Social change limits the effectiveness of socializing institutions; when society changes, the preparation people have received through socialization may be irrelevant. Because schools and families prepare individuals for occupational roles and teach them to understand their culture, an institutional "crisis" can occur during periods of rapid change. From a functionalist perspective, such a crisis poses a challenge to the adaptive capacity of an institution, as it is forced to reorganize to accomodate to a changing environment. Today, both the family and the school are widely believed to be in crisis.
Despite the speculations of observers, it is not yet clear if the home
computer will reintegrate family and economic institutions. Many owners
have not yet decided what to do with their computers; others oppose the
idea that more activity should take place in the home at all (Bombeck,
1982). The home computer may integrate telephones, stereos, cameras, and
televisions into home entertainment centers, rather than integrate work and
family life. Even if home computers do put work and family life in the
same place, it is highly unlikely that large corporations will distribute
their considerable economic power to new home-based industries. Those who
view the electronic cottage as a return to the good old days before the
Industrial Revolution when families were economic units and divorce rates
were low, have an idealized view of traditional families and of modern
220.127.116.11 The Not-So-Traditional Family
A culture's assumptions that its own
particular social arrangements are human universals are especially strong
when it comes to families. Less than one fifth of U.S. households are of
the "traditional" form of working husband, housewife, and children. And
the "tradition" was a radical concept during the Industrial Revolution.
We often imagine families of other cultures, or our own past, as having
many children, many generations living together, early marriage, and
infrequent divorce. This was hardly universal. High death rates and low
life expectancy made multiple generation households rare even in cultures
which valued them. High infant mortality, occasional infanticide, and
restrictions on marriage kept families smaller than would otherwise be
expected from their high birth rates. During one period of English
history, when land and other resources needed to set up a new family were
scarce, the average woman didn't marry until she was 28 years old. In
rural Indonesia, divorce rates have been higher than our own.
Pre-industrial families of Western Europe and non-industrial families
in other regions of the world were (and still are) remarkably varied in
structure. Families of multiple husbands are occasionally found; muliple
wives are more common. By one anthropological estimate, 80% of the world's
cultures have a non-monogamous ideal family form. First cousin marriages
are forbidden in some places but the ideal form of marriage in others.
Even socially approved brother-sister marriage has been found among the
ancient Egyptian upper class and the Hawaiian royalty. If we look to
biological examples as evidence of a "natural" family structure, we find
among primates the tamarins, where one female breeds with a group of males,
and the males take an active part in caring for her young (Abrahamson,
18.104.22.168 Capitalism and Family Change
William J. Goode (1970) argues that our
"ideal" family structure -- wife, husband, and children living without
other relatives -- developed as the dominant form because it "fit" the
requirements of the Industrial Revolution. This argument about parallel
changes in the economy and the family is based on the fact that the pre-
industrial family was an economic institution. In other words, there was a
lack of differentiation between economic and household roles, since
household tasks were part of a production process. When the industrial
revolution began, work moved out of the home. As families migrated from
farms to cities, they were physically separated from kin and community
relationships. Because families that were smaller and less burdened with
kinship obligations could migrate easily, they were "ideal" for the labor
demands of the Industrial Revolution.
Whole families worked in the early factories. Legislation protecting
children from dangerous factory conditions (and getting them out of jobs
that could be filled by unemployed men) redefined work as a paid, adult
activity. This new definition of work contributed to the creation of "the
child" as a distinct family role. Also, with the need for someone to watch
children away from the places where work is done, the role of the modern
housewife was focused on childcare. In urban areas mass-produced
commodities were substituted for formerly home-grown or home-made products.
Economically productive household tasks like gardening, raising poultry, or
making clothes were gradually replaced by "housework." By the end of the
Industrial Revolution "work" meant paid tasks performed in a specific
place; the ideal housewife no longer worked. In fact, housewives during
the Industrial Revolution often engaged in paid work -- perhaps sewing at
home or peddling. Women also continued to be factory workers, especially
in the garment industry. The new sexual division of labor in the
Industrial Revolution did not move women away from economic activity so
much as it redefined their expected roles. Work for wages became a primary
role for men; it became secondary for women. Housework contributed less
and less to the direct production of goods and more to providing unpaid
services for working men.
