Virtual Communities:
The 90's Mind Altering Drug or Facilitator of Human Interaction?

Jaye A. H. Lapachet

School of Library & Information Studies
University of California
Berkeley, CA 94720

NOTICE

Guy Debord, in Society of the Spectacle, describes modern life as alienating because of the unbreakable circle of consumerism that our economic system creates. The system forces people to work their entire lives to support the consumerism of the American Dream[1]. He continues by saying that "in societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away "into a representation of that direct experience."[2]

Virtual communities are the latest rage in personal interaction and public discourse. They are an attempt, if an unwitting one, to alleviate some of the alienation caused by modern society. As a result, America Online, Delphi, Netcom, Prodigy and others are aggressively marketing their services which include the ability to meet other people. Internet connections are multiplying at a phenomenal rate. People realize that there is some value in banding together.[3] Even though most people do not know that "virtual community" is the name of these new online organizations, they seem to be the future of personal interactions: a way for people to meet other people. What are virtual communities? What are the effects on society? Are virtual communities a benefit to society? Are virtual communities a beneficial venue for public discourse, or are they just another mind-altering drug, like television?

This paper will attempt to create a workable definition for virtual communities, and then explore the advantages and disadvantages, problems and issues associated with this new means of communication. The discussion will assume a certain level of knowledge of terminology related to the Internet and computer networking.

Virtual, in The Random House College Dictionary, is an adjective meaning "being in such force or effect though not actually or expressly such: reduced to virtual poverty."[4] Community, in the same source, is a noun meaning "a social group of any size whose members reside in a specific locality, share government, and have a common cultural and historical heritage; or a social, religious, occupational, or other group sharing common characteristics or interests."[5] The combined meanings describe, somewhat, virtual communities as they exist on various networks. They do not, however, include the computer aspects of virtual communities or the distributed nature of their participants.

Howard Rheingold, author of The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier, defines virtual communities as:

the social aggregations that emerge from the Net when enough people carry on those public discussions long enough, with sufficient human feeling, to form webs of personal relationships in cyberspace.[6]

Other elements help define virtual communities. One must add that participants interact via computer mediated communication.[7] Virtual communities are not electronic villages. Virtual communities can exist within an electronic village, and often many virtual communities can help make up an electronic village, but virtual communities are more communication and people oriented, while electronic villages are hardware, organization and connection oriented.

Finally, there are many elements that make up a community: births, deaths, fights, reconciliation and gossip. All of these are vital and needed parts of a virtual community as they are in a physical community.

Virtual communities include, but are not limited to such entities as LISTSERVs, newsgroups, network chat forums (America Online), forums (CompuServe), some Internet Rely Chat sessions and Bulletin Boards (BBSs).

Topics run the gamut of human interests from Attention Deficit Disorder[8] to Quiltmaking[9] to Beer[10] to Mystery Enthusiasts[11] to Gardening[12], Camels[13], Macintosh computers[14] and software[15], and Pets[16]. The list of topics varies as much as people's interests.

Since virtual communities exist through computer mediated communication, they are dependent on computer networks. Without computer networks, virtual communities would be just like any other common civic, professional or hobby related group that meets on a regular basis. Howard Besser, adjunct professor at the University of California, Berkeley's School of Library and Information Studies points out that if the computer networking ability did not exist, these diverse communities probably would not be able to meet, because of the geographic diversity, among other logistical problems. Virtual communities are groups of people with a shared interest in a hobby, profession, or a product who get and share ideas online. The sharing is done at the convenience of the participant and not at a specific time of the week or month. The "meetings," as a result, tend to be ongoing.

The critical element in the definition of virtual communities is the fact that people can go to their terminals at anytime and use the computer themselves, "with nobody else interposing their judgement."[17]

As with anything, virtual communities have both advantages and disadvantages.

Advantages

Disadvantages

The impact of virtual communities on individuals and physical communities[20] can have positive and negative effects. Some of the effects could be considered both positive and negative.

The biggest advantage is that the technology that makes virtual communities possible has the potential to bring enormous intellectual, social, and commercial leverage as well as, most importantly, political leverage to ordinary citizens at relatively little cost.[21] Virtual communities give people the opportunity to discuss the issues of the day (or whatever) with each other and, if necessary or desirable, organize action. Computer mediated communication and virtual communities are a real way for people to have a say in the actions government and large corporations pursue. The relatively low cost of communicating information to a large number of people conveniently makes this possible.

The medium must be used intelligently and deliberately by an informed population,[22] however, because the same technology that can also be used to organize can also be used to spread misinformation. Government and large corporations could use the medium to feed trivial information in large doses to the public, effectively numbing people into a state of information overload, thus dismantling the usefulness of the medium by turning computer mediated communication into a drug.

Although a multitude of special interests groups exist in the physical community, there is not always a forum located nearby to discuss the particular topic in which each person is interested. Virtual communities provide a forum for those discussions. The participant never has to leave home and has some control over how the discussion progresses. Additionally, if there is not a forum for a certain discussion, almost anyone can set up a virtual community of their own, although the difficulty varies depending on the network.

