Virtual Community Essay (Dissertation)
Can ‘real’ community exist in a virtual setting?
A study of online community (2005)
In 1968, Licklider and Taylor conceived of virtual communities in the paper ‘The Computer as a Communication Device’. By 1993, Rheingold had popularised the notion of virtual communities and today for many in the developed world ‘online sociability is a fact of everyday life’ (Feenberg & Bakardjieva 2004:37,42).
Even by the late 1990s, computer-mediated communication (CMC), such as email, Internet Relay Chat (IRC), Usenet news groups and bulletin boards, was limited in ability and usability, as it relied heavily on text and required a variety of software for each application, together with specialised skills to operate it efficiently (Herring 2004:27).
Two important technological developments, witnessed during the last five years, have affected CMC: increased bandwidth and improved interoperability between CMC software and popular web browsers. In turn, new forms of communication spaces have emerged that more fully exploit the possibilities of multimedia, accompanied by increased usability and convenience (Herring 2004:29-30). In light of these technological developments and the increasingly important role that online interaction plays in everyday life, it is important to recapitulate an exploration of the relationship between online and offline community.
This paper explores and assesses the extent to which ‘real’ community can exist in a virtual setting. In doing so, the virtual community debate is considered, which is often characterised by strong utopian and dystopian views. Essentially, the former views virtual community as an enabler of opportunities for community, whilst the latter views it as detrimental to community (Wellman & Gulia 1999:167-168). There is consideration of the practices of community and virtual community and their relationship. This draws on the work of Rheingold, Preece, Wellman and Gulia, Baym, and Robins and Webster and is operationalised within a context of three distinct views of the ‘virtual’. Rheingold is representative of the view that the virtual is an extension of reality, whilst authors such as Stoll and Slouka conceptualise it as a substitute for reality and in contrast to these views, the virtual is considered as a process, as exemplified by Pierre Lévy’s oeuvre.
The research presented here is based on a focus group coupled with discourse analysis, which aims to illuminate an understanding of how individuals use and think about communication with digital technologies, with a central focus on meanings and interpretations of ‘virtual community’.
This paper is structured thus; first is a review of literature, second an outline of research methods, third, analysis and interpretation of data, fourth, a discussion of the research findings in relation to the key elements of the literature and finally, a conclusion.
Words have meanings: some words, however, also have a ‘feel’. The word ‘community’ is one of them (Bauman 2001:1).
Preece discusses the difficulty of defining community, asserting that ‘for years, sociologists have defined and redefined the concept’ (Preece 2000:14). She refers to Abercrombie who asserts that the term ‘is one of the most illusive in sociology’ (ibid. 2000:175). Baym agrees and refers to Fernback who asserts that
Community is a term which seems readily definable to the general public but is infinitely complex and amorphous in academic discourse (Baym 1998:35).
Preece asserts that prior to the industrial revolution, space determined communities, which were highly integrated and self-sustaining (Preece 2000:175). 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), highlighting that individuals satisfy their needs by membership of ‘multiple communities’ (Preece 2000:15).
Network analysis is one way to unfold the notion of community. Here, sociologists study networks of relationships (Preece 2000:173). In this discourse, a ‘group’ is viewed as a network, characterised by a high intensity of interconnection and according to Preece, a group can only be described as a community if its elements ‘share important resources, provide social support, and show reciprocity’. Preece refers to Granovetter and distinguishes between the ‘strong ties’ that weave these meaningful relationships together and ‘weak ties’, characterised by less shared resources and limited interdependence, particularly in emotional terms. She asserts that an individual may have hundreds of weak ties and a few strong ties (ibid. 2000:174).
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 1998:37).
Rheingold refers to Oldenburg and asserts that there are three essential places in an individual’s life: home, work and places to ‘gather for conviviality’. He asserts that many of the ‘third places’ in contemporary society, such as cafes, pubs and town squares, have been superseded by shopping malls and fast food outlets for example and with this the ‘social fabric of existing communities’ has eroded (Rheingold 1994:25).
Another perspective concentrates on ‘imagined community’. Feenberg and Bakardjieva refer to Andersen, discuss the imaginary and assert that the virtual is a normal feature of community, ‘regardless of the nature of the medium on which it relies’. They assert that the ‘great sacred communities of the past’ were mediated by and imagined through text and language and they trace the emergence of imagined communities of ‘nations’ to the newspaper and novel (Feenberg & Bakardjieva 2004:37-38). Poster agrees and asserts that ‘old media’ such as newspapers, united a nation by weaving a common thread through it and in asserting this, indicates that the ‘imaginary’ is fundamental to any community (Poster 1995:7). Feenberg and Bakardjieva refer to Mcluhan and Maffesoli respectively and assert that broadcasting reconfigured the imaginary and a trend towards customisation and demassification has promoted a diversity of subcultures or ‘neo-tribes’. The latest development is imagined communities underpinned by hypertext exchange (Feenberg & Bakardjieva 2004:37-38). Poster contends that discussion of ‘virtual communities’ often interpret their success as a signal of the demise of ‘real’ communities and although this may be the case, in considering ‘virtual’ or online communities, ‘the opposition “virtual” and “real” community contains serious difficulties’ (Poster 1995:7).
Thinking about the virtual
Lévy asserts that reality ‘implies a material embodiment, a tangible presence’, that is an entity exists with clearly defined limits (Lévy 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 (Lévy 2001 a:1). Lévy emphasises a reconstitution of reality, created collectively and based on electronic networks: ‘ We are all in the process of thinking within the same network’ (Lévy 2001 a:3).
In etymological terms, the word ‘virtual’ can be traced to ‘virtualis’, which evolved from ‘virtus’, meaning power or strength (Lévy 1998:23). According to Shields, conceptions of the virtual have a long and often bloody history, inextricably tied to interpretations of reality, including theological conflict pivoting on an exegesis of the Christian Eucharist, a dichotomy arising from whether transubstantiation of bread ‘into a piece of the body of Christ occurred literally’, a real phenomena or was rooted in symbolism, a virtual phenomena (Shields 2003:1,5-6).
According to Shields, dictionary definitions of ‘virtual’ embrace everyday understandings of the term, as ‘that which is so in essence but not actually so’, implying a reality, but not one that is ‘concrete’. Another strand of ‘virtual’ relates to ‘virtue’, a personal (Shields 2003:2-3) embodiment of the ‘power of operative influence inherent in a supernatural or divine being’ (Oxford English Dictionary cited in Shields 2003:3). This implies a differential between the potential morality of an individual’s ‘actual existence’ and the realisation of this in relation to a moral ideal (Shields 2003:3).
