A really quick overview of online communities

This is a brief post giving a quick overview of online or virtual community as I realised I need a few paragraphs as I was putting my thesis together – might add to it at some point.  Online community is such an established idea for anyone who works with the social web but as ever with the academic stuff its not enough to take it at face value.

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.”(Howard Rhiengold, The Virtual Community; Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier)


Howard Rheingold’s book on the development of virtual communities provides a baseline to consider the growth of community online. Its very readable and available online here (in fact his whole site is an amazing source of content). He was the first ethnographer of the early social web and is still very relevant today. Online communities have existed since the internet was conceived of – initially using listserv and other email based services, then bulletin boards and evolving into forums and communities. Generally these tended to be communities of practice or interest – not enough people were online in the same place to make them local. The internet provided the opportunity for like minded people to come together to talk about the ideas and issues which were important to them but which might be difficult to unearth and connect to physically close by. Throughout the 90’s the huge excitement was with the idea that you could be talking knitting patterns or philosophy with someone on the other side of the world and much of the activity was around specific interests with community being an offshoot of this rather than at the heart of it. This was the base on which the current growth of social networking is based. As ever Danah Boyd describes this evolution extremely well:

“The rise of Social Networking Sites (SNSs) indicates a shift in the organization of online communities. While websites dedicated to communities of interest still exist and prosper, SNSs are primarily organized around people, not interests. Early public online communities such as Usenet and public discussion forums were structured by topics or according to topical hierarchies, but social network sites are structured as personal (or “egocentric”) networks, with the individual at the center of their own community. This more accurately mirrors unmediated social structures, where “the world is composed of networks, not groups” (Wellman, 1988, p. 37). The introduction of SNS features has introduced a new organizational framework for online communities, and with it, a vibrant new research context.” (Boyd 2007)

Researchers such as Sherry Turkle (Life on Screen, 1997) have established the fact that online environments can play a central role in people’s lives with individuals considering online interactions to have at least the same significance as those that happen in their physical world. She is cautious about the idea of a life lived online but says:

“But there is another way of thinking, one that stresses making virtual and a real more permeable to each other. We don’t have to reject life on the screen, but we don’t have to treat it as an alternative life either. Virtual personae can be a resource for self-reflection and self-transformation. Having literally written our online world into existence we can use the communities we build inside our machines to improve the ones outside of them. Like the anthropologist returning home from a foreign culture, the voyager info in virtuality can return to the real world better able to understand what about it is arbitrary and what can be changed.” (Turkle, Virtuality and its discontents, 1996)

Its difficult to describe the personal impact of being part of an online community on individuals – the benefits of socialisation and information sharing are there in in common with offline community but the advantage is the availability of an online community. Some of the most compelling case studies come from the third sector where carers or patients can equally get support and understanding from a network of people uniquely able to emphasise with their situation. The positive effects of these communities are well documented and some of the clearest examples of this can be seen in communities like Mumsnet which is a community of parents or on sites like Breast Cancer Care which runs a forum for cancer sufferers, carers and survivors. These sites can be shown to be communities in the fullest sense with measurable social capital and a strong sense of community identity. They have become significant online destinations for their participants and have developed the attributes of physical spaces described above. Stephen Coleman, in his paper The network-empowered citizen: How people share civic knowledge online records this comments from a Mumsnet participant which really sums this up:

“Mums need somewhere to turn especially when they feel alone and isolated. A website like Netmums could be all the difference between that isolation becoming depression. It is important someone is out there to help mums cope with their everyday life. Where I live, it doesn’t seem like many other people want to! (Jane, Netmums)”

Mumsnet is a well known example and the site now hosted Q&A sessions for potential Prime Ministers as well as providing evidence to select committees. It is worth noting however, particularly as we consider the impact of hyperlocal communities the attitude that these sites faced not that long ago:

“I used to say that netmums was an example of e-democracy occasionally and I was corrected and told that that was really just about elected representatives and so I have tended to stop using the phrase. But what we do does allow parents to engage with politics, on issues that affect them, both locally and nationally. We get complaints in about local council services and then we forward them to the council, then they reply, and they do take notice of them, increasingly. They write long replies and take an interest in what we.re doing. So I think that we do have a role to play, however you define e-democracy itself”. (Sally Russell, Netmums)

These communities can either be formed, as described above in dedicated websites which cater to single interests or groups or within the more general terrain of social websites like Facebook which can be considered to be ‘networked publics’ (Boyd, 2008). A sense of community can also be found in the social web at large with perhaps weaker ties between participants but still the same strong sense of place which brings with it social norms of behaviour and the idea of what is authentic and inauthentic within that space. This sense of community can be described and measured in terms of social capital in the same way as Robert Putnam describes physical communities (Bowling Alone, 2000) and the way that Wellman and Hampton talk about in their 2003 Netville studies.

As I said at the start this is rather a background item as I needed it to complete a section but I think the link to the more democratic nature of what I am usually thinking is well made again by Howard Rheingold:

“I think there is time to prove the democratic potential of the medium by using it properly. Electronic communications do not offer a utopia, but they do offer a unique channel for publishing and communicating, and the power to publish and communicate is fundamental to democracy. Communication media are necessary but not sufficient for self-governance and healthy societies. The important stuff still requires turning off the computer and braving the uncertainties of the offline world. When we are called to action through the virtual community, we need to keep in mind how much depends on whether we simply “feel involved” or whether we take the steps to actually participate in the lives of our neighbors, and the civic life of our communities.” (Rheingold, 19983).

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