Virtual community

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A virtual community, e-community or online community is a group of people that primarily interact via communication media such as newsletters, telephone, email, internet social network service 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.[1]


[edit] 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".[2] 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. Online communities depend upon social interaction and exchange between users online. This emphasizes the reciprocity element of the unwritten social contract between community members. Some of the earliest forms of web 1.0 virtual community websites included (1994)[3]], Geocities (1994) and Tripod (1995). These early communities focused on bringing people together to interact with each other through chat rooms, and share personal information and ideas around any topics via personal homepage publishing tools which was a precursor to the blogging and social networking phenomenon. The web 2.0 wave of online community arrived in the early 2000s and is essentially characterized by virtual communities such as Flickr, Facebook, and 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, Microsoft Sharepoint and Lotus Connections.

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. Many communities that are operated by Homeowner Associations utilize homeowners association websites to facilitate all communications, business transactions, and social endeavors of any kind.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.

The embeddedness of virtual community in the experiences of everyday life and its reflection of and influence on the communication practices and patterns of identity formation make online community a colossal research enterprise which requires continuous investigation and theorizing[4]

[edit] 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.[5] 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.[6] "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.[7] 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.[8]

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, Internet Relay Chat (IRC), 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.

[edit] 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.

[edit] 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 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 his or her 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 users' 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.

[edit] Motivations and barriers to contributing to virtual communities

The ability to motivate people online participation and to contribution represents one of the most important success factor of online communities.

Several researches have been conducted to investigate how to motivate participation in virtual communities, and mechanisms to put in place to stimulate participation.

See more at: Online participation.

[edit] 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.

[edit] Benchmark virtual communities

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

[edit] See also

[edit] References

  1. ^ Tuomi, Ilkka Internet, Innovation and Open Source: Actors in the Network 2000 First Monday
  2. ^ Rheingold, Howard (1993). The Virtual Community (1st. ed.). Addison-Wesley Pub. Co.. ISBN 9780201608700. Retrieved on 2008-12-29. 
  3. ^ [
  4. ^ Rybas, S. (2008). Community Revisited: Invoking the Subjectivity of the Online Learner. PhD Thesis. Graduate College of Bowling Green State University.
  5. ^ Benton, T. (2001). Philosophy of the social science; p.5
  6. ^ Pears, Iain. 1998. An Instance of the Fingerpost. London: Jonathan Cape.
  7. ^ Webber, Melvin. 1963. "Order in Diversity: Community without Propinquity." Pp. 23-54 in Cities and Space: The Future Use of Urban Land, edited by J. Lowdon Wingo. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press. Wellman, Barry. "The Community Question: The Intimate Networks of East Yorkers." American Journal of Sociology 84 (March, 1979): 1201-31.
  8. ^ Anderson, Benedict. 1991. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso.

[edit] 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 [1].
  • Kollock, Peter. 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 [2] 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.
  • 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. [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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