Today many people are questioning our society's values, and asking what gives meaning to life. They bemoan the "loss of community", and are looking for ways to reintroduce community values into their lives. [... A] sense of community [is] a feeling of belonging and mutual support that is increasingly hard to find in mainstream Western society. (Kozeny 1996)
The concept of community is as blurred as it is widely used. It has proven to be so difficult to define in any rigorous way that the sociologist George Hillery in 1955, after he had collected more than 90 definitions, stated that the attempt to define community is a futile endeavour (Fernback 1999: 208, 216). I will make no such attempt either, but it is still necessary to look at some basic characteristics and criteria. To start with, a brief historical look will be taken, since pre-modern communities have a special status when their modern ancestors are analysed.
A plausible reason for the formation of early communities (primitive communism) is that they increased peoples' chances of survival. In a situation of scarcity and unreliable yields from nature it was important to engage in social co-operation in order to obtain the means for survival more efficiently and reliably. With the development of agriculture this co-operation was further extended, and it became more place-bound. Villages grew up in the vicinity of agricultural areas, resulting in a fairly well-defined territory that had to be defended against intruders. In these village communities the social fabric became tightly knit, with individuals filling societal roles based on location, tradition and heritage. People basically 'knew their place in society', and the prevailing social relations were thus quite fixed and rigid.
With the further development of the productive forces, some communities became able to produce a surplus, which provided the base (in the marxian sense) for classes based on the control of this surplus. This meant that in addition to the horizontal relations between peers of equal formal social status, there arose vertical relations based on subservience and authority (e.g. feudal serf vs. lord) that was often justified on mythical (religious) grounds. The community was hence split up along class interests on one level, but this split could be counteracted by ideological means, thereby keeping the community intact on another level.
The rise of capitalism, industry and cities accentuated the trend of class-based social fragmentation. Class antagonism became more pronounced, as capitalists often had to force people to 'convert' from being farmers to being industrial workers, and as the workers experienced harsh conditions in the factories. This alienation process led to changes in the social relations between people as they lost individual control over their productive activities (e.g. Marx 1844/1974), and had to attempt to regain it through collective action, through the formation of trade unions, for example.
The communities to which people belonged thus became less well defined. Workers had their community of colleagues at the factory and in the unions, they had the family and the neighbourhood where they lived, and they had various social gathering places. People did no longer belong to a single strong 'full-time' community, but rather to several weaker partly-overlapping 'part-time' communities. This blurring of community has continued to the present day, aided by progress in transportation and communications technology, which has made the place-boundedness of communities radically less important.
The social fragmentation associated with (post-)modern society thus started centuries ago, in pre-modernity. Already from the seventeenth century onwards the need for co-operation between farmers became less, and "local integration diminished as the interlocal, rural-urban integration increased" (Hanssen 1977: 350). There is hence no sharp transition from the Gemeinschaft to the Gesellschaft, i.e. the ideal types corresponding to community and society, respectively, conceived by Tönnies (1887/1957). In Gemeinschaft the cultural past weighs heavily as a guide for action, whereas Gesellschaft is more inclined towards progress and individualism (Fernback 1999: 206-207). Modernity has seen a tendency towards Gesellschaft, but this is interspersed with elements of Gemeinschaft. In one's 'public' life (as producer) one enters a contract with an employer, and enters into relations with co-producers based on common need for money (means of exchange for consumption), rather than on some common vision on how to transform one's environment. Consumption is based on exchanging money for goods via an intermediary; the producers are rarely encountered directly. Such formal and contractual relations are the basis of Gesellschaft. In one's 'private' life, on the other hand, relations are based on more direct and fundamental interests, on family ties, or on common location, giving rise to forms of Gemeinschaft.
Pre-modern villages were to a high degree bound to a specific location. Agriculture is after all linked to a specific land area. This area formed the gathering place for people, who formed the community. Since that time community forms have undergone important changes, one of which is decreasing place-boundedness. Nevertheless, community has usually been associated with place (Fernback 1999: 206), something which has led to analytical problems when scholars are presented with community-like formations that have only weak links to place. It is time to ask whether place is a necessary determinant for community after all.