A tripartite division of conceptual views can be seen vis-à-vis the virtual 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). He asserts that
Nobody mistakes virtual life for real life, even though it has an emotional reality to many’ and ‘[p]eople in virtual communities do just about everything people do in real life, but we leave our bodies behind (Rheingold 1994:3,16).
This appears to reinforce his view that virtual life is an extension of reality, highlighting an emotional connection with reality.
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, Lévy offers another perspective that conceptualises 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 (Lévy 1998:16).
From Lévy’s philosophical standpoint, the virtual means 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, Lévy views virtuality and actuality as ‘nothing more than two different modes of reality’ (Lévy 2001 b:29-30). Thus, counterintuitively, rather than the virtual signifying ‘unreality’, expressed in the diametric of virtual and real, his typology polarises the virtual with the actual (ibid. 2001 b:29).
Lévy refers to Serres and identifies one aspect of the virtual as ‘not-there’. That is to say, dissociation with ‘there’, the ‘here and now’ of the actual (Lévy 1998:179). ‘Not-there’ is exemplified by the cyberspace which mediates a telephone conversation. The virtual also includes memory, imagination, knowledge and religion (ibid. 1998:28), ‘real ideations’ that are intangible and virtual. Shields asserts that the ‘virtual is always real’, but is only actualised through human intervention which transposes the virtual to a ‘tangible’ thing (Shields 2003:38-39).
Lévy describes the virtual as a ‘problematic complex’, a suspended cluster of potential outcomes that ‘accompanies a situation, event, object, or entity’, which in turn brings about a process of actualisation, that is resolution of this ‘knot of tendencies’ into actual, concrete terms (Lévy 1998:24,179). For example, a problem for the seed is growth to a tree and during this process the form of the tree will resolve depending upon the seed’s properties and circumstances (Lévy 1998:24). So, actualisation manifests as a solution, exterior to the problem, a new creation, a ‘transformation of ideas, a true becoming that feeds the virtual in turn’. The reciprocation to the virtual can be described as ‘virtualisation’, ‘actualization in reverse’ (ibid. 1998:25-26), that is, the process of actual to virtual, a transformation from the act, the ‘here and now’ to a problem (ibid. 1998:174). So, virtualisation is a shift in ‘identity’ of an entity, temporarily and perhaps permanently displacing the actualised solution, in favour of problems redefined, new questions, that is to say, there is a reconsideration of the ‘general question to which [the entity] responds’. In turn, the informed entity is oriented and actualised, ‘redefining the initial actuality’, an evolution. Presumably, for the seed, the nature of growth of the tree (actual identity) is relayed back to its nerve centre (process of virtualisation) and new questions are raised in relation to the original problem, that is growth of seed to tree and in turn, a process of actualisation solidifies the resolutions and the process is repeated (ibid. 1998:26).
To contextualise this, in terms of the web, hypertext is essentially virtual, until actualised through a process of user request and server/client delivery to screen (Lévy 2001 b:55). A digitalised message exchange that is part of a human to human network dialogue can be described as follows. Hypertext is actualised on screen, the text is read through interpretation, continuing actualisation as an appropriation of knowledge (Lévy 1998:47-50). During this process, memory is used, which relates to virtualisation (ibid. 1998:28). To an extent, Shields illustrates this with the assertion that
Thought takes us beyond the present moment of the actual, not only to abstract ideas but to general problematics, to the historical and to the realm of principle, all of which are virtual (Shields 2003:32).
In turn, cognition would output thought to memory, which is actualised into text and virtualised as a form of hypertext, by input to computer and transmission across a network, where it is temporarily suspended, virtually occupying ‘every point in the network’. The message then becomes actualised on the recipient’s screen and the process repeats (Lévy 1998:28,50,56). In this process, individuals’ perceived reality can be seen to change, somehow in parallel with the messages exchanged. That is to say for example, that a virtual community mediates interaction and in turn ‘relations reconfigure themselves’. This appears to be a similar process to a face-to-face dialogue, although the modus operandi differs, for example, geographical space does not form the basis of or limit a virtual community, that is, ‘[s]ynchronisation replaces spatial unity’ (ibid.1998 29-30). As Nip puts it, the Internet’s characteristics of
interconnectivity and interactivity are considered to reconfigure time and space, and in turn this reconfigures the individual and networks of relationships (Nip 2004:410).
So, the difference of modes is primarily characterised as a redistribution of ‘spatiotemporal coordinates’ and in everyday life, there may be both a physical and logical switching of interactive configurations, leaps ‘from network to network, from one system of proximity to the next’ (Lévy 1998:26-27,31).
Donath asserts that ‘[i]dentity plays a key role in virtual communities’ (Donath 1999:29). Identity encompasses the features of an individual’s character and ‘what is meaningful to them’. Components of identity include social class, gender and ethnicity for example (Giddens 2001:691). Donath asserts that as communication is primary in online discourse, ascertaining the identity of interactants is central ‘for understanding and evaluating an interaction’. She argues that identity is grounded, in the physical world, by the body and this changes in a virtual setting, because information replaces matter. She asserts that online identities are multiple and varied, although she adds that there is always a link back to ‘the body at the keyboard’ (Donath 1999:29).
There is a vast corpus of literature relating to the ‘virtual community’ debate. In order to synthesise ideas from this literature, an analytical framework rests on 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).
Wellman and Gulia characterise the debate as one of ‘hope, hype, and reality’, one that is steeped in the duality that online interaction will ‘create wonderful new forms of community or will destroy community altogether’. They assert that more often than not, the participants of the debate, the ‘dueling dualists’, hold unequivocal and parochial views that reciprocally inflame and intensify the debate between the schools (Wellman & Gulia 1999:167). Barlow et al. for example go as far as to assert that
With the development of the Internet, and with the increasing pervasiveness of communication between networked computers, we are in the middle of the most transforming technological event since the capture of fire (Barlow et al. cited in Wellman & Gulia 1999:168).
In technological terms, Wellman and Gulia assert that a virtual community brings together social networks with computer networks, which they describe as ‘computer-supported social networks’, that may span large distances. Examples include electronic mail, bulletin board systems, newsgroups, Multi-User Dungeons and Internet Relay Chat (Wellman & Gulia 1999:169).
Rheingold’s ‘Virtual Community’ is often regarded as a key work in discussing virtual communities (Baym 1998:36). He traces the emergence of CMC and discusses his experiences of virtual communities from 1985, particularly in relation to Brand and Brilliant’s ‘WELL’ (Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link), a CMC system utilising conferencing software (Rheingold 1994; Rheingold 1994:40-41).
Rheingold defines virtual community 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, as he appears to evade 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?’.
