Virtual Community Research Paper
The History and Evolution of Virtual Communities
In this paper I will present results of my research regarding history and evolution of virtual communities. I will provide the general definition of virtual community or how it is frequently referred to- online community, define the place of their establishment, follow formation process, and define their present and possible future forms, extensively using examples. I will also make the research regarding possible positive and negative sides of virtual communities, as well as discuss media involvement.
The term “virtual community” was first introduced and cited as commonplace by Howard Rheingold for the definition of online cultures. This is how Rheingold defines virtual community: “social aggregations that emerge from the Net when enough people carry on those public discussions long enough, which sufficient human feeling, to form webs of personal relationships in cyberspace.”
A virtual community, which is frequently referred to as e-community, is said to be the group of people, which predominantly interact by means of communication media for their own purposes, including sharing music, videos, ideas, information, discussing events, etc. During the last decade virtual communities became undividable part of the communication process between people, which can know each other in real life, or get acquainted in the virtual space in consequence of similar interests. Many means are utilized in social software in combination or separately, and that include particular issue- related chat-rooms, discussion forums, exchanging video texts and making avatars for being special. Drastic changes in the communication process among people, which more frequently prefer communicating via ICQ, Google Talk to face-to-face communications, can be stipulated by proliferation of particular Internet-based social networks. There are many professional groups and social communities that do not necessary foresee strong bonds among their members, though they can result in personal relationships as well. People can hardly know each other and be complete strangers, but being at the same community makes them its members.
Virtual communities are said to have different participation and interaction levels, which can be from making comments under any member’s pictured, adding comments to blog’s posts, as well as playing online video games.
Virtual communities are being developed in all directions, they are becoming more individual, more individual-centric, and nowadays more traditional chat-rooms are being substituted by blogs, instant messaging, creating youtube.com profiles and sharing videos, when the thing that holds the community together is not the common interest, let’s say in cosmetics, but a particular blogger that makes amazing make-ups and shares his tips and new techniques by means of videos with other bloggers, who comment on them, ask to show particular things and share their own experiences.
History of virtual community dates back to the 1969, when the United Stated Department of Defense Advance Projects Research Agency (DARPA) created the computer network directly for sanction the presence of data beyond central, susceptible location as the defense means in case of nuclear war (Hartley 122).
Virtual communities have their positive and negative sides. Positive sides include freedom of speech promotion, promotion of interaction and individuality. Communities can promote business and assist it sharing professional tips. Virtual communities also provide the opportunity for sense of community-building increase, as well as participation of individuals in social life. Virtual communities should not be viewed as the substitution for real communities, but rather encourage personal interaction, bring people together in their real life (Florida 166).
Negative sides of virtual communities include the fact that for many participants virtual form of social interaction remains the only form of social contact with other people. This can be the result of their personal qualities or geographic isolation, but in any case communication in virtual space only can result in different psychological problems, such as seclusion, addiction and neglecting responsibilities of real life.
2. Definition of Virtual Community
So, a virtual community is a people group that interacts via different communication medias rather than face to face, for personal and professional purposes. When in the communication process a computer network is utilized, it is generally referred to an online community. Online and virtual communities have also become the additional supportive form of communication between people who know each other in real life and communicate face to face on the regular basis. Many techniques are involved in social software to make the communication process more pleasant, effective and convenient. Dramatic changes in social people’s lives may have resulted from the spread of such social networks that are Internet-based. This is what Rheingold wrote on regard people of virtual communities: “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 if idle talk. People in virtual communities do just about everything people do in real life, but we leave our bodies behind. You can’t kiss anybody and nobody can punch you in the nose, but a lot can happen within those boundaries. To the millions who have been drawn into it, the richness and vitality of computer-linked cultures is attractive, even addictive”.
There numerous discussions in Internet regarding the definition of online communities and how do they work. Cliff Figallo, for instance, in his “Hosting Web Communities” presumed that each virtual community has the set of attributes that form the connection among its members and participants. Those connections appear with people that have similar interests and with that connection they form a kind of mutual history, and relationships can last as long as there are still discussion topics.
