Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Can a Virtual Community be any different from the experience of a Real Community?

As the reality of the Information age becomes more certain, people are beginning to understand the vast expanse of new media. They are starting to experiment new ways to interact with one another and interconnecting with different people across the globe. The massive technological explosion that is occurring, some say, is just a start of a brighter future for technology. For many of us though, the cyberspace is part of our daily routines – we check our electronic mail, communicate electronically with our tutors and other students, pay bills, make airline and hotel reservations, partake in various message board discussions, and even submit our coursework material (blackboard). The internet serves as a looking glass by which its users step through to meet others. Internet chat rooms, web surfing, forums and computer gaming have just become vital leisure activities shared by millions of people around the globe. The web brings together a universal community with diverse backgrounds and life experiences which they share and learn from one another – in other words a Virtual community! These people exchange and share information and even sometimes build permanent intimate relationships. But first let’s examine what an actual community is.

What is a Real Community?

Community means different things to different people. A community can be defined as “a group of people having common interests” such as the science community, the Farming community, the international business community, etc. Community can also be defined as “a group viewed as forming a distinct segment of the society” such as the Christian community, the European Community, the African-American Community, etc. community could also mean the locality in which such a group lives. There are two types of communities: Real or Offline Community and Virtual or Online community. A real (face-to-face) community is one which shares a common cultural or social heritage and can easily establish a social interaction and regular contact. Having also shared the same values, they can also be parts of many different communities simultaneously. There is also a strong sense of unity and fellowship in a community.

What is a Virtual Community?

A virtual community is one where global networks come into play. Different people from different parts of the world establish a virtual community in cyber space. Here they share their ideas, opinions, beliefs, political perspectives, interests, etc. Virtual communities are communities formed through computer-mediated communities (CMC). But how does a community evolve? A community is said to evolve over time and is represented by the various interaction patterns of different individuals, the population of the virtual community and the content [1]. There has been a growing interest in Virtual communities lately. The diversity of the online virtual communities is also extraordinary. People chat, exchange ideas and opinions, they argue and even fall in love in cyberspace. From this they develop a pattern of communication – the back-and-forth dialogue over a period of time that regular participants tend to use. The rapidity of response and continuous conversation in the written medium is important in the same way as it is important in face-to-face conversation. All this new means of communication is possible by the ubiquity of the internet and the World Wide Web. Now different groups of people can subscribe to virtual communities that tend to their needs and search for those particular people who espouse the same beliefs as theirs. Sometimes internet users subscribe to communities that are from the same country as theirs. For example, a Japanese person may want be a member of a Japanese virtual community, whereas a Somali may prefer a Somalian community that holds and shares the same political and social beliefs as his.

The social and cultural impact of new technologies is polarized into two extreme positions. On one hand people see the benefits of these new technologies and build hype about its unique advantages and special features. While on the other hand there are those who appear excessively hysterical about the terrible effects it may have on the society·

  • The Utopian Vision:

For many, disenchanted with the monotone of everyday life, the internet offers a respite from the pressure and a sense of comfort. The utopian vision emphasizes the exciting possibilities of a computing technology such as global connectivity, democratization, and the opening of the frontier of human experience and relationship which were impossible before.

  • The Dystopian Vision:

The dystopian vision usually deals with people’s enslavement to the digital technology and their growing dependency on it. Dystopian vision also concerns itself with the unstoppable growth of technology which may bring with it information overload and a breakdown of social structures and values [2]. Screen based technologies and virtual communications may also encourage a withdrawal from physical social interaction.

Identity in a Virtual Community:

The most appealing thing about the internet is the anonymity it provides – it makes it easy to present oneself as another person. Internet users can present and express themselves physically in an online community wit the use of pictures famous people, their role models or avatars that they chose to represent them. Emotions can now be expressed with “emoticons” – such as a smiley face to show happiness and frowning emoticon to express melancholy. But these avatars are mostly contrived and cannot be said to represent the “actual” person. Where a person’s name and physical attributes are often proverbial in an offline community, this aspect becomes hard to discern. A man may use a woman’s name as his “nick” (nickname) and vice versa. By this gender-swapping, he may also adopt an avatar of a woman to complement his nick.

