ESST MA Thesis Outline
Espen O. Gjostol
University of Oslo / Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne
Submitted 26 April 1999
An investigation into the virtuality of electronic communities
- why some virtual communities are real and real communities are virtual
The aim of the thesis will be to analyse the nature of electronic (or virtual or on-line) communities. Electronic communities are often envisaged as existing in a separate realm from real communities, a notion manifested in the term cyberspace. This separation leads to an entire on-line ideology in that electronic communities supposedly encompass new forms of communities that are placeless, bodiless, identityless, democratic, equality-promoting, revolutionising, creating a global village, and so on.
The analysis will require three black boxes (which ones are black depend on the standing point of the observer) to be opened up, namely the on-line social sphere, the off-line social sphere and the mediating technologies.
Key literature and debates
Books to be covered deal mostly with social analysis of electronic communites (Jones 1997, 1998a, 1998b; Shields1996). These also deal with the general concept of community. Anderson (1983) analyses virtuality of off-line communities. Schwartz (1997) covers e-commerce aspects.
There is a cconsiderable amount of on-line sources, in the form of books (e.g. Rheingold 1993) articles (e.g. Fernback & Thompson 1995), academic sites (e.g. Virtual Society?), and magazines, both popular (e.g. Cybersociety) and academic (e.g. JCMC). A critical selection of these will be performed.
Some technical on-line sources are also of interest, e.g. the WWW Consortium with their Technology&Society programme and the Internet Engineering Task Force, the main standardisation body.
Some debates to address are:
The theoretical framework that is likely to be used comprises:
One way of starting the analysis is to use a technical model of computer networks, viz the OSI Reference Model, which conceptualises data communications in several organisational levels (abstractions specified as protocols), where virtual communication occurs between peer levels and real communication occurs in the form of one layer utilising the services offered by the level below (Tanenbaum 1996). This model may, I believe, be augmented to incorporate social factors in a seamless fashion - this must, however, be done in a way that avoids reductionism.
The academic discourse on the subject seems to far from closure, so an important part is to produce a critique of some current theories using an STS framework. Some of the theories that come out as more promising (and any new theoretical elements in the thesis) need to be corroborated by empirical data. Such data are to be found in abundance on the Net, so the focus is likely to be a on one or two Usenet newsgroups (e.g. one dealing with a social issue and one with a technical issue), and onevirtual world, e.g. The Palace. Further and more targeted data may be collected by issuing e-mail questionnaires to some central actors of the above communities, e.g. a few users and moderators.
In summary, the methods employed will be:
26 April-31 May: Reading and browsing the Web, picking a few newsgroups to follow, picking a virtual world. Making questions and choosing individuals to ask.
1 June-30 June: Submitting questionnaires. Analysing answers. Writing based on the literature.
1 July-4 August: Writing based on empirical work and literature.
5 August-12 August: Break (visit to Norway).
13 August-27 August: Connecting empirical data to theory. Beginning to write conclusion.
28 August-4 September: Writing conclusion & finishing other chapters (final text version).
5 September-29 September: Making final adjustments.
30 September: Producing three copies of the thesis ready to be handed in.
4 October: Handing in
Anderson, B. (1983). Imagined communities: Reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism. London: Verso.
Bijker, W. E. (1995). Sociohistorical Technology Studies. In Jasanoff S., Markle, G. E., Petersen, J. C. & Pinch, T. (Eds.), Handbook of science and technology studies. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Bowden, G. (1995). Coming of Age in STS: Some Methodological Musings. In Jasanoff S., Markle, G. E., Petersen, J. C. & Pinch, T. (Eds.), Handbook of science and technology studies. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Fernback, J. & Thompson, B. (1995): Virtual Communities: Abort, Retry, Failure?. Available:www.rheingold.com/texts/techpolitix/VCcivil.html. (This is an abridged version of Computer-Mediated Communication and the American Collectivity: The Dimensions of Community Within Cyberspace, paper presented at the annual convention of the International Communication Association, Albuquerque, New Mexico, May 1995.)
Jones, S. G. (Ed.) (1997): Virtual culture: Identity and Communication in Cybersociety. London: Sage.
Jones, S. G. (Ed.) (1998a): Doing Internet research: Critical issues and methods for examining the Net. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Jones, S. G. (Ed.) (1998b): Cybersociety 2.0: Revisiting computer-mediated communication and community. Sage.
Latour, B. (1999). Thought Experiments in Social Science: from the Social Contract to Virtual Society. 1st Virtual Society? annual public lecture, 1 April 1998, Brunel University. Available:www.brunel.ac.uk/research/virtsoc/events/latour2.htm.
Marx, K (18xx): Capital, vol 1 [The chapter about Commodity Fetishism].
Rheingold, H. (1993): The virtual community - homesteading on the electronic frontier. New York: Addison-Wesley. Available:www.rheingold.com/vc/book.
Schwartz, E. I. (1997): Webonomics - nine essential principles for growing your business on the world wide web. Penguin Books.
Shields, R. (ed.) (1996): Cultures of Internet: Virtual spaces, real histories, living bodies. Sage.
Steuer, J. (1998): Tools for Building a Web Community, Web Techniques Magazine, January 1998, Volume 3, Issue 1. Available:www.webtechniques.com/features/1998/01/steuer/steuer.shtml
Tanenbaum, A. S. (1996): Computer Networks. 3rd ed. Prentice-Hall. [About the OSI Reference Model]
Preliminary structure for final thesis
Review of existing theory
Critique of existing theory
Analysis of electronic communities using chosen framework