All members and participants of virtual community should be supportive to each other, though there is still place for adequate critique. They should accept opinions of other members, accept their individual styles and points of view. Basically the emergence virtual communities increased people’s abilities to come together, sharing thoughts and form groups and organizations. Those communities can be often characterized by three main things, which are common interests, sense interaction and identification (Bock, 1999). Virtual communities are becoming even fashionable time to spend, when people perform particular tasks, have their set pattern of behavior, role, language, etc. During online communication people can change their manner of expressing thoughts, they can write with mistakes using slang, even in real life they could have diploma with Linguistics major.
Online community should also be designed in the way to attract all the time new members and participants, it should have a kind of web-PR, it should also meet in the full extent its members needs and expectations and have a strong potential for future development.
There is also an idea that there can be two types of online communities- intellectual and functional. Intellectual communities can be characterized with the shared intellectual interest, such as politics, religion, popular game, movie or movie star. And in functional online community members usually use the common platform for interaction, they play online games together. This type of virtual community is more operational.
Author Amy Jo Kim stresses the potential difference between online communities that are traditionally structured (chat rooms, message boards, etc.), and more individually centric, bottom-up social tools (instant messaging buddy lists, blogs), and proposes the latter are getting in popularity.
2.1 Levels of virtual communities membership lifecycle
Virtual communities’ membership life cycle was proposed by Amy Jo Kim in year 2000 in book “Community Building on the Web: Secret Strategies for Successful Online Communities”. It claims that participants of online communities start their life in a community as simple visitors, or lurkers, as he called them. After passing this stage of interaction, people become more engaged and start to participate in community life. After making contributions for a definite period of time they become regular visitors and participators, or regulars. If they break through another barrier they are being transformed to leaders, and when they have contributed to the community for longer period of time, they become elders. This life cycle is applicable to many online communities, most probably to bulletin boards, as well as to blogs.
Lave and Wenger in “Communities of Practice. Learning as a social system” and their mutual research works also proposed the similar model of membership life cycle; they described a cycle of how users become involved into online communities using the legitimate peripheral participation principles. They propose five types of trajectories in a learning community. The first comes peripheral (for instance, lurker), which presumes the outside, unstructured participation. The second refers to inbound (for instance, novice), which implies that the newcomer is introduced in the community and coming towards more full participation. The insider trajectory (for example, regular) presumes full committed community participant. The boundary trajectory (for example, leader) refers to the leader who holds membership participation and brokers interactions of other members. And finally the last one- outbound (for example- elder) is said to be the process of community leaving due to new relationships, new outlooks and new positions.
3. Community building tools and their advantages and disadvantages
Community-building tools contain newsgroups, email, message boards, and chat. I will describe some of the positives and negatives of each tool type (Preece 74-78).An email list, that is frequently called a Listserv, after the Listserv™ software, is a community tool that connects people via email messages. There is one main address to which all messages for the group are sent, and from this address the email is sent out to those who are subscribed. A person that is getting the mail has the choice whether to answer either to the sender individually, or to the whole list of recipients. Digest forms are usually available for people who have preference to get one or more long emails with many messages in it rather than each individual post as it is delivered. Email lists are in some cases moderated, which means that each post should be approved by a moderator, or the owner of the list, before it is delivered to all recipients. Particular web-based community-building systems contain email tools to mail everyone in the definite group, as well as the possibility to start sub-group mailing lists and send newsletters.
Advantages of this include primarily the fact that it is a «push» technology, when the member doesn’t have to remember to go check it regularly; it just comes to his or her mail box. Next, it is rather cheap for people who pay a lot for connection, as messages can be composed and read when the user is offline. And finally it is possible to reach virtually anyone who’s online. Among the disadvantages it is possible to name the fact that messages sometimes can come out of order. Then, people do not always use archiving. And when the list’s messages are archived, they can be sometimes hard to retrieve. Another problem is with spammers, who often send messages to the list and even gather email addresses for purposes of advertising. And finally usually talkative group can create a daunting number of messages very fast. Then come newsgroups. Newsgroups are said to be like a cross between an email list and public message boards. The participant has to subscribe to a newsgroup, and in some cases the opportunity to post messages is given to subscribers only. They are often not moderated, and they can easily become overloaded with different information and usually can get quite unstructured. There are long-established so called netiquette rules regarding what the behavior in the newsgroup should look like.