We are now more eager to believe that the internet will provide an effective substitute for face-to-face interaction. But the move towards virtuality tends to skew our experience of the real in several ways. Technological optimists think that computers will reverse some of the social structures, touting virtual experience and virtual community as ways for people to widen their horizons. But it is not sensible to suggest that the way to stimulate and regenerate a community is to sit alone in our rooms, typing at our networked computers and surrounding ourselves with virtual friends [3].

“In the real-time communities of cyberspace, we are dwellers on the threshold between the real and virtual, unsure of our footing, inventing ourselves as we go along” (sherry)

Online Community vs. Offline Community:

  • Lack of reciprocity can become a 'social dilemma' in online communities, especially when the online community is composed of people who are geographically dispersed (Axelrod, 1984; Kollock, 1998). This problem can be minimised in offline communities because the community establishes a face-to-face interaction and from there develops and opportunity for dialogue.
  • Offline communities are made up of a known number of people and often the participants are registered and listed. In Online communities, anyone can jump the bandwagon and become a member of the community.
  • Online communities tend to be more close-knit and supportive where offline communities are dispersed and broad-spectrum- In face-to-face interactions people tend to establish more reciprocity and meet new friends or acquaintances. They also tend to be more willing to give aid than in computer-mediated interactions.
  • The online community can strengthen social contacts, community engagement, and attachment for people with high education and a sense of belonging [4].


Nothing can rival the sense of worth and belonging in a real community. You feel loved, wanted and your opinions and ideas are reinforced by your group and peers. But as global networking gains momentum, possibilities of an entirely virtual world are more than certain. I strongly believe that by combining the benefits of both online and offline communities we can achieve a unique sense of social interaction without losing any social cultures and values. This benefit of both communities as well as the advantages of the inevitable technological advancement can be achieved by:

  • Learning how to use the internet effectively·
  • Innovative projects to engage the local community in online activities·
  • Getting the local community to have an online facility where they can establish and experience some virtual interaction·
  • Placing technology in publicly accessible locations such as libraries and even the community gathering places· public access to the Internet in general, and to community-oriented networks in particular, emphasizing active participation·
  • Implementation of community-based technologies·
  • Involving citizens at the grassroots level in the design and development of online content, tools and infrastructure[5].

We are no much different in cyberspace, than our usual self. We are merely utilizing our mental state rather than being physically present at the geographical location of the people on the other side of the screen. And since there is no physical presence, we tend to be disembodied and by use of the brain visualize ourselves doing different things or travelling in different places. So, yes, the experience of a virtual community is in many ways different from that in real life. The communication methods such as face-to-face, physical presence and they dynamic body language of a person might not be available in the virtual world, but it sure has made various new ways of communication possible.


1- , Yiwen Zhang, University of Arizona and Mohan Tanniru, The University of Arizona “An Agent-Based Approach to Study Virtual Learning Communities” Proceedings of the 38th Annual Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences (HICSS'05) - Track 1 p. 11c See http://csdl2.computer.org/comp/proceedings/hicss/2005/2268/01/22680011c.pdf

2- Crispin Thurlow, Laura Lengel and Alice Tomic, Computer Mediated Communication; Social interaction and the Internet, 2004 pg 39

3- Sherry Turkle, Life on the Screen; identity in the age of the internet

4- Community Networks: Where Offline Communities Meet Online, Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication http://jcmc.indiana.edu/vol10/issue4/kavanaugh.html

5- Community Networks: Where Offline Communities Meet Online, Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication http://jcmc.indiana.edu/vol10/issue4/kavanaugh.html

1 comment:

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