Sunday, July 29, 2012

Article #3, a short one, originally entitled "Are Virtual Communities Real?"  This was, by the way, long before the advent of social media as we know it.

The subject of the reality of virtual community is a source of near-infinite discussion and argument.
    Common arguments include:
  • Community exists wherever people are gathered together in a venue for linked purposes. E2, for example, has the purpose of the creation of a database of all human knowledge and experience. P&W SpeakEasy has the purpose of being a forum and chatspace and palimpsest for writers to network and polish their work. is devoted to hosted discussions on a variety of topics. To people enamored of the first view, these are all communities by definition, and duh. The interesting thing is that in real life, this would be a meeting or a committee. In meatspace, community has other definitions.
  • Virtual communities are people who know or get to know each other and communicate for linked purposes. The best meatspace analogue for this is the community of science fiction fandom. People isolated from each other in time and distance, who put their minds together and share features with traditional geographically based communities from outpourings of generosity for members in need to scandals and backstabbing.1 This argument is the most compelling for the existence of virtual communities as real communities, in my definition set.
  • Virtual Community is impossible. You can't argue productively with these people2. They are zealots. There are two subtypes -- those that believe community can only be applied to people who live in the same area or share a common profession, and therefore do not believe ideologically diverse non-geographical communities to be real communities, or they believe that when they shut off their computer, we all go away, and have no objective reality. "Christ what an imagination I've got/Welcome to the Matrix."3
  • Online Communities are by definition business "communities", and therefore cannot be real. communities. Similar to the above, this more subtle renunciation of virtual community says, "The people who hang out at coffeehouse A aren't a community but a mob of customers." No website fosters actual community because they are just trying to build a customer base.

1) There is an idea, rarely spoken but seemingly widely held, that since we are in (I hate to say it) cyberspace, only the best features of a community will develop. This is patently nonsense. Anywhere human nature functions, the bad side will be featured as well as the good. The ratio is going to be determined by the mores of the community, and by the administration's vision and actions. To draw an example partially from what I've seen in some of the planning spaces here and in action elsewhere -- if someone behaves extremely poorly, mistreating other people, they are likely to be filtered out. One of downsides to filtering as community discipline is that new users won't filter even the most blatant crap until they have read enough of it to decide, and people will resent being told who to filter. Their replies and comments to the crap can effectively unfilter. In an admin-filtered site, people consistently violating community norms (unrepentant sinners) are eventually kicked out. Once this happens, even one time, eternal vigilance becomes the only way to maintain the norms, and even if they are norms decided by the community, if the administration has to enforce, it will inevitably be seen as corruption, favoritism, and censorship.2) Although it's a great way to hone your rhetorical skills. Argueing with a brick wall teaches patience, the importance (and impossibility) of airtight arguments, and the joys of frustration.
3) addendum, from Mittens, a user at a motet site: "I think often a statement that 'we all disappear when the computer is turned off' is often a very real excuse for bad behavior of whatever stripe the user chooses. I've seen it happen, one person runs utterly amok, and truly is stunned that anyone would be upset by it at all. After all, they say, we are just made up could we possibly get hurt..."

1 comment:

  1. There is a subset to this as well; a group of posters band together and become a Unit, either as vigilantes or the Bad Guys. In a large enough space with not a lot of Admin input, you often will get a group of each, not unlike two factions in a war game.

    And like that war game there is a strong leader, and cohorts, and the boot polishers at the bottom of the bunch, and Over Here on the side are the supporters who do little but like to watch the body count. If admin does not step in at some point and clean house, it will, literally, destroy the fabric of the site--And once the walls have been finally breached by third party players, those people who just wanted to hang out and post begin to leave the site and not return.

    I saw this happen at Excite (think bombed out buildings) and again at Speakeasy (think earthquake) and again, in a slightly diff. fashion for different reasons at Utne. The first two sites were under managed, with sysops following a hands off policy unless direct complaints were made. Too little management is often worse than too much and in each case the sites literally had to be rebuilt and reformatted.