For people in rural communities, virtual communities can provide a lifeline. Some communities are so isolated, or small, that few special interest groups exist. For these people, virtual communities can allow participants to enjoy their hobby or interest, even though the nearest participant is hundreds of miles away.

There are few media that allow an equal number of participants that receive information to broadcast information. Many forms of communication today are broadcast medium using the "few to many" model. This model includes television, cable television and radio. The "few to many" model allows a few people, such as national network television and cable companies, to select and send information in the form of television shows, TV movies, commercials, etc. out to millions of people. This concentration of communication is an accumulation, in the "hands of the existing system's administration, of the means which allow it to carry on this particular administration." The spectacle (the "few to many" broadcast model) thus becomes an organ of class domination.[23] The incessant refinement and division that follows dissolves all community and critical sense among the recipients,[24] because this type of broadcasting does not allow the recipient to respond to the broadcasts easily, conveniently or immediately. Contact between people must go through an intermediary who has the power of instantaneous communication.[25] People do not like this kind of communication, because they do want to be able to explore the social space of their surroundings on their own.[26] One might consider the Nielson ratings a form of input. The input Nielsen families provide is mainstream and based on the false (or severely limited) choices[27] the broadcast networks provide. What percentage of households are "Nielson families" and what is the actual quality of the input? There can be little or no public discourse in this "few to many" model, because input is uni-directional.

Additionally, with television, the recipient does not have to use any imagination. There are no true choices since predetermined shows have certain time slots, and each show's content has been predetermined and prepackaged. There is no opportunity to watch a show at six o'clock, if it scheduled for eleven o'clock.

Call in talk shows are a perfect example of the need for more "user input" between broadcasters and recipients. Shows get more calls than they can ever put on the air and callers are often on hold for a long time, before they get the chance to put in their twenty second sound byte. From the beginnings of BBS systems in 1978, people have demanded a means by which they can interact with others, not for an "official, certified, top-down information system." People demanded a way to have contact with other people having kindred interests.[28]

Virtual communities use the "many to many" model of communication, which means that everyone is able to send out as much information as they receive. Each participant has control of what they read and what responses they send. The power and political significance of virtual communities and computer mediated communication lies in their ability to challenge the existing political and corporate hierarchies' "monopoly on powerful communications media.[29]

Although, the "many to many" communication model can be an advantage, it can also be a disadvantage. With millions of users "surfing" the 'Net daily, the number of messages received can quickly become overwhelming. It is very easy to become overloaded, because nobody knows when the topic will generate an unusually large number of messages. Since everyone can send a message, the potential for a large number of messages is very real.

Strong opinions, or plenty of spare time afford some participants the ability to dominate the discussion. Sending many messages, sending long messages or habitual flaming are other ways that a few can make the "many to many" communication model a burden, especially since people who have valuable things to say "tend to keep their heads down and their ideas to themselves when a mercenary or hostile zeitgeist dominates an online community."[30] Howard Besser points out that people need to learn out to responsibly deal with difficult people, especially because people have been socialized to let authority figures do the unpleasant jobs for us, such as responding to hostile or opinionated individuals.

Time is a critical factor in the value of virtual communities. The daily life of modern society is based on production and output that must adhere to a time schedule.[31] Outside activities often have to be squeezed into the few spare hours a week that are left after work and family. Virtual communities offer, not only a multitude of topic areas, but also the ability to participate at a convenient time. There is no weekly meeting to catch after work. The meetings happen whenever the participants have time to login and read the new postings. This time-shifting allows participants time to ponder a particularly serious posting or article, and write a coherent response. Time-shifting also allows people from many time zones to participate in a discussion. Time shifting allows people to use their time in a manner they choose, at a convenient time, not being forced to select a false choice, just because it is available at that time.[32]

Although, there are many forms of identification on the networks, participating in virtual communities gives people a sense of anonymity. For people who are shy or have trouble making friends in their physical community, communicating on a network can give the confidence to make new friends. A person can get to know others then choose to meet them.[33] Typing questions and responses onto a computer screen using a keyboard give the impression that the messages are not really being sent off to other people. Using virtual communities can seem like word processing where you have control of who sees what one has written. In fact, this phenomenon of anonymity is false, but still seems to be the hardest aspect of virtual communities to overcome. It is hard to grasp how many other people will actually see a message. The "sense" of anonymity may be why the conversations in virtual communities are so vital. If you do not have to look at people, it is much easier to say certain things.

Since many conversation threads, started by many different people, can be taking place at a time, virtual communities can also give people a voyeuristic sense of listening in to other's private conversations. This is especially true since a participant can still read all the messages and not have to participate. E-mail also makes it possible and easy not to read all messages.[34] Listening to other people's "private conversations" can be quite interesting especially considering the global reach of computer networks.

Along with the different backgrounds comes differing perspectives and points of view. Coming into contact with this diversity may open a participant's eyes to new ideas, injustices, and challenge the values and opinions thought to be sacrosanct.

