April 6, 1999
1. Meaning of Community
While there are many definitions and approaches to community, most of these definitions involve "a group of people in ‘social interaction’" (Dasgupta, p. 5). That is, a community must involve more than one person, and usually involves considerably more than two people. People as conscious beings are involved, and they have some form of social interaction which is more than stimulus and response, so that there are processes of interpretation and exercise of the self involved. Some of the ideas that might be associated with community are the following.
- People connected through person-to-person contact, interaction, and communication.
- Direct relationships among people as community members, as opposed to contacts through the state, bureaucracy, or larger structures. Ordinarily the direct relationships would be considered to be that of person-to-person, although Stone notes that other forms of community based on texts emerged in earlier periods. The directness also refers to the self-organization of the community – as people establish contacts and networks among themselves, without relying on (or perhaps even in opposition to) the larger structures.
- Group connotation. Communication, more than two, multiple forms of contact, multiple commonalities, common action (in Weberian sense).
- Immediate and local as opposed to more distant and societal level – e.g. commune, alternative community. This distinction emerged with the development of larger, industrial, societies to distinguish community from society. (See Williams)
- Time. Community implies a continuation of the interactions and communication over an extended period of time. More than just a brief or fleeting interaction.
- Common understandings, beliefs, and practices. Stone from the article "Will the Real Body Please Stand Up?" notes that these common understandings and practices can unite people that are physically separated.
- Community should be considered to be different from a spatial neighborhood, especially in urban areas and in mobile societies. Although a geographic neighbourhood can form the opportunity for development of a community, community need not be tied to neighbourhood. Networks of relationships which are not restricted by space, but are based on common interest, knowledge, experience, practice, purpose, compatibility, or organization. It may be chance concerning which individuals become involved in a particular community, but continued social interaction of some sort must develop among these people in order for community to develop.
- Many forms and new forms – alternative community, imagined community ("deep, horizontal comradeship" of B. Anderson, p. 7), virtual communities. Anderson notes that "Communities are to be distinguished, not by their falsity/genuineness, but by the style in which they are imagined" (B. Anderson, p. 6).
- Rooted in identity of bodies, selves, and identities, although virtual communities now question this.
Raymond Williams summarizes the various senses of community as meaning "the more direct, more total, and therefore more significant relationships" (Williams, p. 76). Further it denotes:
on the one hand the sense of direct common concern; on the other hand the materialization of various forms of common organization … Community can be the warmly persuasive word to describe an existing set of relationships, or the warmly persuasive word to describe an alternative set of relationships. What is most important, perhaps, is that unlike all other terms of social organization (state, nation, society, etc.) it seems never to be used unfavourably, and never to be given a positive opposing or distinguishing terms. (Williams, p. 76).
Note the positive meaning generally attached to community, and the manner in which discussions of community often refer to the future or to the past. Often there is an expectation of a coming of community or the possibility of such, or the feeling that there once existed a community but that this has been destroyed or damaged. In this sense, community as an idea may be as important or more important than the actual existence of common ties and forms of social organization.
Virtual Community. Given that many of the above ideas associated with community can be considered to be involved in communications using the new information technologies, it is not difficult to see how the idea of virtual community developed.
Loss of Community. One of the concerns of many writers today is that community has declined or disappeared, and that we are becoming more individualized. The focus on individual achievement and success, individual responsibility, the individualizing nature of some of the new technologies, etc. have been portrayed by some to represent a decline of community and an expansion of individualism. The effects of the new technologies should be considered in this context, in order to see whether they are individualizing or community building.
Many are concerned that modern society destroys this with the development of cities and the emphasis on individualism. There is concern among some that contemporary postmodernity may further this destructive process. What is lost? Common morality, contribution to the common good, sense of common purpose and goals. That is, the fear is expressed that individuals will seek satisfaction for themselves and their families, and regard any contribution to those around them as detrimental to pursuit of their own welfare. This is like the free-rider problem, and could result in destruction of public goods and services.
2. Negative Features of Community
While Williams claims that community always has a positive context, some negative features may be associated with community.
- Access to community. Some may not be able to be part of a community because of distance, disability or other personal characteristics, or because community members have excluded them from the community.
- Boundaries. May be uncertain and shifting, but they do exist. Note Weber on closure of the group, exclusion, and status honour. This implies exclusion of some from the community.
- Whose community? Power differentials and inequalities within communities. In some traditional, rural communities or ethnic settings, community has been used as a means to stifle dissent, maintain power for a few, and deny a voice to the majority of members. Communities may be patriarchal. While there may be an implicit notion of equality and democracy present in some definitions of community, this is usually not spelled out, and democracy is often denied by community.
- Exit from the community. This may be possible for some, but not for others. If there is no possibility of exit, this can create great difficulties for those who do not feel part of the community, are not welcome, or are not treated equitably and justly by other members.
- Total communities such as sects may be viewed negatively by outsiders. Totalitarian.