A rising standard of living encouraged the domesticity of women, because more families could be supported by a single wage earner. Removed from direct participation, the ideal woman contributed to the economy by socializing her children for the world of work. Before the invention of the child as a social status, European children were considered small people who could learn how to work by working and by watching others. As "the family began to hold society at a distance, to push it back beyond a steadily extending zone of private life" (Aries, 1962:398), women were expected to replace the emotional supports once provided by community and kin. In its ideal form, the modern family became a "haven in a heartless world":
a refuge from the highly competetive and often brutal world of industry and commerce. Husband and wife, according to this ideology, were to find solace and spiritual renewal in each other's company (Lasch, 1980:80).Subjected to enormous external pressures and often lacking the supports of strong social relationships with kin, neighbors, and friends, the modern family rarely matches its ideal. The crisis of the modern family is, to some observers, largely a problem of the intrusion of external circumstances into this private haven. Health, education, and welfare services formerly provided by family networks have been steadily replaced by the growth of impersonal state bureaucracies (Peden and Glahe, 1986). Other observers locate the crisis in the internal tensions of the family itself. In Philippe Aries' analysis of the crisis in the contemporary family:
We are witnessing the inability of the family to fulfill all the many functions with which it has been invested, no doubt temporarily,, during the past half-century. The twentieth-century post-industrial world has been unable, so far, either to sustain the forms of social intercourse of the nineteenth century or to offer something in their place (1977:234-235).
The possibility that telecommuting could bring women back to the home from the office to take up the combined role of home worker dismays many American women who have struggled for decades to get out of the home and into the labor force on equal terms with men. Yet a home-centered environment, in which husbands and wives work and raise children, is attractive to those fathers who see it as an opportunity for a new parental role. In the future, debate over the desirability of telecommuting will, no doubt, center on how family roles ought to be arranged. Theorists with traditional (or at least recent traditional) beliefs may turn to sociobiology for evidence that women should maintain their Industrial-Revolution family role (see for example Tomkins, 1965). Feminist theorists like Nancy Chodorow argue for new roles:
We live in a period when the demands of the roles defined by the sex-gender system have created widespread discomfort and resistance. Aspects of this system are in crisis internally and conflict with economic tendencies. Change will occur, but the outcome is far from certain. The elimination of the present organization of parenting in favor of a system of parenting in which both men and women are responsible would be a tremendous social advance (1978:219).
Whatever the directions in home computing, it seems unlikely that they will in themselves relieve the interpersonal tensions to which the family is subject. While personal computers can bring enormous amounts of information and new activities into private life, sustainable family roles will not be created by the technology. Instead they will develop out of negotiations among family members over time, space, and expectations of one another.
Education is not only a moral renovator and a multiplier of intellectual power, but also the most prolific parent of material riches. It is not only the most honest and honorable, but the surest means of amassing property(1842). Critics of this view argue that education has another, less obvious function for society. They believe that a major function of education is to maintain the existing stratification system by convincing unsuccessful individuals that they have "failed". If there are more talented individuals than there are high-status job oportunities, then those who do not find rewarding jobs might see their position in society as a social, rather than a personal problem. From this perspective, one purpose of education is to convince individuals to accept the status quo as a "given" and to define their success or failure in personal terms. Education in this way serves as an agent of social control, teaching students to conform to existing social structures. From either perspective, educational institutions experience a crisis when other social institutions are going through a period of rapid change.
require literacy in communication, sciences, and mathematics before applying computers to the tasks at hand, we may find that we have developed individuals who may be proficient in coding programs, who may even write some simple ones, but individuals who cannot do much more than rely on pre-packaged subroutines to accomplish anything technical or scientific of any significance (Zelby, 1983).The College Board's definition of "computer competency" considerably broadens the concept of computer literacy. It includes basic knowledge of the workings and use of computers, including how to develop programs, how to evaluate computer results through "mental calculation and estimation", the knowledge of when and how computers can be used, and "some understanding of the problems and issues confronting individuals-- and society generally-- in the use of computers, including the social and economic effects of computers and the ethics involved in their use." ("Text ...," 1983). Innovative trends in university education are integrating the use of computers with more general education, as in new programs at MIT, Carnegie-Mellon University (Williams and Allan, 1982), and Oberlin (Williams and Young, 1983). Even in professional computer science programs, the goal is "not to generate technicians" but to graduate "educated experts" with substantive areas of non-computer skills and a base in the humanities and social sciences (Kalaghan, 1983). The outlook in high school and secondary curricula is less promising. Most teachers do not understand computer science, and existing in-service training programs provide only rudimentary skills (Smith, 1983; Coons, 1983; Watt, 1983b). Most new lesson plans are little more than computerized versions of study guides and rote teaching (Bonham, 1983; Aeppel, 1983:B2; Study Disks, 1983). Some notable exceptions are LOGO (Watt, 1983a; Papert, 1980), Sesame Street instruction systems for children, and PLATO computer-based science courses (Bonham, 1983). In short, computer aided instruction is a long way from Arthur C. Clarke's (1980) vision of a decentralized, home-centered electronic educational system.