However, Rheingold accurately captures some of the activities that are performed in a virtual community:
People […] use words on screens to exchange pleasantries and argue, engage in intellectual discourse, conduct commerce, exchange knowledge, share emotional support, make plans, brainstorm, gossip, feud, fall in love, find friends and lose them, play games, flirt, create a little high art and a lot of idle talk (Rheingold 1994:3).
de Souza and Preece refer to Preece who offers a far broader definition of virtual community than Rheingold, although in one sense, academically far superior and in doing so illustrates the problem of definition:
a group of people, who come together for a purpose online, and who are governed by norms and policies (de Souza & Preece 2004:580).
This definition has two advantages: it serves to encourage a balance of both technological and social issues and it can be applied to a range of communities, such as those that only exist online and those that also have ‘physical presence’ (de Souza & Preece 2004:580). Preece asserts that ‘[o]nline community means different things to different people’: For some it evokes a feeling of warmth and sharing, whilst for others, connotations of ‘conspiracy, subversive and criminal behavior, and invasion of privacy’ and for others, a threat, that may undermine or replace physical communities (Preece 2000:8-9).
Figure 1 illustrates the key elements of an online community and the primary factors that influence success (de Souza & Preece 2004:580). Preece asserts that an online community is constituted by four main elements. First, are people, who interact to satisfy needs or to perform roles such as leader or moderator (somebody who oversees an online community). Second, these individuals have a ‘shared purpose’, such as exchange of information, needs, interests or a service, which often underlies a community’s raison d'etre. Third, ‘policies’ that guide interaction, possibly in the form of regulation by rules, protocols, laws, rituals and ‘tacit assumptions’ or ‘norms’ for example. Fourth, ‘computer systems’, which are accessed by the user through software, which mediates interaction and allows a feeling of ‘togetherness’ (Preece 2000:10). This software includes synchronous applications such as chat rooms that operate in ‘real’ time and asynchronous systems such as email and bulletin board systems that involve delayed message exchanges (ibid. 2000:135-137).
Figure 1: Key components of an online community (Adapted from de Souza & Preece 2004:580).
de Souza and Preece assert that online communities are evolutionary and dynamic, perhaps in a similar manner to a physical community. They assert that the success of an online community is determined primarily by social factors, that is ‘sociability’ and assert that to an extent, inactive online locations illustrate that technology alone does not determine success, although software and usability play an important role (de Souza & Preece 2004:580).
Baym focuses on relationships of participants in virtual communities and the association between network and face-to-face communication. She asserts that early studies of CMC focused on ‘organizational uses of computing’, which often concluded that ‘computers are inherently inhospitable to social relationships’ (Baym 1998:35). She asserts that this is thematic of the introduction of new communication technologies. She refers to Kraut et al. and asserts that the telephone is one such innovation, where constituencies failed to realise the social importance at inception (Baym 2002:62). However, Baym argues that academia now holds the view that social relationships flourish online (Baym 1998:35). She asserts that Weise demonstrates that online interaction can promote a sense of belonging and provide support for needs that are unfulfilled by physical circumstances. At the same time, this illustrates ‘a dominant concern underlying most criticism of on-line community’, which is that it substitutes for physical, ‘geographically local’ community and for some, functions as a poor substitute, as it is communication oriented and thus negates the multiple functions of community (ibid. 1998:36).
Baym asserts that often, key criticisms are the homogenous nature of online communities and deficient commitment. Many online communities are organised around a central purpose founded on interests and therefore, diversity is limited as union is based on similarities. Baym refers to Healy and points out that commitment and diversity can be avoided with a ‘mere click’. These points appear to reveal significant differences between online and offline community, as an individual cannot withdraw from the latter so easily or with such speed (Baym 1998:36). Furthermore, homogeneity is intrinsic, as the majority of the world’s population do not have Internet access and it can be seen from Figure 2 that advanced regions dominate, therefore shaping the nature of the Internet and so presumably the nature of online communities. For example, of the 605.6 million people that accessed the Internet in 2002, only 6.31 million reside in Africa , that is 1% of total (Nua 2002:1).
Figure 2: Worldwide Internet access by region (millions). Source: Adapted from Nua ‘How Many Online?’ survey 2002 (Nua 2002:1).
Baym refers to Andersen and asserts some analysts have proposed that any community which is established beyond face-to-face interaction, is imagined, united by the mass media. She continues and asserts that, as opposed to asking whether ‘on-line communities are authentic’, a methodological shift in some CMC scholarship has led to a focus on (Baym 1998:38) ‘the style in which they are imagined’ (Andersen cited in Baym 1998:38). She asserts that this style is shaped by ‘preexisting structures’ such as ‘external contexts, temporal structure, system infrastructure, group purposes, and participant characteristics’. She argues that during ongoing online interaction, individuals exploit these structures in a strategic discourse that results in a dynamic constellation of meanings, which offer participants the opportunity to imagine membership of a community. Paramount to this is group expression, relationships, identities and norms (Baym 1998:38).
Baym asserts that all interaction is rooted in ‘multiple external contexts’ and an implication is that physical community and its online counterpart are inextricably linked. For example, online interaction is shaped by language, social practice and an understanding of external community and this provides a starting point for interaction. Baym draws on a three year ethnographic study of ‘r.a.t.s’ (rec.arts.tv.soaps), a Usenet newsgroup that discusses soap operas and asserts that members use preexisting ‘practices of soap fandom’, based on the cultural milieu of fans (Baym 1998:40-42). One aspect of ‘temporal structure’ is that message posting is organised in relation to programme transmission times and this suggests that norms are directly associated with ‘external’ physical contexts (ibid. 1998:43-44).
She also argues that ‘system infrastructure’ such as the usability of computer network systems, the number of nodes, geographical spread and transmission speed, affect online interaction. One often cited aspect of this is reduced ‘nonverbal’ or physical cues and Baym asserts that early study of this concluded that CMC was ‘a socially-impaired space’, but, however, she argues that imaginative alternatives have emerged such as ‘emoticons’ that facilitate expression (Baym 1998:44). However, this is problematic, as according to research performed by Trade Partners UK, up to 94% of face-to-face communication is based on body language, which contextualises verbal exchanges and this raises a question of the extent that online techniques can substitute for this (Trade Partners UK cited in Government News Network 2003:1). Technological developments such as the proliferation of broadband and introduction of services such as IP video (Internet Protocol video), VOIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol) ( Tratz-Ryan & Kish 2005:2-3) and development of free peer to peer telephony services such as ‘Skype’ (Skype 2005:1), that allows telephone conferencing, suggest a possibility of improving online communication, as there is a potential to allow transmission of physical nuances that may enrich interaction. For example, video chat, using software such as ‘Eyeball Chat’ allows both aural and visual cues (Eyeballchat.com 2005:1).
