Glimpses of Community on the Web

Submitted by Pamela Morris on October 14, 2007 to the On-line Interaction and Facilitation Seminar, Fall 2007, Purdue University, Dr. Sorin A. Matei via the I Think Blog (http://www.matei.org/ithink).

Glimpses of Community on the Web
The term “community” has been appropriated to describe the dynamics of interaction in online places. Experts have attempted to define what an online community is and what it is not, but it has proven difficult to capture a concept that is continually evolving and liberally applied, resulting in a term whose use is contentious both online and offline. When an online group is called a “community”, its members have different expectations of the group depending on their experience and beliefs about what community is and should be. The use of the term can even determine the evaluation of success or failure of that group. If one adheres to a traditional definition of community, then one may lament the demise of community both in society and on the web. Some critics have said that the Internet can only provide the illusion of community. On the other hand, conceptualizations of community that allow room for fluid and loosely bound relationships, and even communities that are constructed by the individual, allow modern online and offline groups to make a claim for community. The online groups in our readings exemplify diverse characteristics that could contribute to such an updated definition of community.

Community, traditionally defined, is life lived in association with others, a society of unity of purpose or common interests often defined by geographical boundaries. Community includes social intercourse; fellowship and communion, shared values, and even common ownership (Oxford English Dictionary, 2007). Most online groups (and many of today’s offline groups) are not communities per the traditional definition, and critics say the use of this definition is overly restrictive. The romanticized version of traditional community may have never existed, or, at least, has not existed for some time. The utopian, emotionally involved community sought by the WELL founders is likewise outdated, because the ontology of online community is “quite different from older social formations” (Matei, 2001, p. 8). As society changes, so does the notion of community, and this happened long before the advent of the Internet (Rheingold, 2000, p. 346-347). New definitions of communities which are loosely formed and centered upon the individual more accurately describe many online and offline groups today. Comparing online interaction with various definitions of community can still be useful when evaluating online social constructions such as blogs and Wikipedia, and can be used to describe their successes and failures. Weinberger observed: “Because the web is fond of taking social structures, pounding them to bits, and letting the pieces rejoin themselves, groups, fundamental social units, are reinventing themselves in ways that challenge every assumption about groups in the real world” (p. 97). Any definition of community must therefore be applied with caution.

Building a sense of community is a worthy goal for shared online places, but the web has not, from its earliest origins, been able to recapture traditional community. In 1985, a group of idealistic individuals founded an online place called the WELL (Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link). The WELL was a “second-chance incarnation of the countercultural communal movement” (Matei, 2001, p. 5). Many of its founders hoped to recapture what they felt had been lost in real life; a traditional sense of community among emotionally invested individuals. They felt that there was a “hunger for community that grows in the breasts of people around the world as more and more informal public spaces disappear from our real lives” (Rheingold, 1993, p. xx). These former counterculturists had tried once before to find the lost sense of community through communes; the effort failed. Likewise the original WELL ideals did not survive in a society that increasingly values the individual over community. However, the WELL is still vitally important to understanding the evolution of “community” online.

The WELL may have been closer to traditional community than any other online group both in attributes and expectations. This was largely because the original WELL was very unlike most online groups today. It was composed of people who were actually geographically close to one another and could have strong face-to-face relationships in addition to online ones. Rheingold said “it felt like an authentic community because it was grounded in the everyday physical world” (1993, p. xvi). For some members, the WELL was just a supplemental form of communication between people who knew each other in real life. It was a small, tightly knit group that was generally left-leaning, valued quality discourse, and had a longing for a lost sense of togetherness. In his book, Rheingold stresses emotional investment and social interaction in his definition of community. “Virtual communities are 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” (1993, p.xx, italics added). He initially found in the WELL a “cozy little world” where people felt passionately about their online interactions (1993, p. xv). He even said that his “sense of family on a fundamental level has been virtualized” (1993, p. xxv). Throughout his book, Rheingold incorporates narratives exemplifying the intense level of emotional involvement of the WELL, from rallies of support for the parents of an ill child to round-the-clock efforts to find medical care for a traveling WELL member.

Seabrook wrote about the WELL several years after Rheingold did, and hints that the WELL was less than idea. Most notably he struggles through the ranks of the WELL’s elite, finally becoming “indoctrinated” into it. We see in Seabrook’s stories the power of individual egos and the elitism of those in power begin to emerge; he states that “although the WELL was an excellent place to talk about democracy, it wasn’t a democracy itself” (1993, p. 186). Seabrook referred to the WELL as a dysfunctional family, where he observed that the “demand for self-expression engulfs the declared ideal of harmony, [and] community spirit is drowned by self-absorbed competition for attention” (Matei, 2001, p. 22). The WELL failed to meet its objectives for several major reasons. First, it was trying to implement a sense of community which no longer existed in society. This concept of community was familiar to the WELL’s core membership but was largely inaccessible to others. Second, when the membership and ownership of the WELL changed, the core members were unwilling to allow their definition of community to evolve. The core membership could not reconcile with ownership that was impersonal, for-profit, and reshaped the WELL without the input or approval of members. As membership grew, members could not maintain close emotional ties to a majority of other members. Many new participants chose to simply be observers, were not geographically near the WELL’s nucleus, and did not participate in the face to face events. Rheingold later wrote that the WELL changed from a “little one-horse virtual community into a notorious cyberopolis” (2000, p. 324).

