Creating a virtual community:
Getting the basics from Howard Rheingold

by Joe Flower


This article appeared in The Healthcare Forum Journal, vol. 38, no. 1, January/February 1995.
International Copyright 1995 Joe Flower All Rights Reserved
Please see our free downloading policy.





A whole new type of community is being born these days: the "virtual community," the community without walls mediated by computers, connecting together the disparate parts of a profession, an interest group, or a company, or bringing together like-minded strangers through the Internet, Usenet, the Freenets, local computer bulletin boards and commercial systems. We explored this with Howard Rheingold, author of Virtual Community and Virtual Reality, editor and publisher of the new Millennium Whole Earth Catalog, former editor of the Whole Earth Review, one of the founding spirits of the WELL (one of the original virtual communities), and founding editor of hotWired, a new type of networked publication available only in cyberspace. We asked him for a few guidelines on how to create a "virtual community." Is it possible to create a sense of real community between people who never physically meet?




Yes it is, but there is some craft to it. First, you have to allow the people who are communicating with each other to govern themselves to whatever degree is possible. You have to let them deal with such questions as what kind of conduct is expected, what are the checks and balances if those expectations aren't met, what sort of redress of grievances they have. This gives them a strong sense of ownership.

There are limits to this sense of ownership, of course, depending on who actually does own the system, but there is still a lot of room to maneuver within those limits. It's important that people have at least some say.

Second: certain people always seem to emereg as the enthusiasts who keep the conversation going, who have useful things to say, who befriend newcomers, and help people navigate the system. It's important to identify them, empower them to do what they seem to like to do anyway, and reward them in whatever way you can, whether it's with money, online time, special privileges, or recognition.

If you take these two steps, much of the rest will take care of itself.

The whole idea of a community is that it is not created from the top down. It's created by setting up an environment in which people can create it themselves.

Of course, there is in fact a lot of behind-the-scenes work that mostly involves helping newcomers over the hurdles of using the technology. Simply setting up the hardware and software won't automatically bring people to the discussion. People don't read the manuals. You need real human beings to answer questions, human beings that don't make people feel like they're fools for asking.

So don't spend all your money on hardware, software, real estate and techies. Spend some money on support. You simply have to budget it

That's why your volunteer enthusiasts are so important, particularly at the beginning. You have to provide rewards to people for helping out. You have to make helping out a community value.

It's called priming the pump. The key to telephone support is to lead the person step by step through their interests. If they are strongly motiveated to do a particular thing, they will have a steep learning curve.

Virtual intimacy

We know that it's possible to be intimate online, to build a virtual community. We don't have to speculate about that, we have numerous instances.

Knowing that its possible is not the same thing as prescribing virtual community as the solution for the ills of our society. People see computers as alienating. But if you want to talk about alienation and technology, let's talk about telephones. For that matter, let's talk about elevators, which made it possible for 50,000 people to work in the same 100-story building.

Every technology of communication and transportation distances, at the same time as it connects. Plato believed that widespread literacy, the ability to write things down, would make people lazy and destroy the oral culture.

The computer, by itself, will not provide us with a community, but it will allow us to meet and talk with people we would not have been able to meet otherwise -- and if we work at it, we can form a community with them.

Of course, there are also a lot of people who cannot or just do not have any real, face-to-face commmunity, such as the homebound, or the frail elderly. There is one fellow active on the Well who is in an iron lung. So who is to judge that is alienating?

It is also possible to build a virtual layer into a real, face-to-face, geographical community. The whole community networking movement is based on this thought. It being is put to test in hundreds of different communities right now, where the Freenets, for instance, enable citizens to meet and talk about things as part of a broader movement to improve civic life. There has also been a lot of success bringing together Indian reservations, and far-flung rural areas.

A virtual community is not a substitute for people reaching out to each other, just as telemedicine is not a substitute for healers laying their hands on the patient. But it's an important communications tool. The important question is: what kind of context will this work well within? It has to have a conneciton to the larger design of the system.

Interviews | Change Processes | Technology | Articles | Main Page