Baym demonstrates that whilst CMC is founded within an offline framework, often, purposes emerge from the online interaction itself. For example, she asserts that the original purpose of the communication, soap opera discussion in this case, extends to topics about life in general, discussed in a personal context. In turn, to ‘those who engage in this personal talk over extended periods of time, maintaining friendships and acquaintances becomes another purpose of the interaction’ (Baym 1998:46-47). This implies development of an emotional bonding, a ‘strong tie’, indeed one that may not be accessible in a physical community. Similarly, shared interests that can be fulfilled online may never manifest in a locality, as a ‘soap opera club’ for example.
Baym asserts that a determinant of social uses of CMC is the characteristics of participants, particularly their perception of the media and ability to use it. Furthermore, she asserts that a feeling of community is more likely to develop with highly sociable participants (Baym 1998:47-48). She continues and asserts that different participants bring diverse resources, skills and other knowledge to the communication. This exemplifies Lévy’s notion of ‘collective intelligence’. Provenzo considers Lévy’s work and asserts that intelligence shared through networks, signals a shift from a ‘Cartesian model of thought’, ‘cogito’, that is ‘I think’, to ‘cogitamus’, ‘we think’ and he asserts that the networked computer enables this (Lévy 1997:xi). Lévy asserts that the ‘electronic agora’ could be a luxury reserved for the best educated and wealthiest. However, increased access could be achieved by recycling multimedia computers, connecting them through existing infrastructure, continuing improvements in usability of digital technologies and promoting access as a basic right (ibid. 1997:62-63). Provenzo asserts that Lévy’s message is that the computerisation of society enables promotion of ‘intelligent communities’ (ibid. 1997:xi) and Lévy asserts that individuals of the ‘knowledge space’, who interact with a broad range of communities, undergo a permanent transformation that results in the development of self-knowledge within a framework of group thought and collective knowledge, leading to the development of a ‘distinct sense of community’ (ibid. 1997:16-17). This highlights an evolutionary process of community development facilitated by network technology (ibid. 1997:vii-viii).
Baym emphasises that communicative interaction (Baym 1998:51), which can be defined as styles and methods of information sharing (Bucic 2002:16), is the ‘primary (and arguably the only) characteristic on- and off-line communities share’ (Baym 1998:51). For Baym, a fundamental, shared attribute of online and offline community is that, during interaction, social meanings are created by individual exploitation or ‘appropriation’ of resources and rules that preexisting structures offer (ibid. 1998:38,50-51). She asserts that online participants do this by exploring expressive communication, developing identities to create distinct relationships and producing social norms. If these features stabilise to ‘group-specific understandings’ then participants can imagine themselves as members of a community (ibid. 1998:51,62).
In a similar manner to Baym, Wellman and Gulia compare the features of virtual and physical communities in an attempt to establish continuities and discontinuities and support their argument with knowledge of networks within physical communities (Wellman & Gulia 1999:170). They assert that contemporary communities in developed societies are heterogeneous, ‘multiple communities’, based on neighbourhoods, family, groups and friends (ibid.1999:183) and within these communities, individuals seek different support with a ‘portfolio’ of specialised relationships (ibid.1999:171). Similarly, the Internet encourages a multiplicity of ties, primarily based on interests, although, the relative ease of communication enables all-embracing communities (ibid.1999:187). They assert that generally, specialised relationships appear to be the norm online and to an extent this reflects the characteristics of physical communities. Perhaps a significant difference is that online exchanges often involve individuals that are unknown to each other in a mutual discourse of ‘belonging’, sharing information, companionship and support (ibid.1999:171,175). Wellman & Gulia refer to Garton and Wellman and assert that these ‘weak ties’ are encouraged by the fact that many forms of online communication transmit limited ‘status’ and ‘situational cues’, such as information about gender, race, age, lifestyle and economic status (ibid.1999:176). Apparently in contrast to Baym, they assert that this can promote diversity, as ties are mediated by interests rather than similarities of identity (ibid.1999:184-185). However, weak ties can limit an individual’s motivation to support others and exchange information, as this may not be reciprocated, whereas in a physical community, structures of relationships can enforce pressure to reciprocate. However, they refer to Hiltz et al. and maintain that there is considerable evidence that reciprocation occurs ‘even between weak ties’ and assert that this can be accounted for in terms of an expression of identity, where helping others can develop their respect, promote self-esteem and status (ibid.1999:177). Furthermore, there is evidence to suggest that a personal philosophy of ‘help and be helped’ will, at a time of need, encourage accelerated and widespread support (ibid.1999:178).
They assert that the extent to which participants perceive their experience as ‘community’ can be revealed by consideration of the ‘strong, intimate ties that are the core of community’. They refer to Perlman and Fehr as well as Blumstein and Kollock and assert that these relationships include characteristics such as ‘specialness’ of the relationship, intimacy, ‘voluntary investment’, ‘desire for companionship’ and intense frequency of ‘meeting’, in different contexts and across a substantial time frame. Often, relationships are not purely mediated online and participants of an offline relationship may use the Internet as one method of communication. In contrast, a relationship may be purely mediated online (Wellman & Gulia 1999:178-179).
Wellman and Gulia challenge the belief that virtual communities withdraw people from physical communities. They assert that strong ties can be maintained both online and offline and they underline the idea that face-to-face communities are often sustained through telephony and demonstrate that predominantly, communities in advanced countries, do not feature regular face-to-face exchanges. To an extent, this illustrates a significant continuity between online and offline communities. Furthermore, they emphasise relationships rather than the source of mediation and assert that many do not compartmentalise offline and online life (Wellman & Gulia 1999:181-182). They refer to Walther and argue that increased online interaction is likely to lead to development of these relationships through other communication forms and face-to-face meetings. So, just as face-to-face ties are sustained through email or mobile telephony for example, online ties can be developed through face-to-face meetings (ibid.1999:182-183).
In dramatic contrast to the views above, Robins, who sees the virtual in a similar way to Lévy, although from a ‘Stollian’, pessimistic standpoint and concentrating on political economy, 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).
With the ‘oppressive legacy’ of economic liberalism promoted by Reagan and Thatcher, politicians sought political and social cohesion and this was facilitated by a marriage of the principles and philosophy of ‘communitarianism’ with information and communications technologies, resulting in what Robins and Webster describe as a ‘new techno-communitarianism’ (Robins and Webster 1999:230-231). Robins refers to Young who asserts that communitarianism is representative of a drive to unity and is created artificially through technology and cyberspace, which encourages alignment of individuals. He asserts that consensus and transparency is a ‘communitarian myth’, imagined on a global scale. He refers to Moscovici and asserts that ‘techno-community’ in cyberspace stands for a place of order, which ‘has no basis in reality’, as a social system is only feasible if it is disordered (Robins 1996: 22-23). Robins and Webster characterise virtual community as a ‘retreat’ or a safe haven, another world, free from conflict and antagonism, a ‘neutralisation of politics’ replaced by a ‘politics of membership and shared interests’ (Robins and Webster 1999:231-232). They refer to Lévy and assert that, whilst he is aware of capitalist control of network systems, he persists with his vision of a new social order of ‘collective intelligence’, which appears to conflict with capitalist aims (ibid. 1999:223). They continue and characterise Lévy’s view as misguided idealism, where online participants are connected with similar conditions to face-to-face interaction and conflict is resolved (ibid 1999:223). So, it might be concluded that Robins and Webster hold the view that any notion of virtual community is misplaced. Although both Robins and Webster can indeed be seen to overstate their case, presumably as a rhetorical device, they present a valuable perspective that serves to counterbalance the array of utopian assumptions about virtual community.
