On Virtual Communities —by Camelia Gradinaru

(abridged version of a full length article published in the Romanian Journal of Communication and Public Relations)

The community as an affective construct. Is the need for commitment still alive?

Online communities carry out not only information exchanges, but also considerable emotional exchanges (see the well-known Mandel – Nana case of “electronic romanticism”, a “saga” of the Well community, but also people’s thoughtful response to Mandel’s imminent death) (Hafner, 2001). In spite of some gloomy predictions according to which people will never be able to build substantial interpersonal online relationships, they are however managing to do it quite successfully. As Manuel Castells used to say, extended interaction can lead to affective support and reciprocity, in spite of the fact that the relationships which are at the core of virtual communities are considered “weak ties”. There are studies that show that the discussion groups present on the Internet have extended the area of their potential partners beyond those found in their physical proximity. The opportunities to get involved in an on- line relationship increase due to the fact that users acknowledge the reduced social risk, an acknowledgement that makes them more willing to engage in conversations with other people (Baym, 2002). Thus, the social penetration theory finds a series of limitations concerning its application to the development of new online relationships, where the main focus is no longer attractiveness or other peripheral items, but rather common interests. The public self layer (height, weight, gender, and other public information) is now less important in the process of acknowledging the value of the other, whereas the private self layer is more rapidly reached as far as discussions are concerned (beliefs, faith, prejudices, and general relation- ship information, values, emotions). J. Walther developed his own social information processing, which highlighted the idea that, irrespective of the environment, people want to reduce uncertainty and increase affinity (Baym, 2002, p. 69). In this respect, the users of computer mediated communication (CMC) adapt their communication behaviour to serve pro-social purposes, and with time, relationships started online can become more appealing that offline relationships, a situation that Walther calls “hyperpersonal interaction”. Due to the fact that within hyperpersonal communication the attractiveness of partners is overestimated in relation to offline partners, the computer mediated communication can become more desirable, from a social standpoint, than face-to-face communication (although, as some researches emphasized, the differences between face-to-face and computer mediated communication are only in degree, not in substance). Other aspects that support this idea are the absence of visual aspects, the freedom to idealize, to choose which aspects to reveal next, the importance given to the ability to write messages, etc. The textual side of CMC emphasizes a positive aspect, the fact of resorting to messages strengthening the belief according to which the people with whom we communicate online are more introspective and have a more developed self-consciousness than the people with whom we communicate offline. The study that Walther carried out on several groups made of people who were not connected in any way showed that the possibility of some future interactions increased the probability of showing affection and trust. It is also interesting to follow the path people generally take in their passage from online to offline – the vast majority of the subjects taking part in the experiment carried out by Parks and Floyd (1996) experienced the classical stages of disintermediation, following, in a reverse order, the history of the innovations in the field – e-mail, telephone, face-to-face interaction (see also Baym, Zhang, Yan Bing & Lin, 2004). 98% of the people who met online talked on the phone afterwards and one third met face-to-face, a situation that made some researchers state that CMC can be considered at least one of the ways in which partners interact. These data seem to cancel the accusation that CMC is impersonal; personally, we are more tempted to agree with Nancy Baym and believe that “far from being impersonal, CMC is often playful and creative. People use it as a means to assert their own identities and to explore new means of self-presentation. […] Social groups form that offer a sense of belonging, information, empathy and social status, among other rewards.” (Baym, 2001, p. 71)