In the agriculture case the utilisation of the land represents the basic reason for the social interaction. It is the common fundamental interest that makes people come together. But what if there was, hypothetically, a different reason for the people to gather, some interest that was not directly linked to the land? It is arguably the coincidence of interest and place that makes the place appear to be the essential factor, whereas a more fundamental factor is in fact the common interest. In this way place becomes an instrumental rather than essential element; it acts as a kind of mediator for the social interaction. It nevertheless remains an important factor, since it will profoundly influence the specific form of the community that evolves around it.
The claim that it is the fundamental interest that is essential for the formation of the community, rather than place, facilitates the elimination of what can be viewed as a logical flaw, viz. of allowing a material entity - place - to be a determinant for a purely social phenomenon - community. This is at the 'cost' of opening up for a wider interpretation of community than what has traditionally been done. It also makes it unnecessary to expand the concept of place to include symbolic or imagined places, a 'trick' which is often employed in order to retain the community label on social formations that have weak ties to physical place. The frequent referral to 'cyberspace' is on example.
Even though the specific place where a community is located might not be so central, one may still impose a requirement of geographical proximity of the community members. This requirement arises from the view that face-to-face communication is a requirement for 'real' relations to be built, and face-to-face interaction entails proximity. But again it might be argued that the salient feature of community is the existence of certain social relations between the members, and not how these relations are made possible. Although communication and face-to-face interaction were basically the same thing in early communities, it is now several centuries since remote social relations could be built up via distance communication. Already in the late 18th century the civic public sphere was not based purely on face-to-face interaction, but centred also around published material (Fornäs 1998). Another important means for social interaction at that time was surface mail, which played a role that has partly been taken over by the telephone in the 20th century.
Even if communication does not exclusively occur face-to-face, one might argue that it is at least required some of the time, so that social interaction that has only been performed via technology (like CMC) cannot result in 'real' relations. But as Sudweeks and Simoff (1999: 43) point out, "communicating with strangers on a regular basis is not new"; the popularity and durability of pen pal relationships has been testimony to this. In this respect one should also note that although letter-writing is a form of communication that at first sight seems be mediated by 'low-tech', notably pen and paper, only a superficial look at the constituents of the modern postal system reveals that it is in many respects at least as high-tech as any 'purely' ICT-based infrastructure like the Internet.
It seems therefore feasible to build a community from geographically dispersed individuals who communicate exclusively by means of technology. This does not mean that physical proximity is unimportant; it is after all conducive to facilitating the interactions that are needed for establishing community relations. It should, however, not be regarded as an essential requirement.
Community and communication are inextricably linked, as their common etymology indicates (Watson 1997; Fernback and Thompson 1995). A necessary element for establishing and maintaining community is communication in some form between the community members. But for effective communication to occur, there must be some shared understanding and interpretation of symbols, and such a sharing presupposes to a certain extent an already existing, more 'basic' community in which the interpretations of the various individuals have converged, most notably in a common language. This dialectical interplay lies at the heart of a ritual view of communication (Carey 1989), where the central feature is the development of a shared culture, to make common a set of meanings (Fornäs 1998), rather than the mere transmission of information.
Formation of a new community (e.g. one based on a specific interest) thus takes place in the setting of existing communities which provide the basic means - the 'infrastructure' - for interaction. In these 'basic' communities the members are more numerous, but also more weakly interlinked. The commonality is of a more general nature and seldom explicitly formulated; it might e.g. be based on common language, geographical proximity, common education system, or common class. Any new community formed within this framework is bound to inherit many of the socio-cultural traits of the community in which it arises, but is also likely to develop its own idiosyncrasies. This conceptually layered view of communities may be depicted as in fig. 3.1.
Fig. 3.1: Social community dependency.
The fundamental community is likely to have more Gesellschaft-like properties, and is drawn wide and thin to indicate wide socio-cultural scope but weak interpersonal ties.