METHODOLOGY AND METHODS
The research data presented in the following chapter was gathered through a focus group. This is a research technique, essentially a group interview, that ‘collects data through group interaction on a topic determined by the researcher’ (Morgan 1997:2,6) and concentrates on producing a diversity of opinions (David & Sutton 2004:363). This technique can be located between two main techniques for collecting social scientific qualitative data: ‘participant observation’ and ‘open-ended interviews’ (Morgan 1997:7-8).
A major advantage of a focus group relative to participant observation is that it presents an ‘opportunity to observe a large amount of interaction on a topic in a limited period of time’ (Morgan 1997:6). Group interaction was not the primary focus of the research itself, although it was central to providing ‘direct evidence about similarities and differences in the participants’ opinions and experiences’, the main advantage in comparison to individual interviews (ibid. 1997:10). Furthermore, the issues raised by individuals perpetuated a synergistic reciprocation of views.
There were four participants, who were all multimedia level 3 undergraduate students and thus it was noted that this may somehow bias the data, although there was no plan to explicitly extrapolate the data to ‘represent a larger population’ (Morgan 1997:35). Participants were chosen because of their knowledge and experience of communication with digital technologies. One student visiting the UK from Malaysia was chosen specifically to explore issues of communication to family and friends in Malaysia . Unfortunately, another Malaysian student was unable to attend and so an alternate student was invited to participate in her place. This disturbed the gender distribution of the group which was originally 2 males and 2 females, resulting in 3 males and 1 female, although, it is concluded that this did not significantly affect the research and it appeared that no discomfort was exhibited by the singular female. The age of participants was concentrated somewhere in the range 18-25 and the 3 males were acquainted with strong ties, whilst the female was relatively unknown to the group (ibid. 1997:35-37).
The group was reassured of its privacy, particularly as the session was audio recorded, and a statement was promulgated to the effect that playback would only be for transcription and assessment purposes.
The aims of the focus group were to explore participants’ everyday experiences of communicating with digital technologies and fundamentally, their perceptions and feelings about ‘community’ and ‘virtual community’ and how they experienced, conceptualised and understood these as physical and/or metaphysical processes.
One problem anticipated was ‘groupthink’, particularly as the 3 males in the group had strong ties. This is a tendency for individuals in a group to favour ‘unanimity [, which overrides] their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action’ (Janis cited in Hartley 1997:150). In order to promote diverse opinions, a simple ‘discussion-starter question’ was asked, responses were written and then individuals discussed these in turn. This is a ‘way of getting everyone on record with their different experiences and opinions before a consensus emerges’ (Morgan 1997:50).
Two weaknesses have been identified in the approach. First, during the focus group, in order to deepen the discussion, it was necessary to explain some theory and this may have resulted in influencing the views of the group and thus, the subsequent discussion might have been biased. For example, virtual as a process, was introduced as an approach to observing virtual phenomena. However, it was considered that this allowed another way of thinking about the relationship between online and offline communities and this stimulated discussion of several key issues that may not otherwise have arisen. It is not thought that the group were influenced to any significant degree and it did not appear to preclude the members’ own opinions and as such it can be proposed that the data retains much of its validity. Second, it was noted that occasionally, ‘leading’ questions were asked by the researcher, such that an element of psychological persuasion might have influenced the members, although on further analysis, opinions did not appear to be coloured by this.
The questions proposed can be seen in the next chapter.
The questions below structured the focus group. An outline emailed to participants can be seen in Appendix A.
Main dissertation question: can ‘real’ community exist online?
- What is a community?
- Virtual community – when is it a community?
- When is a website a community and when not?
- Is email a community?
- Is virtual community a good/bad thing?
- Does the world seem smaller?
- Do mobile phones/ the Internet/ connect you to your real life? Is it real life? Does distance make it ‘unreal’? Is it better than real life?
- E.g. When away from your family/friends, in a different country for example, can digital technologies substitute for being there?
- Mobile phones/ email – when, what for, why, how often?
- Virtual life – is it important? Why? Why not? Examples?
Recent use of digital technologies
The focus group was initiated with the question:
When was the last time you used a digital technology to communicate, what was it, who was it with , how many people were involved and how did you perceive the experience in terms of community?
Anthony had used email several minutes before the focus group convened, to contact a girlfriend and Daz used a mobile telephone 3 hours before to send a text message to a friend. Kevin had recently used Yahoo Messenger to discuss university work with other students, whilst Elaine had recently used Microsoft Messenger, Yahoo Messenger and Skype. Elaine asserted that she used the Internet more than a mobile telephone for communication, because the cost of an Internet connection was far less than the cost associated with mobile telephony and furthermore, Skype allowed unlimited calls without cost.
These responses exemplify the range of digital technologies in use and the extent to which they have diffused into everyday life.
Community and virtual community
Community and virtual community were discussed together. The group were asked ‘what are your views of community?’.
Daz pointed out that ‘we are a community right now’ and Kevin interjected, a ‘community of people talking about communities’. In this context, it appeared that this suggested proximity and an emphasis on communication and similar interests. Kevin asserted that
an online community is very similar to an offline community, it has to be similar, in the sense that, in the real world […] you have people interacting, they can communicate, they can help each other […] they can see each other […] they don’t have to speak if they don’t want to [, they are] very similar.
For Kevin, the word ‘community’ evoked feelings of
communicating unitedly […] about something similar […,] saying something or doing something together [as] one mind […] There are loads of different communities [on the Internet,] where people who have the same view or same interests want to communicate unitedly about one subject.
Again, shared interests or beliefs are central here and there is a feeling that this unites individuals. The metaphor of ‘one mind’, ‘together’, echoes Lévy’s notion of ‘collective intelligence’, a synergy, characterised by ‘a universally distributed intelligence that is enhanced, coordinated, and mobilized in real time’ (Lévy 1999:16). ‘[O]ne subject’ implies extremely specialised divisions of interests.
Elaine thought that when communicating through the Internet
there is still a gap in between people; where one bunch of you can actually hang out together in a place and have a drink […,] chit chat [and] relax [, with a] feeling of enjoying it, instead of facing a computer […] talking to the computer. […] Communicating [online:] the feeling is still different.