A fortunate result of text based computer mediated communication, despite the diversity in virtual communities, is that participants are known by the items they post, their opinions, and by the .sig box at the end of messages. The first impression is not that someone is African-American, or a woman, or wheelchair-bound, so people are not judged on how they look. People who normally would face discrimination because of their looks have the opportunity to interact without discrimination.

Discrimination still exists in virtual communities and text based communication, it just takes a different form "appropriate" to the medium (which is not to say that discrimination is appropriate). Participants discriminate, somewhat, against lurkers, making jokes about those that do not participate as actively as others. There is discrimination based on the typing ability of participants, and the writing skills.

Another target for discrimination comes from lack of knowledge of UNIX commands and the interworkings of the network. Participants have to get past a whole new set of commands to find their way through the software to the people.[35] For example, there is a big difference between sending a message to the list for everyone to read and sending a message to the LISTSERV software that performs administrative functions. Often new users will send subscribe, unsubscribe, postpone and digest messages to the list rather than to the administrative task master, an surefire indicator of a new or infrequent user and another target for discrimination. The discrimination that can result, though not justified, is understandable. That incorrect message can be duplicated for each subscriber, requires network resources as well as human resources.

Network address is another factor in the discrimination equation. Some addresses are an incomprehensible melange of letters and numbers, which are probably the safest addresses to have. Others are very identifiable. Participants with netcom.com or delphi.com may not be considered "true" users, because they buy their Internet time. Any .com participants may be considered usurpers, because companies have only recently been allowed on the Internet.

A subtle form of discrimination, which is a direct transfer from the physical community is that of language pertinent to the topic, or specific to the list. Lists will often form abbreviations for commonly discussed concepts, which may not be listed anywhere, but are known from reading the messages. Newcomers to the virtual community may be unable to decipher some of the conversation because of the abbreviations. Computer language can be incomprehensible, especially for infrequent users. Although people do not need to know all of the computer terminology to operate a computer, they can be left out, if it comes up in discussion. Other abbreviations, common to virtual communities, are a kind of shorthand baffling to new users. IMHO[36] or BTW[37] are two examples. Often these types of abbreviations are not intended to alienate anyone, but to speed up the monotony of typing.

Besser pointed out that many of the patterns of discrimination listed above are the behaviors associated with a "computer nerd" -- a kind of private world or clubby juvenile behavior. This behavior could have evolved from the earliest participants in virtual communities being people highly knowledgeable about the Internet, technology, and computers. These behaviors are associated with or the products of the technology, and the technological and social structures of virtual communities. In my opinion, they have more to do with the "doing your homework" and "earning your stripes" mentality.

People using the Internet to access virtual communities expect other participants to know the rules and conventions of participation. Participants expect others to have researched ways of subscribing to a LISTSERV, for example, and the etiquette involved in sending and answering messages. These requirements seem mostly to be enforced and expected for selfish reasons. Participants do not want to see 10 subscribe messages show up in their mailbox each day. It is annoying and a waste of time.

Participants also expect new participants to have listened in on the discussion and/or to have searched the archives so that their questions do not repeat previous recent discussions. Current Internet users seem to be basically well educated and intelligent. As a result, these users expect new participants to match that level of education and intelligence whether or not they have gone to a university to earn the official degrees.

Despite the existence of discrimination, it seems that discrimination is less, because participants cannot see, and therefore cannot judge, other participants. In some respects, if you take off the "electronic varnish," the patterns of discrimination are similar to what most participants are familiar with in their physical communities everyday: home, profession, education.

Informal life in America is sorely deficient. Many of the places people gathered were eliminated when the "automobile-centric, suburban, fast-food, shopping-mall way of life" came into being, which began to shred the social fabric of existing communities.[38] Thus despite the online allure and electronic positive attractions of virtual communities, people still seem to want to get together, and see the person behind the modem. It is unnatural for people to live in isolation. Traditional societies are based on the village, which is centered around some sort of assembly space. This space allows people to get together, discuss, exchange, argue and get to know each other.[39] Modern society has paved over those assembly spaces, considering them unimportant. Participants on QuiltNet, a LISTSERV about quiltmaking, have informally grouped themselves into regional groups. These regional groups periodically meet to talk, look at each other's quilts and see each other's faces. Often the group will meet if a participant from another area is coming to town for a visit. In this way, virtual communities can be a catalyst for people to meet in their physical communities. If people are using virtual communities to facilitate conversation and replace the need for regular meetings, but physically meeting for important events or to refresh the group, then virtual communities provide a convenient and useful purpose.

Meeting, however, can be a challenge since most participants have only their own idea of what other participants look like. Some virtual communities adopt a symbol, so members can recognize each other. For example, PUBLIB-NET encouraged participants to pick up PUBLIB-NET stickers at the last ALA convention, so that participants could recognize one another and say hello.