3. Virtual Community
The notion of community has been extended to cyberspace, perhaps as the extension of contact across time and space made possible by information technologies, and perhaps as an expectation or possibility of an improved alternative set of relationships (see Williams), that is, an alternative to person-to-person, physical contact and a form of contact that is open, democratic, and equal.
Note that the person-to-person form of community contact that characterizied traditional, rural, and small-scale society continues to exist in contemporary society. But these earlier forms have been modified by and supplemented with new forms of community made possible by new technologies of transportation and electronic communication. Networks of community are established across various geographic parts of cities by individuals with common interests or compatibility. In a mobile society with relatively low cost transportation, these networks of community can extend across larger geographic areas.
With the advent of electronic communication, such as telephone and telegraph, the possibilities for development and expansion of networks were vastly expanded, and some forms of community have become almost independent of space. For example, the academic community, sports communities, and political communities extend across the whole country or the whole world.
Cyberspace, without its high-tech glitz, is partially the idea of virtual community. The earliest cyberspaces may have been virtual communities, passage points for collections of common beliefs and practices that united people who were physically separated. Virtual communities sustain themselves by constantly circulating those practices. (From Stone, "Will the Real Body Please Stand Up?").
Rheingold defines virtual communities as "the 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" (Foster, p. 24).
4. Virtuality as Community
In virtual communities, what is either different or similar to earlier forms and meanings of community?
- No necessity for physical contact. With virtual community, identities can be detached from bodies, although the communications are usually rooted in physical bodies which occupy a portion of ordinary space.
- Multiple personalities – from a single body and consciousness. Stone interview:
What I see now is that people do develop an elaborate social life in the imaginary space; they develop elaborate multiple personalities, all of which are grounded in a single body: theirs. The learn how to manipulate these personalities – take them out of the box, dust them, run them, put them back in the box, put them away, take out another one. It’s a much more elaborated, ramified version of what we do every day in our social interactions; you’re not the same person when you talk to the milkman that you are when you talk to your lover. ... it all ultimately comes back to the physical body and how the things that we see happening, these endless ramifications of virtual communities, come back to help, to assist, to increase the potential of, or to make better the physical body. (Stone interview in Leeson, pp. 113-4).
- Narrow bandwidth. Symbols and images are all that can be communicated. Great possibilities for fantasy, desire, and interpretation.
- Sex change and direction of this. Males are much more likely to enter cyberspace than are females, but males are also much more likely to adopt female personae than females are to adopt males ones. Stone notes that on-line, "women attract more interest and get more attention." (Stone, p. 120). Also note the difference in the messages Lewin received when he appeared in cyberspace as the female Julie (Stone, p. 70).
- Communication is instantaneous, creating accountability and warrantability problems (Stone, p. 87). Means of checking who did it, or whether anyone did it may not be feasible. This is scarcely a problem in ordinary situations, but could be a problem for stock exchanges, military, corporations, etc.
- May or may not lead to physical meeting and contact among the people involved. The possibility of people developing physical contacts can emerge out of contacts in virtual space. The Julie saga fell apart partly out of expectations that physical contact would occur, and the impossibility of delivering on this. Also Arthur at Atari.
- Often rooted in prior physical meetings and contacts, so that it is a means of supplementing forms of communication among community members.
- There is concern among some that too much time spent in cyberspace may be detrimental to other forms of human contact and interaction. Members of a virtual community may become very tied to the virtual form and not be able to interact with those who are not part of such a network. Abilities developed in cyberspace may not be transferable to more "normal" communities and interactions.
- Contrary to the last set of arguments, some have noted that virtual community may be a way of people exploring alternatives, developing personalities, and experimenting, so that their abilities to deal with person-to-person interactions are improved. (See Stone interview, p. 113 and Turkle article, pp. 120-121 in Leeson). The question is whether these explorations will prove useful for people in their face-to-face interactions.
- Disabled and isolated individuals or those with very special interests, may be able to find community in cyberspace in a manner that is not possible for them in other places. Cyberspace networks may be able to open up a great realm of freedom and possibilities for those who are shunned by society, are geographically isolated, or have some characteristics that make it difficult for more normal forms of interaction to occur.
- The last item has also been considered to have some negative aspects. That is, if each of us forms community with those of the same interests, we may not be required to interact with those who are different than ourselves. This could lead to different sets of communities who do not or cannot relate to each other. This is a similar argument to that developed by critics of multiculturalism, who argue that multiculturalism is divisive. In this case, the various virtual communities each come together, but the result is not social cohesion, but social divisiveness.
- Equality within cyberspace. While new power differentials might appear in cyberspace, members have the option of withdrawing from cyberspace or finding a different community. The dramatic power differentials that can be associated with rural or totalizing communities, or the inequalities that occur within modern social structures, from which escape to an improved situation is very difficult, would not seem to exist.
- Access to virtual community is dependent on being literate and having sufficient resources of money and time to participate. There would also appear to be various levels of connection – dependent partially on knowledge, but also on resources. That is, those with more financial resources will be better connected with higher powered machines, faster connections, more assistants, and a wider variety of means of connecting. Note Kroker’s view that a virtual class will develop.