There appears a suggestion that the limitations of technology prevent any interaction that is comparable to face-to-face interaction with another individual, almost as if the computer is another person, a gatekeeper, a form of ‘noise’. It was considered that this might relate to the size or nature of the computer equipment, although Elaine was asked if using Skype telephony felt the same as using a mobile telephone and she confirmed that it did. One way to account for these feelings is telepresence. Co-presence offers a ‘multiplicity of symbolic cues’ and this is perhaps why Elaine noticed a ‘gap’, a ‘difference’ (Slevin 2000:79). Although verbal exchange offers limited physical cues, such as intonation, punctuation and volume for example, with written communication, different, less effective cues are used. It can be seen that there is a dramatic contrast between ‘drink’, ‘chit chat’ and ‘relax’, associated with multisensory face-to-face interaction, and the relationally arduous ‘face-to-computer’ interaction. Furthermore, although ‘talking to the computer’ may literally have been the case, this infers that Elaine’s friends are inside the computer, which suggests that psychological barriers prevent a feeling of ‘being there’, even if ‘being there’ could be computer simulated. It seems that ‘non-communicative’ feelings of intimacy illustrate a fundamental difference between physical and online life.
Elaine continued and asserted that
the purpose for getting online […] is to get connected to the people
and she used online communication, ‘for convenience’, because she was unable to see her friends from Malaysia on a face-to-face basis. So, in this context, the reason for using a computer to communicate is not to replace face-to-face interaction, but as a ‘second best’: some inferior contact is seen as better than none.
In a sense, these feelings were echoed by Anthony, but in another context: He raised an issue of surveillance and asserted that
I prefer face-to-face communication [as] the computer feels like a third person, […] I don’t feel settled. […] I don’t believe in network systems, because that’s too much information given out.
In light of this and in the context of unsettling feelings such as paranoia, the group were asked ‘do you think the downsides [to virtual life are] similar to the downsides of real life?’. This was asked in order to ascertain whether these feelings were only associated with online life and to reveal the feelings that participants associated with online life and how these compared to offline life.
Anthony asserted that
In a virtual community you could [characterise participants] as alias people […] but at the same time, I know I am not being myself, […] it’s like I’m acting [,…] acting, just to be in a community, to fit in […] not being myself.
It was put forth to the group that in everyday life, there may be hops from identity to identity depending on context, often subconsciously. But Anthony, by ‘acting’ meant that there was somehow a conscious, intentional and unnatural effort to change identity, as he did not perceive any day-to-day meanderings of identity that there might be, as acting. Perhaps this is why he felt that others were not themselves, if indeed they were and are. Jones refers to Turkle and asserts that ‘one can have multiple identities in cyberspace; moreover, one can shift identities rather easily’ (Jones 1998:28). In Lévy’s terms, ‘the individual becomes a molecular vector of collective intelligence, multiplying his active surfaces, complicating his interfaces’ (Lévy 1997:160). This identity fluidity is not necessarily a cyberspatial function, as this can be viewed as part of ‘the project of the modern self’, where ‘social relations and social contexts […] are reflexively incorporated into the forging of the project of the self’ (Slevin 2000:159). So in this sense, it can be seen that individuals of modernity are ‘alias people’, with multiple, adaptable identities and it may be that the Internet is a medium that is particularly suited to an expression and representation of this. If this were the case, this is one strand of evidence that highlights continuities between online and offline interaction.
Some of this discussion revealed that there were concerns with traceability and surveillance:
In a community [(offline)] you can pretend to be somebody else, but online […] it is easier to be tracked to who you really are (Kevin)
because of IP (Internet Protocol) addresses, Internet Service Providers, cameras in Internet cafes and traces through credit card details for example. However, Elaine responded that increasingly, surveillance takes place offline, with cameras. A consensus appeared to emerge that network systems should be regarded with suspicion in terms of revealing information. This seemed to apply to both online and offline life although more concern was expressed about online life, perhaps because there is heightened awareness of direct connection to an electronic network.
The group were asked in what way they thought that offline life related to online life
Kevin asserted that he
could never see online community taking over the real, […] as a substitute. Online community […] it’s just another form of communication.
There is a suggestion here, that online interaction is not viewed as ‘virtual community’ at all, but part of a process of real community, viewed as a communication tool, as part of a process of actualisation. That is to say that online community is a means to an end of real community. However, at the same time, they seem to be viewed as separate.
Elaine asserted that
Some people, they are really, really shy when they meet someone in real life, but when they are on the Internet they can talk however they want.
Kevin explored this idea and asserted that
For some people […] online community is better than the real, because […] if someone’s disabled for instance, they might find it easier to meet people online, than they would in real life.
These assertions seem to highlight that a lack of social cues allows anonymity and development of multiple identities and for some this may even be better than ‘real’ community, as for example there is a perception of equality. This equality does not exist in real community and this reflects a discontinuity with online community. Again, Kevin’s assertion seems to divide ‘real’ and ‘online community’.
Anthony suggested that online community is a place of comfort and refuge:
When [people] are typing away at home […] they are free to express themselves […;] you can say something you wouldn’t normally say [as] you can’t get hurt, no one can hit you online, no one can even cuss you, [as] you can block them. They [(online communicators)] are cowards […] acting, they only have confidence because they are in their own environment [(home)].
This would appear to suggest that there is an escape from physical community, into a protected environment, where behaviour is uninhibited, comfortable, characterised by security and confidence, promoting a ‘false sense of security’. Furthermore, commitment and diversity is limited as participants can be blocked and they can exit with a mouse click.
There was a suggestion to the group that online and offline community are not separate. This was promulgated by way of an example: ‘suppose, for example that you met your girlfriend […] in the real world, […] then you send emails, […] is that a separate part of your life?’
Elaine asserted that
I think they are still together
meaning that communication via email to someone known offline is inseparable from the processes of ‘real’ life.
Anthony could be seen to add that
No, they are not separate actually, [but] it feels fake.
There was a discussion about the syntactic construction vis-à-vis semantic content of messages and an implication that it was relatively easy to falsify true feelings.
Elaine asserted that
You can still type up a fantastic email [with] flowery words […] a meaningful email, […] but it might not be what you are saying [(Elaine)], ‘your heart might not be in it’ (Kevin).
Elaine continued and asserted that
When you are talking, you have expressions, […] you have your high pitch and tone, […] you can feel what the other side actually thinks, but when you are writing, there is no emotion in it.
Kevin asserted that online and real life are
definitely separate, but they are similar in some ways.
