Definitions

c loeffler

Virtual community

A virtual community, e-community or online community is a group of people that primarily interact via communication media such as newsletters, telephone, email, online social networks or instant messages rather than face to face, for social, professional, educational or other purposes. If the mechanism is a computer network, it is called an online community. Virtual and online communities have also become a supplemental form of communication between people who know each other primarily in real life. Many means are used in social software separately or in combination, including text-based chatrooms and forums that use voice, video text or avatars. Significant socio-technical change may have resulted from the proliferation of such Internet-based social networks.

Introduction

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 Issues

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.

Membership life cycle for virtual communities

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:

  1. Peripheral (i.e. Lurker) – An outside, unstructured participation
  2. Inbound (i.e. Novice) – Newcomer is invested in the community and heading towards full participation
  3. Insider (i.e. Regular) – Full committed community participant
  4. Boundary (i.e. Leader) – A leader, sustains membership participation and brokers interactions
  5. Outbound (i.e. Elder) – Process of leaving the community due to new relationships, new positions, new outlooks

The following shows the correlation between the learning trajectories and Web 2.0 community participation.

Learning trajectory — online community participation

Example – YouTube Peripheral (Lurker) – Observing the community and viewing content. Does not add to the community content or discussion. The user occasionally goes onto YouTube.com to check out a video that someone has directed them to.

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.

Motivations for contributing to virtual communities

Several motivations lead people to contribute to virtual communities. Various online media (i.e. Wikis, Blogs, Chat rooms, Internet forums, Electronic mailing lists) are becoming ever greater knowledge-sharing resources. Many of these communities are highly cooperative and establish their own unique culture. They also involve significant time from contributors with no monetary gain. Some key examples of online knowledge sharing infrastructures include the following:

  • Usenet: Established in 1980, as a "distributed Internet discussion system," it became the initial Internet community. Volunteer moderators and votetakers contribute to the community.
  • The WELL: A pioneering online community established in 1985. The WELL's culture has been the subject of several books and articles. Many users voluntarily contribute to community building and maintenance (e.g., as conference hosts).
  • AOL: The largest of the online service providers, with chat rooms which for years were voluntarily moderated by community leaders. It should be noted that rooms and most message boards are no longer moderated, however.
  • Slashdot: A popular technology-related forum, with articles and readers comments. Slashdot subculture has become well-known in Internet circles. Users accumulate a "karma score" and volunteer moderators are selected from those with high scores.

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.

Kollock's framework

Peter Kollock (1998) researched motivations for contributing to online communities. In " The Economies of Online Cooperation: Gifts and Public Goods in Cyberspace", he outlines three motivations (Kollock:227) that do not rely on altruistic behavior on the part of the contributor: anticipated reciprocity; increased recognition; and sense of efficacy.

Anticipated reciprocity

A person is motivated to contribute valuable information to the group in the expectation that one will receive useful help and information in return. Indeed, there is evidence that active participants in online communities get more responses faster to questions than unknown participants (Kollock 178).

Increased recognition

Recognition is important to online contributors such that, in general, individuals want recognition for their contributions. Some have called this Egoboo. Kollock outlines the importance of reputation online: “Rheingold (1993) in his discussion of the WELL (an early online community) lists the desire for prestige as one of the key motivations of individuals’ contributions to the group. To the extent this is the concern of an individual, contributions will likely be increased to the degree that the contribution is visible to the community as a whole and to the extent there is some recognition of the person’s contributions. … the powerful effects of seemingly trivial markers of recognition (e.g. being designated as an “official helper”) has been commented on in a number of online communities…”

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.

Sense of efficacy

Individuals may contribute valuable information because the act results in a sense of efficacy, that is, a sense that they have had some effect on this environment. There is well-developed research literature that has shown how important a sense of efficacy is (e.g. Bandura 1995), and making regular and high quality contributions to the group can help individuals believe that they have an impact on the group and support their own self-image as an efficacious person.

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.

Sense of community

There is another motivation, implicit in the above, which Mark Smith mentions in his 1992 thesis: Voices from the WELL: The Logic of the Virtual Commons: "Communion", as Smith terms it, or "sense of community" as it is referred to in social psychology. People, in general, are fairly social beings and it is motivating to many people to receive direct responses to their contributions. Most online communities enable this by allowing people to reply back to contributions (i.e. many Blogs allow comments from readers, one can reply back to forum posts, etc). Again, using Amazon.com as an example, other users can rate whether one's product review was helpful or not. Granted, there is some overlap between increasing reputation and gaining a sense of community. However, it seems safe to say that there are some overlapping areas between all four motivators.

