an efficient and suitable method of working and as such the events outlined above are viewed as a valuable learning experience.

The selection of PHPBB bulletin board software was largely a function of commercial criteria and although a comparable product to vBulletin, still inferior. As it is, vBulletin may still be used, as this is the more likely choice in a ‘real’ development situation and so a minimal payment may offer superior returns in terms of experience that may be beneficial in the longer term.

Plans for Semester B

Before Semester B, it is hoped that the following progress can be achieved. Analysis of the questionnaire should lead to a set of requirements that can be embodied in a technical specification, a functional specification and a navigation overview. This should inform development of a conceptual model, which facilitates visualisation of the ‘overall structure of what will be built and how this will be conveyed to the users’. (Preece et al. 2002:39) Here, decisions can be made about the ‘interface, the particular interaction styles that will be used, and the “look and feel” of the interface’. (ibid. 2002:40) This will lead to development of five alternative low fidelity prototypes, which will be tested with users, redesigned, tested again and eventually narrowed to two designs that will be developed into interactive prototypes, with Powerpoint or as limited websites, which will be tested in a similar way. However, this is problematic, as it is envisaged that limited user testing can be completed during the holiday period. Be that as it may, it was contemplated that more rigorous testing with fewer users could be a superior approach to improve the quality of the product, whilst simultaneously accelerating the process. This will lead to one favoured design and as the interactive prototypes are relatively mature, limited work will remain for Semester B. This will involve designing improved graphics, if necessary, acquiring content, integrating these with the website and configuring forum software. The website will then be iteratively debugged, tested with users and redesigned until time runs out. Production files will be archived on CD and the website will be promoted with flyers and by contacting related sites to establish hyperlinks to and from them. One problem foreseen relates to time constraints. In this respect, risk areas have been anticipated and measures taken to decrease these risks. In part, this is resolved by ‘planning, monitoring, and control of time’. A schedule detailing the ‘key development stages’ is useful here. (see Figure 1) If behind schedule, the process can be accelerated accordingly, if possible, else the number of alternative designs and testing iterations can be reduced, as well as the time allocated to end product testing. (England & Finney 2002:30-31, 96-97)

View Gantt Chart: Figure 1: Timetable for multimedia forum

Literature review

There is a vast corpus of literature relating to the ‘virtual community’ debate. In order to synthesise ideas from this literature, an analytical framework is operationalised through identification of an ideological line, which divides the debate into two classifications; on the one hand there are ‘optimists’ and the other ‘pessimists’. This framework is an ‘ideal type’, which serves to simplify a complex reality. Generally, this is conventionally how the debate has been organised: ‘Utopian rhetoric’, frequently associated with technological determinism, versus a more critical discourse. (Dovey 1996:xiii)

Rheingold’s ‘Virtual Community’ is often regarded as a key work in discussing virtual communities and appears a suitable starting point, laying a historical foundation for the thesis. Rheingold traces the emergence of computer mediated communication (CMC) and discusses his experiences of virtual communities from 1985, particularly in relation to the ‘WELL’ (Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link), a CMC system utilising conferencing software. (Rheingold 1994)

Additionally, Baym (1998) offers some useful background information through a concise analysis of the development of CMC in ‘The Emergence of On-Line Community’, focusing on relationships of participants and the association between network and face-to-face communication.

Once this ground has been prepared, it is essential to consider definitions of ‘community’, which is pivotal to this research. Preece discusses the difficulty of defining community, asserting that ‘for years, sociologists have defined and redefined the concept’. (Preece 2000:14) Wellman and Gulia assert that with technological development, in the first instance relating to the telephone, aeroplane and automobile, contemporary sociologists have reconceptualised ‘community’, emphasising dispersed social networks rather than geographical proximity. (Wellman & Gulia 1999:169) Baym’s analysis underlines the problematic nature of defining ‘community’ and hence its controversial status in academia, as it is ‘loaded’ with ‘normative and ideological connotations’. (Baym 1998:35-36) Although there appears to be a trend in the literature emphasising strengths of relationships (Preece 2000:18), Baym refers to Doheny-Farina who contradicts this and in doing so illustrates the complexity of definition. He asserts that:

A community is bound by place, which always includes complex social and environmental necessities. It is not something you can easily join. You can’t subscribe to a community as you subscribe to a discussion group on the net. It must be lived. It is entwined, contradictory, and involves all our senses. (Baym 1998:38)

To develop a fuller understanding of ‘virtual community’, virtuality is considered and thus reality also.

Levy asserts that reality ‘implies a material embodiment, a tangible presence’, that is an entity exists with clearly defined limits. (Levy 1998:23,34) In other words, it is ‘the material objectivity of the world, the reality ‘which everybody can clearly see’’.