The potential is on the horizon for the Information Superhighway, to continue paving over the common areas by making virtual communities accessible by those who can pay. This model will continue the pattern of isolation on which current technologies such as the automobile and the television are based. These technologies "are weapons for a constant reinforcement of the conditions of isolation."[40] Lee Felsenstein, author of "The Commons of Information" and founder of the Community Memory[41] Project, maintains that a village square provides a healthy need for a community. He further states that:

The degree to which a 'village square' is unavailable to people is, I maintain, the degree to which people are strangers to each other, and this situation is directly related to the development of social pathologies such as criminality, alcoholism, brutality and the like. I claim that we all have an inherent need for the function of the village square.[42]

As well as encompassing a wide variety of formats and topics, there are, at least, two types of virtual communities that exist: unmoderated and moderated. Moderated lists have an advantage when it comes to sorting through e-mail. Moderators will often read all messages sent to the group before they are sent on to the rest of the subscribers. This allows irrelevant and "mistake" messages to be removed or redirected. Sometimes, moderators will group messages on a certain topic into one message. Moderators also help keep the discussion on track or they will pull the conversation back when it drifts too far afield.

Moderated lists have advantages but, there are also disadvantages, as was recently illustrated on an Internet list about virtual communities called IRVC-L.[43] The list was generating upwards of fifty messages a day, some of which were annoying or only tangentially related to the topic. One example was that several messages debated the semantics of a posted message posted rather than the content of the message. Finally, after many people signed off the list and complained about the quality of the messages, the moderator reiterated the purpose of the list and decreed that all participants posting irrelevant or inflammatory messages would be removed from the list. The result was that the IRVC-L message count has dwindled to a few postings per day, and it may take some time before the list "heals" and gets over the feeling that Big Brother is watching.

The action by the IRVC-L moderator, suggests that virtual communities are not truly communities, if someone has the control of who belongs and who does not, as well as what type of messages participants post. Participants do have the right to argue with the moderator or go off and start their own list, or continue to discuss as before, flaunting their actions in the face (computer screen) of the moderator. As mentioned above, the "many to many" communications model allows everyone to respond to messages and actions equally.

Virtual communities differ from other types of media, because the messages are not permanent. The messages sent to other participants reside on each account until deleted. This allows participants to clip portions and respond to just one portion of a message, allowing others to see the exact wording of the original message. The sender does not have to print out, retype the information or paraphrase. This is helpful, though not foolproof, in preventing the distortion of the original sender's intent.

Whenever a message is sent to a virtual community, the words become part of the electronic universe. The messages are duplicated on machines all over the world. Due to the digital nature of the media, it also means that the words written in the message are malleable. A message sent by Participant #1 can be forwarded by Participant #2 to Friend X who does not participate in the virtual community, but is interested in a topic currently being discussed. Friend X can then, without the knowledge of the original sender, include the comments in a paper, an article, a speech or forward the message on to another virtual community.

Sometimes messages are archived for future research. The archives of some virtual communities can, then, be searched. The messages retrieved through a search are then sent to the searcher's account where they reside until deleted. By sending a message to a virtual community, control over the content is lost. There is no way for the sender to prevent a recipient or archives searcher from using the information in any manner they choose, including changing the meaning of the information or forwarding it on as someone else's words.[44] People are attempting to stem the flood of forwarded messages by including disclaimers with the message which outline the way that they allow their words to be used. Once the message is out into the electronic universe, true control over the content is lost and participants must rely on good Netiquette.

Most computer networks, at this time, are text based. This means that you do not have to do any drawing, and there are few images or video broadcast over the networks. As a result, participants can form their own images of the topics discussed, and of the other participants. Although it is often apparent whether someone is a man or a woman after a few messages are exchanged, a text based system allows people to take on characteristics, such as being more forceful, that would be impossible to assume in face to face conversations. For many people this provides the anonymity that they need to contribute to the conversation.

As a result of the text based nature of virtual communities, they are one of the few recreational areas where many people have the opportunity to do a significant amount of writing. Neil Postman, surmises that the advent of television has ruined the literacy of the United States. "From its beginning until well into the nineteenth century, America was as dominated by the printed word and an oratory based on the printed word as any society we know of."[45] This was true, because from the seventeenth to the late nineteenth century, printed matter was virtually all that was available.[46] Today, it seems that very few people write letters to friends, much less write about their ideas, thoughts, hopes, dreams and feelings.

Virtual communities, currently, require that a participant put thoughts, opinions and feelings into words in order to transmit them to others. In this requirement, virtual communities offer the opportunity to use writing skills in an analytical way. Unfortunately, people do not need to be able to read and/or write to watch television, so they watch television instead of reading.

