Virtual communities, or online communities, are used for a variety of social and professional groups interacting via the Internet. It does not necessarily mean that there is a strong bond among the members, although Howard Rheingold, author of the book of the same name, mentions that virtual communities form "when people carry on public discussions long enough, with sufficient human feeling, to form webs of personal relationships" An email distribution list may have hundreds of members and the communication which takes place may be merely informational (questions and answers are posted), but members may remain relative strangers and the membership turnover rate could be high. This is in line with the liberal use of the term community.
Virtual communities may synthesize Web 2.0 technologies with the community, and therefore have been described as Community 2.0, although strong community bonds have been forged online since the early days of USENET. Virtual communities depend upon social interaction and exchange between users online. This emphasizes the reciprocity element of the unwritten social contract between community members. Web 2.0 is essentially characterized by virtual communities such as Flickr, Facebook, and Del.icio.us. A similar trend is starting to emerge within businesses where online or virtual communities are taking hold. These communities can be organizational, regional or topical depending on the business. From a technical perspective, software tools abound to create and nurture these communities including Yahoo Groups, Google Groups, LISTSERV, and Microsoft Sharepoint.
The ability to interact with like-minded individuals instantaneously from anywhere on the globe has considerable benefits, but virtual communities have bred some fear and criticism. Virtual communities can serve as dangerous hunting grounds for online criminals, such as identity thieves and stalkers, with children particularly at risk. Others fear that spending too much time in virtual communities may have negative repercussions on real-world interaction (see Internet addiction disorder).
The explosive diffusion of the Internet since the mid-1990s has also fostered the proliferation of virtual communities. The nature of those communities is diverse, and the benefits that Rheingold envisioned are not necessarily realized, or pursued, by many. At the same time, it is rather commonplace to see anecdotes of someone in need of special help or in search of a community benefiting from the use of the Internet.
Different virtual communities have different levels of interaction and participation among their members. This ranges from adding comments or tags to a blog or message board post to competing against other people in online video games such as MMORPGs. Not unlike traditional social groups or clubs, virtual communities often divide into cliques or even separate to form new communities. Author Amy Jo Kim points out a potential difference between traditional structured online communities (message boards, chat rooms, etc), and more individual-centric, bottom-up social tools (blogs, instant messaging buddy lists), and suggests the latter are gaining in popularity.
Philosophical frameworks have often been thought of in terms of their epistemology and ontology, but even the definitions of these differ in different fields of science.
In the social sciences, ontology is often considered to be a binary opposition between materialism and idealism, which are concerned with the nature of being and whether it is purely based on what exists materially, as in the former, or whether it exists in the mind, as in the case of the latter . In the social sciences epistemology usually refers to a binary opposition battle between nominalism and essentialism, which deal with the nature of knowledge, whereas in information science it refers to the knowing what and knowing how.
These differences become apparent in the research into virtual communities, and exemplify the difficulties in establishing an agreed definition. Early research into the existence of media-based communities was concerned with the nature of reality, whether communities actually could exist through the media, which could place virtual community research into the social sciences definition of ontology. In the 17th-century, scholars associated with the Royal Society of London formed a community through the exchange of letters. "Community without propinquity", coined by urban planner Melvin Webber in 1963 and "community liberated," analyzed by Barry Wellman in 1979 began the modern era of thinking about non-local community. As well, Benedict Anderson's Imagined Communities in 1983, described how different technologies, such as national newspapers, contributed to the development of national and regional consciousness among early nation-states.
The possibility of virtual communities being part of information science could be drawn from the focus of some researchers into ontology being concerned with the classification of entities and the construction of definitions, which has meant the term "community", when used to describe virtual communities, has been contentious. The traditional definition of a community is of a geographically circumscribed entity (neighborhoods, villages, etc). Virtual communities, of course, are usually dispersed geographically, and therefore are not communities under the original definition. Some online communities are linked geographically, and are known as community websites. However, if one considers communities to simply possess boundaries of some sort between their members and non-members, then a virtual community is certainly a community.
The term virtual community is attributed to the book of the same title by Howard Rheingold, published in 1993. The book, which could be considered a social enquiry, putting the research in the social sciences, discussed his adventures on The WELL and onward into a range of computer-mediated communication and social groups, broadening it to information science. The technologies included Usenet, MUDs (Multi-User Dungeon) and their derivatives MUSHes and MOOs, IRC (Internet Relay Chat), chat rooms and electronic mailing lists; the World Wide Web as we know it today was not yet used by many people. Rheingold pointed out the potential benefits for personal psychological well-being, as well as for society at large, of belonging to such a group.
Rheingold’s Virtual Community could be compared with Mark Granovetter’s ground-breaking "strength of weak ties" article published twenty years earlier in the American Journal of Sociology. Rheingold translated, practiced and published Granovetter’s conjectures about strong and weak ties in the online world. His comment on the first page even illustrates the social networks in the virtual society: “My seven year old daughter knows that her father congregates with a family of invisible friends who seem to gather in his computer. Sometimes he talks to them, even if nobody else can see them. And she knows that these invisible friends sometimes show up in the flesh, materializing from the next block or the other side of the world.” (page 1). Indeed, in his revised version of Virtual Community, Rheingold goes so far to say that had he read Barry Wellman's work earlier, he would have called his book "online social networks".
