This essay will argue that whilst the wikipedia entry for Virtual Community answers the question of ‘when’ and ‘how’ virtual communities are formed, it lacks information regarding why virtual communities have become part of our everyday lives. As the following will show; this is the most important aspect for sociologists who wish to focus on the difference between traditional communities that occupy physical spaces, or neighborhoods, and the online communities that transcend the tyranny of physical space, location and time.
Community is often defined by a network of people who reside in a common locality and are bound together by through taking part in an activity or activities that benefit each other (Wellmen 1998, p6). Scime (1994 as cited in Keleman, Smith 2012 p.371) defines Virtual communities as a network of people who use computers to engage in a dialouge, care for one another and share values. While the Wikipedia article on virtual communities (2011) states that traditional definitions of community are based on a “geographically circumscribed entity” (2011, para.4) Wellman (2001, p6), the piece argues that this traditional definition confuses the concept of community with the identification of neighborhood,, and suggests that the spacial distribution of community is of little concern to sociological study. Therefore Wellman (1998, p6) would suggest that if you remove the notion of neighborhood, the traditional definition of community is still a perfectly acceptable reference for defining all communities, physical or virtual. Although of more interest to the sociological study of community is the reasons individuals form communities and what benefit they derive from their membership.
A major difference between communities in physical spaces and those formed by virtual communities is the way in which relationships are formed, who they are formed with, and why individuals choose to create virtual relationships in online spaces (Kelemen & Smith 2001 p.375). In physical spaces, relationships are usually formed in an accord dictated by social status. When online however, relationships are often formed to gain social capital, advance individual need and to present an image of self (Kelemen & Smith 2001 p.375). It could be argued that the same motivators to build virtual relationships online, is often present when a physical community reaches critical mass in its number. Tonnies (1971) noted that in large physical communities such as a major city like New York and Tokyo;
The difference between natives and strangers becomes irrelevant. Everyone is what he is, through his personal freedom, through his wealth and his contracts. He is a servant only in so far as he has granted certain services to someone else, master in so far as he receives such services. Wealth is, indeed, the only effective and original differentiating characteristic (Tonnies, 1971 p.5).
Whilst the types of relationships that are formed in Tonnies’s (1971 p.5) cities may be similar to the ones fostered within virtual communities. Online, the major difference between Tonnie’s view of community in densely populated areas, and the aforementioned definition of virtual communities, is the way individuals members of the online community present their virtual wealth and assert their social influence.
In virtual communities wealth is not necessarily materialised, but rather represented by the influence one can assert over the rest of the network due to the number, and the types of connections the individual makes (Goguen, 2000). Actor Network Theory states that there is little distinction between, human and non-human components of a network because both individual users and the technology facilitating the network, exist in a fractal symbiotic relationship, each dependent on each other (Goguen, 2000). Therefore it is important to note that virtual communities not only facilitate connections between individuals, they also foster connections between technological actors. Social actors are also able build their social capital, which is something the Wikipedia article on Virtual Community fails to address to its detriment, as it fails to consider why relationships are formed in virtual spaces, which is an important aspect in the sociological study of virtual communities.
Cyberlibertarianists such as Rheingold (1992) who are referenced within the Wikipedia article, declare virtual communities to be the new bastion of social democracy and suggest that:
The appeal of the virtual community lies in its potential to replace a fragmented society, which is decient of any moral order or ethical codes” (Rheingold, 1992 as cited in Kelemen & Smith p.375).
However, if Kelemen and Smith’s (2001 p.375) findings are correct, and both social and technological actors form relationships in virtual spaces to benefit self-interest and to gain more social capital than the next actor, virtual communities are just as fragmented and class driven as their physical brothers and sisters. Robins (1999, as cited in Fernback, 2007 p.66) suggests that social structures within communities are open to influence by actors within the network who create the shared traditions and meaning for the communities that they belong (Fernback, 2007 p.66). Therefore, far from the democratic utopias heralded by Cyberlibertarianists like Rheingold, virtual communities are just as open if not more amenable to power imbalance, influence and accord.
Whilst the Wikipedia article on Virtual Community covers the areas of ‘when’ and ‘how’ online communities are formed, there is little coverage of ‘why’ these communities form, thrive or die. It is evident through the writing of Fernback (2007), Kelemen and Smith (2001) and Goguen (2000) that Virtual Communities are are a far-cry from the utopias written about by the Cyberlibertarianist sociologists of the 1990s. Open to power imbalance and influence for personal endeavor, Virtual Community mimics many of the social relation problems of traditional communities with the internet acting as the new neighborhood.
Tonnies, F. (1971). On Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft. In M. Truzzi (Ed.), Sociology: The Classic Statements. Retrieved from URL http://media.pfeiffer.edu/lridener/courses/GEMEIN.HTML
Wellman, B. (1998). The Network Community. In Networks In The Global Village: Life In Contemporary Communities. Boulder. Retrieved from URL http://www.chass.utoronto.ca/~wellman/publications/globalvillage/in.htm
Kelemen, M., & Smith, W. (2001). Community and its Virtual Promises: A Critique of Cyberlibertarian Rhetoric. Information, Communication & Society, 4(3), 370-387. DOI:http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13691180110044470
Wellman, B. (2001). Physical Place and Cyber Place: The Rise of Personalized Networking.International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 25. Retrieved from URL http://www.chass.utoronto.ca/~wellman/publications/individualism/ijurr3a1.htm#N_2_
Goguen, J. (2001) Against Technological Determinism. Retrieved from URL http://rejon.org/media/cvsbook/cvsbook/src/determinism/determinism-goguen.doc.pdf