However, he views this as dynamic and implies that imagination produces a subjective reality that is socially constructed. (Levy 2001 a:1)

A tripartite division of conceptual views can be seen vis-à-vis virtuality and CMC.

Rheingold appears to believe that the virtual is an extension of reality. In a sense, this is exemplified by his reflection that the ‘screen became a kind of reality, an extension of my mind’. (Rheingold 1998:1) However, he implies that this extension is an ‘illusion’ by describing a virtual reality system as an immersion ‘in an artificial world’. (Rheingold 1991:16)

Another view of the virtual seemingly dismisses any notion of this extension. Stoll describes the virtual as a ‘poor substitute’ for real life, an ‘unreal universe, a soluble tissue of nothingness’, a ‘nonplace’. (Stoll 1995:4) Slouka echoes this with a similarly pessimistic vision and talks of a ‘virtual dream’. (Slouka 1995:22)

In sharp contrast, Levy correctly sees the virtual as inseparable from reality. He asserts that:

The virtual, strictly defined, has little relationship to that which is false, illusory, or imaginary. The virtual is by no means the opposite of the real. On the contrary, it is a fecund and powerful mode of being that expands the process of creation, opens up the future, injects a core of meaning beneath the platitude of immediate physical presence. (Levy 1998:16)

From Levy’s philosophical standpoint, the virtual relates to potential existence rather than ‘actual’ existence. He offers a biological example, asserting that ‘a tree is virtually present in its seed’. ‘Actualisation’ is the growth from seed to tree, that is, the process of virtual to actual. So, Levy views virtuality and actuality as ‘nothing more than two different modes of reality’. (Levy 2001 b:29-30) In terms of the web, hypertext is essentially virtual until actualised through a process of user request and server/client delivery to screen. (Levy 2001 b:55)

Apparently in concord with Levy’s oeuvre, Castells characterises contemporary culture as one of ‘real virtuality’ and interprets network dialogues as experiences of reality in a ‘virtual image setting’. (Castells 2000:404)

An informed synthesis of the notions of ‘community’ and ‘virtual’ enables an assessment of existing definitions of ‘virtual community’. Rheingold defines this as:

social aggregations that emerge from the Net when enough people carry on those public discussions long enough, with sufficient human feeling, to form webs of personal relationships in cyberspace. (Rheingold 1994:5)

This definition is revealing, although flawed. Rheingold offers no evidence to substantiate the claims, that is, he evades responses to the questions: ‘how many are ‘enough people’?’, ‘what duration is ‘long enough’?’ and ‘how much and what types of ‘human feeling’ is sufficient?’, that is to ask, what constitutes the ‘tipping point’ from a CMC event or events to a virtual community?

To address one aspect of this, according to Preece, the level of reciprocity, that is, ‘repeated, active participation’ is highly contested in virtual community discourse and so the research requires careful analysis of issues such as these in order to resolve a reasonable definition of ‘virtual community’, one that does not trivialise the term ‘community’ for example. (Preece 2000:13-14) However, there is also a realisation that for analytical purposes, the research will inevitably require an ‘ideal type’, ‘operational’ definition.

de Souza and Preece refer to Preece who exemplifies the controversy, by offering a far broader definition of virtual community than Rheingold, although in one sense, academically far superior:

a group of people, who come together for a purpose online, and who are governed by norms and policies. (de Souza & Preece 2004:580)

In dramatic contrast, Robins, who sees the virtual in a similar way to Levy, although from a ‘Stollian’, pessimistic standpoint and concentrating on political economy, adds to this complexity and broadens the debate by asserting that, the ‘real world […] in which virtual communities are now being imagined [is primarily characterised by] difference, asymmetry and conflict. […] Not community’. (Robins 1996:24) Robins and Webster agree with Sivanandan who asserts that virtual communities are not communities of people, but communities of interests (Robins & Webster 1999:232) and as such Robins argues that virtual space is the domain of withdrawal, refuge and order. (Robins 1996:25) So, in this sense it could appear that any notion of virtual community is mythical. Although Robins can indeed be seen to overstate his case, presumably as a rhetorical device, he presents a valuable perspective that serves to counterbalance the array of utopian assumptions about virtual community.

Nevertheless, it is cautiously proposed, although by no way concluded, that a ‘sense’ of ‘real community’ can exist online. This proposition is underpinned by the research performed here and experience of scanning the offline and online landscapes.

To establish the extent to which ‘real’ community can exist online, it is necessary to compare and contrast ‘community’ and ‘virtual community’ and critically evaluate the extent to which the differences in these concepts disallow ‘community’ online.