Rheingold’s definition contains the terms “social aggregation and personal relationships” (pp3). Lipnack & Stamps (1997) and Mowshowitz (1997) point out how virtual communities can work across space, time and organizational boundaries; Lipnack & Stamps (1997) mention a common purpose; and Lee, Eom, Jung and Kim (2004) introduce "desocialization" which means that there is less frequent interaction with humans in traditional settings, eg. an increase in virtual socialization. Calhoun (1991) presents a dystopia argument, asserting the impersonality of virtual networks. He argues that IT has a negative influence on offline interaction between individuals because virtual life takes over our lives. He believes that it also creates different personalities in people which can cause frictions in offline and online communities and groups and in personal contacts. However, more than a decade of research has not supported Calhoun's arguments. (Wellman & Haythornthwaite, 2002).
Synthesizing the definitions might suggest that:
A virtual community is a communication and information system of social networks whose participants share a common interest, idea, task or goal that interact in a virtual society across time, geographical and organizational boundaries and where they are able to develop personal relationships.
A membership life cycle for online communities was proposed by Amy Jo Kim (2000). It states that members of virtual communities begin their life in a community as visitors, or lurkers. After breaking through a barrier, people become novices and participate in community life. After contributing for a sustained period of time they become regulars. If they break through another barrier they become leaders, and once they have contributed to the community for some time they become elders. This life cycle can be applied to many virtual communities, most obviously to bulletin boards, but also to blogs and wiki-based communities like Wikipedia.
A similar model can be found in the works of Lave and Wenger, who illustrate a cycle of how users become incorporated into virtual communities using the principles of legitimate peripheral participation. They suggest five types of trajectories amongst a learning community:
The following shows the correlation between the learning trajectories and Web 2.0 community participation.
Inbound (Novice) – Just beginning to engage the community. Starts to provide content. Tentatively interacts in a few discussions. The user comments on other user’s videos. Potentially posts a video of their own. Insider (Regular) – Consistently adds to the community discussion and content. Interacts with other users. Regularly posts videos. Either videos they have found or made themselves. Makes a concerted effort to comment and rate other user’s videos.
Boundary (Leader) – Recognized as a veteran participant. Connects with regulars to make higher concepts ideas. Community grants their opinion greater consideration. The user has become recognized as a contributor to watch. Possibly their videos are podcasts commenting on the state of YouTube and its community. The user would not consider watching another user’s videos without commenting on them. Will often correct a user in behavior the community considers inappropriate. Will reference other user’s videos in their comments as a way to cross link content. Outbound (Elder) – Leaves the community for a variety of reasons. Interests have changed. Community has moved in a direction that doesn’t agree with. Lack of time. User got a new job that takes up too much time to maintain a constant presence in the community. The Deletionist versus Inclusionist Controversy in another such case within wiki-based communities.
Several researchers have investigated motivation in virtual communities. Studies show that over the long term users gain a greater insight into the material that is being discussed and a sense of connection to the world at large.
One of the key ingredients of encouraging a reputation is to allow contributors to be known or not to be anonymous. The following example, from Meyers (1989) study of the computer underground illustrates the power of reputation. When involved in illegal activities, computer hackers must protect their personal identities with pseudonyms. If hackers use the same nicknames repeatedly, this can help the authorities to trace them. Nevertheless, hackers are reluctant to change their pseudonyms regularly because the status associated with a particular nickname would be lost.
Profiles and reputation are clearly evident in online communities today. Amazon.com is a case in point, as all contributors are allowed to create profiles about themselves and as their contributions are measured by the community, their reputation increases. Myspace.com encourages elaborate profiles for members where they can share all kinds of information about themselves including what music they like, their heroes, etc. In addition to this, many communities give incentives for contributing. For example, many forums award you points for posting. Members can spend these points in a virtual store. eBay is an example of an online community where reputation is very important because it is used to measure the trustworthiness of someone you potentially will do business with. With eBay, you have the opportunity to rate your experience with someone and they, likewise, can rate you. This has an effect on the reputation score.
Wikipedia is a good example of an online community that gives contributors a sense of efficacy. Wikipedia is an online encyclopedia which uses online software to enable anyone to create new articles and change any article in the encyclopedia. The changes you make are immediate, obvious, and available to the world.
Most online communities grow slowly at first, due in part to the fact that the strength of motivation for contributing is usually proportional to the size of the community. As the size of the potential audience increases, so does the attraction of writing and contributing. This, coupled with the fact that organizational culture does not change overnight, means creators can expect slow progress at first with a new virtual community. As more people begin to participate, however, the aforementioned motivations will increase, creating a virtuous cycle in which more participation begets more participation.
Community adoption can be forecast with the Bass diffusion model, originally conceived by Frank Bass to describe the process by which new products get adopted as an interaction between innovative early adopters and those who follow them.