Another important aspect of the Internet as far as interpersonal relationships are concerned consists of its capacity to maintain already existing relationships, not only create new ones. In this respect, Baym reminds us of the study carried out by Stafford et al., who compared the extent to which people used the telephone and the e-mail, respectively, to maintain distance relationships – the e-mail was more frequently used in order to maintain important, significant relationships. Also, at the level of online communities, a constant topic of research is the tendency of these communities to be interpersonally supportive, even if they were not initially built around such a purpose. Even if they are heterogeneous, flexible and seem to be lacking an ethical commitment, online communities provide emotional support and counselling, demonstrating, in very many cases, a very strong ability to mobilise people. “Empathic communication” seems to be one of the factors contributing towards the strengthening of the links within virtual communities, which determines most of the times an efficient social contact (marginalised or disadvantaged categories were able to find within these hybrid social forms an opportunity to express themselves and get support – as the researches on physically disabled people have shown; by means of the Internet, these people were able to extend their interpersonal relationships and their degree of sociability). Some pioneers of online communities have taken as a starting point in their approaches the “romantic” ideas of extending a particular type of communication and networking that could be found in the past only in some privileged places of one’s offline life, where social relationships seemed to thrive. Thus, Matthew McClure, the first director of Well, stated: “At the beginning, I thought Well could become the electronic equivalent of the French parlours of the Age of Enlightenment” (Flichy, 2001, p. 93). Pioneering electronic communities (Community Memory, CommuniTree, Well, etc.) formed a network of social links based on geographical proximity, institutional membership, and the degree of inter-knowledge (Flichy, 2001). In time, these fundamental characteristics changed, but the wish to be a member of various online groups remained constant. Researchers such as Wellman, Haase, Witte or Hampton make use of the phrase “community commitment” to indicate how important it is to have a strong attitude towards community, a motivated and responsible meaning of membership, which can mobilize social capital much more effectively, although their researches showed that the use of the Internet was associated with a decrease in the commitment to the corresponding communities (Wellman, Haase, Witte & Hampton, 2001). The core of this conclusion seems to be the flexibility of being part of a community, the great number of online communities that a subject can join, and consequently, the increasing number of weak ties and the heterogeneity of relationships, which determine a decrease in the number of members who will be directly connected to each other. Obviously, this positioning has an opposite effect, many researches showing that the new technologies increase not only the degree of commitment to online communities, but also the degree of commitment to organic, offline communities. Community commitment is an emerging process, and the way in which users interpret and use the existent data, the contexts, and the relationships is most of the times unpredictable, to the point where the result is a personalized set of social, informational and relational meanings. Also, considering the Internet an integral part of our lives, or viewing it as distinct and “detached” from them determines our different ways of receiving and theorizing it. The perspective detached from the technological determinism that sees the Internet as an environment (a distinct one) among others seems a more efficient one. Also, even if the offline context is different in many ways from the online context, a lot of traits of the former can be found when we analyze online interactions.

The pessimistic perspective

The involvement in electronic communities encounters a series of internal problems, but also some criticisms formulated throughout the time by a series of researchers. Without providing an exhaustive presentation of these criticisms, we shall however attempt to briefly outline only some of the most representative approaches, with the purpose of illustrating the confusing variety of opinions and the protean identity that characterise this recent phenomenon.

Internal, general problems

Internet access is not universal or equal for everyone, and not even free; consequently, the possibility to adhere to and take part in the online social life is not uniform. In some coun- tries, the totalitarian regimes drastically restricted the Internet access, stipulating a series of harsh punishments going as far as prison time for those “adventurers” who would dare surf the Internet, gather information, or even worse, create their own blogs or electronic groups. In North Korea for instance, only 4% of the people have the right to use the Internet (the websites and networks being monitored by the government); Cuba has the smallest number of Internet users in Latin America; Iran, China, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Vietnam are exam- ples of countries where censorship is extremely present at this level too. The websites, blogs, and forums focusing on political topics are, in this respect, the most highly monitored (see for instance the WikiLeaks case). As far as the benefit of the “low costs” is concerned, this is not the case for Turkmenistan, for example, where the access to online information is a luxury for the general population, the costs beings very high.

Also, there are many other difficulties that citizens have to face when using these new technologies, which require being equipped with a solid set of tools (for searching, sorting out information, checking, etc.). In this respect, the degree of motivation needs to be a sub- stantial one, and is most of the times a prerequisite beforehand, many authors claiming that the new technologies stimulate new interests or consolidate the existent ones in the case of those individuals who are already interested in networking and social commitment, and not in the case of the individuals who are not interested ab initio. On the one hand, participation and involvement can be further enhanced by the multiple opportunities created by the New Media, but the interest in such activities has to be strong and active. On the other hand, there are no guarantees that the access to a new environment will automatically create more socially engaged and supportive individuals. Moreover, there is also the reverse of this initially positive characteristic, namely the informational and relational over-saturation, which can easily determine the loss of all interest, a state of affective and social neutrality, or even the wish to stop participating.