The ritual aspect of communication is linked to certain structuration activities that are necessary for a community to form. By this is meant the formation of a set of norms and rules that govern the communicative patterns, and also the establishment of a shared symbol system on a higher level than the basic units of language, i.e. a kind of community-specific jargon (Watson 1997: 116; Fernback and Thompson 1995). The shared understanding of these norms and symbols creates a sense of belonging and identity that serves to delineate the community. An aggregate result of the interactions is that the community acquires its own 'atmosphere' that serves as an attractor or repellent to newcomers.
An important requirement for this structuration activity to occur is long-term and continual interaction, which in turn means that community participants must invest a non-trivial amount of time and energy in building the community. A logical consequence of this is that the community must evolve around some important preoccupation that is shared by the participants, i.e. the common fundamental interest that was introduced in section 3.1.2. Some possibilities are: a life-activity or a consuming leisure activity; a philosophy, ideology or value system; a physical, mental or social handicap. It might also be an indirect interest, like the filling of a need for social contact that results from isolation in other spheres of life.
Communities may be categorised into intentional and circumstantial. For the former the fundamental interest is usually explicitly formulated, whereas the latter may be formed around an implicit interest resulting from outside forces or material needs. In early forms of communities the fundamental interest was existence itself. In a circumstantial community the explicit formulation of its raison d'être may occur when it attempts to attract new members or when the community must be defended against outside pressures. This might form the starting point for the development of a community ideology, which normally involves a certain distortion of the realities in order to emphasise the perceived benefits and play down negative traits.
According to Fernback the essence of community is commonality in terms of, for example, interests or location. In line with the argument in section 3.1.2, the location factor is covered by the interest factor. There is also a process aspect of community; it is not a static entity, but its borders are constantly re-negotiated as new elements are included, both in terms of participants and of the symbolic lexicon used by them (Fernback 1999: 204-205). This aspect can be seen as the structuration activity mentioned above, which should be regarded as a dynamic feature.
Community can then be viewed as a dynamic entity whose essence consists of communication (in the wide sense of making common) and commonality (which is partly a prerequisite for the communication, and partly the result of the communication, i.e. commonality on a higher level). And in order for a community to form, the following elements have been identified as being central:
Note that the communication medium remains unspecified, and any spatial factors are excluded. This is not to say that they are of little import for the specific form a community assumes; but they are not used to judge whether a social gathering is a community.
Now that some foundations have been laid regarding community in general, these can be used to look at the computer-mediated variant. But first of all, the most common means for on-line interaction will be reviewed.
CMC largely involves communication based on text entered via a keyboard on a source computer and displayed as printed letters on the screen of a destination computer. Different systems have different features for text manipulation and transmission, and some systems have the possibility of adding graphics. Not all systems are based on the Internet.
The systems can be grouped into two categories: synchronous and asynchronous. The former relies on synchronised contributions from the interlocutors, like when talking on the telephone. There cannot be long delays in the exchanges, so there has to be a certain spontaneity and brevity in each contribution. The latter mode allows considerable delays, comparable to writing letters. This means that contributions may be lengthier and more carefully thought through and composed.
The first BBS (Bulletin Board System) appeared already in the 1970s. This is not an Internet-based system (although some are connected to the Internet); one has to call the BBS directly via a modem. Users therefore tend to be geographically close to each other to avoid paying long-distance phone calls. A BBS is usually a collection of different services, including messaging, file transfer, on-line games and chatting.
The first MUD (Multi-User Dimension or Domain) was created in 1979. Originally the 'D' stood for Dungeon, which reflects the fact that it originated from a one-player adventure game (called 'ZORK'). A MUD is a multi-user text-based chat zone combined with a role-playing game with a sometimes modifiable environment. Variants are MUSH (Multi-User Shared Hallucination) where the emphasis is on peaceful role-playing, rather than combat, and MUCK (Multi-User Character Kingdom), where the users have more liberty in shaping the game environment. A MOO (MUD Object-Oriented) is a MUD implemented by an object-oriented programming language and which allows users to create rooms and objects that form the role-playing environment. Recent MOOs complement the textual interface with graphics.
