Largely due to Rheingold (1993), the term “virtual communities” has become the most popular way to identify interpersonal and Internet-based communication networks to form, maintain, or extend social relationships. In 1993, Rheingold was writing ethnographies of the communities anticipated by pioneers such as Licklider (1968), who imagined the Internet as the source of new meeting places and as a revolutionary advance in communication capability. For social scientists, virtual communities represent a new platform for the observation and testing of theories of interpersonal communication behavior (Sproull & Kiesler 1986), structuration (Orlikoski 1992; DeSanctis 1994), and identity (Turkle 1995). A distinctive literature employing various combinations of underlying theories has emerged (e.g., Kollock & Smith 1999; Wellman & Gulia 1999).
Defining Virtual Communities
Efforts to sharpen the definition of virtual communities such as the one by Wellman and Gulia (1999) illustrate the difficulty of distinguishing between a network of communicating individuals and the various concepts of “community” – a term that brings with it many connotations of mutuality, trust, and identity. It is reasonable, however, to exclude some communication modalities as having no relation to the idea of “virtual community.” For example, the websites of broadcast media (one-to-many forms of communication), such as those of many major news services, fail to provide a direct way for readers to communicate with one another and therefore do not, themselves, provide a foundation for building virtual communities of interest about their content. It is possible to reach the same conclusion concerning many locations maintained by commercial, governmental, or nonprofit actors that are accessible using the world wide web and that have been designed using the broadcast model of information dissemination, or that seriously constrain persistent interaction between their users.
A somewhat more ambiguous case exists in communication capacities that were initially designed to facilitate direct interpersonal communication such as email. Because these capacities can be used, through the capture and reuse of addresses, to establish numerous dyadic or more complex network communication linkages, it is difficult to rule out the possibility of email-based virtual communities. At the same time, however, mailing list servers that permit only replies to the entire group or bar replies are essentially forms of information broadcasting, and the same may be said for most discussion forums and weblogs (blogs). Defining virtual communities in terms of network formation possibilities and enactments is one, minimalist approach. It has the advantage of not requiring the assessment of the nature or depth of social relationships or sense of “community” among participants.
This network-based definition of virtual communities is broadly compatible with those of authors, such as Mitchell (1996), who focus upon the architectural features of communication spaces. Likening some Internet spaces to the Italian piazza, a paved pedestrian area central to many Italian towns and villages, Mitchell observes that social norms evolve in relation to the nature of the space. Mitchell’s architectural metaphor can be applied to many different features of the Internet, including the hundreds of channels of Internet relay chat (IRC) servers or explicit efforts to build “cyberspaces” or massively multi-player online role-playing games (MMORPGs). While it is undeniable that these examples are frequented by large numbers of individuals, applying the term “virtual community” to them is controversial, even offensive (Werry 1999), to those who take the view that communities are more than networks – that they necessarily involve elements of mutuality and democracy, including some sort of collective definition of identity or democratic control of resources. These features are largely absent in either IRC channels or MMORPG sites, which are controlled by and dependent upon their sponsors within explicit or implicit terms of service (even though some may allow users to co-produce content).
Beyond Networks To Communities
Extending either the definition or the analysis of virtual community to encompass other aspect of “community” inevitably creates complexity. One way to manage this complexity is to explicitly consider how authority concerning belonging and purpose is constituted in specific communities (Kollock & Smith 1996; Steinmueller 2001). Considering the rules or norms governing organizational authority – who is recognized as a part of the community and how they might participate – and procedural authority – how and for what purpose collective purposes and actions are taken – makes it straightforward to distinguish voluntary and open virtual communities from those embedded within organizations or professional associations. For example computer supported cooperative work (CSCW), which often involves flexibility in the configuration of communication networks, may be implemented within organizations where organizational and procedural authority is an extension of the organizational hierarchy or line management. Where organizational and procedural authority is concentrated in the hands of the sponsor, this distinguishes these communities (Hagel & Armstrong 1997) from more “open” structures where belonging and purpose are based upon individual choice and democratic decision-making.
When there is not a sponsor exercising organizational and procedural authority, there is some evidence that these roles emerge from the social learning of community participants (Tuomi 2002). Alternatively, they may have to be created by the community through collective decision (Kim 2000). Not surprisingly, the variety of ways in which this may be done largely replicates the ways in which nonvirtual communities form. The approach that currently dominates discussion of the “emergent” properties of virtual communities is derived from the “communities of practice” framework proposed by Lave and Wenger (1991) and exemplified in Brown and Duguid (2000). This framework combines elements of “social learning” and structuration in which “novices” are, in essence, tested by those more experienced as they develop skills in the context of the practice of the community, creating an emergent form of hierarchy based upon mutual regard. The communities of practice framework is most relevant in contexts involving a gathering of expertise or where a collective effort with common purpose is a factor motivating the interaction.