Postman says in his book, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business:

...the most significant cultural fact of the second half of the twentieth century [is] the decline of the Age of Typography and the ascendancy of the Age of Television. This change-over has dramatically and irreversibly shifted the content and meaning of public discourse, since two media so vastly different cannot accommodate the same ideas. As the influence of print wanes, the content of politics, religion, education, and anything else that comprises public business must change and be recast in terms that are most suitable to television. [47]

Reading and writing should be skills that everyone has, but "nearly 50% of all Americans lack the basic literacy skills needed to hold a decent job."[48] These alarming comments on literacy are very different from previous literacy statistics. Between 1640 and 1700 the literacy rate for men in Massachusetts and Connecticut was somewhere between 89 and 95 percent, while the literacy rate, in 1681-1697, for women in the same area was estimated to be 62 percent.[49] The statistics seem to indicate that television has had, at least, some effect on literacy.

Illiteracy does not cross socio-economic boundaries as other social ills, such as alcoholism and drug use, do. African-Americans, other minorities and poor people ranked disproportionately low in literacy surveys. As a result, their opinions and thoughts are not available to be shared with others. If people cannot compute the difference between a sale price and a regular price or pinpoint an intersection on a map,[50] how can they function in a virtual community, where the conversation as well as the participants are very abstract? The answer is that they will not be able to and will therefore continue to be shut out of the virtual communities that are brought to their doorsteps.

Religion and family do not have the power over people that they once did, so people turn to television and mass consumption for their values.[51] "The mass-media dominated public sphere is where the governed now get knowledge; the problem is that commercial mass-media, led by broadcast television, have polluted, with barrages of flashy, phony," unrealistic, "often violent imagery, a public sphere that once included a large component of reading, writing and rational discourse."[52] The corporate sector and, perhaps, the government benefit from the isolation that television and mass consumption encourage. If people do not meet, they do not ask a lot of difficult questions after the meeting. If people do not discuss topics for very long or in any great detail, they will not demand that corporations and government answer for their actions and policies. The discussion in virtual communities provides education and fuel for challenge to corporate and governmental policies. Unfortunately, with the pre-packaged ideas that television provides being duplicated on the Information Superhighway, rather than following the model of public discourse that currently exists on the Internet, all of the hopes for a medium that will accommodate discussions among people will be extinguished. The spectacle is both the result and the project of the existing mode of production, not a supplement or an additional decoration to the real world. In all of its specific forms, "as information propaganda, as advertisement or direct entertainment consumption, the spectacle is the present model of socially dominant life."[53]

Not only will illiterates be excluded, but, to a certain extent, children will also be excluded. The very young have not yet learned to read or write and the older children do not always have the sophisticated literacy skills required to participate in some of the abstract discussions that are part of virtual communities.

Even more alarming is the attempt, by some groups to prohibit children on the basis that unsuitable materials exist on the networks and children should be protected from them. By prohibiting children from the good virtual communities, as well as the bad, these groups prevent children from having the opportunity to form opinions about good and bad, and prevent parents from making the decisions that are right for their own family's situation.[54]

Children and illiterates, who will potentially be shut out of future virtual communities, offer a different perspective on society from the mainstream. The fact that you need to read and write to participate will eliminate significant points of view. The loss of their participation could be detrimental to the true globality of these communities.

Literacy is only one barrier to virtual communities that exists. Access to the networks can be a barrier to participation in virtual communities, also. In order to be a virtual community participant, people must, first, have access to modem-equipped computers. Currently, 6% of the adult population with income of $10,000 per year or less own a home computer. 18% in this income range use a computer at work. That figure moves up as family incomes increase. 35% of adults, where the family income is $50,000 to $74,999 per year, own a home computer, while 53% of those adults use one at work.[55] Although these figures are two years old, they point out an already a large disparity in access. With the price of computers plummenting, the disparity could be growing larger.

Currently there are few, if any community open computing facilities. Without access, however, people cannot participate and again, large segments, with potentially valuable and diverse points of view will be shut out. Besser points out that this problem is an opportunity for libraries to create a new role for themselves in communities by providing access to computers, and virtual communities.

Cost is an issue in other ways, too. If a computer with modem magically appears in the living room, the costs associated with connecting to a network service provider still must be considered. These costs are not insignificant and will probably jump in the near future, according to Howard Besser. Some participants have access through work, which is a viable alternative, except in cases where employers consider e-mail something to be used for work related activities only, or where the amount of computer access to non-work virtual communities puts a participant's job in jeopardy. Employers may (perhaps rightly) fear that this could become the new workforce narcotic.

Another issue related to cost is that the discussions will become too expensive for most people to access when the corporations fighting for control of the Information Superhighway actually gain a significant share. Free areas will encompass shopping, pay per view movies on demand index, or be work related. Thus, the interesting discussions may cease to exist or dwindle. The America Online and Prodigy models, may become the only choices, where participants pay to be connected and pay a premium for the interesting information, but still have to endure advertisements. With this model, virtual communities will have to prove their worth by drumming up advertising or some other type of financing, which will make it difficult for low-use or obscure topics to stay available. This is a change that will create the mind-altering drug of the 90's, a "drug" similar to the effect that video games and television have today. If commercial ventures get control, there will be a definite slant towards selling things and away from public interest. According to Elaine Albright, dean of cultural affairs and libraries for the University of Maine and chair of the ALA Ad Hoc Subcommittee on Telecommunications,