Another important aspect is the discourse quality. If we consider the case of the Internet, many approaches depicted it as a place where reigns the “cacophony of voices”, a new technological Babel, which becomes an obstacle to any reasonable, well sustained, and serious discussion. The quantity of relevant messages in the case of online debates (forums, chat rooms) is still limited, the balanced character of the position-takings being reduced, and the top of the list being occupied by messages that express extreme perspectives. Also, statistics have shown that the great majority of messages are in fact posted by a small number of participants in the discussion, to the point where the discourse is dominated by a limited group. The fragmented character of the information or the topics initiating questions, apparently in a random manner, do not help very much to create a pertinent overall image or to monitor the kind of arguments provided in a particular situation. Furthermore, the online discourse seems to rely more on the principle of “common sense” and does not exceed its borders, its foundation and measure being the daily experience. Regarding the application of the electronic communication to the network organizations, Nohria and Eccles (1992) concluded that the latter “need face-to-face communication for handling situations of uncertainty and ambiguity” (as quoted in Pruijt, 2002, p. 110). Therefore, the final test for the online speech is still to be found inside the offline speech, since data checking or solving ambiguous situations seem to be related to the traditional communication patterns.

Community related issues

The problems concerning the attempt to provide a definition of virtual communities are manifold (for example, is there an exact similarity between the phrases “virtual community” and “online community”? Can any online group form a community? What is nowadays the relationship between the private and the public?), and so are their relations to offline or organic communities. For Lori Kendall, for instance, “the term virtual community has been applied to groups formed through a variety of online forums, including email listservs, bulletin-board services (BBSs), USENET newsgroups, MUDs and MOOs (Multi-User Dungeons and MUDs Object-Oriented), and other forms of online chat” (Kendall, 2002, p. 468). Thus, one of the most controversial problems remains the relationship between virtual communities searchers in the field, although they have been sometimes taking sides, found a way to get to the fundamental question: “Are the virtual commu- nities, in fact, communities with an established identity, or are they just pseudo-communities?”

The pessimistic approach to the theorising of communities considers them unable to develop any of the essential characteristics necessary for them to be labelled as communities – members do not become involved in long-term, sound, and restrictive relationships as far as the moral commitment is concerned, while the flexibility and the possibility to remain anonymous or embrace various personalities make the communication between members artificial and devoid of authenticity. Within this context, another question may arise: are online communities real communities? Barry Wellman points out to the fact that when we speak using opposite terms about the virtual and physical communities we do not make any sense, because they are different social entities, each with their own rules, and most of the times the term “community” is altered by an idyllic view, those traditional communities characterized by a culture of support and membership being difficult to come by nowadays. Wellman replaces the communities with “conviviality networks”, claiming that both collective and personal communities function online and offline. Castells prefers to give a dual answer (“yes and no”) to this question: they are still communities, but “not physical communities, and they do not obey the communication and interaction models that are typical for those. Nevertheless, they are not ‘unreal’, but they function at another level of reality. They are interpersonal social networks, based, most of the time, on ties that are weak, diversified and specialized, and yet capable to induce reciprocity and support thanks to a prolonged interaction” (Castells, 2001, p. 453). Even though cyber-relationships and the importance of social interactions inside a network are still difficult to measure, despite the persistent efforts to refine the research methodology, many researchers have noticed their effects inside an organization (the increase of employee participation to conversations and decisions) or the possibilities they open up for the marginalized people (Hill Collins, 2010). Thus, the common practices inside the communities are not aimed solely at improving communication and the management of identity, but also at triggering learning mechanisms, at ensuring the quick dissemination of information bound to reduce the learning costs (for instance, the forums that become actual dynamic databases, on different themes, from health issues to hobbies), at encouraging knowledge exchange, cooperation and mutual help.

