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What Are Virtual Communities?

Virtual communities allow people with common interests to meet, communicate and share ideas and information with each other through an online network such as the World Wide Web. Through these activities, participants develop bonds with other members of the community and with the community as a whole. Over the past few years, the creation of virtual communities has emerged as one of the most distinctive—and potentially important—capabilities of the Internet.

Virtual communities can be built around groups of individuals who belong to a particular demographic group (e.g., college students or working women or parents or African Americans or seniors) or who are part of a professional group (e.g., farmers or doctors or computer programmers) or who share a particular personal interest (e.g., investing or drinking wine or playing backgammon or traveling). Because the participants in a virtual community share common interests, they have a good deal to talk about with each other. And once they are established, these communities provide a new way for companies to reach customers who are likely to have a special interest in their products.

Type of Affinity Community Members

Demographic Tripod
College students
New parents
African Americans
Older adults
Physicians Online
Computer professionals
Personal interest Motley Fool
Virtual Vineyard
Individual investors
Wine drinkers
Backgammon players

Types of Virtual Communities

As we shall see, the Internet has been playing a role in the development of virtual communities since its early days. However, it is only in the past few years that the concept has received widespread attention.

Initially, interest in online virtual communities was limited to those individuals who participated in them and a small band of journalists and sociologists who studied and described them. More recently, interest in virtual communities has grown as they have been seen as a powerful new tool that can create new business opportunities and can be a source of substantial revenues. Understanding the dynamics of virtual communities is emerging as a critical business skill in the new networked world (see Sidebar 1 for several approaches to identifying the key elements or dimensions of both real and virtual communities.)

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