Preparation of a research project is extremely challenging and a review of progress highlights the importance of clearly defined aims and objectives. To a significant extent the process has been successful to date, in that requirements of both practical and dissertation are clearly established. For the former, a clear process is delineated by an ‘interaction design’ approach, which if managed correctly, provides a systematic method of developing successful interactive products. The latter has been concretised from a broad range of possibilities to a concise set of aims and methods, that can be seen to provide a vehicle for a clear line of reasoning, to resolve a conclusion from justifiable premisses. (Hart 1998:95)

Critical analysis of the literature has illuminated previous approaches to the ‘virtual community’ debate, the important arguments, concepts and variables of the topic and their structure and relationships. (Hart 1998:27) However, there is awareness that up to date sources and pessimistic views of virtual community are underrepresented. To some extent, this can be ameliorated by supplementary material, through articles in journals such as ‘New Media & Society’, ‘Media, Culture & Society’, ‘The Information Society’ and ‘Information, Communication & Society’.

Both practical and dissertation elements of the project can be seen to have similar processes of planning and implementation. It seems that thoughtful and systematic organisation and insight of process is central to an individual research project, particularly in the earlier phases of project definition. As such, correct management of this process, within a framework of demands, choice and constraints is primary and so the skills of problem solving and decision making appear to play a key role in a successful research project. (Handy 1993:321)


Baym, N. (1998) ‘The Emergence of On-Line Community’ in S.G. Jones (ed.) Cybersociety 2: Revisting Computer-Mediated Communication and Community, London : Sage


Castells, M. (2000) The Rise of the Network Society 2 nd edn. Oxford : Blackwell Publishing

de Souza, C.S. & Preece, J. (2004) ‘ A framework for analyzing and understanding

online communities’, Interacting with Computers 16 (2004):579-610 [online] Available from:

England , E. & Finney, A. (2002) Managing Multimedia: Book 1 People and Processes 3 rd edn. Essex : Pearson

Handy, C. (1993) Understanding Organizations, London : Penguin

Hart, C. (1998) Doing a Literature Review, London : Sage

Levy, P. (1998) Becoming Virtual: Reality in the Digital Age, New York : Plenum

Levy, P. (2001 a) Collective Intelligence: A Civilisation [online] Available from: [ 03/01/05 ]

Levy, P. (2001 b) Cyberculture, Minneapolis : University of Minnesota Press

Preece, J. et al. (2002) Interaction Design, New York : Wiley

Preece, J. (2000) Online Communities: Designing Usability, Supporting Sociability, Chichester : Wiley

Rheingold, H. (1998) Rheingold’s Rants, [online] Available from: [ 23/12/04 ]

Rheingold, H. (1994) Virtual Community: Finding Connection in a Computerized World, Cambridge , London : Secker & Warburg

Rheingold, H. (1991) Virtual Reality, New York : Touchstone

Robins, K. (1996) ‘Cyberspace and the World We Live In’ in J. Dovey (ed.) Fractal Dreams, London : Lawrence & Wishart

Robins, K. & Webster, F. (1999) Times of the Technoculture, London : Routledge

Slouka, M. (1995) War of the Worlds, New York : BasicBooks

Stoll, C. (1995) Silicon Snake Oil, London : Macmillan

Wellman, B. & Gulia, M. (1999) ‘Virtual communities as communities: Net Surfers Don’t Ride Alone’ in M.A. Smith & P. Kollock (eds) Communities in Cyberspace, London : Routledge

Annotated bibliography - practical

England, E. & Finney, A. (2002) Managing Multimedia: Book 1 People and Processes 3 rd edn. Essex: Pearson

A project management resource, concentrating on new media production processes from idea to implementation and beyond. Arranged chronologically, this book guides the project manager through development, covering management techniques, copyright and other legal issues, marketing principles for websites as well as offering a valuable glossary.

Preece, J. et al. (2002) Interaction Design, New York : Wiley

Preece, Rogers and Sharp provide an excellent and comprehensive text, drawing upon principles of interaction design and human-computer interaction, they provide a theoretical and practical framework for the design of interactive products. Central themes of the book are user-centred development and iterative processes of design and evaluation.

Preece, J. (2000) Online Communities: Designing Usability, Supporting Sociability, Chichester : Wiley

As well as focusing on usable interface design for virtual communities, Preece also discusses (virtual) community, interpersonal communication, guidelines for nurturing sociability, selecting community software and offers several developmental case studies.

Tarin Towers, J. (2001) Macromedia Dreamweaver 4for Windows and Macintosh, Berkeley: Peachpit


A technical reference for Dreamweaver, including information about Cascading Style Sheets and Javascript.

Ullman, L. (2003) PHP and MySQL for Dynamic Web Sites, Berkeley : Peachpit

A reference for installing and using PHP and MySQL to create dynamic web applications, including information about developing a MySQL database, content management, basic security issues as well as an outline of third party software to administer web applications.

Weinmann, E. & Lourekas, P. (2001) Photoshop 6 for Windows and Macintosh, Berkeley: Peachpit

A useful guide to basic and advanced Photoshop techniques.