Prescriptions for improvments in education generally assume that we know what learning and teaching are about. Many theorists believe that education involves human elements which cannot be programmed. Social interactions among students and teachers, facilities of intuition and imagery, and shared biologically and culturally based "nature" are all part of the traditional teaching process (Bruner, 1962 and 1966; and Galyean, 1983). They would dispute the claim by Artificial Intelligence expert Patrick Winston that "the methodology involved in making smart programs transfers to making smart people" (1977:11). Also, at an estimated 1983 cost of $125 per pupil per year, many school administrators are unable to afford a technological solution for their problems even if they believe it would improve the quality of education (Pogrow, 1983).
In the 1983 World Yearbook of Education, devoted to an examination of computers and education, editor Jacquetta Megarry argued that:
the explosive growth of knowledge and the spectacular advances in microtechnology have underlined the importance of teaching students how to learn and how to retrieve information, rather than facts and even skills which may become rapidly obsolescent (1983:23).This is a call for a return to basics in education -- not better techniques for transmitting basic facts to students but a better teaching of basic reasoning from information. If the wisdom of the past is presented to students as just more data, it is not likely to be of much help to them in the future.
There is also a growing number of small-scale entrepeneurs interested in educating others with the aid of information technology. Some of these companies design professional training programs that are modeled after academic conferences but sometimes look like little more than sales pitches for new hardware or software. Other companies provide training in programming and home computer usage in order to solve part of the "computer literacy" problem. These new private sector efforts appear to be concentrated in the marketing of new techniques rather than in the general transmission of cultural information. While they are certainly a part of an information production and distribution economy, most have not yet tried to compete with public and non-profit schools as socializaing agents.
One limit on the expansion of education for profit is the society's need for educated citizens. Most businesses want more than technical specialization, especially in their upper-level employees. Companies seek general skills in planning, problem definition and solution, and communication of ideas. Interaction skills and general cultural knowledge are more important to career success than many pre-professional students realize. To the extent that this is the case, we should expect strong business support for what Education Secretary William Bennett calls the university's function of "preparation for life", even as the private sector takes over the function of preparing people for work.
Yet there is disagreement over what preparing people for work means. Experts who predict that new computer technology will enhance employee skills assume the existence of a highly competent workforce. Likewise, predictions that the technology will be used to routinize work and control labor assume a strong management interest in taking decisions out of employee hands. Unless education provides graduates with decision-making competence and employment skills, it is not likely that management will seek technological innovations that give employees greater autonomy. But unless business management believes that employees should be well educated for their new jobs, it is likely that they will confine their efforts to job training rather than improving the quality of general education.
From a functionalist perspective, universal educational opportunity is
essential for maintaining social equity. The uneducated represent a waste
of human resources and a potential source of social unrest. If, as
conflict theorists argue, education perpetuates social inequality by
discriminating against the disadvantaged, new patterns of discrimination
can be expected from shifts in the educational system. The emergence of a
two-class educational system, with high quality instruction for the elite
and narrow vocational training for the rest, would make the main task of
the schools to select elite students for separate education, and convince
those left in deteriorating educational institutions that it is their own
fault. And, because business's needs for labor are global rather than
national, reforms in education for the underdeveloped world may
increasingly take the form of training inexpensive workers, rather than
providing the human capital needed for economic development.
The Future of Education
It is impossible to predict the future of
educational institutions with any accuracy. But it seems fairly clear that
computers will not solve their problems. A gradual improvement in
educational software should make computer aided instruction a more useful
educational tool than it is at present. The capacity of computer networks
to support communication at a distance may be used to replace many
teachers, through the development of centralized electronic instruction
that resembles television studios more than traditional classrooms
(McDonnell, 1984; Turner, 1984). Or computer-aided instruction may be used
by students for information and practice and by teachers in their
interactions with students. The outcome is not a technological issue. It
depends on how we understand education and its purposes. As private sector
education expands, bring the cultural transmission of knowledge more into
the marketplace, we will have to make some political choices about how much
we want education and socialization to remain public processes.