The virtual community, or any modern community, is filled with tension between the needs of the individual and the needs of the community (Matei, 2001). The WELL was seeking a strong sense of community, and failed. Some think that community will succeed if it instead solves this tension in favor of individuality. Such communities are described as personalized networks by Wellman and hyperlinked organizations in the Cluetrain Manifesto.

Wellman’s personal networks are created based on self-interest and the individual controls what groups are joined with what level of involvement. Although he avoids the use of the term community, Wellman defines it but says that it is supplied “separately to each individual. It is the individual, and neither the household nor the group, that is the primary unit of connectivity” (p. 238). These groups have permeable boundaries, interactions with diverse others, and connections that switch between multiple networks (p. 227) as well as membership that is voluntary and selective (p. 234). Such characteristics and choices are not a common part of traditional communities bounded by family or geography. They are also not unique to groups on the Internet; “the proliferation of personal networks happened well before the development of cyberspace” (Wellman, 2001, p. 228) and are found throughout modern society. Wellman gives examples of such personalized networks in governments and in modern organizational management. The writers of The Cluetrain Manifesto describe individualized online networks as having empowered communities that were once the helpless recipients of mass-market, mass-media messages and helpless to respond. Such groups, now connected, have re-established a voice. New communities are found where there were none before (for example, in hyperlinked organizations).

Calling a personalized network a community requires modifications to the definition of community. They are made of weak rather than strong ties, relationships are increasingly superficial, and leaving a network often has few consequences. In fact, Wellman notes that “these relationships are between fragments of selves, rather than between whole selves” (p. 244). One of Wellman’s colleagues criticized the personalized network, saying “I think you are a wild eyed optimist to think that ‘person-to-person’ networks are ‘just as good as, if not better than’ old-fashioned […] networks…you surely cannot think that the two sorts of network are ‘essentially identical’” (p. 242). Of course online communities do not have geographical boundaries, but an online community could be delineated if the members and non-members are separated by some boundary. Unfortunately, online communities are not neatly bounded; they are fluid with members joining and leaving and being members of different communities simultaneously.

Communities of personalized networks are individually constructed, and are seen very differently by each member. Rheingold alluded to this in a post where he said “*I* find a community here for myself, and I don’t believe that it is necessary for everybody else to agree for my sense of community to be valid” (Matei, 2001, p. 17). An online community can be “a subjective entity to be evaluated in terms of ‘what matters to me’” (Matei, 2001, p. 19). As John Coate said “I like to say that if you think you are in a community you probably are, and if you don’t, you aren’t” (Matei, 2001, p.1 8). Although allowing every definition to be equally valid may be a popular and inclusive way to define community, it is far too unrestrictive because it becomes difficult for anyone to determine the community boundaries, rules, and members. A myriad of communities of one does not seem particularly useful for defining a social gathering place. Coate ends his statement by noting that “the online environment lends itself well to a person who wants to […] (be) completely disengaged from any sense of belonging to a community” (Matei, 2001, p. 18).

The blogosphere and Wikipedia are perhaps only marginally communities by any definition. They have been described as lawless or anarchistic, and are not only based on self-interest, but also on self-promotion. They have even been commoditized. Fitting such groups into any definition of community is extremely difficult, because as Weinberger explained, “the Web has kicked down most of the fencing that lets us recognize a group as a group” (p. 113). Further, “the laxness of many Web groups about membership can make them as coherent and persistent as the passing lane of a highway” (p. 112). In such uncommitted communities, “being a member does not obligate one to act in any certain way except to participate in some interaction. One certainly does not have to give up one’s autonomy to be a part of a community” (Matei, 2001, p. 19).

Blogs are an extreme form of an individually-centered community. A blog consists of an individual (the blogger) and those people who for whatever reason are interested in that individual and the content of the blog. They are very loosely joined and, with the exception of the blogger, leaving such a community has almost no effect. The blogger has complete control of the main content and many times also has control over who participates in conversations about that content. Furthermore, participants (and bloggers) are not necessarily required to identify themselves and are allowed to use pseudonyms or participate anonymously. In this way, the sense in which you know someone online is often very different than in the real world. Weinberger gives a good description of an individual in the blogosphere: “what I know of him is what he chooses to show. I know him through what he has to say. I know him through the particularities of his page. I know him through his interests, […] what he wants to make public” (p. 103). It has also been repeatedly pointed out that the majority of blog (and Wikipedia) contributions come from a small part of the population (Schiff, 2006); they are certainly not egalitarian. A stand-alone blog tends to have a single author, a narrow focus and small audience, so small advertisers are seldom interested in a single blog. (Madden, 2005) A great many of these “community” participants are simply observers (lurkers) there for information only or to be entertained. Others are unable to find or even enter this “community” at all. Blogs are the province of “a rather narrow and very privileged slice of the polity–those who are educated enough to take part in the wired conversation, who have the technical skills, and who are affluent enough to have the time and equipment.” We are leaving these people behind in the new economy; everyday people are outside the conversation (Gillmor, 2004).