The National Information Infrastructure represents the evolution of the nation's multi-faceted communications network, including telephone and telecommunications, cable and television delivery systems, and the rapidly emerging Internet and new digital communications system. The old framework for regulation which provided separate approaches for the emerging communications media must be reexamined in order to ensure that the information infrastructure does not impede growth and social progress. This examination must reconsider the public interest issues as well as the market issues in modifying the existing framework.[56]

Public interest issues must be addressed as vigorously as market issues, since both will need to work together to create a network that is useful in the public interest sense and profitable, in the commercial sense. Frederick Weingarten, executive director of the Computing Research Association, reiterated this when he said that "the model for developing new telecommunications policy must move from the model of allocating markets to a balanced process of developing policy which involves public interests as well as market interests."[57]

Some aspects of virtual communities would be considered neither useful nor desirable. There exists a possibility that participants could become so involved in virtual communities that it becomes their reality, losing touch with physical reality. This is a problem, not only for the individual, but also for the physical and virtual communities. The individual may forgo activities with friends or family, effectively isolating him/herself from outside stimuli. The physical community loses a productive member of society. Not everyone writes letters to their Senator or volunteers at the local animal shelter, but every person who does contributes to the greater good, and losing one volunteer can make a difference in some services. When virtual communities participants isolate themselves from the physical community their participation in the virtual community is less valuable, because of their increasingly limited experiences. This phenomenon seems more likely in MUDs and MUSEs, than LISTSERVs, although the potential is there in all types of virtual communities. Banning certain types of virtual communities, such as MUDs or IRC[58] activity, however, is a natural bureaucratic impulse in response to tales of addiction, but it seems more prudent to treat the problems on a case by case basis rather than creating a new kind of online culture police.[59] One must be careful with the addiction model as applied to a range of human behavior, because a person in the midst of a heated debate is much different from the person whose physical life suffers from their activities in the virtual community.[60]

It seems reasonable to assume that most people would find a balance between the real-world and the virtual world. There are many aspects of society that can have multiple varying effects on individuals. For example, alcoholic beverages are viewed, on one hand, as a pleasurable and healthy complement to a meal. Others would prefer to eliminate alcoholic beverages all together, because of the potential dangers inherent in these beverages. There are also individuals who are addicted to them with many negative societal consequences.[61] Technology is not the problem, but the uses to which humans put the technology "unless one considers virtual communities a post modern form of the spectacle -driving people indoors and making them think that virtual communities are real communities."[62]

Other aspects of virtual communities could affect the physical communities. If people become comfortable maneuvering in virtual communities, the new skills may help participants become comfortable with using commercial online ventures. These services could make it easier to shop and receive entertainment affecting the neighborhood economic stability and social interactions among residents.

There are other issues to address, though, besides the advantages and disadvantages of virtual communities. First, even though the mundane tasks of maintaining a membership list is handled by software, the virtual community still needs "care and feeding". Someone must start the conversation, when the list is new, and keep it going when the traffic is light. Somebody needs to handle problems and misdirected mail. And someone needs to assuage ruffled feathers and remind people, diplomatically, of the finer points of Netiquette. An excellent example with regard to the care and feeding of a virtual community are the events that recently took place on QuiltNet.[63] Recently the listowner sent a message saying that she would close down this virtual quilting community on December 1st, 1993. After several years the list had grown from 17 people to over 500. The amount of daily traffic along with the associated tasks and responsibilities was beginning to interfere with her job. Someone volunteered to move the list to another site which means that QuiltNet will continue, but the tasks necessary to keep the list functioning will not go away, they will be transferred to the new listowner. Virtual communities do not handle themselves, so in that way, they are the same as physical communities. The tasks are different and appropriate to the medium. Many of the problems referred to above can be solved by people taking the time to be responsible (or learning to be responsible), learning to handle difficult situations and devoting the time to active and valuable participation, instead of relying on outside authorities to take care of everything for them.

Second, how can business fit into the virtual community equation? There are several ways in which virtual communities could assist businesses in providing better service and streamlining in-house processes. Virtual communities have the ability to provide online colleagues for employees in an organization who hold unique responsibilities. Also, virtual communities are useful for those who deal with a one-of-a-kind piece of equipment or a software package not supported by the MIS department. Some networks, such as CompuServe, already provide forums where companies can communicate with a their customers. These types of virtual communities are a convenient, efficient and economical way for companies to provide support for products, and for customers to communicate with a company. Supporting products through virtual communities is good public relations, also. If customers do not have stay on telephone hold for half an hour, while technicians solve other problems, they will be happier customers.

Businesses can also save money when professional organizations support virtual communities for members. Members of professional organizations can discuss issues on an ongoing basis via virtual communities without having to spend additional time away from the office. Professionals can also share knowledge on particular problems that come up on a day to day basis, problems which may not be addressed at a national conference. Employee participants can get fast answers and develop a network of "experts," because participants have access to people with a broad range of knowledge.