Elaine added that digital communication supports real life relationships. Online life and real life are not necessarily separate as
it depends on certain situations, how you use [online communication] […] and the reasons [underlying use.] For me, if I have a chance to go out, I would rather spend my time outside with my friends, rather than […] sitting online to chat with them.
Kevin asserted that online and real life are
very different, but similar. […] For instance, if you are having an argument with someone, you would feel kind of angry, in the same way that if you were on the phone […] you can still feel angry, […] so it can trigger off emotion.
that’s why there are emoticons nowadays on instant messaging […] to show [what] you look like.
These formulations appear to maintain that online and offline community are viewed by some as connected and disconnected by others and the former can support the latter. There seems to be a theme that online communication at present is limited in the physical cues that can be transmitted and therefore it is difficult for a participant to know how to respond emotionally. This is exacerbated by suspicion of messages, because a lack of physical cues prohibits confirmation of the intention of a message, that is, it cannot be definitely contextualised instinctively. However, some messages could have very unambiguous semantic meaning and so provoke definite emotional responses. It seems that interpretation of a message is largely a matter of contextualisation, in that it is not the content of the message, but the circumstances of transmission and reception. So, whereas the circumstances of face-to-face interaction often provide sufficient information, those of online interactions seem not to and this suggests that with current technology, there is a significant difference between virtual and physical community, even when community is viewed in terms of communication alone.
Thinking about the virtual
50% of the group actively asserted that digital technologies make real life easier, whilst 75% of the group agreed that online communication supports offline community and this was used to initiate a discussion of how the virtual relates to the ‘real’. The group were asked how they conceptualised these modes and whether together they constituted a process.
Elaine asserted that virtual life
is part of the process [of real life], it’s not totally separate, because somehow, there is some way that these are actually connected to each other, the real life and virtual life.
Kevin echoed this with an assertion that digital technologies
have the potential to connect [virtual life] to real life […] and in some cases [they do].
Anthony took up this idea and forecast that technological development could facilitate the connectedness of virtual and real community, to the extent that this ‘will be the norm in the future’. He asserted that digital communication is ‘normal now’, a part of everyday life. It is not inconceivable that technology can determine the extent to which community can exist online. Herring refers to Markus, Spears and Lea and Walther and asserts that
technological determinism […] was vigorously critiqued in the early to mid-1990s […] but has been making a quiet comeback as a result of a growing body of empirical evidence that the medium can shape the message, or at least, how the message is packaged and processed (Herring 2004:26).
Arguably, it is not the medium shaping the message, as social, economic, political and cultural factors are shaping the medium. In any case, technological development could enable communication forms, such as high fidelity video projections of members of communities, coupled with high fidelity audio or development of realistic virtual worlds for example. This could allow transmission of physical cues and would increase the resemblance of online and offline worlds.
Elaine recounted a physical meeting, based in Malaysia , of an online group involved with an online role playing game called ‘Ragnarok online’. The members of the group were in the same ‘guild’, a collective that competes against other guilds for possession of castles. She asserted that
we [had] a gathering to get to know each other [and to discuss] the next war and strategy.
This exemplifies a group meeting based on shared interests and it can be seen that processes of virtualisation and actualisation are taking place here; initially, the individuals joined an online group to pursue interests or to fulfil needs that may or may not have been associated with digital technology. In turn, through online interaction, the group met face-to-face to discuss strategies for the game, but also to broaden their knowledge of each other. In turn, they met online to pursue their strategic aims, perhaps resulting in a fulfilment of an original ‘real’ life aim. That is to say, that the process can be characterised as stages of actual to virtual to actual to virtual and similarly, within this process, microprocesses of virtualisation and actualisation in the form of message exchange can be seen.
Elaine recited similar evidence of two of her friends who met online playing Ragnarok. After a year of online interaction, ‘virtually having a relationship’, whilst residing in different countries, they eventually met face-to-face and today are still in this relationship. As above, this shows a process of a real life situation, a desire to meet a partner (actual), using a virtual community to initiate this (virtual) and developing the relationship in real life (actual).
It was established from Elaine that there is a hierarchy within a guild, as there is a ‘guild master’ or ‘leader’, usually the founder of the guild. Elaine was asked if the hierarchical structure remained in place when the guild met face-to-face. Elaine perceived that the power relationship dissolved offline and characterised the relationship as one of equality, as ‘friends’, although she asserted that ‘[the guild leader] wants to act like the leader’, as he holds a high-powered managerial position in a company.
Kevin asked Elaine, when meeting offline, are the roles, attitudes and attributes of members ‘reproduced’ offline?. That is to ask, are identities and relationships structured in the same way?:
If there is somebody in your group who is […] not there all the time [and] they don’t really play that well, [when meeting face-to-face] would he be seen as [inferior] to someone who is really dedicated [and] plays the game well?
everyone has to have their own opinion. […] The gap between our master with us is the age and the way he do things […] because he is dealing in business. […] To most of us, it is just a game.
She continued to say that when the guild meet offline, the strategies that the leader proposes, are presented in business terms and apparently informed by business and management principles. Elaine suggested that the process of selecting a master was based on skills, knowledge and possessions related to the game. A factor that roots the game in the capitalist system is the fact that possessions can be traded for ‘real cash’. By Elaine talking in terms of ‘master’, it can be construed, although is not necessarily so, that these relationships at least retain a trace of their structure.
Kevin compared the game to discussion in a chat room. He asserted that when discussing a certain subject, somebody with ‘superior’ knowledge is likely to hold more weight and this power of knowledge could be transposed into an offline community. To invert this, presumably it can be maintained that despite a diminution of status cues, offline community structures can retain some of their character online. These points can be seen to exemplify a continuity between on and offline community.
In discussing online games as communities, Anthony asserted that
it’s more personal and I can see myself having fun. […] I think this is a good example of a community.
Potentially, at least 75% of the group felt that online gaming constituted a community. Anthony’s attitude seemed to change from earlier discussion and this raised an issue of context, in that notions of fun through playing games could allow a different introduction to online community, one that allowed pleasant associations that seemed to counterbalance perceived problems such as surveillance. A role playing game was seen as a valid form of ‘acting’, because pretending is the nature of the game and all the players know this, whereas, perhaps with other forms of online interaction, the ‘rules’ of the ‘game’ are blurred; it is unclear who is pretending and who is not, leading some individuals to generalise that everyone is pretending. It might also be difficult for participants to identify whether norms are actual or simulations or both. This can be seen to reflect physical community, although the Internet can add a layer of simulation, that in some contexts, to some individuals, may present a barrier to a feeling of community. However, simultaneously, this seems to reflect imagined ‘physical’ community mediated by broadcast or newspapers for example.
