Media speculation has centred on the question of how technologies may affect us in the future, typically suggesting dystopian or utopian visions. Cyberspace is already the home to thousands of groups of people who meet to share information, discuss mutual interests, play games, and carry out business. These groups are often both large and well developed. To fully understand online communities, we need to think about what ‘community’ means today. It’s a word we all use, in many different ways, to talk about… used in daily discussions, in countless associations, from ‘care in the community’ to the Community Hall… the term community is not only descriptive, but also normative and ideological: it carries a lot of baggage with it.
Much of the debate on virtual communities has been polemical, split between those who desire community, arguing that cyberspace re-enchants these community’s (perceived as eroded in ‘real life’) on the one hand, and on the other those who fear that online community’s is damaging real life community’s, by encouraging a withdrawal from ‘real life.’
Rheingold believes the former, that online community’s map contemporary desires. He states that in cyberspace, we chat and argue, engage in intellectual intercourse… exchange knowledge, share emotional support, make plans, brainstorm, gossip, feud, fall in love, find friends and lose them… We do everything people do when they get together, but we do it with words on computer screens, leaving our bodies behind… where our identities commingle and interact electronically, independent of local time or location.
This process was inevitable because virtual communities are a natural response to the desire for acommunity that has followed the disintegration of traditional communities around the world. In theory, the virtual community has become the gemeinschaft: a stable and long-lasting community. In essence, the traditional community where everyone knows everyone, everyone helps everyone, and the bonds between people are tight and multiple, for example, neighbours are workmates and relatives; whereas, the real life communities have developed into gesellschaft, thus people’s relationships are shallow because people are too busy to form stable communities. This is because a community is far easier to maintain than real life; you can’t simply pick up a phone and ask to be connected with someone who wants to talk about Islamic art or California wine… you can, however, join a computer conference.
French Philosopher, Pierre Levy, represents one of the most optimistic visions of cyberculture and communities. He argues that the internet creates new forms of knowledge and new forms of distributing emerge. For him the massive spread of the internet clearly indicates a desire for forthcoming change. In actuality, this spreading of knowledge was represented during the 2004 presidential elections; a study found that tech savvy people who were scanning community sites on the elections where more inclined to look at or read more information on the other candidate and their policies than those who weren’t on the internet; principally, leading to better rounded individuals.
Lee Rainie, Director of the Pew Internet & American Life Project conducted a survey with more than 600 leaders of the field in technology on the internet and found mixed results. Many critics argued that the internet as a whole is adding to the social interactions people have. For instance, people use forums, online games, and networking sites, such as Facebook, as well as interacting with people outside of this space. However, others found that these online sites are damaging in many ways, from privacy information to people relying on the internet as their dominant form of social interaction and thus, becoming more awkward in real life, e.g. not being able to read body language and so forth.
Facebook, a massive online community of over 200 million members, launched on February 4, 2004, is a website in which people can put up photos of themselves and post messages to other users, with various improvements in recent years allowing further uses such as the ability to join fan groups or play games. When people look you up, they will see your profile. You can choose to include a photo, your likes and dislikes, your relationship status and sexual preference, political views and interests. All the content uploaded is controlled by the user, including what kind of information they want to share and how much. They can even delete comments left by other users if they please.
However, there is a downside to sharing too much information on Facebook. Incidents include students being punished by their school after rushing a football pitch after winning their game. The perpetrators were discovered due to their Facebook profiles, which bragged about the event and even displayed photos. The school disciplined the students because of the information found on Facebook. Likewise, employees of Virgin were fired after badmouthing their company on Facebook and being discovered. While they all cried invasion of privacy, it must be asked whether anything posted on the World Wide Web be considered private. Bell and Kennedy agree with the fears created through online communities stating that what we have is the preservation through simulation of old forms of solidarity and community. In the end, not an alternative society, but an alternative to society. So what we’re getting is a withdrawal from society which Kroker describes as bunkering in. Bunkering in is about something really simple: being sick of others and trying to shelter the beleaguered self in a techno-bubble… digital reality is perfect. It provides the bunker self with immediate, universal access to global communities without people: electronic communication without social contact, being digital without being human, going online without leaving the safety of the electronic bunker.
So whereas, Rheingold was arguing that online communities were a solution to ‘real life’s’ community problems (where they are seen to be dying). Kroker is suggesting that cyberspace isn’t an improved community, rather it’s making stuff worse in ‘real life’ by encouraging further withdrawal from ‘real life,’ as these online communities are pale substitutes for more traditional face-to-face communities.
Furthermore, A cyberspace community is self-selecting, exactly what a real community is not; it is contingent and transient, depending on a shared interest of those with an attention span of a thirty second soundbite. The essence of real community is its presumptive perpetuity – you have to worry about other people because they will always be there. In a cyberspace community you can shut people off at the click of a mouse and go elsewhere. One has therefore no responsibility of any kind.
Moreover, being part of an online community has demonstrated a new and disturbing addiction: the addiction to an alternate reality as David Becker, a journalist for ZDNet in his article: Games Junkies – Hooked on Heroinware highlights in regard to EverQuest (nicknamed by some as EverCrack due to its addictive nature): The servers run 24 hours a day. The only reason to leave the fantasy is a personal desire to return to the ordinary world. But for some people, the game offers them things they don’t have in their own life, and therefore they lack the will to leave. However, this also leads on to a desire some people have as explained further in Becker’s article. Many players openly admit they find their online characters more impressive than who they are in real life. “It is easier to succeed in EQ” said one EverQuest player. “I can be beautiful, fit and healthy in EQ – in real life I am chronically ill and there isn’t much fun or achievement to be had.”
The anonymity and lack of responsibility in the online world often serves as an addictive social crutch to people who could be otherwise socially awkward. Thus, the characters people create allow them to escape their real identities. The desire of living behind an anonymous character grants the player a new life as a fictional character to explore different ideas, personalities, and actions but without worrying about social retribution. Likewise a strong emphasis on equality makes it appealing in a culture divided by age and gender. For instance, the lack of age distinctions in online gaming makes a child in school no different than a middle age lawyer. The rise in the use of the Internet has led to many changes in our daily lives. We can still recall a time when we were limited by slow computers with crawling dialup speed. In the past, people could never have imagined the great leaps that would be taken whether for the good or bad. Critics are very much split down the middle, either fearing online communities because of their addictive tendencies or desiring them because of their added social possibilities.