Annotated bibliography - dissertation

Barbrook, R. & Cameron, A. (1995) The Californian Ideology, [online] Available from:

/califIdeo_I.html [ 23/12/04 ]


Considered a pioneering critique of ‘the Californian Ideology’. This article contrasts neoliberal and neoconservative views of the Internet, exemplified by the question ‘Electronic Agora or Electronic Marketplace?’. This ideology embodies both optimism and pessimism and as such clarifies approaches to Internet communication. Barbrook and Cameron propose that universality and inclusiveness can be fostered by ‘state intervention, capitalist entrepreneurship and d.i.y. culture’. (Barbrook & Cameron 1995:4,11)

Baym, N. (1998) ‘The Emergence of On-Line Community’ in S.G. Jones (ed.) Cybersociety 2: Revisting Computer-Mediated Communication and Community, London : Sage


Baym discusses approaches to studying CMC and critically assesses online communities utilising a model based on five pre-existing structures: ‘external contexts, temporal structure, system infrastructure, group purposes, and participant characteristics’. (Baym 1998:38) The model attempts to illuminate two questions: First, can online community substitute meaningfully for offline? Second, what factors lead some to experience online interaction as ‘community’? Baym constructs an interesting article, the research for which is informed by a three year ethnographic study of a newsgroup.


Castells, M. (2000) The Rise of the Network Society 2 nd edn. Oxford : Blackwell Publishing

Castell’s first volume of the highly acclaimed trilogy ‘The Information Age’. He conceptualises contemporary society as an emerging, new and novel social structure, the ‘network society’ organised around a reconfiguration of time and space and underpinned by capitalism, information and communication technologies and the centrality of information. Castells examines how the use of networks is transforming society and the economy and in doing so considers issues such as globalisation, production, enterprise, work and culture.

Levy, P. (1998) Becoming Virtual: Reality in the Digital Age, New York : Plenum

Provides anthropological, philosophical and sociopolitical perspectives on virtuality. Levy debases popular notions of the virtual as ‘unreal’ and problematicises the concept through consideration of the ‘real’, ‘actual’ and ‘possible’. He considers the virtual in relation to the body, texts, economy and more generally in terms of semiotics, technology and contract. Instead of ‘dehumanisation’, Levy believes in human ‘progress’ through information technologies, exemplified by the web’s ‘embodiment’ or ‘suspension’ of the virtual, promoting an empowering collective intelligence.

Levy, P. (1997) Collective Intelligence: Mankind’s Emerging World in Cyberspace, Cambridge , Massachusetts : Perseus

Levy echoes Engelbart’s idea of computers augmenting intellect, although from social, political and economic perspectives. These perspectives are supported by a theoretical framework of anthropological spaces: earth, territorial, commodity and the emerging ‘knowledge space’, underpinned by information and communication technologies, which provides a cyberspatial architecture for a collective intelligence constituted by deterritorialised communities.

Levy, P. (2001) Cyberculture, Minneapolis : University of Minnesota Press


An optimistic, but ‘realistic’, comprehensive, social constructivist overview of cyberculture. Levy argues that ‘a multitude of human agents who variously invent, produce, use, and interpret [information] technologies’, may bring about ‘global’ societal change. (Levy 2001:5) Emphasis is given to new social relationships with knowledge through three principles of cyberspace: interconnectivity, virtual communities and collective intelligence.

Rheingold, H. (1994) Virtual Community: Finding Connection in a Computerized World, Cambridge , London : Secker & Warburg

A historically important, largely utopian, discursive reflection of Rheingold’s experiences of virtual communities, centring on Brand and Brilliant’s ‘The Well’. A significant proportion of this pioneering book focuses on interpersonal relationships, both online and offline and the intertwining of these modes, as well as including network culture, identity and the various technologies of virtual communities.

Robins, K. (1996) ‘Cyberspace and the World We Live In’ in J. Dovey (ed.) Fractal Dreams, London : Lawrence & Wishart

A balanced critique of utopian perspectives in the virtual community debate. Robins roots his argument in social and political theory, with the ‘real’ world as a starting point, rejecting ideas of an ‘alternative reality’.

Wellman, B. & Gulia, M. (1999) ‘Virtual communities as communities: Net surfers don’t ride alone’ in M.A. Smith & P. Kollock (eds) Communities in Cyberspace, London : Routledge

A starting point for Wellman and Gulia’s analysis is that the concept of ‘real’ community has been reconsidered in recent times, in light of technological change; social networks outbalance geographical closeness. They question the nature of online relationships and community and ask how these relate to the ‘real’ world. In answering, they express a view that online discourse is part of the ‘real’ and emphasise the importance of relationships themselves rather than the media that facilitate them. They conclude that ‘community’ can exist online, although this differs to ‘real’ community in many important ways.