Elaine discussed the process of buying a mobile telephone. She pointed out that product details available on manufacturers’ and retailers’ web presences differed to the information available on a bulletin board; for the former, products would be presented in their best light, whereas on the latter, anecdotal evidence of actual use of the products was available, outlining a range of views. As Anthony put it,
the community knows more about a product than […] the company does.
Elaine asserted that
within a group of your friends you might not get sufficient information, […] but with a forum [you can find out] which phone is the best before [buying one].
This demonstrates a ‘weak community tie’, to utilise different resources for different needs, in this case a community tie that can provide product reviews. Again, these points highlight the virtual as a process; researching, using a virtual community, then perhaps purchasing offline and potentially reiterating feedback into the virtual community.
The group were asked if they thought that the Internet reflected the disordered nature of ‘real’ life. Kevin agreed with this and pointed to the unregulated nature of the Internet and the asserted that freedom of speech is such that there is an abundance of information available for questionable activities. Elaine responded and asserted that there is freedom of speech but ‘you can’t confirm that [information] given is 100% true’ and signalled caution in this respect. During this discussion, there was an obvious awareness of participants of the perhaps unethical nature of some activities and communities on the Internet: one topic mentioned was mobile telephone ‘workarounds’ that obviate payment, including ‘cracks’ and unblockers’, information about which had been posted on bulletin boards.
It was proposed to the group that such communities can therefore be seen to develop a field of knowledge. Elaine and Anthony agreed and he asserted that
It puts people together to think, […] by scale. […] You could type in any question [in a bulletin board system] or even start a debate, […] come back a week later [(Anthony)], […] and find hundreds of people interested in that subject (Kevin).
Again, this embodies the idea of a collective intelligence and a process of interaction with physical community and returning to an online community, suggesting processes of real world problem resolution through online means, such as communities that share information about mobile telephone ‘unblockers’. The quote above also refers to ‘hundreds of people’ and an order of ‘thousands’ was mentioned during discussion, illustrating the scale of some online communities. Also, there was a suggestion that these knowledge communities develop knowledge exponentially, one idea perhaps generating several others, an occurrence that is probably not so concentrated in physical communities.
By way of a conclusion, the group were asked ‘when is a virtual community a community?’.
Kevin asserted that
It is when you become part of a group
Anthony discussed Elaine’s experience in gaming communities and asserted that
[Elaine] is a good example. […] You got inside a community, […] then got to know people and now you trust these people, because […] they are friends. First, she just went to a community because she is interested in [online gaming] and now you have made friends in there […] and now [new] people are entering your community.
Kevin added that
You have made a real community from a virtual community [(and in the context of a gaming community)], the only way to get to your real community is through the virtual, so that’s the access, that’s the door , to get to become part of your community, […] you have to go through the virtual, through the game.
Elaine responded and asserted that
In a country or a city that is so huge, [online gamers] might be connected between your friends […] but you never get to know them, [so, a gaming community] is another way to get to know each other, from the virtual to the real community.
Anthony asserted that
[Elaine’s experience] is a perfect example of what online communities are meant to do, […] because you’ve got your own community now, […] other people enter it and […] it’s the norm for you.
Kevin asserted that a virtual community
will never be real as you won’t have the other senses that make us human.
Digital communication technologies have diffused to the extent they are commonly used to communicate in day-to-day life. The evidence indicates that these technologies are primarily used to sustain community relationships established in the real world, as a convenient method of maintaining contact. In this sense, using the Internet to mediate relationships appears no different to ‘imagined community’.
There seems to be suspicion and insecurity about online community, because of surveillance, uncertainty of identities, and artificiality, characterised as a refuge with limited commitment. However, simultaneously, it appears that CMC is hospitable to relationships of strong ties, although the feeling is not as fulfilling as face-to-face interaction. Weaker ties, such as those found on online communities that share subject specific information, where there is perhaps less emotional commitment, seem to hold appeal, partly because they can develop a field of knowledge and connect ‘people together, to think […] by scale’. Generally, it appears that online components of relationships are not perceived as intimate, because psychological, physical and technological barriers, perhaps associated with telepresence, seem to ‘distance’ participants, underpinned by a lack of realistic physical cues, a difficulty of communicating in virtual environments and moreover perhaps, knowing that the meeting point is virtual, ‘not-there’. However, technological developments, such as increased bandwidth and improved software, appear to improve this with high quality audio and video transmission for example.
A variety of views emerged about the relationship between online and offline community, but it was established that both share similar communication features and are connected by these features. Explaining the theoretical idea of the virtual as a process appeared to develop views and there was significant agreement about a connection between on and offline community, implying a process, although, frequently, this was not clear-cut, illustrating that there is no easy separation of virtual and real as Rheingold or Stoll for example would have it.
The division of ‘virtual’ and ‘real’ community appears to indicate conditioning in language, a conceptual division that does not factually capture actuality. Perhaps new language is required, as the evidence appears to show that in ‘everyday’ use, the separation is largely conceptual. Lévy for example, asserts that a more accurate description of ‘virtual community’ is ‘actual community’ (Lévy 2001 b:110). This would seem to embody more precisely the views of the focus group, which observed online and offline community as connected, often the former supporting the latter. Lévy asserts that it is extremely unusual for CMC to simply ‘substitute for physical encounters’ and as discovered during research, it is perhaps ‘complementary’ to physical community, a reciprocal process (Lévy 2001 b:108). That is to say that ‘virtual community’ is part of an evolutionary process of actualisation and this
implies the production of new qualities, a transformation of ideas, a true becoming that feeds the virtual in turn (Lévy 1998:25).
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Lévy defines cyberspace as ‘the communications space made accessible through the global interconnection of computers and computer memories, [including] conventional telephone systems’ (Lévy 2001 b:74).
Skype Beta, released in August 2003, is software that allows free Internet telephony to another party running the software. The popularity of Skype is such that, as of May 2005 its website boasts almost 108 million downloads (Skype 2005:1).
This communitarianism, as expounded by Etzioni is characterised as a commitment to developing a new order based on a reformed community ‘without puritanism or oppression’ (Etzioni cited in Smith 2005:3). This rests on an advocacy of the community overarching the individual in social issues (Wikipedia 2005:1).
For example, the message ‘I saw her duck’ is ambiguous and presumably without other information, contextualisation would be impossible. If participants are known to each other offline and are talking about a friend who owns a duck, then this resolves the matter as would body language through flapping of arms or a ducking movement. Slevin asserts that the ‘successful accomplishment of mediated interaction often depends on the degree of knowledge participants already have of each other’ (Slevin 2000:79). The use of emoticons can aid textual discourse, as this facilitates contextualisation of the message, although ambiguity could remain. For example
‘I saw her duck :) ’ and ‘I saw her duck :( ’
both give some affordance, but remain ambiguous, although there is suggestion of how the sender/receiver might respond emotionally. Nevertheless, there is still no definite resolution.
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