Oftentimes, businesses do not want to support virtual communities at all, because it involves a technology that is new, and perceived as a toy. Managers may not see the value of virtual communities and perceive them as detracting from other day to day tasks. Making network access technology available to employees also gives them the capability of accessing non-work related virtual communities. Grudgingly companies seem to be beginning to support work related virtual communities.

Third, virtual communities need to attempt to make their discussions available to many different users. Gateways between networks are one way that virtual communities have helped to draw more participants from various networks into discussions. Participants need to look towards encouraging non-network users to acquire accounts and join virtual communities, especially those who would bring rich experiences to the discussions.

User interfaces need to be addressed also. Though many would opt for a graphical user interface such as the one America Online uses, this type of interface may not be the best for everyone. A wide variety of interfaces should be available including command line, touch screens, and voice interfaces.

Finally, how useful are virtual communities for topics that incorporate non-textual or visual information? People still seem to discuss the issues, such as quiltmaking and art, which incorporate a broad range of visual information. ASCII drawings are possible, lengthy and graphic descriptions can be the norm on such lists. Additionally, a lot of the discussion centers around ideas, suggestions of tools, reviews of books, or reference sources. This genre of virtual communities may also foster more physical meetings to show the actual visual materials. This issue may become a non issue when video and images become more standard across networks.[64] Provisions should be made to provide drawing capabilities in the software. In the meantime, other possibilities to facilitate this valuable type of interaction should be explored.

In general, virtual communities, in their current incarnation, are beneficial to society because they provide a forum for discussion of topics that may otherwise not be discussed on such an open scale. They also allow people to meet each other and have discussions in a convenient way. Despite the benefits, there are problems such as access and discrimination that need to continually be addressed in a meaningful way by participants in the virtual communities and by policy makers. Virtual communities are fostering interaction between people that would never have taken place without computer mediated communication and the respective virtual community of choice.

However, the push in Congress and in the private sector to open up the Information Superhighway to commercial traffic as well as to citizens, has the potential to sink to the Information Superhighway to the level of the "lowest common denominator," modelling itself on television, which is a basically tautological character, whose means are simultaneously its ends.[65] Television is based on the ruling economy where the goal is nothing and development is everything.[66] At the level of the "lowest common denominator", it will not push the limits of people's imagination and intelligence. The network of the future will become like television where every television program must be a complete package in itself where no previous knowledge is required.[67] Applying this model to the Information Superhighway highlights the ease in which it could become another mind-altering drug, rather than a stimulating place for conversation and learning. People really need to decide whether they want virtual communities to be like Las Vegas, a city devoted to the idea of entertainment, where all public discourse takes the form of entertainment[68] or whether they want a true Information Superhighway where public discourse is the entertainment and then act on those decisions.

Bibliography

"Access to Computers Increases with Income." CENDATA File, 3 June 1991, No.16.11.1.3.

Debord, Guy. Society of the Spectacle. Detroit, MI: Black & Red, 1983.

Felsenstein, Lee. "The Commons of Information." Dr. Dobb's Journal, May 1993, 18-24.

"Info Infrastructure Policy Examined at National Meeting." American Libraries, November 1993, 964.

Johnson Publishing Company. "Almost 50% of U.S. Adults Lack Basic Literacy Skills." Jet, 27 September 1985, 24.

Krol, Ed. The Whole Internet User's Guide and Catalog. Sebastapol, CA: O'Reilly & Associates, 1992.

Postman, Neil. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. New York : Penguin Books, 1985.

Rheingold, Howard. The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier. Menlo Park, CA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1993.

Smith, Richard J., and Mark Gibbs. Navigating the Internet. Carmel, IN : SAMS, 1993.

Notes


[1] Debord writes about French society, but the aspects of consumerism described are also relevant to the United States.

[2] Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle (Detroit, MI: Black and Red), 1.

[3] Howard Rheingold, The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier (Menlo Park, CA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company), 13.

[4] Jess Stein, ed., The Random House College Dictionary, Revised Edition (New York: Random House, 1982), 1470.

[5] Jess Stein, ed., The Random House College Dictionary, Revised Edition (New York: Random House, 1982), 272.

[6] Howard Rheingold, The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier (Menlo Park, CA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company), 5.

[7] Computer mediated communication is a method of interaction facilitated by computers and where computers play an integral role.

[8] add-parents@n7kbt.rain.com.

[9] quilt@emuvm1.cc.emory.edu.

[10] beer-l@ua1vm.bitnet.

[11] dorothy-l@kentvm.bitnet.

[12] gardens@ukcc.uky.edu.

[13] camel-l@sakfu00.bitnet

[14] macpb-l@yalevm.ycc.yale.edu or mac-l@yalevm.ycc.yale.edu.

[15] macappli@dartcms1.dartmouth.edu.

[16] feline-l@psuvm.psu.edu or canine-l@psuvm.psu.edu.