Leisure is usually thought of as "free" time during which we voluntarily choose enjoyable activity. Leisure is activity for it's own sake, rather than for some future outcome. In practice, however, it is difficult to distinguish the two. We often "work" towards some goal but enjoy the process; recreation can involve strenuous mental or physical effort to achieve a desired result--solving a puzzle or getting to the top of a mountain. For example, writing a computer program is work if you are being paid for it or if it is a class assignment. If you wrote the same program in the same room on the same computer for "fun," it would be a leisure activity.
In a contemportary theory of the relationship between work and leisure, Stanley Parker (1983) presents the concepts in terms of constraints in the two dimensions of time and activity, as shown in Table 6. Parker's diagram reflects the temporal arrangements of modern society by dividing time into work time and non-work time. Constraints on our activity are shown ranging from the immediate demands of employers and our own bodies to completely free choice.
Computerized Leisure. Computerized recreation to most people is video games or home computers as a hobby. Yet leisure activities in the U.S. are the focus of a major service industry. It produces recreational equipment, entertainment products and leisure services. Brutzkus (1980) characterizes the leisure sector of the economy as being aimed at the quality of human life. In sports we have computerized baseball scorecards (Woog, 1983); computerized analysis of opposing teams' performance (Borges, 1983); computerized ocean racing (Chamberlain, 1983); and even an athletic shoe with a built-in chip to keep track of joggers' strides (Marbach, 1985). One effect of computerized sports has been to increase our fascination with data -- more sports statistics are being produced than ever before. Computer-based information is also leading to changes in the managments of professional sports. New York Yankees ex-manager Billy Martin points to a change in baseball trading: "With all the data available in the computers, everything is done by the statistics, and there is no way anybody can hide the dogs (Fortune, Jan 7, 1985:11)."
TABLE 6. A TIME AND CONSTRAINT MODEL OF LEISURE 41
In the theatre, computer controlled lighting systems make effects that are too fast for the human hand (such as the cats' eye sequence in Cats) possible (Van Gelder, 1984). In music we have software to record compositions from a keyboard and an updated version of the fifteen-year-old Moog synthesizer for producing sounds. Although computer aids to musicians have been criticized as inadequate (Gaus, 1984), improvements in sound reproduction technology have made greater resources available to serious musicians and listeners (McLaughlin, 1984). In art, as Negroponte (1980) predicted in the 1970's, developments in computer graphics have opened new vistas for "Sunday painters." Although he also predicted that computer graphics would not be taken seriously as "real" art, the evolution of computer graphics (shown in Inset 3) has begun to caputure the imagination of contemporary artists (Art and Animation, 1985. Some see the possibility of reintegrating work and culture in their own activity (Palyka, 1985). However, with the exception of the few graphic artists (most of whom work commercially), electronic musicians, and other artists, most of us find that computer applications in the arts have provided more to watch and to buy than to do. Computers provide more information, faster speeds, and better reproductions. But they do not make most of us creative performers or artists.
INSET 3. THE EVOLUTION OF COMPUTER GRAPHICS 43
The Future of Leisure. Although analysts since Bernal (1939) have predicted a technological enhancement of leisure, Parker argues that "technology as applied to leisure is more sophisticated--but not noticeabley more likely to enhance sociability or personal development" (1983:104). Computers have not substantially altered the passive quality of most of our recreations. There is more mental activity in interactive programming or computer games than in watching television but most of these activities involve little social interaction. As Ellul wrote:
Leisure time is a mechanized time and is exploited by techniques which, although different from those of man's ordinary work, are as invasive, exacting, and leave man no more free time than Labour itself (1965:400-2).Debates about the future of leisure involve changing conceptions of what work and leisure mean. Art critic Clement Greenberg (1961), commenting on the difficulty of carrying out a leisure-oriented tradition in a work-oriented society, suggests we should shift the center of gravity away from leisure and into work. From Ellul's perspective computerized leisure become more like work in the sense of being more goal-oriented and more governed by external obligations than by "free" choice. Also, with the computer, the techniques of work and leisure may become increasingly similar. As we will see in Chapter 7, some analysts believe computers will bring more "leisure in work" by giving us more creative choices in our paid activities. Others suggest that we will continue to seek our gratifications from leisure as computers give us less control over work.