- Forum for democracy or control by the virtual class? The forms of virtual contact provide evidence for both possibilities. Stone describes some of the democratic forms in early cyberspace, where users organized themselves and participated equally. Cyberspace is relatively accessible, and with a fairly low investment of money and time, individuals or groups can participate in e-mail or chat-lines on the same footing as others. Various disadvantaged or oppressed groups such as Chinese dissidents, Zapatistas, and native Hawaiians have used cyberspace to spread their message and maintain contact with each other. At the same time, within some of the social structures, cyberspace perpetuates existing hierarchical relationships. While the internet has democratizing effects, corporations advertise and there are attempts by some to limit what can be communicated.
5. Stone on Virtual Community
- Connectivity. Stone notes that CompuServe and America Online succeeded partly because they offered the opportunity to subscribers to connect and communicate (p. 66). She notes elsewhere that people may have a basic desire to interact with other humans, and this could be part of what makes a virtual community work. That is, attempts to make the net like television may not succeed – people use the internet to chat and decide where they wish to go.
- While warranting may be difficult in virtual space, presence appears not to be such a problem. Even with limited bandwidth, so long as the communications occur and are connected with one another so that a persona develops and continues, then a certain presence exists. This will be enough to encourage continued interaction and community (p. 79).
- Enthusiasm of working with new technologies. Atari lab.
- CommuniTrees. Unforeseen consequences of anonymity and freedom of expression (p. 116). Surveillance and social control became necessary, but the question is what form this takes (p. 117). Presumably this could take the form of stifling real discussion, but it is also possible that there could be freedom to communicate, so long as rights of others are not infringed upon. See, for example, the University of Regina e-mail policy.
- Visionary aspect of shareware and bulletin boards. Circulation of idea of community and encouragement of community (p. 99). Shareware, open space, freedom to communicate, equality in participation.
- Could encourage new social forms, presumably not so hierarchal and subject to the old, unequal power relationships (p. 100).
- Prosthesis and further extension of body. Extension of "participant’s instrumentality into a virtual social space."
- Change in view of computer from individual-machine to individual-individual by attaching messages to other messages (pp. 101-3). Early history of development of computer based bulletin boards.
- Practitioners of Forth almost put this in a spiritual and philosophical light (pp. 104-5).
- The tree structure that was developed for organizing messages allowing scanning and browsing of these messages to occur (p. 108).
- Virtual space as social space. Conversation and interaction. Required play mode and reduction of other expressive aspects to visual and auditory information. (pp. 110-11)
- Clogging of machines with extra messages. Attempts to crash machines. (pp. 111-117).
- Not all participants shared goals of creators of system (p. 118). Surveillance and control proved necessary. (What does this say about community?)
- Presence and computer program as agent. 138-9.
In "Will the Real Body Please Stand Up?" (p. 18) Stone notes the following:
Electronic virtual communities represent flexible, lively, and practical adaptations to the real circumstances that confront persons seeking community in what Haraway (1987) refers to as "the mythic time called the late twentieth century." They are part of a range of innovative solutions to the drive for sociality – a drive that can be frequently thwarted by the geographical and cultural realities of cities increasingly structured according to the needs of powerful economic interests rather than in ways that encourage and facilitate habitation and social interaction in the urban context. In this context, electronic virtual communities are complex and ingenious strategies for survival. Whether the seemingly inherent seductiveness of the medium distorts the aims of those strategies, as television has done for literacy and personal interaction, remains to be seen.
6. Conclusions Concerning Virtual Communities
These may provide options for community beyond what have existed in earlier times. At the same time, as Stone notes, these virtual communities have existed before, although in different form and using different modes of communication. The question is whether the quantitative expansion in possibilities for connectivity and interaction in cyberspace will create a qualitative shift in the nature of community. While there can be a certain independence of virtual communication from physical bodies, at present this connection is still quite strong. Most people appear to prefer person-to-person contact at some point, whether it be prior interaction that is extended into cyberspace, or initial cyberspace contact that turns into person-to-person contact.
F. Conclusion to Stone
Stone feels that there are some new forms of interaction, community, and social organization emerging as a result of the development, expansion, and immersion in the new virtual and cyber technologies. The manner in which these will develop is not entirely clear from Stone, and the title of her book "The War of Desire and Technology" indicate that the developments could go in various directions. For one thing, Stone notes that we will all be altered as we embark on this quest with technology (just as we were changed with modernity). Page 183 lays out the lack of certainty concerning direction. However, by indicating positive features such as desire and other positive human qualities, play, multiplicity, community, and individual and collective human agency, Stone raises the possibility of a promising future. By dealing with some of these aspects, the positive possibilities are clearer than in much of Kroker’s writing.
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Stone, Allucquère Rosanne, "Will the Real Body Please Stand Up?" http://www.rochester.edu/College/FS/Publications/StoneBody.html, May 11, 1997.
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Notes from April 6, 1999 class. Last edited on April 9, 1999.
Return to Sociology 304, Winter, 1999.