Another “apple of discord” occurred once people started comparing the online communities with the offline ones and embraced the perspective according to which online communities could be viewed as pseudo-communities, alternative communities, and a supplement to offline communities. For Fernback, for instance, the concept of community evolves concomi- tantly with the concept of society; nevertheless, online communities are more unstable than the offline ones, as they are a mere dilute form of community (if not a postmodern simulacrum). For Fernback, it is a fact that “users of online technology have created meaningful constructs of social interaction in the online arena […] [But] for now, the deepest significance of community remains in the everyday, non-mediated, physical interactions we have with one another” (2007, p. 63). What happens online is relevant social interaction, but for Fernback and others the use of the word “community” seems abusive. At best, what we have is a diluted form of community, in which only a few characteristics of the “old”, traditional community are present. The consequences of leaving a virtual community (with some relevant exceptions, though, if we think about corporate communication) are not as meaningful as the consequences of leaving one’s physical community. Something important happens on the network, but then again, it may turn out to be individualism. Also, the possibility for virtual communities to contribute towards the revival of the public sphere (one of the most important stakes of virtual communities) is reduced, the latter being already too fragmented and too individualized (Fernback & Thompson, 1995). Furthermore, Van Dijk believes that virtual communities are too heterogeneous and too partial “to create a strong sense of membership and belonging” (Van Dijk, 1998, p. 59), so they should be viewed as a mere supplement to offline communities. We believe that this category could also include some successful virtual communities such as the Blacksburg Electronic Village project (www.bev.net), La Plaza Telecommunity (www.laplaza.org), Austin, Texas (www.ci.austin.tx.us/telecom/intelcom.html), which, by overlapping with the geographical space of the offline communities from the cities in question, have managed to make communication and problem solving more efficient by means of the online-offline co-working. There is empirical evidence (Wellman et al., 2001, p. 450) that supports an interesting idea: “The effects of the Internet on social contact are supplementary, unlike the predictions of either the utopians or dystopians”.

Another standpoint views online communities as an alternative to classical communities – an individual can now choose the type of community that he/she wants to join, without thinking about the constraints imposed by the classical communities (the family or the Church), while other standpoints emphasise the belief that virtual communities can replace classical communities (an extreme perspective). Irrespective of the outlook we decide to embrace, we must admit that “actual network ties leap over physically linked areas, so that the overall so- cial geography corresponds much less to physical geography” (Rice, 2002, p.113). Therefore, a wider concept of social interaction becomes imperative.

Issues related to online community involvement

Fernback thinks that it is both scientifically profitable and empirically consistent to make a shift from the study of communities to the study of commitment (how it is formed, how it is manifested in the case of online and offline relationships, etc.). This shift would enable us to learn more about the changes that occur in the social landscape and the meaningful constructs in human interactions. Virtual communities have their place, but “if scholars continue to paint Internet studies with the broad brush of community, they dilute the potential of the research to understand how communities are constituted, how they operate, how they are integrated into offline social life, or what they provide” (Fernback, 2007, p. 66). Nevertheless, Fernback does not assign to online communities the characteristic of social responsibility, thus reducing their relevance and viewing them as possibilities to get together in a way that is much too convenient to become as complex as physical communities: “The community metaphor placed on virtual social relations is inadequate and inappropriate. The metaphor is one of fellowship, respect and tolerance, but those qualities describe only a fraction of our cultural understood ideas about community. […] The ‘community as communicative process’ metaphor is alive and well in cyberspace. But that metaphor is one of convenient togetherness without real responsibility” (Fernback, 2007, pp. 62-63). In this context, virtual communities are too personal and devoid of constraints to create a substantial social density of interactions.

Another problem concerning online relationships is related to the classification of primary and secondary relationships (Schement). While the former are characteristic of offline relationships and imply knowing the other individuals in multiple dimensions, secondary relationships point to the fact that the people who are involved in a relationship know only one or very few dimensions of the people they relate to. Secondary relationships are, in some authors’ opinion, emblematic of online groups, the accusation that online life implies a lack of sufficient interpersonal knowledge becoming thus obvious. Also, online ties are weak, easy to get out of, ephemeral, and do not possess the long-lastingness and the guarantee that many of the relationships manifested within a classical community do. For Jensen, for instance, on-line interaction is seen as a “parasocial interaction”, an illusion of face-to-face communication. The user’s participation can be real or simulated, many researchers warning people that the choice to participate in various online discussions, many of which do not have an impact outside the network, might imply the risk of diminishing the individuals’ need to be together in real life, to be supportive and to reach a civic and political consensus. The feeling of participation can be so strong as to actually replace a real activism, many theoreticians con- cluding that substantial participation in online communities significantly reduces one’s inter- est in integrating within a physical community and is susceptible of producing isolation and depression (Kraut).