Psychologist Robert S. Gable, argues that the video games are teaching young people technical skills in a way more suitable to a computer-based society (A Generation..., 1981:50-60). Patricia Greenfield (1983) finds video games contributing to children's spatial skills and ability to do dynamic parallel processing -- keep track of many changing events at the same time. Because the pace of many games is set by the machine, some analysts see them as socializing children into labor discipline -- learning to enjoy "work" at controlled paces in fixed environments defined by computers. But, compared to television, video games do give the player some control over the situation, even though the rules are set by the machine. Social psychologists worry more about the possibility that video games reduce children's opportunities to engage in social interactions with their peers. While the characteristics of computer games which allow players to interact quickly with complex arrangements of information certainly introduce children to the human/computer interface, the crucial issue is the degree to which computerized recreation distances human players from experiencing physical and social interactions. Against the positive effects of children exercising imagination and control via the computer must be balanced the dangers of substituting mastery over unreal computer environments for games which involve "real world" interactions. For it is through social interactions with one another that children are first socialized for decision-making in a democratic society. Play and Political Socialization. Few elements of society seem as far apart as recreation and politics. Our culture defines leisure as a part of private life given over to enjoyable processes and social interactions. By "politics" we generally mean the formal institutions of government. Yet when politics is understood as a general process by which human groups arrive at collective decisions and go about implementing them, there is politics in all of social life. Political socialization is the way we learn the process of group decision-making and our roles (like citizen or elected official) in political institutions. To a sociologist, even the leisure activity of going out for a pizza with friends involves political process. The question of what goes on the pizza, for instance, often requires discussion and debate. And, as is the case in formal political institutions, those who supply the transportation or the money often have a disproportionate influence in the decision.
Authoritarian values include the belief that one ought to give unquestioning obedience to persons in social positions of authority, without any critical thought about the moral, ethical, or social consequences. Authoritarian beliefs are at odds with many of the political values of American society. Democratic beliefs require citizens to question authority and maintain an independent moral and ethical viewpoint. Rules that are considered wrong can be opposed and changed by a majority. In much of a child's socialization, authority figures -- parents and teachers -- establish rules of conduct and enforce orderly behavior. As a child grows older, however, the process of internalization occurs. During this process, the norms, values, and roles of adult society are incorporated into the child's personality. The child develops a conscience and begins to act in ways that are morally right rather instead of out of fear of punishment. Democratic decision-making requires a high degree of internalized rules and depends less upon the formal institutions of social control than do authoritarian forms of decision-making.
Jean Piaget (1965) analyzed the cooperative forms of rule making in children's games. These, he argued, were important in teaching non- authoritarian forms of justice and law. As he watched children playing marbles, Piaget saw them learning to interpret and enforce rules by interacting with one another. In later research on children's conflicts, Douglas Maynard (1985) argued that they were acquiring political skills and learning to make social structures in their small groups. Based on these observations, we might expect children who play video games would have reduced opportunities to learn that rules in democratic society are arrived at by mutual agreement rather than handed down by outside authorities.
In Defense of Computer Games. When asked to comment on the hypothesis that computer games teach authoritarian values, students in my college class defended them, arguing that playing against machines reduced their competitiveness against one another. "Do you really think that the game of Monopoly would make us more cooperative than Pac-Man?" asked one. Another pointed to the new trends in fantasy games in which players actively cooperate to alter the course of events. In these games, the rules of play are not always fixed by the machine, but can be determined by the players. Even more impressive in defense of computer games are those like Tom Snyder's The Other Side. In it, teams of players try to build a bridge between two potentially hostile nations without blowing up the world. In the course of the game, children are actively involved in the social interactions that teach conflict resolution.
Researchers studying what adolescents like in their activities found that they most enjoyed "flow experiences" (Csikszentmihalyi and Larson, 1984). These are activities involving high levels of concentration, rules of interaction, feedback, suspension of self-consciousness, and a sense of belonging to something larger than themselves. These activities also involve being with their family and friends. As we saw in Chapter 4, younger children learned to value human feelings by playing with computer toys. Changes in toy industry sales show a new interest in "huggable" toys. Electonic toy sales dropped 50% between 1983 and 1984, although robots and fantasy toy sales rose. What was "in" were dolls and bears (Russell and Miller, 1985). There is no evidence that interaction with computer toys is alienating our children from social relationships. In the player/game interface, as with other forms of computer interface, we can design for individual isolation and fantasy or we can design for sociability.
