Sociology 304

April 6, 1999

Virtual Communities

E. Community

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.

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.

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?

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).

5. Stone on Virtual Community

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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Notes from April 6, 1999 class. Last edited on April 9, 1999.

Return to Sociology 304, Winter, 1999.