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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’.


  • To show that the ‘off-line’ or ‘real’ social sphere permeates both the ‘on-line’ and the ‘technological’ spheres. The spheres are hence considerably overlapping and strongly interacting. The main interactions need to be identified. This might lead to a demythification of electronic communities, and as such a better understanding of the societal role and place that electronic communities occupy in the ‘real’ world. A secondary effect may be a reconceptualisation not only of the of the ‘virtuality’ in electronic communities, but also of the ‘reality’ in off-line communities.
  • To identify central actors and forces that shape (contribute to, enhance and limit) electronic communities and how this shaping manifests itself. This ought to be done both for the ‘on-line’ sphere and the ‘technological’ sphere, and the roots of this shaping in the ‘real’ social world should be sought.

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 concept of ‘community’.
  • Contradictions in the literature: Is the Web a mass medium? Are electronic communities virtual or real? Are ‘electronic communities’ communities? Are electronic communities constructive or destructive social entities?
  • Technological determinism.
  • Are some ‘real’ communities actually ‘imagined’ or ‘virtual’ communities? (Anderson 1983).

The theoretical framework that is likely to be used comprises:

  • Multidisciplinarity (Bowden 1995)
  • SCOT (Bijker 1995) with particular emphasis on sociotechnical ensembles. This approach seems suitable for analysing this three-level complex of interdependent social, technological and ‘virtual social’ elements.
  • Elements of Marxian analysis in relating‘virtual societies’ to market societies (Latour 1999)

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 one‘virtual 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:

  • Literature review
  • Observation/case study
  • Questionnaire


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: (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:

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:

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:

Tanenbaum, A. S. (1996): Computer Networks. 3rd ed. Prentice-Hall. [About the OSI Reference Model]

Preliminary structure for final thesis

Title page




Review of existing theory

  • on communities
  • on electronic communities, and virtual vs real
  • some candidate STS theoretical frameworks

Critique of existing theory

  • determinism
  • unfounded conclusions & projections
  • contradictions
  • excessive separation of the spheres and black-boxing

Analysis of electronic communities using chosen framework

  • description of the framework
  • analysis centering on the technology
  • analysis centering on the on-line sphere
  • analysis centering on the off-line sphere (suitably delimited)
  • attempting an integrated analysis

Empirical work

  • description
  • results
  • incorporation into framework





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