Some claim that blogs and Wikipedia do have some characteristics of a traditional community. The host of InstaPundit claims that “blogs are reproducing something people thought for a long time we had lost, the discussion in the public sphere by the ordinary people” (Kornblum, 2003). A Wired magazine reporter wrote that Howard Dean’s astronomically popular Meetup blog “on the foundation of a new technology, […] revived an outdated form”, that of a traditional political community (Wolf, 2004). Whether or not Wikipedia is a community depends upon how deeply one looks at it. On the surface, it claims to be all-inclusive by being editable by anyone, any time. The pooling of wisdom used to create the knowledge capital of Wikipedia and other crowdsourced efforts is an old concept, used by communities throughout time. A New Yorker writer said: “perhaps Wikipedia’s greatest achievement […] was the creation of a community, and called it a utopian project (Schiff, 2006). Behind the entries are passionate individuals who are “compulsively social”, carrying on conversations and philosophizing. The motivation to participate actively is largely voluntary, unpaid, and therefore often stems from a passion not unlike that of the WELL’s early members. Some say that the primary motivation in the newest types of online groups is simply the pleasure of online work.

However, Wikipedia as a community has many critics, co-founder Larry Sanger chief among them. Critics argue that the lawlessness and free-for-all cannot work. There is much anonymity among Wikipedia participants, and quite a bit of negative posting. Although conversation happens behind the scenes, the main content is not supposed to be original thought, but just presentation of facts. Entries are to be neutral and cited, and argument about the content likewise (if it is to ever contribute to the entry). Wikipedia claims to be egalitarian, but is in reality structured (although according to critics, not yet enough or in the right way). “What began as an experiment in unfettered democracy, has sprouted policies and procedures” and become a “regulatory thicket” (Schiff, 2006). The hierarchy is needed because “even online democracy has its limits” (McHenry, 2004). Not all participants are equal, instead “the user who spends the most time on the site – or who yells the loudest – wins” and there is no privilege to those who know what they’re talking about (Schiff, 2006). The motivation of Wikipedia contributors is questionable; it has been called “a dash of altruism, a dose of obsessive compulsiveness, and good chunk of egotism” (Goetz, 2003), and it has been called “the world’s most ambitions vanity press” (Schiff, 2006).

Online groups such as blogs and Wikipedia have become increasingly mediated and commodified. These communities are often neither self-forming nor self-sustaining. According to Rheingold’s later writing, healthy online communities need guidance and “action must be taken to glue people together (2000, p. 341). They require skilled facilitation, well-thought-out social contracts, and social mechanisms. In addition, many online places are becoming commercialized. For example, blogs have been used as marketing tools and even hosted (and controlled by) by corporations on behalf of both consumers and employees. Although the audience of commodified blogs theoretically has the ability to ‘talk back’, the writers of the Cluetrain Manifesto would probably be suspicious of such tight corporate control. Making money from community is certainly not compatible with either the traditional or individual flavors of community. Rheingold asks, “In America, the idea of public property has grown increasingly unfashionable. […] Is there still space in cyberspace for public property […]?” (2000, p. 379).

Conclusion
“Virtual communities might be real communities, they might be pseudocommunities, or they might be something entirely new in the realm of social contracts,” (Rheingold, 2000, p. 362). On one hand, those who insist on traditional definitions hold that online groups are only pseudocommunities and online interaction is only para-social. One critic said “pseudocommunity is a reversal of a centuries old trend from organic community based on personal relationships, to impersonal associations integrated by mass means” (Rheingold, 2000, p. 349). Others, myself included, believe that modern definitions of community are needed. For example, artificially created task-oriented communities such as those created by corporations for employees could be allowed to call themselves a community so that they may experience the perceived advantages of that social structure. Further, there is a need to allow multiple definitions of because “there is no such thing as a single monolithic online subculture; it’s more like an ecosystem of subcultures, some frivolous, others serious” (Rheingold, p.xviii).

Although it is tempting to try to define community, this paper did not attempt to do that. Instead, it showed how an examination of past and current online groups can help shape what “community” means both online and offline. The explosive growth of the Internet has created a proliferation of virtual communities, and the nature of those communities is diverse. The Web has the “ability to evolve new forms so rapidly that if real-world evolution worked as fast, we could move from grapefruit to squid in a couple of months” (Weinberger, p. 113). The definition of community must evolve to some extent, or it will no longer apply to any existing group. How much that definition could and should change is a fertile area of discussion among psychologists, sociologists and communication scientists, because “developing technologies are creating an expended social environment that requires amendments and alterations to way in which we conceptualize social processes” (Rheingold, 2000, p. 366-367).

Works Cited

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