Online community virtuous cycle

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.

Benchmark virtual communities

For examples of virtual communities, see: List of virtual communities.

See also

References

Further reading and external links

  • Anderson, B. (1983). Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso.
  • Barzilai, G. (2003). Communities and Law: Politics and Cultures of Legal Identities. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press.
  • Else, Liz & Turkle, Sherry. "Living online: I'll have to ask my friends", New Scientist, issue 2569, 20 September 2006. (interview)
  • Farmer, F. R. (1993). "Social Dimensions of Habitat's Citizenry." Virtual Realities: An Anthology of Industry and Culture, C. Loeffler, ed., Gijutsu Hyoron Sha, Tokyo, Japan
  • Gouvêa, Mario de Paula Leite. "The Challenges of Building an International Virtual Community Using Internet Technologies", Internet Society INET 2000 conference proceedings, 18-21 July, 2000
  • Hafner, K. 2001. The WELL: A Story of Love, Death and Real Life in the Seminal Online Community Carroll & Graf Publishers (ISBN 0786708468)
  • Hagel, J. & Armstrong, A. (1997). Net Gain: Expanding Markets through Virtual Communities. Boston: Harvard Business School Press (ISBN 0875847595)
  • Jones, G. Ravid, G. and Rafaeli S. (2004) Information Overload and the Message Dynamics of Online Interaction Spaces: A Theoretical Model and Empirical Exploration, Information Systems Research Vol. 15 Issue 2, pp. 194-210.
  • Kim, A.J. (2000). Community Building on the Web: Secret Strategies for Successful Online Communities. London: Addison Wesley (ISBN 0201874849)
  • Kim, A.J. (2004). “Emergent Purpose.” Musings of a Social Architect. January 24, 2004. Retrieved April 4, 2006
  • Kollock, P. 1999. "The Economies of Online Cooperation: Gifts and Public Goods in Cyberspace," in Communities in Cyberspace. Marc Smith and Peter Kollock (editors). London: Routledge.
  • Kosorukoff, A. & Goldberg, D. E. (2002) Genetic algorithm as a form of organization, Proceedings of Genetic and Evolutionary Computation Conference, GECCO-2002, pp 965-972
  • Morningstar, C. and F. R. Farmer (1990) The Lessons of Lucasfilm's Habitat, The First International Conference on Cyberspace, Austin, TX, USA
  • Naone, Erica, "Who Owns Your Friends?: Social-networking sites are fighting over control of users' personal information.", MIT Technology Review, July/August 2008
  • Neus, A. (2001). Managing Information Quality in Virtual Communities of Practice; Lessons learned from a decade's experience with exploding internet communication IQ 2001: The 6th International Conference on Information Quality at MIT.
  • Preece, J. (2000). Online Communities: Supporting Sociability, Designing Usability. Chichester: John Wiley & Sons Ltd. (ISBN 0471805998)
  • Rheingold, H. (2000). The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier. London: MIT Press. (ISBN 0262681218)
  • Seabrook, J. 1997. Deeper: My Two-Year Odyssey in Cyberspace Simon & Schuster (ISBN 0684801752)
  • Smith, M. "Voices from the WELL: The Logic of the Virtual Commons" UCLA Department of Sociology.
  • Sudweeks, F., McLaughlin, M.L. & Rafaeli,S. (1998) Network and Netplay Virtual Groups on the Internet, MIT Press.
    • Portions available online as: http://jcmc.indiana.edu/vol2/issue4/ Journal of Computer Mediated Communication, 2
  • Vanderbilt University. Communication in Virtual Communities. Virtual Communication Wiki
  • The International Journal of Web-Based Communities
  • News Consumption in Online Communities
  • Barry Wellman, "An Electronic Group is Virtually a Social Network." Pp. 179-205 in Culture of the Internet, edited by Sara Kiesler. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1997. www.chass.utoronto.ca/~wellman [Translated into German as “Die elektronische Gruppe als soziales Netzwerk.” Pp. 134-67 in Virtuelle Gruppen, edited by Udo Thiedeke. Wiesbaden: Westdeutscher Verlag, 2000.]
  • Trier, M. (2007) Virtual Knowledge Communities - IT-supported Visualization and Analysis. Saarbruecken, Germany: VDM (ISBN 3836415402).
  • Urstadt, Bryant, "Social Networking Is Not a Business: Web 2.0--the dream of the user-built, user-centered, user-run Internet--has delivered on just about every promise except profit. Will its most prominent example, social networking, ever make any money?", MIT Technology Review, July/August 2008

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