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University of Oslo
&
Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne (EPFL)

 

 

Imagined virtuality: Reflections on the socio-technical framework of electronic communities

 

by

Espen O. Gjøstøl

 

Thesis submitted for the degree of Master of Arts in
European studies in Society, Science and Technology

 

Supervised by
Olivier Glassey, EPFL

 

Submitted 4 October 1999

 


Abstract

The object of this thesis is to analyse aspects of the socio-technical framework of electronic communities. This framework is of a technical, social and theoretical nature. The technical aspects have to do with the technology that electronic communities depend on, and how interpersonal relations are affected when they are mediated by this technology. The social aspects include how electronic communities depend upon and are rooted in their social environment. There are two theoretical issues. The first deals with the assumptions that commonly form the basis for analysis and discourse around community in general and the electronic variant in particular. The second has to do with identifying socio-technical symmetries in the development of electronic communities, and extending these symmetries to give a more general account of the standardisation of artefacts within the Internet.


Acknowledgements

I would like to thank my supervisor at EPFL, Olivier Glassey, for our fruitful discussions and his numerous ideas on how to bring this thesis forward.


Contents

1 Introduction *

1.1 The Internet and its surrounding discourse *

1.2 The Internet as a platform for social formations *

1.3 A note on method *

1.4 Thesis organisation *

2 Virtuality and mediation *

2.1 The problematic concept of 'virtuality' *

2.1.1 Reality, abstraction and transcendence *
2.1.2 Virtuality and imagination *

2.2 Towards a dénouement of 'virtuality' *

2.2.1 'Virtuality' in the technical sense *
2.2.2 Virtuality and mediation
*
2.2.3 A deconstruction of human and machine communication *

3 Community *

3.1 What constitutes a community? *

3.1.1 Brief historical background *
3.1.2 Community and place
*
3.1.3 Community and proximity *
3.1.4 Communication, ritual and structuration *
3.1.5 Common fundamental interest *
3.1.6 Towards some criteria for community *

3.2 What is an electronic community? *

3.2.1 Means for on-line social formations *
3.2.2 Searching for a 'reference' community
*
3.2.3 Are on-line social formations communities? *
3.2.4 A note on terminology *
3.2.5 Defining e-community *
3.2.6 Subjective vs. objective views *
3.2.7 Abuse of the 'electronic community' label *

3.3 E-communities and the socio-technical environment *

3.3.1 The global environment *
3.3.2 The local environment
*
3.3.3 The regional environment *

3.4 Community interdependencies *

3.4.1 E-communities and developer communities *
3.4.2 Community and territory - the case of IETF
*
3.4.3 Economic 'intrusion' *

4 Technical characteristics and social cues *

4.1 Face-to-face communication *

4.1.1 Basic characteristics *
4.1.2 Problems of face-to-face communication
*

4.2 The transformation and transmission of social cues *

4.2.1 Mediation and information loss *
4.2.2 Identity cues conveyed
*
4.2.3 Cue control and identity change *

4.3 The off-line roots of on-line features *

4.3.1 Language and symbols *
4.3.2 Dysfunctional social relations - the case of on-line racism
*

4.4 Influence of e-communities in the wider society *

5 Closure *

5.1 Socio-technical development patterns *

5.1.1 Interpretative flexibility *
5.1.2 Re-interpretation of the Internet
*

5.2 Dynamics of Internet standardisation *

5.2.1 Technical standardisation patterns *
5.2.2 Social standardisation patterns
*

5.3 E-communities and constructivist closure *

6 Conclusion *

Bibliography *


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