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How "Authentic" Are Virtual Communities?

A lively debate has been going on for some time over how authentic virtual communities are. In describing what goes on in virtual communities, Howard Rheingold has written that:

    People in virtual communities use words on screens to exchange pleasantries and argue, engage in intellectual discourse, conduct commerce, exchange knowledge, share emotional support, make plans, brainstorm, gossip, feud, fall in love, find friends and lose them, play games, flirt, create a little high art and a lot of idle talk. People in virtual communities do just about everything people do in real life, but we leave our bodies behind.

Not everyone agrees with this perspective. Skeptics argue that virtual communities lack some of the critical elements that define authentic communities, especially communities that are geographically based. For example, after visiting an online community, Clifford Stoll in his book Silicon Snake Oil, asked:

    What’s missing from this ersatz neighborhood? A feeling of permanence and belonging, a sense of location, a warmth from the local history. Gone is the very essence of a neighborhood: friendly relations and a sense of being in it together.

Who is right? One way that virtual communities differ from "real communities" is, precisely, that they are "virtual." They exist only in cyberspace. While it takes effort to move away from a physical place, it takes virtually no effort for an individual to leave a virtual community and move on to another. But that does not mean that participants don’t really care about their communities. In fact, many participants care passionately and remain actively involved in virtual communities for years. And many virtual communities have discovered that participants develop friendships so strong that they will go to the trouble of meeting other participants in person. In the case of both SeniorNet and Fujitsu’s WorldsAway (and in many other virtual communities as well), individuals who originally met online have arranged to meet in the "real world." In some cases, these get-togethers have become regular events.

A number of social scientists have begun to investigate the extent to which virtual communities resemble or differ from "real" communities (see Sidebar 1, "elements of a community," next page). For example, a recent study by Teresa L. Roberts of Sun Microsystems looked at whether participants in Internet newsgroups do, in fact, feel that they "belong" to a community. She interviewed participants in 30 Internet-based newsgroups and found that 61 percent of the respondents reported that they had formed friendships online and that two-thirds of them felt a sense of "belonging to their group." The study also found that the most important determinant of a feeling of belonging was the extent to which individuals participated in and contributed to the group.

Elements of a Community

Teresa L. Roberts in her study of participants in Internet newsgroups identifies six dimensions of a community:

  • Cohesion: the sense of there being a group identity and that an individual belongs to the group.
  • Effectiveness: the impact that the group has on the members’ lives and the outside world.
  • Help: the perceived ability of members to ask for and receive various kinds of assistance.
  • Relationships: the likelihood of group members interacting individually, including forming friendships.
  • Language: the prevalence of specialized language.
  • Self-regulation: the ability of the group to police itself.

A group of researchers at the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Southern California identified four major components that contribute to creating a "sense of community":

  • Need fulfillment: how well a participant’s needs are satisfied by a community.
  • Inclusion: the extent to which participants are open and encouraged to participate in each other’s plans and activities.
  • Mutual influence: the extent to which participants openly discuss issues and affect one another.
  • Shared emotional experiences: include sharing events that specifically arouse feeling and are typically memorable--trips, birthdays, anniversaries, weddings, and so forth.

Finally, a group of anthropologists commissioned by the advertising agency, Saatchi & Saatchi, described five different types of virtual communities, based on the primary interest that motivates participation:

  • Just Friends are people who want to socialize, meet others, and socialize.
  • Enthusiasts share a specific interest. Socializing is less important to them than talking about the common interest.
  • Friends in Need are support groups built around a specific problem such as living with cancer or substance abuse.
  • Players come together to participate in games ranging from fantasy sports leagues to role-playing or board games.
  • Traders seek communities where they can trade possessions with one another. It is important to recognize that the same person may enjoy assuming one of these roles at one moment, and another role at a later time, and therefore may well participate in multiple communities.
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