The “pessimists” focus strongly on the alienating effects of the Internet, one of the main themes being the endangerment of the traditional communities (families, to give the most important example). Some researchers such as Shapiro and Leone highlighted the idea that more time spent online means less time to spend within relevant physical communities (family, neighbours, friends, etc.). Also, the probability of a significant increase of individualism, the risk of not understanding general norms and the search for easy and superficial relationships, which do not require effort and major adjustments, are also outlined.

The optimistic perspective

The optimistic camp is, of course, made up of theoreticians who support the beneficial effects of CMC and virtual communities, which are idealised by some of them and strongly defended by others against the pessimists’ criticisms. Thus, in their opinion the general characteristics of the new technologies, such as the interactivity, the lack of intermediation, the co-presence of vertical and horizontal communication, the convenient costs, the speed of communication, the absence of borders, the digitalisation, the hypertextuality, the dispersion, the virtuality, the anonymity, the network character, the temporal compression, the production of a dereferentialized space of communication, etc. (Lajoie, Guichard, 2002; Manovich, 2001) have positive connotations and support the progress made in the field of communication and in giving a new meaning to social intersections. Briefly, the online interaction and the involvement in virtual communities are now theorised without any accusations of ephemerity, artificiality, impersonality, “non-social” nature, corruption of the traditional ways of socializing or exacerbated individualism. Moreover, we now acknowledge the value of the “social creativity” that CMC provides and the mapping of a new “social economy” (Lévy).

One theoretician who was considered euphoric about the meaning and the role of virtual communities is Howard Rheingold, who, by talking about his personal experiences in the cyberspace, contributed towards increasing the interest in this field. Rheingold is optimistic about the contribution that online communities can make towards enriching social life and increasing the interest and participation in the civic and political life. For this theoretician, the fact of using the Internet creates a new vocabulary, a new form of communication, and increases interactivity (some models of interactivity are analysed in Mcmillan, 2002; Koolstra & Bos, 2009; Schultz, T., 2000, etc.), proving valuable support as far as the citizen activism is concerned. As far as online relationships and interactivity are concerned, Rheingold says that “people in virtual communities use words on screens to exchange pleasantries and argue, engage in intellectual discourse, conduct commerce, exchange knowledge, share emotional support, make plans, brainstorm, gossip, feud, fall in love, find friends and lose them, play games, flirt, create a little high art and a lot of idle talk. People in virtual communities do just about everything people do in real life, but we leave our bodies behind. You can’t kiss anybody and nobody can punch you in the nose, but a lot can happen within those boundaries” (Rheingold, 1993, p. 3). Rheingold was often criticized not only for his overabundant optimism, but also for the lack of nuances that characterizes his theoretical outlook, although he raises several interrogations and proves to be doubtful about the future of some directions in social life.

The optimists and utopians alike eulogise the opportunities offered by CMC and those that appeared once the first online communities were created. The ability to share informa- tion and to communicate more quickly or more efficiently, as well as the opportunity to combine person-to-person interactions with role-to-role interactions are only some of the multiple possibilities that have received positive connotations. The change in the nature of social bonds (Cerulo) as well as the possibility to create “personal communities” (Wellman) or additional or alternative communities, but also the potential of virtual communities to strengthen and revive the social bond, the social capital (Pruijt, 2002; Wellman et al., 2001; Lee & Lee, 2010, etc.) and human solidarity are other benefits that the great majority of optimists underline. From its onset (Putnam, Bourdieu, Coleman, Wacquant, etc.) to the more recent theorisations, the stake of enlarging the social capital is highly debated. Within the camp of the optimists, or better to say, of the moderates, one can mention Pruijt, who believes that the social capital is the spirit of the Internet, since “the Internet can support and enhance the communities that to some extent depend on face-to-face interaction” (Pruijt, 2002, p. 109), as well as Junghee Lee and Hyunjoo Lee, who believe that the Internet does not erode the social capital, the study they carried out showing that the people involved in online communities possess a higher degree of sociability and a higher level of the generalised norms than those who are not members of such communities (Lee & Lee, 2010). However, as these authors highlight, in spite of an increased ability to communicate, to interact with each other, and to show one’s solidarity, which characterise the individuals who use the Internet, the quality of community as a whole cannot be grasped and fulfilled in the absence of face-to-face communication, characteristic of traditional communities. Consequently, beyond the pessimist – optimist dualism, another category of researchers, whom I would rather call “moderates”, developed. Using statistical data or their experiments to backup their assertions, these researchers prefer not to exclude the two types of communication and interaction, but, on the contrary, to combine them, considering them complementary in creating a holistic meaning.