Virtual worlds are graphics-based environments, usually 3-dimensional, where users are represented by a pieces of graphics called avatars, which sometimes may depict human beings, but often they represent animals or fantasy figures. Verbal communication is usually realised through displaying typed text in the form of speech bubbles, but recently there has emerged the possibility of transmitting one's own voice via a microphone and loudspeaker.
Chatting is based on the IRC (Internet Relay Chat) protocol, and consists of text-based exchanges without any medium-provided environment. The communication is synchronous, and as the name indicates, the speed of exchanges is similar to when one chats (orally) with other people. Each 'conversation' is called a channel or zone, usually delineated by topic.
The above media are largely synchronous. Asynchronous media include Usenet news and electronic mail (e-mail). The former is a collection of notes on a variety of subjects that are publicised by sending ('posting') them to a world-wide network of servers. Each subject collection is called a newsgroup. Despite their name such newsgroups are typically used as discussion forums rather than news channels.
E-mail is text-messages sent to specific recipients. Through the MIME (Multipurpose Internet Mail Extension) mechanism it is possible to include various multimedia attachments, like word-processor documents, executable programs, pictures, and audio and video snippets. Mailing-lists are lists of people who subscribe, and themselves contribute, to periodic distributions of e-mails on a specific topic.
The object of this thesis is not to analyse these various media individually or in depth, the focus will instead be on some generic features.
A problem with analysing new types of community-like social formations has to with the standard of reference. What is the 'reference' community? The vast range of different existing communities, different perceptions of what a community is, and various definitions of community makes it rather hard to find an adequate reference point. Moreover, present-day society is commonly regarded to suffer from increased social fragmentation and erosion of communities, as the initial quote of this chapter reflects. This means that it is tempting to look backwards in history, to a point in time before this fragmentation set in. The word community has hence often evoked a view of a pre-modern village, and a romanticised idea of the social relations that prevailed there. The material backwardness is conveniently overlooked, resulting in a distorted and ahistorical notion of what a 'real' community is.
Instead of searching for an existing or historic standard, an alternative approach is to use some basic community criteria that can be applied to social formations in general. This approach means that all social formations, whether based on CMC or face-to-face interaction, whether modern or ancient, can be treated symmetrically, and none of them acts as a standard for the others. This has a methodological benefit in that it makes it difficult to 'black-box' one specific form and use it uncritically as a template for other forms.
The basic criteria arrived at in section 3.1.2 may now be used to make a quick judgement as to whether some computer-mediated social formations have the community potential.
Communication: That people actually interact socially and form social relations via CMC has been demonstrated beyond doubt by numerous studies, two of the most prominent being Sherry Turkle's Life on the screen (1995) and Howard Rheingold's The virtual community (1993). One might on principal grounds complain that computer-mediated communication is virtual and therefore the social relations are somehow not real, but the discussion around virtuality in chapter 2 should counteract this stance.
Common fundamental interest: On-line social formations are formed around a wide range of interests. There are a number of studies of forums where participants spend considerable time and contribute frequently. These include role-playing MUDs (Turkle 1995), discussion forums on soap operas (Baym 1998), fandom (Watson 1997) and drinking problems (Denzin 1999). These show that a hobby or personal problem can provide a strong enough interest for people to engage so actively in CMC that a community is formed. At the same time a brief look at some of the available discussion forums also reveals social interaction with faint community potential, except perhaps for people who are pathologically narrow-minded. One example is epfl.satellite (newsgroup whose topic is a bar at the Swiss technical college EPFL), with a mere 35 postings in three years. Another example is no.alt.sjokolade, a Norwegian newsgroup about chocolate.
Structuration activity: Probably the best known type of norm creation is so-called netiqutte (Internet etiquette), which are often detailed rules for recommended on-line behaviour regarding both form and content of the textual contributions. These rules have arisen in order to make the communication more efficient and improve understanding (Sharf 1999: 244-245). If the rules are broken, different forms of punishment might be invoked, from slight textual reprimand, via flaming (heavy reprimand), to exclusion by social or technical means. It includes the formation of community roles (leaders, veterans, member of different authority, and a changing population of newcomers). It also often involves the formation of a specific jargon (expressions, acronyms, etc.)