In order to read newsgroup messages, the subscriber needs a newsgroup reader. Usually these come with the browser, like Netscape Messenger, or email software, like Microsoft Outlook. The person subscribes to the newsgroup, and then downloads the «headers” and only then he or she can read as many or as few of the chosen messages. DejaNews, for example, is an archive of thousands of different newsgroups. It can be found through the search engine like Google or Yahoo or directly at http://www.dejanews.com.
The positives and negatives are similar to email, but with two differences, as newsgroups are not «push» technology –the participant still have to remember to go check them. And with news readers, it is possible download just the messages titles and avoid downloading of the entire message if the person doesn’t want to read it.
Chat is simultaneous people communication with people available online at the same time and they type messages to each other. Chatting can be performed in public rooms, open to anyone and everyone can read, or private rooms or private space where only those of the community can enter. Chat is often, but not always, a many-to-many communication mode, in other words, there are a group of people in a room at one time, having conversations. It can also be used for one-to-one dialogues, brainstorming sessions and other applications that are work-oriented. So it is not just a common social tool. It is also possible online to use particular software to send instant messages to one definite user. This communication is called one-to-one. On some systems it is possible to build-in «live message» features to have such an opportunity (Trier 101).
Advantages of chats include that they are rather convenient for meetings where the person wants to come to the conclusion with everyone there. Next, it is possible to have discussions in real time. Then, chat with an important discussion topic can have a guest speaker that would answer questions of the participants. And finally, the transcript can be logged to be posted later. Disadvantages include possible difficulties to schedule a time if the person wants to communicate with other users from all over the world. Sometimes chatters that are not experienced enough have difficulties in keeping up with the pace. And finally, on the web, sometimes access issues make it hard to create a room which will provide enough space for everyone.
Message board or conferencing software online in many aspects looks like a message board in the school or office: the person posts the message on the board and comes back after some time period, to see if anyone has answered anything to it. An in such a manner, message board communication is not simultaneous and do not need the presence of all of the participants in one time. They are also often called forums. Messages in a message board system can be organized in two ways: linear and threaded. Some software allows the person choose what way he or she wants the material to be presented. In a threaded system, messages are structured into «threads» or topics. A message is supposed be attached to the message to which it is referring to, chronological order is not important here. In is possible to see usually only one message at one HTML page. Advantages of threaded boards include the fact that they are good for technical information where people need to be able to find answers to a definite question easily and not spend much time for looking for it; topics are kept well-organized. Among disadvantages of threaded boards it is possible to mention that sometimes those threaded boards appear to be more organized than people are, for example, it is hard to hold a conversation because real conversations drift, if the drift produces the new topic, a person can lose track from where it went because it is categorized under the thread from which it started. Then, they appear to be less conductive to social communities and the new page had to be loaded in order to see the next message (Barzilai 69-76). With a linear system, each post in a stated topic comes in chronological order. It results in more like a real live conversation. Often with a linear system the participant can read more than one post per page, which makes reading of higher speed. Linear message boards can be called conferencing. Linear boards are very convenient for social conversations and profound discussion of important issues. Then they are more successful in displaying conversation in the way people really talk and it is possible to see several messages on one page. But it is important to remember that in linear boards it is difficult to come to some kind of conclusion. It is also difficult to find definite information again if the person would have the necessity to refer to it later.
4. Positives and negatives of virtual communities
Meyrowitz stressed upon the advantages of the virtual communities and accessibility of information to the remote places in the following way: “Many categories of people women, ghetto dwellers, prisoners, children were once «naturally» restricted from much social information by being isolated in particular places. The identity and cohesion of many groupings and associations were fostered by the fact that members were «isolated together» in the same or similar locations. . . . Now, however, electronic messages . . . democratize and homogenize places by allowing people to experience and interact with others in spite of physical isolation. As a result, physical location now creates only one type of information-system, only one type of shared but special group experience”( 143-144).
The opportunity to communicate with like-minded people straight from anywhere in the world has significant advantages, but virtual communities have cause some criticism and fear. Virtual communities may perform the duty of insecure hunting space for online criminals, such as identity robbers and stalkers, which pose risk especially for children. Other people fear that if they spend too much time in virtual world, it can have negative influence on communication in the real life, and it can even cause Internet addiction disorder. Internet addiction disorder as the disorder was introduced in 1995 by Ivan Goldberg, and was more like the satirical joke, but still the problem of addiction to computer and Internet in particular exists and is very serious and can be compared to the addiction to gambling, when the person understands that it is not right, but continues to do that.
