Virtual Communities

by Nirmaldasan

The Internet is a paradox. Michele Wilson says in an article `Community in the Abstract’ that it connects and disconnects individuals at the same time. It isolates individuals from society even as it connects them to virtual communities. Members of a family separated by force of circumstance can come together on the Internet. This is no doubt a boon. But by the same token, the existence of the Internet makes them drift apart by choice since they can always keep in touch. We need to live with this paradox.

Cultural Context

Virtual communities exist within interactive networks. You can play a game of chess at www.chessclub.com or chat for hours on end at one of the many chat zones. You can also be a part of a discussion list or air your views on a bulletin board. Visiting cybercafes has become a part of our culture and an extension of the geographic community. Chennai Online deserves a pat for naming one of its sites the sixth tinai. Dr. Nirmal Selvamony, in a footnote to his paper 'An Alternative Social Order', says that tinai in Tamil means "to join", among other things, and "a region where people and nature coexist". He says that the ancient Tamils divided the entire world into five major habitable regions. The sixth appears to be the Internet.

Many kinds of people make the world. Among these are those who view technology with suspicion. Among these are also those who suffer from Internet Addiction Disorder. Literature to some extent provides pointers to social reactions against technology. You must read Roald Dahl’s short story 'The Great Automatic Grammatizator'. A scientist programmes a machine to write literature. All the authors go out of business because the machine writes better than them. The scientist comes up with an offer which he thinks no author can refuse. Authors must stop writing and lend their names to the machine for a fat sum of money. The story is actually narrated by a starving author who prays to God to give him the strength to refuse the offer and let his children starve. This story reminds me of a Tamil poem by Bharathiputhiran which I have translated into English:

Computers, they say, can songs indite.
Still may I starve morn, noon and night;
But no more need I sing my plight!

Now let us look at the addiction part. Besides causing eye strain and repetitive strain injury, long hours of Internet browsing can make you a social misfit. Of course, the Internet is a fascinating medium; but if you find pleasure only in interacting with faceless friends online, then, believe me, you have a problem. Addiction is a curse -- similar perhaps to the one on Lord Tennyson’s Lady Of Shalott. In the island of Shalott she weaves a magic web. A mirror hangs before her in which the shadows of the world appear.

And sometimes thro’ the mirror blue
The knights come riding two and two:
She hath no loyal knight and true,
The Lady of Shalott.

But in her web she still delights
To weave the mirror’s magic sights,
For often thro’ the silent nights
A funeral, with plumes and lights
And music, went to Camelot:
Or when the moon was overhead,
Came two young lovers lately wed;
I am half-sick of shadows, said
The Lady of Shalott.

But this is the curse. The moment she looks at reality, she would die. When Sir Lancelot flashed into the crystal mirror, the lady left the web and the loom and looked down to Camelot.

Out flew the web and floated wide;
The mirror cracked from side to side;
The curse is come upon me, cried
The Lady of Shalott.

Did Tennyson anticipate the web - the World Wide Web?

Persona in Cyperspace

The Internet itself is a virtual community which knows no geographical limits. The setting of its personae consists of gaming and chat sites besides bulletin boards and discussion lists. The action can occur in real time should you be conversing in a chat site or playing a game of chess online. If you are posting a message to a newsgroup -- a network of bulletin boards -- or to a mailing list, you have to wait patiently for a response.

The email address is usually the persona’s identity. One can choose to wear the cloak of anonymity in chat zones. Nobody in cyberspace, so they say, knows you are a dog. You can choose to be a man or a woman. Nobody knows for sure that what you say on the Web is said in earnest or in jest. In the real world, one just has to look in a person’s eye; the eye can communicate. But in virtual communities, the personae are faceless and in most cases heartless.

A moderated discussion list can solve some of these problems. A member whose online behaviour is unseemly is simply removed from the list. The BBC Online’s Talking Point functions as a Letter To The Editor’s column. Views on issues raised by the site are sent by email and is posted at Talking Point after the message is vetted and edited.

Personae can also harmlessly lurk in cyberspace. Without taking part in discussions, they can just observe the proceedings. They can also read Shakespeare or Milton online. Why, they can even read Poetical Miscellany of Nirmaldasan (Watson's pen name) at www.poetsindia.com! But this can pose problems too. What if they plagiarise? Scholars will come to the rescue of Shakespeare and Milton. But who will save Nirmaldasan? If imitation is the highest form of flattery, then plagiarism is the highest tribute to genius.

Principles of Virtual Communities

Dr. Nirmal Selvamony, in a paper already named, explains some of the underlying principles of tinai societies. Let us see if we can apply them to virtual communities.

a) Indigenousness
Cyberspace, just like the space above us, belongs to everyone. But communities can be created there and filled with indigenous thought, if thought can be that. People with similar interests, though living in different continents, can be part of a virtual community that fosters solidarity and fellowship.
b) Controlled diversity
The Internet, like tinai society, is not hierarchic. Moreover, it is so democratic that all have the authority to unleash their views. This may seem healthy. But on second thoughts, it is not. We may respect Sunil Saxena’s views on cyberspace but to understand chess tactics, we go to Kasparov. The case made here is for a moderated virtual community.
c) Traditionality
Virtual communities can be created to discuss a tradition. But the Internet is still in the state of infancy and so cannot boast of a tradition. It is a fascinating medium because it offers scope for the expression of individual talent.
d) Integration
The chief strength of the Internet is its power to unite a fragmented society. But it also has the power to divide. This is what we called the Internet paradox at the beginning of this lecture.
e) Smallness of scale
Virtual communities can be small comprising fewer than 100 members. The moderator will have problems if there are thousands of messages that need to be edited. So large communities need more moderators or can let messages go unmoderated.
f) Value-orientation
Virtual communities can be based on the positive values of `virtue, wealth and well-being’. Here a wealth of information is shared by members who respect one another.

(Presented at the Asian College of Journalism, February 2001.)

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