Despite the brevity and superficiality of this review it should be apparent that the most important elements for community formation are present in many on-line social gatherings.
'Virtual communities', 'cybercommunities', 'on-line communities' or 'electronic communities' are terms that all have been used to denote on-line social formations that have community-like characteristics. The first term is problematic due to the poorly-defined concept of 'virtuality', an issue that was treated in chapter 2. The second means 'community in cyberspace', which is also sub-optimal, due to the lack of precision associated with the concept of 'cyberspace'. On the one hand, the expression "in cyberspace" may simply mean "on-line" or "computer-mediated"; on the other hand "cyberspace" may denote a full-fledged imaginary world, in accordance with Gibson's fictional work Neuromancer (1984), where the term seems to have been initially coined. 'On-line community' is somewhat ambiguous, since the set of all people who partake in CMC is often denoted by the expression "the on-line community". This thesis will stick to the 'electronic community' term (or e-community for brevity), since this reflects the electronic technology used as medium for the communication that results in the formation of community.
Not many have tried to comprehensively define e-community (Fernback 1999: 216). Two definitions that are not atypical are as follows:
[O]n-line community [is] social relationships forged in cyberspace through repeated contact within a specified boundary or place (e.g., a conference or chat line) that is symbolically delineated by topic of interest. (Fernback and Thompson 1995: Ch. III)
Virtual communities are social aggregations that emerge from the Net when enough people carry on those [Internet-mediated] public discussions long enough, with sufficient human feeling, to form webs of personal relationships in cyberspace. (Rheingold 1993: 5)
There are a few things to note about these definitions. The former emphasises the place-boundedness of the community. 'Place' is here taken to mean type of medium (e.g. chat line), rather than physical location. The social interaction ("contact") is bounded by topic of interest. But what happens when the place boundary is trespassed? Does the community somehow break down if people use various means of communication? This technological limitation appears superfluous.
Another problem is the lack of qualitative criteria for both the contact and the topic of interest. Will any form of contact do, or must some minimum of social cues be exchanged? Likewise, will any topic of interest suffice? Without further clues in these respects, the "definition" more becomes a description of how some e-communities have emerged.
The second definitions goes some way in giving qualitative criteria, in that a minimum of human feeling must exist (although it is unclear whether these feeling must be conveyed to the other participants, or it is sufficient that each participant experiences these feelings privately). The required minimum is what is necessary for personal relationships to form, but what such relationships are remains unspecified.
Both definitions only refer to the process leading up to the formation of community; no mention is made about their characteristics when they have been formed, except that they are "social relationships" or "aggregations". Both refer explicitly to "cyberspace", a term whose lack of precision renders it unsuitable in definitions, as was pointed out above. With the argument presented in section 3.1.2 there is really no need to extend the notion of 'place' to include abstract places like 'cyberspace', which numerous scholars do in order to stick with the place-boundedness of community.
Instead I will give a definition of e-community which avoids referring to place and which uses the 'trick' of referring to the general concept of community. This both simplifies the definition and indicates that e-communities are real communities. Here goes: An e-community is a community whose members exclusively or predominantly establish and maintain their social relations through the use of ICT.
A more satisfying definition would replace the reference to community with a definition of community, but this will, as already stated, not be attempted. A starting point might be to use the community criteria stated in section 3.1.6.
The classic dichotomy in anthropology over emic and etic strategies (a native's categorisation of behaviour vs. that of an observer) shows up also in the discourse around e-communities. Participants ('natives') often have a clear conviction of their being part of a community, whereas academics who study them are far less convinced of the authenticity of these alleged communities. Faced with this contrast, and on the background of his studies of an on-line discussion forum, Watson (1997: 121) argues that one should focus more on the participants' imagination, thereby allowing on-line group interaction to qualify as community and also transferring judgement of community from the observers to the participants.