There are, however, virtual communities where simple association and mutual support are the aims, and these include patient, parenting, and other types of mutual support groups. Many of these communities are “sponsored” by charities or individuals who are themselves part of the community of interest, and a large number are hosted by web services companies such as Yahoo! and Google. There may be fewer problems with procedural authority in these groups due to their aim of simply being “spaces” where those of similar interest might gather. However, such groups may face significant problems with regard to organizational authority resulting from unwanted participation or interaction (Smith 1999).
The need for some form of authority in virtual communities is an ongoing tension because of the direct financial and, even more important, time commitments required to exercise this authority. A consequence is that many communities that originated in looser collective management or were organized by single individuals have moved toward either commercial or charity-based forms of organization. The nature of sponsorship has a number of implications for the future development of virtual communities, and several models have emerged. The most prevalent model involves maintaining the virtual community using tools provided by a platform provider, which is often an Internet service company such as Yahoo! or Google. Although generally permissive of a broad range of content, a few virtual communities on these platforms have come into conflict with national governments intent on removing content deemed to be offensive. Perhaps of greater significance, the use of these platforms creates ambiguities regarding the ownership of content and the leadership of any specific community.
A second model, typified by Wikipedia, involves a “social contract” with participants that assures a continuing right to access and use information and resources that are collectively produced. A variant of this model is “virtual world” sites employing MMORPGtype technologies and offering explicit rules granting property rights for individual developers, such as Linden Lab, the sponsor of Second Life.
A third type of model is identified with communities that have a particular purpose, such as the creation of open source software. These communities best illustrate the communities of practice form of governance, with the emergence of hierarchies based upon reputation for expertise and effective contribution to the collective purpose of the community. A mix of sponsorship models can be observed in these purpose-directed communities along with the emergence of “paid participation,” i.e., individuals participating as the result of company sponsorship with the aim of helping to create a collective good that can be of benefit to the sponsoring organization. The ways in which virtual communities are organized and the purpose they serve in their participants’ interests seem sure to expand with the growth in Internet usage, skills, and capabilities.
The expansion of sponsorship models has brought with it a growing professionalism in the role of community manager and a proliferation of ideas and literature (e.g., Kim 2000), which provide the basis for future research on effectiveness and value creation. Due to the wide variety of motivations for establishing virtual communities, the creation of a comprehensive census of virtual communities is likely to require new approaches to social science research. While the current research focus is largely case-study oriented, comparative and quantitative studies in this area of human endeavor would provide greater understanding of the variety and level of virtual community initiatives. Better research on factors limiting community size and shaping interactions within communities would provide useful knowledge to managers and policymakers concerned with promoting such initiatives.
- Brown, J. S., & Duguid, P. (2000). The social life of information. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business School Press.
- DeSanctis, G. (1994). Capturing the complexity in advanced technology use: Adaptive structuration theory. Organization Science, 5(2), 121–147.
- Hagel, J., III, & Armstrong, A. G. (1997). Net gain: Expanding markets through virtual communities. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.
- Kim, A. J. (2000). Community building on the web. Berkeley, CA: Peachpit Press.
- Kollock, P., & Smith, M. (1996). Managing the virtual commons: Cooperation and conflict in computer communities. In S. Herring (ed.), Computer mediated communication: Linguistic, social, and cross-cultural perspectives. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, pp. 109–128.
- Kollock, P., & Smith, M. A. (1999). Communities in cyberspace. In M. A. Smith & P. Kollock (eds.), Communities in cyberspace. London: Routledge, pp. 3–25.
- Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Licklider, J. R. C. (1968). The computer as a communication device. At http://gatekeeper.dec.com/ pub/DEC/SRC/research-reports/abstracts/src-rr-061.html, accessed January 7, 2007.
- Mitchell, W. J. (1996). City of bits: Space, place and the infobahn. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
- Orlikoski, W. J. (1992). The duality of technology: Rethinking the concept of technology in organizations. Organization Science, 3(3), 398–427.
- Rheingold, H. (1993). The virtual community: Homesteading on the electronic frontier. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.
- Smith, A. D. (1999). Problems of conflict management in virtual communities. In M. A. Smith & P. Kollock (eds.), Communities in cyberspace. London: Routledge, pp. 134–166.
- Sproull, L., & Kiesler, S. (1986). Reducing social context cues: Electronic mail in organizational communication. Management Science, 32(11), 1492–1512.
- Steinmueller, W. E. (2001). Virtual communities and the new economy. In R. E. Mansell (ed.), Inside the communication revolution: Evolving patterns of social and technical interaction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 21–54.
- Tuomi, I. (2002). Networks of innovation: Change and meaning in the age of the Internet. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Turkle, S. (1995). Life on the screen: Identity in the age of the Internet. New York: Simon and Schuster.
- Wellman, B., & Gulia, M. (1999). Virtual communities as communities: Net surfers don’t ride alone. In M. A. Smith & P. Kollock (eds.), Communities in cyberspace. London: Routledge, pp. 167–194.
- Werry, C. (1999). Imagined electronic community: Representations of virtual community in contemporary business discourse. First Monday, 4(9). At http://firstmonday.org/issues/issue4_9/ werry/index.html.