Virtual Communities Fieldtrip

The concept of community was originally 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. Although we often associate virtual communities with new forms of social interaction, the adoption of videoconferencing by Austrailian Aborigines illustrates how computer-mediated communication can be used to support a traditional way of life. CMC also facilitated a cultural exchange between traditional Austrailian culture and folklore students in the United States. (link) Today, community controlled corporations provide video conferencing services for indigeneous Austrailians who are separated from their families. (link) In the United States, beginning with Berkeley, California's Community Memory Project (see also), geographically based communities have experimented with ways to provide electronic support for their social structures. In Boston Virtually Wired was a project (run by a Northeastern University student) that provided low cost internet access and community outreach programs. It dissolved in 1999 for lack of funds. The town of Blacksburg, Virginia created the Blacksburg Electronic Village. 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. (This is available online from the NU campus or if you have a subscription to the ACM portal.) The political implications of putting community decision making are examined critically in Doug Schuler's "Democracy and Democracyware" (in The CPSR Newsletter, Summer 1996, v14 #2, p.10-15.) His 1996 book New Community Networks: Wired for Change is based on the viewpoint that such efforts should be designed for democratic participation. Schuler was a founder of the Seattle Community Network.

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. Virtual communities based on newsgroups, IRC, or even email lists were the beginning of social life in public virtual places. In recent years corporations have begun to sponsor web based "communities" for their customers (for example EarthLink's or Microsoft's.) Some community bulletin boards, like Craig's List, have been bought by commercial enterprises such as Ebay or Google. Others, like DSLreports, are supported by advertizing. While these are virtual places where people can get information and have meaningful discussions, are they really communities in the sociological sense? Can individual connections to corporations and their products provide the basis for people feeling connected to other people?


Before you answer, consider the traditional U. S. community activity of quilting. My mother's wooden quilting frame, like this Louisiana frame, takes up 36 square feet of floor space and has room for a dozen people to sit around and piece together small cloth quilt blocks. I have some of my grandmother and great Aunt's squares made of scraps leftover from sewing clothes for the family. Quilting brought small groups of people (usually women, though one of my grandfathers made a quilt) together face-to-face to work and socialize. Susan Roach's African-American Quiltmakers in North Louisiana: A Photographic Essay illustrates one community's activities. Gee's Bend, Alabama quilters have their own website. (see also the Wikipedia History of Quiliting.) In the mid 1990s only a few quilting web pages were available online, starting with the non-profit AIDs quilt, the World Wide Quilting Page. and the more commercial Planet Patchwork. As the WorldWide Web grew through links, directories, libraries, webrings, and search engines individuals, organiztions, and corporations began to connect their quilting sites. Today there are millions of quilt related sites, While the sociability of gathering in the same place is largely missing, online quilters are able to establish and maintain social ties with others who share their interests. Is it community? Our Quilting Beehive, a group of friends who occasionally meet in real space, has shared interests, communications, and a sense of belonging to one another. Sites that simply sell the products of quilters lack these characteristics of community.

MUDs and MOOs

Multiple User Dimensions (also known as Multi User Dungeons) and MUD, Object Oriented (MOO) environments are text based virtual places with persistent room and objects. (See The Purpose of MOOs.) First used for fantasy/adventure games, they have evolved into virtual communities and collaborative workspaces. Some have graphical user interfaces (GUIs), a web interfaces, or even virtual reality modeling (VRML). But they originated from, and still support, text only connections. This made MOOs inherently accessible to the physically or band width impaired user.

Amy Bruckman's 1996 article " Finding One's Own Space in Cyberspace". It described the positive aspects of virtual places at a time when the internet was widely perceived as a dangerous place where young people became addicted to fantasy-adventure gaming. Judith S. Donath's 1977 Ph.D. thesis Inhabiting the virtual city took a serious look at the design of virtual places. The social psychologist Sherry Turkle explored the relationship between virtual identity and real personality formation in her book Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet). For many or her interview subjects online roles were more satisfying that powerless and meaningless real-life ones. use for entertainment was discouraged by most universities as a waste of time and bandwidth.