Although I think Watson is right in claiming that e-communities are real communities, this way of arguing undermines his own case. First, the emphasis on the imagination aspects goes directly counter to the claims for the realness of e-communities, as explained in section 2.1.2. Second, rejecting the validity of 'objective' analysis, and relying purely on the subjective factor is to swing the pendulum too far in the subjective direction. A criticism of a lot of 'objective analysis' is indeed appropriate, but not of objective analysis per se. I have already outlined one way of objectively establishing the realness of e-communities, by identifying generic community characteristics.
The positive aura of the word 'community' and the apparently large potential for forming communities on-line has led a number of commentators to identify a business potential in 'building' commerce-based e-communities (e.g. Hagel and Armstrong 1997). There are some problems with this in relation to the nature of a community. First of all, communities are seldom 'engineered' by some external individual or organisation, they instead develop spontaneously, through the internal logic of the interactions of a growing number of members. What can be engineered is the means (the infrastructure) for interaction, e.g. a discussion forum, but populating the forum is another matter.
Another problem has to with the requirement that members share some fundamental interest. In a commerce-based forum this interest is about various consumer goods and their characteristics. But very few people have such a strong interest in general commodities that they will engage in "long enough" discussions to form "webs of personal relationships" (Rheingold 1993: 5). These personal relationships are necessary to trust the other persons' opinions. This has only a chance to occur with goods that are purchased frequently, e.g. compact discs and books. But then there exist a great variety of alternative non-commercial forums that are in many ways more attractive, not least because they are more likely to be unbiased (and the on-line community has also a tradition of animosity towards commercial interests).
When one looks at the existing commercial "communities" they are hardly communities at all, merely web sites with the opportunity of user feedback (e.g. amazon.com, the on-line bookstore, which allows clients to contribute their own reviews).
McLuhan's (1962) prediction that "the new electronic interdependence recreates the world in the image of a global village" is often believed to have been realised through recent developments in ICT:
As the citizens of the planet look towards the coming millennium, Marshall McLuhan's 1962 prediction of the Global Village is a reality. Worldwide communication is instant. Information is available at our fingertips from almost anywhere in the world. The Internet has created a community that has no borders, holds no prejudices and is efficiently self-governing.
The Internet is allegedly the realisation of this global village; people all over the world may now be reached by the speed of light, and race, sex or class no longer plays any role, since CMC allows your identity to be hidden. This view represents a distortion of reality, as both the studies of e-communities and some basic statistics indicate. To start with the statistics:
Internet use: In the USA 26% of the population are users of the Net, and in the remaining OECD countries the number is 6.9%. But in the rest of the world less than 1% of people use the Net. This massive inequality reflects widely varying developments of the socio-technical infrastructure. The social aspects include computer literacy (not to mention general literacy), education, cost of technology, and general use of technology in society. Technical aspects are computer availability, network infrastructure, and availability of electrical power. As long as the basic technological infrastructure is as unevenly developed as it is at present, this global inequality is likely to be aggravated. For example, in the Western world the teledensity (number of telephones per 100 inhabitants) is in most countries close to 100, whereas a quarter of the world's countries in 1998 had a teledensity of less than 1 (UNDP 1999: 62-63).
Equipment cost: In the USA a computer typically costs 1 month's income, whereas in Bangladesh the cost is 8 years' income (UNDP 1999: 6). The cost of an Internet connection is in Africa normally around US$100 per month, in the USA $10 per month. Macroeconomic factors show no indication that this techno-economic state of affairs is likely to improve in the foreseeable future.
Socio-cultural factors: Today approximately 80% of web-sites are in English, a language that only 10% of the world population speaks, and 30% of Internet users have at least one university degree (UNDP 1999: 6). So even if one has access to the Net, one is likely to encounter significant linguistic and cultural barriers against efficient use.