Instead of conclusions, some new opportunities

In accordance with Wellman et al., we need to always take into consideration the fact that there are no single Internet effects; there are many types of activities that we can do online (chat, do shopping or research, read, surf the web, play games, etc.), activities that can be di- vided into at least two categories: social and asocial (the latter, as well as surfing the Internet or reading the news online can prevent the users from being present in the community and can reduce their degree of involvement in family life or in political and organizational activities). Therefore, the discussions about the “impact” of the Internet (the vocabulary associated with the impact or effect analyses being most of the times labelled as naïve) should be more nuanced and more contextualized, hence the difficulty of the task of those researchers who carry out studies based on the methodology applied to the Internet. Also, we believe that another important aspect is the rendering of the manner in which these activities carried out on the Internet are included into the complexity of everyday life (in this respect, one can mention the relevance of Tapscott’s studies on “N-Gen” or Net Generation and on the manner in which this generation uses the Internet compared to the other means of communication). The integrative perspective on the Internet is more productive and significantly eliminates sever- al exaggerated standpoints, encouraging a clearer analysis susceptible of rendering not only the quantity, but also the quality of the online social interaction.

Also, taking into consideration the typology developed by Jordan (the individual level, the community level, and the collective imagination level), there is enough room for research concerning the third category applied to the New Media, as well as the way in which the shift from the community level to the collective imagination level is carried out (this can shape the online community construct and the members’ expectations). Experimenting with inter- activity within online communities and developing that personalised set of social meanings, which may contain identities, relationships, attitudes, particular forms of expressing one’s position in relation to the other members, are most of the times carried out by the users in unpredictable ways. Nevertheless, the overlaps between them may give rise to a feeling of belonging and may create significant affective and communicational bonds (a situation that reminds us of the interrogation from which originated other theoretical debates: “How virtual is the virtual community?”2, and of the fact that the degree of possibility subordinate to the notion of virtuality is often rendered into act).

Going to a certain extent beyond the level of describing and understanding the mechanisms within the electronic communities, we believe that the manner in which we view the structure of the community is extremely important. At this level, by embracing Benedict Anderson’s idea from Imagined Communities, the relevant criterion is no longer the authenticity, but the style in which communities are imagined. In this respect, by adopting the interpretations given by Gochenour (2006), who, in his turn, embraces the community patterns that can be found in the essay written for the RAND Corporation and entitled “On Distributed Communications” (1964), one can notice how the “distributed community” (the community as net) uses the Internet as an infrastructure that it builds, creating that social density that en- larges the degree of concreteness (Flusser). Baran devises three diagrams that characterize three different communication structures: centralized, decentralized and distributed (grid). The first two are vulnerable due mainly to the number of central nodes whose destruction induces the destruction of the entire communication chain, whereas the third structure allows communication to continue by means of another nodal subject in case some other have been eliminated. Moreover, the nodes forming a distributed community carry out an active function, working together effectively; this “movement toward action” is Gochenour’s main point of concern, not only online, but also offline. Gochenour thinks that nowadays we witness a shift from decentralised to distributed networks; furthermore, the distributed communities can be considered “real” communities, a situation that emphasizes yet again the importance of the way/style in which we imagine the community: “Put plainly, if we can accept this diagram as a model of the community, and if we can also accept that community is constituted through the relations that one subject undertakes with another, then there is no difference between distributed communities and ‘real’ communities. In Baran’s diagram, it is a simple matter to imagine the links being established through a multitude of means” (Gochenour, 2006, p. 37). This statement brings forth new inquiries: why do we need to make our virtual communities look like real ones? If that seems necessary, than how can we lose the “place” metaphor?

At the junction between possibility and act, imaginary and action, metaphor and reality, virtual communities continue to reveal their potential, discreetly giving rise to further questions of the type: what kind of communities will we create next and how will other means of communication follow the advent of the Internet?

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