The building of community and self-expression in online groups

Submitted by Adrienne Hall on October 22, 2008 to the On-line Interaction and Facilitation Seminar, Fall 2008, Purdue University, Dr. Sorin A. Matei via the I Think Blog (


This essay attempts to begin explaining how participation in online social interactions impacts everyday life. More specifically, how it causes a change in behavior in interpersonal relationships and methods of communication. It begins with a definition of community leading into a discussion on online communities. Finally it concludes with insight on why people join online communities and how it affects our everyday lives. The idea of the essay is to review the existing literature and to begin developing ideas for future research.


Computer Mediated Communication (CMC) has been a topic of interest for over 30 years. It is a key component of the emerging technology surrounding computer networks (Kiesler, Siegel, and McGuire, 1984). People have been able to connect to others, near or far, on an increased social level. These connections have spawned the development of groups of people that tend to function like a community. Whether or not these groups can really be classified as communities has become one of the largest areas for discussion. Scholars have attempted to define these groups and provide boundaries for their behaviors and communication methods. In addition to trying to define these groups, scholars have also become interested in what actually takes place within the social networking group (Baym 1998; Boyd and Ellison, 2007; Rheingold, 2001; Seabrook, 1997). Some say people join social networking groups in order to exchange information (Ridings and Gefen, 2004). While others believe it is another way to sustain friendships, or connect to others based on shared interests, beliefs or activities (Boyd and Ellison, 2007). Regardless of the reason, scholars have found that these groups begin to share ideas, emotions, and behaviors.

How has the emergence of social networking sites impacted real life? How has this form of social interaction changed interpersonal relationships and everyday communication? Specifically, how does participation in online communities cause a shift in social behavior? If so, what changes and how? What foundations of virtual communities have paved the way for these behavioral changes? The purpose of this essay is to review the foundations of social networking communities and link them to the idea of changes in social behavior as a result of social interactions online. Online communities have been integrated into our everyday lives (Boyd and Ellison, 2007). They are completely accepted in today’s society. As a result, we have begun to modify our behavior, allowing for their effects to control us. In this essay, the definition of virtual communities will be discussed along with an examination of self-expression as one of the main factors for sustained online interaction.


The age-old question of communities has been haunting researchers for years. There has been an ongoing debate on whether groups that are formed online can be classified as a community (Preece and Maloney-Krichman, 2005; Wellman, 2001). Traditionally, defining community has involved physical closeness, however in recent years, scholars have begun to expand the idea of community outside of face-to-face relationships (Hamman, 1999; Preece and Maloney-Krichmar, 2005). Within the literature there have been several attempts to define community. There has been little agreement on the definition, however the term “community” has indefinitely always referred to a group of people (Hamman, 1999). Our readings in class have looked at various definitions that have laid the foundation for online interaction.

Take for example the use of the term “communitas” as a descriptor for community, made popular in Anthropology. Communitas are unstructured communal experiences of human interaction that are hierarchically structured social systems (Turner, 1995). Turner preferred this term instead of community because it did not include emphasis on a common area of living, but instead emphasized the intimacy of people who are connected. Within the rites of passage process of tribal societies, Turner classified these groups into three phases. First he posited that all individuals experience or separation from their true selves and any prior roles they had in a specific group. They are “betwixt and between” positions that have previously assigned by law or custom. Next, he proclaimed that all individuals experience a period of liminality, a period of ambiguity. In this phases there is little to no impact of social structure pressed upon the individual. Lastly, individuals pass through reaggregation or reincorporation phase, during which individuals return to some state of social structure. It is from this research with tribal societies that Turner begins to disassociate the boundaries of living space as a function of community.

The use of the word community was made popular by one of the most well known scholars within social networking, Howard Rheingold. His book, The Virtual Community, made the concept of the online community popular. Rheingold’s involvement with the Well, one of the first successful and popular virtual communities, has made him an expert on the topic. It helped to set the standard for some of the virtual communities of today. Rheingold (2001) defined virtual communities as, “social aggregations that emerge from the Net when enough people carry on those public discussion long enough, with sufficient human feeling, to form webs of personal relationship in cyberspace” (pg. xx). He argued that the interactions with the users of the Well provided enough proof that a community existed. He expounded on how rational beings come to the Well to make rational actions with others who have similar interests. One of the true components of the Well that made it a community was the number 1 interest group, the Deadheads. This group not only maintained one the most active areas on the Well, but it also was the reason behind the early gatherings that took place IRL (in real life). Despite having an exclusive demographic of participants, the Well managed to evoke a sense of emotional and human attachment. Users were connected with friends in far-off places, linked in to doctors in times of need, comforted by others dealing with terminal illnesses, and mourned together the loss of another user’s life. One WELLite personified it best when speaking about the emergence of community within the WELL, “you aren’t a real community until you have a funeral.” (Rheingold, 2001, pg. 24)