In other words, while the Internet to some extent "annihilate time and space" between members of the on-line community, the effective distance to the vast majority that is not connected becomes infinite. They are simply unreachable through this medium, and they become irrelevant when it comes to exerting socio-technical influence on this technology. Far from there being a global village with culturally heterogeneous inhabitants, there is a very select community with a fairly homogeneous socio-cultural background, almost exclusively confined to the Western developed countries. This is a fact that profoundly affects the demography of e-community populations.
The unevenness is most conspicuous at the global level, but there also exist important differences within each of the most developed countries. Computers and Internet connections are still too expensive for a great number of people, and many are functionally illiterate when it comes to computer use. Many people participate in e-communities from work, as this may be their principle place for computer access. However, to be able to participate, they require a job where they can to a large extent govern their own working time, or where this activity is not detected by supervisors (Kendall 1999: 59). The nature of the workplace and the prevailing work ethic are thus very important for e-community participation.
Likewise, for those who participate in an e-community from their home computer, the domestic workload and how one organises one's leisure time are crucial factors. A person that is 'less connected' off-line may more easily engage in on-line activity, simply because total leisure time is limited. Priorities are always subject to change, but following child-birth, for instance, it is difficult to maintain on-line activity at the same level (ibid.).
The local or regional factor is relevant for the nature of e-communities in several ways. The socio-cultural embeddedness of e-communitarians will in various ways be reflected in the form and content of the communication. Most explicitly, the subject of many newsgroups is often tied to a specific geographical area. There also exist a range of subtler manifestations, which will be elaborated in chapter 4.
Another regional (and global) factor is time. People can usually only participate at certain hours of the day, which means that the active population of e-communities changes according to the time of day. This means that time zones are a factor in analysis of CMC, despite the hype represented by this commercial for a new watch: "Swatch divides the virtual and the real day into 1000 'beats'. (...) What does this mean? Time zones and geographical borders no longer exist." The significance of time zones varies with the specific medium. Synchronous media like IRC is highly affected, asynchronous media like discussion forums only to a low extent, unless postings are sent very frequently. It is clear that the Internet and e-communities do not transcend time zones or time in general (unless the on-line community isolate themselves in a room without windows - in which case a lot of the other hype will become true as well, incidentally).
Another development is the formation of regional communities that are hybrids of on-line and off-line communities. These community (or civic) networks are established in order to promote a region via the Web and enhance the social glue between its citizens, thereby strengthening the already existing community to which the electronic version corresponds. These developments go well with 'glocalisation' theories, where local strengths are harnessed to provide economic advantages in an increasingly global competition. In addition to the economic objective, community networks are also seen as ways of recapturing "the nearly lost art of democratic decision-making and community building" (Civille, Fidelman and Altobello 1993).
E-communities do not exist in a vacuum. They depend on an intricate technological infrastructure (the networks and the basic services of fig. 1.2). This infrastructure is in turn dependent on human social activity, in its construction, its maintenance and its further development. This gives rise to a community of developers, and fig. 1.2 may be augmented to include these elements in a way shown in fig. 3.2.
Fig. 3.2: Dependencies among technology-oriented communities.
Community 1 is the people involved with the development of the basic services and with integrating these services in the existing infrastructure. They comprise engineers, programmers, computer architects, sales and marketing people, financiers and administrators. Within such a heterogeneous community the programmers, as an example, can be said to constitute a sub-community with its own norms and rules. Its members are often involved in other social networks that may have conflicting interests with the developer community, for example if they work for a private firm. Intellectual property rights is one area where the norms of such communities are conflicting.
These communities are not e-communities in the sense that their members predominantly use ICT for communicating with each other (although they use it to some, and often considerable, extent). But they can be said to be e-communities in a different sense: Their work is about developing electronic technology. However, to avoid confusion, this latter sense of the term will not be used here. (As an aside it may be worth noting that there are other types of "e-communities" in this extended sense, for instance the 'rave' or 'techno music' community, whose existence evolves around electronically produced music.)