In the early years of virtual communities they received a lot of unfavorable attention in the popular media. Their use for entertainment was discouraged by most universities as a waste of time and bandwidth. The later introduction of Quake servers, Napster and peer-to-peer file sharing have made text-based virtual communities seem more benign in retrospect. Some entertainment MOOs "grew up" to become a communities, as described by Pavel Curtis (the founder of LambdaMOO) in MUDs Grow Up. As virtual communities grew, they had to 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 were organized for research or educational collaboration. Diversity University, was an international faculty and student collaboration. MediaMOO supported a community of researchers. Moose Crossing was designed by Amy Bruckman for children. It was based on the educational theory of constructionism:

we build our own knowledge based on what we experience, and will therefore learn especially well when we build personally meaningful projects. Children on MOOSE Crossing take part in constructing their own projects, which allows them to practice their reading, writing, and programming skills. They are taking part in a hands-on experience which uses their language and programming skills. The MOOSE Crossing community provides ample support for children in the form of a knowledge resource, a sounding board for ideas, and an appreciative audience. Amy Bruckman

Some virtual roleplaying sites have evolved into high bandwith graphically intensive websites, for example World of Warcraft. Some, like Neopets, are aimed at very young consumers. SecondLife began to resemble communities with economic and entreneurial activity.

Collaborative Virtual Workspaces

Remy Evard's 1993 paper Collaborative Networked Communication: MUDs as Systems Tools describs an experiment begun at Northeastern University's College of Computer Science to use MOOs for collaborative work. InfoPark created a social community among the members of the systems group who used it over the years. The undergraduate project InfoCty was "designed to influence both the academic and social life of the College". Among Ken Fox's designs on InfoCity is a very interesting solution to Goffman's "frontstage/backstage" problem (discussed in Privacy and Surveillance in Computer-Based Cooperative Work) was doors that could be configured to export their contents to the web if they were open. Closing a door turned off the web view and gave the occupants privacy. One of the things that made InfoCity a community is that participants saw one another in real life in classes, around campus and during free time. Because it was frequently inaccesible from offcampus and because it was not particularly welcoming to new members, InfoCity became a virtual ghost town as its original inhabitants graduated and moved on.

The Mitre Corporation developed a MOO based Collaborative Virtual Workspace for the U. S. Government which was made opensource. A small group of Northeastern undergraduates led by Justin Richer, worked on a project to create a CVW based student run community developed through student-faculty collaboration. Among the interesting designs on upayaCVW were Justin's anonymous bulletin board, a sponsored guest feature that allows guests to take a more active role, and an internal webserver.

The next generation of collaborative workspaces appeared in both virtual communities and in the expansion of free collaborative tools for people to form groups and share documents Cory Ondrejka, developed a Public Diplomacy and Virtual Worlds Project at Second Life. He teaches in the University of Southern California's Charles Annenberg Weingarten Program on Online Communities (APOC). At Harvard Law School, Second Life's Berkman Island is used for teaching. (link.

Social Networking Sites

A new crop of virtual communities have appeared offering the benefits of weak social tie networking. StumbleUpon and feature social bookmark sharing. Sites like Orkut and LavaLife are more like dating services and linkedin appear more attractive for business contacts. Parents and educators express concerns over Facebook's possible effects on young people. Whether these new sites represent genuine opportunities for community formation on the internet or are examples of the commodification of social life remains to be seen. But the PEW Internet and American Life Project's finding that two thirds of U.S. young people blog and post photos online suggests that the internet is a means of communication and self-expression for the next generation.

Judith A. Perrolle

Page Credits: Thanks to all the students who worked on upaya and InfoCity especially Justin, Leander, Ken, Chris, Mike, Elissa, Maria and Ari. Thanks to Rebecca for the idea of making virtual communities a class topic, and Coralee for putting the idea of community into practice, Lake for his demonstration project at DU, Sketch for helpful advice.