«… rapid improvement in the means of communication, as we see in our own time, supplies the basis for a larger and freer society, and yet it may, by disordering settled relations, and by fixing attention too much upon mechanical phases of progress, bring in conditions of confusion and injustice that are the opposite of free» (Cooley 95).
5. Identity and Virtual Community
Identity plays a dominant role in the evolution and development of virtual communities. In the process of communication, which is said to be the main activity, having knowledge regarding the identity of those with whom the person communicates is of primary importance for evaluating and understanding the communication process. Yet in the virtual world of the virtual community, identity is also vague. Many of the main cues regarding social role and personality we get used to in the physical world are not present. It is important to understand how identity is formulated in an online community and to investigate in the effects of identity cheating and the prerequisites that provide rise to it.
In the physical world there is an integral unity to the personality, because the body provides an attractive and convenient identity definition. The standard is as follows: one body, one identity. Even though the personality can be complicated and mutable over time and circumstances, the physical body provides a stabilizing point. Sartre wrote in his Being and Nothingness: “I am my body to the extent that I am’’. The virtual world appears to be absolutely different. It consists of information rather than matter. Information spreads and diffuses; and no legislation governs over information conservation. The dwellers of this intangible area are also diffuse, free from the body’s unifying core. One person can create as many virtual personalities as one has energy, time and desire to create.
That one person or personality with the body that is synonymous with identity, the body with a keyboard and the monitor. These two worlds are not very much separated on practice. Even though it is right that one person can produce multiple virtual identities that are connected just by their common founder, that connection, even though not seen in the virtual world, is of great importance. What is the relationship among many people that share the same founder? Do virtual people derive the qualities and responsibilities of their producers? Those questions bring the new access to old inquiries into the relationship between the body and the personality, as well as the new urgency. Virtual communities are growing very fast and their members encounter such questions, not as possible thought experiments, but as primary issues in their everyday life. A man appears to be the creator a female identity; a student from high school claims to be viruses’ expert. Other investigators in virtual world develop relationships with the fictitious females, and base their relationships with them upon gender assumptions and their own sexuality the way the phantom female presented it; patients that are do-or-die for a cure read the virtual pronouncements of the virologist on new AIDS treatments, and believe that they are supposed to be backed up by real-world knowledge. For analyzing information reliability and the authenticity of the intimate friend, identity is crucial. And attention to the person’s own identity, reputation is principal to the community formation. Identity signals are rare in the virtual world, but still present. People become adapted to the email addresses and signature styles nuances. New sentences evolve that define their users as subculture members that are defined as chosen. Virtual reputations are adjusted and contested. By looking more close at these signals, at how they work and when they do not work, we can study a great deal regarding how to create vibrant online environments (Barzilai 104).
Identity and deception in the context of the Usenet newsgroups is a very controversial topic. Even though it can seem simple from the technical perspective - they are mainly structured bulletin boards - a complicated social structure has evolved within their frame. They are not like the majority of MUDs, which are said to be imaginary worlds of fantasy, most of Usenet is meant to be real, not taking into consideration different bots; the basic idea is that the users are who they say they are. There is, nevertheless, an essential variance between newsgroups as to what composes a legitimate or real identity. And there are many cases of deception of the identity, from the pseudo-naive trolls to the spammers that are switching their names.
People take part in Usenet newsgroups for a series of reasons. They can be looking for some information or companionship, partnership, friendship, or any other kind of human relationships, advocating a religion or the operating system. Of course their motivations as in the real life are very complicated: the desire to be useful and the desire to be approved can induce the writing of lengthy posts. For most part of the members, identity - both the determination of their reputation and the recognition by others - plays a major role (Barzilai 55).
Exchange of information is said to be the primary function of Usenet. Demands for information are very common and answers, both right and wrong, are often expected. The writer’s identity, which, especially, refers to real-world special knowledge or history of regular online contributions, plays dominant role in judging the written material’s veracity. In the same manner, understanding of the motivation of the writer, for instance, professional preferences, political beliefs, personal relationships, can significantly influence the interpretation of his or her statements. And then appears challenging question about what post regarding the virtues of a new program translater would be more persuasive- from a programmer who has estimated its code output or from a marketer of the product? The reader who knows that the post’s author will benefit from product promotion is most probably to doubt the claims veracity (Aronson 166).
