Howard Rheingold: The Virtual Community

I have been re-reading Howard Rheingold’s book on the virtual communities and wanted to save my observations while they are still fresh in my mind. Its brilliant book where his enthusiasm for the the ‘electronic frontier’ that the internet provides is palpable on every page. He is also eminently readable which is a welcome relief from some of the other stuff I have been reading over Christmas!

I am using this book as a jumping off point for my literature review on virtual communities as well as some early work on democracy online – he makes an excellent distinction here: “Democracy online” refers to something distinctly different from “the impact of online culture on democracy” (p.338). He means this to talk about the difference between creating democratic structures to help online communities work democratically however I think that this blurring also needs to be taken into account as people get confused between being heard online by their online communities and being heard in a formal democratic process.

Other ideas from the book which I will follow up on are:

  • The importance of the face to face as well as the online. There are countless examples in the book of the mixing of online with face to face interactions and the ways in which these complement each other. He also picks up on the Sheri Turkle work on online indentity which is interesting. This is relevant to me as one of the key assumptions around my CitizenScape work is the idea that the process needs to incorporate online and offline interactions in order to make it work. This is especially relevant as what I am trying to do is to engineer a community which is in many ways similar to the ones which he as observed for the book.

  • There an interesting comments on Japanese communities and the idea of “cultural co-emulation” – which he describes as a social metaphor for making different cultures work together online (P.220). This does not fit with my examples as they are mono and not cross cultural – however most large scale online communities have developed in a ‘co-emulated’ way without a dominant culture in place. Makes me think of Neil Stephenson et al!

  • There are some thoughts about the idea of using physical building (or cities) as a metaphor for community building (P.225) – not an original idea but a good example. I will add this into the thoughts about the Citizenscape methodology as it is a very simple way of explaining what we are doing to people

  • He makes some interesting observations about the significance of using online communities to support products and services – is this commerce using people or people humanising commerce?

  • Some very prescient remarks about the way which the style of democracy in a particular country influences the way in which it uses the online sphere. I say prescient as it reminded me of comments around the Obama campaign where people confused their incredible ability to mobilize money and voters with actual online democracy (P.305). Also some useful comments about the way democracy is functioning: “A politician is now a commodity, citizens are consumers, and issues are decided via sound-bites and staged events”

  • Some political philosophy references to Bentham’s Panopticon and the central position this was given by Foucault as “a blueprint for the way future tyrants could use surveillance technologies to wield power”.

  • There are huge numbers of useful references in the bibliography (specifically from the last 2 chapters) which I will be plundering!

But to summarise – the book’s strength is around showing that virtual communities are virtual only in location – in terms of their impact on on people they are very real. Further to that there is a strong argument for an open and cooperative style of internet which has been claimed back from commerce.

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