The concept of community is based on geographical proximity and repeated patterns of social interaction in a group which shares a common culture. A community defines its membership boundaries, instills a sense of identity and solidarity among its members, and develops mechanisms of social control. Strong social ties of family and friendship are common in communities. In addition, a community's network of weak social ties, such as between acquaintances, is dense.
Virtual communities exist in real life as geographically disbursed groups who manage to maintain themselves using communications and transportation technologies. Mark Hodges' article, Online in the Outback describes one community's use of videoconferencing to preserve a traditional way of life. In the United States, beginning with Berkeley, California's Community Memory Project, geographically based communities have experimented with ways to provide electronic support for their social structures. In Boston Virtually Wired is a project (run by a Northeastern University student) that provides low cost internet access and community outreach programs. Roxbury Online serves Northeastern University's neighboring community. The town of Blacksburg, Virginia has created the Blacksburg Electronic Village with about half of the residents participating. John M. Carroll and Mary Beth Rosson's article "Developing the Blacksburg Electronic Village", Communications of the ACM, Vol. 39, No. 12 (December, 1996, pages 69-74) describe the project. The political implications of putting community decision making are examined critically in Doug Schuler's "Democracy and Democracyware". Students who have not yet done their community service project are welcome to make a connection to Virtually Wired.
Since the beginning of the internet, scientists, scholars and students have used it to support their social networks. Organizations like the Association for Computing Machinery provide journals, conferences, and member services. For most professional groups, periodic face-to-face meetings with colleagues are an important part of developing a professional community. In addition, new groups have formed in newsgroups and real-time interactive communication networks. Howard Rheingold's book, The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier covers the period between 1985 and 1994, with a focus on the WELL conference. Rheingold's Introduction and Chapter One: The Heart of the Well are particularly useful.
One place to begin your exploration of world wide web based virtual communities is to read Amy Bruckman's article " Finding One's Own Space in Cyberspace, " Technology Review 99,1 (January, 1996).
MUDs and MOOs have received a lot of unfavorable attention in the popular media, and their use for entertainment is discouraged by most universities. If you are interested in some of the psychological and social issues involved, try Sherry Turkle's book Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet).
Some entertainment MOOs have "grown up" to become a communities, as described by Pavel Curtis (the founder of LambdaMOO) in MUDs Grow Up. As virtual communities grow, they must also solve problems of social control and collective decision making. LambdaMOOs early experiments with self government are described in Rebecca Spainhower's paper Virtually Inevitable.
New virtual communities are emerging to support the activities of "real" communities. Many of these are organized for research or educational collaboration. Many do not accept guests, but have interesting websites describing their projects. Soc1485 students who want to go exploring on their own or in small groups can get a list of sites in class and may arrange to use the Sociology and Anthropology department's computer lab.
Northeastern University's College of Computer Science's InfoCity is a student run MOO open to members of the CCS community. Students taking Soc1485 have the opportunity to participate in InfoCity, where they may try a group decision making exercise called the Pizza Benchmark. Once in InfoCity, new residents will find a very useful tutorial and a document called "Help Manners" explaining the norms of acceptible behavior. InfoCity has implemented a very interesting solution to Goffman's "frontstage/backstage" problem (discussed in Privacy and Surveillance in Computer-Based Cooperative Work) with it's @who web page. This provides a web window into the community and its activities.
Another educational MOO with a web window is Diversity University, Inc., an international faculty and student collaboration.
MIT's MediaMOO described in Bruckner's article, is a research site for media researchers. Their website describes a variety of interesting educational research. MIT also supports Moose Crossing, a community designed for children.
On InfoCity you will be interacting with people you actually meet face-to-face. If you want to try online visits elsewhere, keep in mind that all virtual communities are made up of real people, with real norms. One of the most widespread norms in virtual communities is that no research is permitted without the community's approval. [This means I will not accept any papers based on your conversations or interactions with people in virtual communities unless all of the participants have agreed. For details read the transcript of a Media MOO forum on the topic.]
One local attempt to deal with the ethics of virtual community research can be found at twiga's asynchronous pizza place . Twiga's is an email based experiment in building a sense of community among international schoolchildren being conducted by a Northeastern Law, Policy, and Society Ph.D. student. Twiga's is also available to Soc1485 students for doing the pizza benchmark or trying their hand at redesigning interactive web pages.