[17] Lee Felsenstein, "The Commons of Information," Dr. Dobb's Journal, May 1993, 20.

[18] Howard Rheingold, The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier (Menlo Park, CA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company), 4.

[19] Some would call this a disadvantage, but I think that it is a great equalizer and have therefore listed it in the advantage column. Race, gender, sexual orientation, disabilities, etc. will never become unimportant unless people have the opportunity to discuss with others in a manner where these qualities are initially hidden. Computer mediated communication in virtual communities provides these types of discussions.

[20] Physical communities will be used to refer to the neighborhood, town or city that a person actually, physically resides in; the physical environs.

[21] Howard Rheingold, The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier (Menlo Park, CA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company), 4.

[22] Howard Rheingold, The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier (Menlo Park, CA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company), 4.

[23] Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle (Detroit, MI: Black & Red), 24.

[24] Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle (Detroit, MI: Black & Red), 25.

[25] Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle (Detroit, MI: Black & Red), 24.

[26] Lee Felsenstein, "The Commons of Information," Dr. Dobb's Journal, May 1993, 20.

[27] A predetermined set from which to choose from.

[28] Lee Felsenstein, "The Commons of Information," Dr. Dobb's Journal, May 1993, 20.

[29] Howard Rheingold, The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier (Menlo Park, CA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company), 56.

[30] Howard Rheingold, The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier (Menlo Park, CA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company), 59.

[31] Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle (Detroit, MI: Black & Red), 24.

[32] Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle (Detroit, MI: Black & Red, 1983), 157, 159.

[33] Howard Rheingold, The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier (Menlo Park, CA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company), 26.

[34] Howard Rheingold, The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier (Menlo Park, CA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company), 53.

[35] Howard Rheingold, The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier (Menlo Park, CA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company), 39.

[36] In my humble opinion.

[37] By the way.

[38] Howard Rheingold, The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier (Menlo Park, CA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company), 25.

[39] Lee Felsenstein, "The Commons of Information," Dr. Dobb's Journal, May 1993, 18.

[40] Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle (Detroit, MI: Black & Red, 1983), 28.

[41] telnet path.net

[42] Lee Felsenstein, "The Commons of Information," Dr. Dobb's Journal, May 1993, 18.

[43] irvc-l@byrd.mu.wvnet.edu

[44] Howard Besser points out that this is not qualitatively different from what happens in other public arenas. If a person quoted in a newspaper or magazine is compared with another person sending a message to a virtual community, the result is the same. Regardless of what the sender means, the reaction to the message comes from how it is read, interpreted and repeated or quoted again by the recipient.

[45] Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (New York: Penguin Books, 1985), 40-41.

[46] Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (New York: Penguin Books, 1985), 41.

[47] Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (New York, Penguin Books, 1985), 8.

[48] Johnson Publishing Company. "Almost 50% of U.S. Adults lack Basic Literacy Skills," Jet 84 (Sept. 27, 1993): 24.

[49] Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (New York: Penguin Books), 31-32.

[50] Johnson Publishing Company. "Almost 50% of U.S. Adults lack Basic Literacy Skills," Jet 84 (Sept. 27, 1993): 24.

[51] Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle (Detroit, MI: Black & Red, 1983), 59.

[52] Howard Rheingold, The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier (Menlo Park, CA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company), 13.

[53] Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle (Detroit, MI: Black and Red), 6.

[54] Besser notes that this reaction to information available through virtual communities is a new face on a long standing argument over how to raise children- protect and isolate them from bad ideas, or expose them to all ideas and teach them to critically evaluate them.

[55] DIALOG File: CENDATA. Access to Computers Increases with Income, No.16.11.1.3, June 3, 1991.

[56] "Info Infrastructure Policy Examined at National Meeting," American Libraries, November 1993, 964.

[57] "Info Infrastructure Policy Examined at National Meeting," American Libraries, November 1993, 964.

[58] Internet Relay Chat are channels that offer cross cultural, real time communication with others and, according to Howard Rheingold on page 178, is the corner pub, the cafe, the common room-the "great good place" of the Net.

[59] Howard Rheingold, The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier (Menlo Park, CA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company), 183.

[60] Howard Rheingold, The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier (Menlo Park, CA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company), 33.

[61] Carolyn Smith to LISTSERV IRVC-L (irvc-l@byrd.mu.wvnet.edu), TDS by Smith as participant of the virtual community, IRVC-L archives.

[62] Comment by Howard Besser (howard@info.berkeley.edu) on first draft of paper.

[63] quilt@cornell.edu (until December 1, 1993) or quilt@emuvm1.cc.emory.edu.

[64] Although this seems farfetched and impossible because of the size of video and image files and the resulting storage and transmission charges, technology will probably leap ahead and take care of some of these problems.

[65] Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle (Detroit, MI: Black & Red, 1983), 13.

[66] Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle (Detroit, MI: Black & Red, 1983), 14.

[67] Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (New York: Penguin Books, 1985), 147.

[68] Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (New York: Penguin Books, 1985), 3.