In contrast to Rheingold, Wellman (2001) defined community as “networks of interpersonal ties that provide sociability, support, information, a sense of belonging, and social identity.” (pg. 2) Similarly, Coate (1998) tended to describe community as “any group of people any place, for any length of time, for any reason that communicates.” Both of these definitions refer to communication between groups of people, relying on a time factor, for a community to exist. This original idea of closeness, or people having to be face-to-face is erased when virtual communities come into play. Persons who participate in virtual communities have some type of interpersonal tie to the subject area or the other users involved, not just the same location. Wellman goes on to explain how the introduction of mobile phones (wireless portability), greater bandwidth, and globalization has impacted how we physically see communities. No longer are we tied down to our own streets, neighborhoods, or schools. “Computer-supported communication will be everywhere, but because it is independent of place, it will be situated nowhere…The person, not the place, household or workgroup – will become even more of an autonomous communication mode.” (pg. 4) Wellman continues to talk about the importance of personalization and how the emergence of sites that allow a user to setup their own options will help the idea of CMC penetrate a wider audience. This is the premise that keeps sites like Wikipedia, Amazon, and active. Overall, Wellman wants his readers to understand that face-to-face and online relationships are a function of each other. The emergence of personalized and wireless communication provides socially supports the transfer of information and a sense of belonging to all individuals (Wellman, 2001). When being used, CMC will continue to provide the feeling of community and diminish the importance of physical location.

Online communities, where do they come from?

In her chapter on the online community, Baym (1998) also discussed the ambiguity of online groups and the significance of the relationships that form. She goes on to examine if online communities can replace communities off-line, and what it is that leads people to experience the feeling of community online in the first place. Baym argues that online communities are shaped by and existing set of factors, (1) external contexts, (2) temporal structure, (3) system infrastructure, (4) group purposes, and (5) participant characteristics. The first, external contexts, pertains to the natural cultures that are already apart of the user’s personality. These characteristics add to language and the working process of the online community. The situations from which the participant hails from can interfere or impact the interaction of the online group. The temporal structure can either be synchronistic or asynchronistic. This affects the way the online community communicates. Are messages posted on a regular basis? Is there participation from all members, or just a few dominant ones? The differences of temporal structure affect communication patterns (Baym, 1998). The next factor, system infrastructure can also affect the communication patterns. The infrastructure determine how users participate, sets the limits of the technology, as well as the ease of use of the group in general. One of the most important factors is the group purpose. This determines why the users participate and is one of the main motivations for contented participation, frequent posting or interaction. Without understanding the true purpose of an online group, the whole essence of the structure can be lost. The last factor discussed is participant characteristics. Like group purpose, this also plays an important role in the outcome of the online communication. Size, hierarchal structure, and any preexisting history of individual members can influence the interactions that take place.

For one reason or another, online groups tend to provide a sense of community – forming a set of group-specific forms of expression, identity, and relationships (Baym, 1998). Taking this into consideration, and looking at the nature of “real life” groups, online groups do take on the characteristics of a community. Virtual communities are accepted as groups of people who interact with one another, for a period of time, sharing a particular experience while exchanging information and social connections with each other. When operating using this concept, it is still difficult to determine whether online social groups are virtual “communities” or “communitas.” Despite the ongoing debate, I agree with Rheingold (2001) when he reviewed his original ideas on social networks and the nature of communities: “Social network emerge when people interact with each other continually, and they have to be useful or they wouldn’t exist” (pg. 360). I have accepted the idea that online groups are communities, as depicted by Rheingold and Baym. Preece and Maloney-Krichmar (2005) point out that the energy and time expended on developing definitions may not be the best way to proceed and they suggest that a more productive approach may be to accept community as a concept with fuzzy boundaries.

