Summary of
Rheingold, Howard, Virtual Communities: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier New York: HarperPerennial, 1993.

Written by Cherie Bowers, member of the Virtual Communities focus group for Professor Howard Besser's Impact on New Information Resources, Winter 96, School of Information, University of Michigan.
An outspoken advocate of computer culture, Howard Rheingold defines a virtual community as an Internet-based social group which is formed when enough people engage in public discussion for a protracted amount of time and with enough feeling to establish personal relationships in cyberspace or electronic forums. These relationships are developed via a tool known as computer-mediated communication (CMC). CMC is a networked environment of computers connected with telecommunication software and modems which allow users to exchange messages with others linked by similar networking arrangements. This networking technology facilitates arguably low cost communication opportunities for connected computer users across the globe.

With their roots in the 1970's US Department of Defense project, ARPANET,virtual communities and CMC first emerged as scientists developed a system to share computer data files across points along a distributed geographical map. The research directors of ARPANET predicted the acceptance of virtual communities as those "not of common location, but of common interest." These computer links were the beginnings of the Internet. Along with the data files, scientists included personal messages to one another.

For some computer users, bulletin boards, Usenet groups, Internet Relay Chat rooms, private email, email discussion groups and listservs, and role playing interactive database games such as MUDs and MOOs are all environments which can foster a sense of virtual community. Computer users join others on line to exchange messages, to discuss issues, to ask for assistance, to offer advice and to play games.

Rheingold suggests that virtual communities transcend the traditional boundaries of community and create a genuinely new medium in which individuals can form interpersonal relationships. Cyberlore is filled with tales of relationships starting as casual. Rheingold states that these networks of people who share similar interests strengthens our connections through the exchange of ideas. Members of virtual communities have emotional bonds with each other through support and sharing which takes place online. Some of these online relationships spill into real life events, when virtual community members meet socially for picnics, parties, and weddings.

In his chapter, Disinformocracy, Rheingold advises caution against embracing technology's role to shape our sense of reality. So much attention is given to the entertainment industry, advertisers, and members of the media that we are moving within a state of what he calls hyper-reality. Rheingold suggests that if we are not mindful of the sources and quality of the information in which we choose to believe, society may lose the ability differentiate what is "real" and what has been packaged and marketed for our consumption. In the end, it will be up to each of us to decide.

Cherie Bowers School of Information, University of Michigan Ann Arbor

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This document was created and is maintained by the Virtual Communities group in Howard Besser's ILS 604 class (Winter 1996)