The identity deception price to the reader that is searching for particular information is rather high. False information, from poor advice to mistakable interpretations of definite important to the reader topics, is not very hard to find in the Internet, but and it is of more probability to be believed when presented by one who is considered to be an expert in the definite discussed field (Aronson 87). The restricted identity signals can make people accept at present value claims of credibility of the writer: it can take a long period of time and many posts that a right and truly written until people begin just to think about the real knowledge of expert, whom he proclaimed himself to be.
Support and affiliation provision is another essential function of Usenet (Sproull & Kiesler 113). In this case, identity is the main topic as well. The feeling of shared community demands that the members be positively tuned to the ideas around which the group is proposing; even if they have some negative attitudes, there still needs to be some principal common ground. Trust in the shared beliefs and motivations of the other members, or in other words, their social identity, is crucial to the sense of community (Beniger 256).
Identity also plays a dominant role in people’s motivation to participate actively in newsgroup discussions. It is very simple to imagine why people can search for information on the net: they just have a problem or the question and they would like to find the answer or solution. And the other question arises- what motivate other people to answer and assist in finding the solution? Why should they take any effort to assist the unknown person, which is far away from them? Altruism can be proposed as the answer: people feel the obligation or just their internal wish to help other people and to contribute to the group (Constant et al. 119-125). However, personal goodwill alone does not contribute to the thousands of discussions: reputation construction and establishment of one’s online identity provides a significant part of motivation. There are people who have huge amounts of energy on a newsgroup: quelling arguments, answering questions, maintaining FAQ. Their names, as well as established reputations, are well-known to the readers of the particular group: other writers may cite their posts or ideas, or recommend that their ideas are argumentative. In most newsgroups, reputation is increased by posting interesting and intelligent comments, while in some others it is strengthened by posting rude things or cutting observations. Although the conduct rules can be quite different, the final effect is the same: reputation is increased by putting in remarks of the type the group admires. To the writer that is willing to be better known, a definitely recognizable identity display is extremely important. It doesn’t actually matter how informative and interesting the posts are, there are no advances in reputation if the readers are not sure who the author is.
6. Virtual communities and aspects of public sphere
To present a definition of community that incorporates computer-mediated communication is only part of the research. Technologies have ideological and political significance. These attributes portray themselves in two ways. First, the form a technology takes can affect power relationships; that is, how authority is distributed among those influenced by the technology. Second, a technology, once accepted, may certainly lead to definite institutionalized authority patterns. From year to year, virtual communities become the powerful tool of influencing public minds. The public relations can be easily done by means of virtual communities. Depending on the audience of the particular community, the public opinion can be formed upon the basis of presented information. That is why it is very important to know for sure the source of the information people are reading and believing upon their everyday basis.
Many politicians, movie stars and other public people are now creating their own communities where the whole discussions are centered on them. There are of course official web-cites, but also forums where people can ask for information and share it. By means of virtual communities it is possible to enhance popularity of already famous people. At forums and live journals people are looking for urgent help, finding their lost friends and buying used staff. They are sharing audio books and find out where to buy “that awesome bag”. Virtual community is the media of getting people together and influencing their tastes, beliefs, etc.
In the conclusion I would to summarize my finding regarding the stated topic. Virtual communities are online communities where people get together to discuss their personal or professional topics. People can know each other in real life, but communicate more frequently by means of online communities. But more often virtual communities accumulate information and opinion of people from all over the world, which make the long distance no problem for communications. Virtual communities appeared soon after the Internet emergence, and they develop along with the development of information technologies and become more complicated, but equally more convenient for usage. If at the beginning of their appearance it was possible just to exchange letters and text messages, now people are able to share videos and conduct real-life video conferences and calls.
Even though virtual communities seem to have positive sides only, among the negative factors it is possible to name the fact that people can forget about their real live and spend all their time in virtual space; addiction can also occur. Identity is another essential issue about virtual communities as people cannot know with they are communicating, as well as they cannot check the veracity of the information they get in those communities. Therefore, it is essential to know first the source and only then refer to that particular information or use it as the basis for some future assumptions. Virtual communities are also the powerful tool of influencing people masses, which can be used both for negative and positive purposes.
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