The Glue: Self-Expression

In class we have spend that last eight weeks discussing the origin of virtual communities, starting with the WELL, how they have emerged, and the importance of the infrastructure. However, only recently have we begun to delve into the motivations behind online participation. Baym (1998) argued that there are three factors to making up online groups, system infrastructure, group purpose, and participant characteristics. Users bring their own “real life” baggage to the online group and because of the nature of these group, they learn or adapt to the group’s culture. Beyond these three things, I think it’s important to understand what underlying factor entices users to participate in online social groups in the first place. Ultimately, people want to express themselves and be validated in doing so. Maslow (1943) argued that humans have two specific social needs, to be loved and to be accepted. Self-expression via an online social network is one way these needs are met. Users engage in some type of self-expression, while waiting for feedback from the community of choice. The need is met regardless of the feedback being negative or positive. This feedback can be positive or negative. In his book about his experience on the WELL, Seabrook was surprised to see the high level of “thrashing” that fueled the community. He commented that the lack of physical boundaries online and the relative safety of the screen allowed uses to pretty much say whatever they wanted to say (Seabrook, 1999). Despite the majority of the “feedback” on the WELL being negative and aggressive, people continued to participate. As discussed in class, participation in online groups is like a contest between individuals caught in a game of self-expression. Users play with identity, by reinventing themselves in whatever image they choose. Blogging, posting to bulletin boards, usenets, participating in interaction sites such as Facebook, are all ways to express who you are, your likes, dislikes, and show-off your “cool factor”. The possibility of local fame is one of the key drivers of online interaction sustainability (Weinberger, 2002).

The Shift Begins

With all this “networking” and reinventing, how can we possible come out of the process unchanged? We don’t. We begin incorporating the use of social networking sites into our everyday lives. Social networks foster changes in the way that people contact and interact with one another (Wellman, 2001). How many times a day are you checking email, Facebook, MySpace, or Twitter? Boyd and Ellison (2007) examined social networking sites and argued that there is direct overlap between on a user’s online life and their off-line life. “Millions have integrated these sites into their daily practices.” (pg. 1) Why so popular? Self-expression and self-interest are the glue that holds social networking sites together (Rheingold, 2001). Virtual communities are online groups that allow users to represent and express themselves in any fashion that they choose. As stated by Rheingold (2001):

“People in virtual communities 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 if idle talk. People in virtual communities do just about everything people do in real life, but we leave our bodies behind”(pg. xvii).

Today, people have become comfortable doing just about anything through CMC from emailing a professor (Boyd and Ellison, 2007), to campaigning for the political office (Wolf, 2001). As of now, there doesn’t seem to be any limit to the benefits of CMC in a society that has thrived on the emergence of technology as described by Wellman. However, not everyone sees increased participation in online social groups as positive. Robert Putnam, a well-known political science professor at Harvard has written a book arguing the decline of interpersonal relationships. Instead of interacting with friends face-to-face, people are choosing to spend increased amounts of time at home in front of their computer screens, therefore decreasing our social capital (Putnam, 1995; Wolf, 2001). In his essay, Putnam’s main argument is around American’s choosing to stay at home instead of getting involved in civic interactions. He makes references to the continual disinterest in politics being the result of diminishing trust with the government. Towards the end of the his essay and the more recently published book, Bowling Alone, Putnam questioned the impact of electronic networks on social capital. A stretch between the disparity he talks about and the increased popularity of choosing to be apart of safe, non-threatening “communities” online instead of the harsh realities of the ones in real life.


In this essay I have attempted to give an overview of the origin of online communities and how they have started to impact our everyday lives. As argued by many, social networking provides many positives. It has fostered relationships for some users who might not have connected with those like them in face-to-face settings. It is clear that there still isn’t a widely accepted definition of community, but that it is more important to look at the essence of online interactions, instead of trying to label the phenomenon.

Future research should investigate more how social networking has impacted everyday habits or routines of users. Is it possible that, with respect to CMC, there are things that one would never do ten years ago, that today it would seem impossible to do without? Have we as a society completely gotten away from analog communication? Are there generations of people going through life unable to write a letter, draft a thank you note, or meet new people in a face-to-face context? Like suggested by Jeneen Interlandi (2008) from Newsweek, is technology, or the various forms of online interaction, changing our brains? Although, we must remember that this isn’t the first time an emergent technology has changed the way people behave or live (Rheingold, 2001). Studying how much change and the impact of it might prove to be valuable when designing new interaction sites.


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Adrienne Hall

ahall is a phd student interested in social media with respect to how it has changed the behavior of how consumers interact, purchase goods and services, and word-of-mouth activities.

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