An example of a community of Internet technology developers is the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), the main standardisation body for the Internet. IETF is organised under the Internet Society (ISOC), which is a professional membership society with over 150 organisational and 6000 individual members in more than 100 countries (ISOC 1999a). IETF is a hybrid community in that its members meet both conventionally (face-to-face meetings and conferences) and via ICT. An important element of the latter is the IETF mailing-list. This list illustrates how a community tries to delineate its perceived 'territory' through on-line interactions.
For unlike ISOC, which, in addition to technological issues, "is involved in a variety of initiatives stemming from social, economic, political, ethical, and legal sources that can and do exert influence on the direction of the Internet" (ISOC 1999b), the IETF deals with 'purely technical' aspects. This self-perceived border is sometimes fiercely upheld, as some mailing-list contributions reveal. A notable example is the discussion around whether a certain contributor should be banned from the list, due to his 'purely political' claims regarding the role of the IETF and some of its central actors. One posting read:
Bob has not asked for protocols to implement his ideas. This is the Internet Engineering Task Force, not the Internet Political Task Force or the Internet Citizens-Rights Task Force. If he wishes to petition the ISOC to get either of the latter created, more power to him. When he has protocols he needs designed or reviewed, he'll be welcome with the IETF.
Other contributors used flaming (i.e. angry postings using harsh wording) and argued that the 'intruder' should be banned from the list, and some acted like mediators in the debate. These discussions reflects a widely prevailing view among engineers, namely that political discussions are not 'real work'; it is only discussions around 'technical' issues that matter.
Conflict resolution in CMC typically involve social ostracism (exclusion through verbal means), technical ostracism (by filtering out postings from that person, usually the task of a system administrator), or some kind of compromise between the community and the 'intruder'. Depending on the authority of various participants in the discussion, the community may see its border changed in one direction or other, for instance by allowing some 'political' contributions, or by reacting even more fiercely to future intrusions of such issues.
At the core of the IETF controversy is that some people perceive the IETF to be stepping away from what has traditionally been regarded as a democratic and egalitarian forum, in line with the general 'Internet ethos'. The issue at hand has to do with the control and regulation of Internet domain names, an activity that up to now has been a rather trivial technical-administrative issue, but which is regarded to be of a potentially huge political and economic importance, due to the increased socio-economic weight of the Net. The establishment of a new organisation for this purpose - the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) - by, among others, some central IETF members has been criticised: as having been "done in a way that is totally antithetical to the time-honored open and democratic processes of IETF working groups" (Cook Report 1999).
Although the ICANN story has just begun, it illustrates that a once 'innocent' medium, where things have been run according to an open and democratic ethos (although these characteristics have been exaggerated), may be changed in unhealthy ways once it acquires a certain political or economical stature. This ethos has been a central element in the formation and ideology of e-communities, but with the increased diffusion and importance of the Net, such 'contamination' is likely to affect e-communities, as well.
The economic 'intrusion' of the Internet is manifest in various ways. It affects how the developer community works, both by partly eroding the community and also by enrolling new actors. For example, as the Internet has become "the foundation of the Digital Economy, engineers and programmers are spending more and more time working with lawyers to determine how to design and deploy products and services" (ISOC 1999c). It affects how web pages are designed and how efficiently they are accessed, due to the inclusion of commercial 'banners' that impair readability and increase downloading times. It influences the result of the developers' work, most notably the protocols that specify how computers 'talk' to each other. The HTTP protocol, for instance, which is used to transfer web-pages on the Internet, "is changing to meet the requirements of a Web that has become commercially oriented" (Stein 1999). The traffic volume of the Net increases due to the added commercial content, and the amount of browsing increases as people now can be paid just to access commercial pages (regardless of their personal interest) and receive money for receiving and reading commercial e-mail. There are also signs of increased commodification, since domain names, IP addresses and space on web pages have been turned into commodities that are sold like any other commercial item.
E-communities have so far been most explicitly affected in that commercial textual contributions appear. These communities have traditionally reacted strongly to such 'contributions', which are perceived as anti-thetical to the 'unadulterated' Internet ethos, and many e-communities are formed partly as a reaction to the commercial pressures in the wider society.
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