Virtual Communities: Abort, Retry, Failure?

By Jan Fernback & Brad Thompson

* A version of this paper, entitled "Computer-Mediated Communication and the American Collectivity: The Dimensions of Community Within Cyberspace," was presented at the annual convention of the International Communication Association, Albuquerque, New Mexico, May 1995

"There is no there there." -- Gertrude Stein

I. Introduction

Community is an important aspect of life for most people. Cooley (1983) says that all normal humans have a natural affinity for community. He suggests that the primary factor inhibiting the formation of communities, no matter what their scale, is that they are difficult to organize. Extending the moral ideals inherent in nearly all individuals to the notion of community requires a system or institutional framework. The development and maintenance of such institutions sap the energy of the members of the would-be community and confuse the moral ideals inherent in the notion of community with the project of the institution itself. Thus enervated, the people lose their focus on the moral order they were trying to achieve.

The structural process that is associated with community is communication. Without communication there can be no action to organize social relations. The intimate nature of this relationship is best illustrated in the words community and communications. Both words stem from same Latin root word, communis, which means common. Communis is a paired formation of the Latin etymons for either apparently there is some disagreement together (cum) and obligation (munis) or together and one (unus). By the time it appeared in English, common had a meaning that was in contradistinction to togetherness. For example, common lands or the commons or even commoners was contrasted with the lords and nobility or their holdings. Eventually, common came to mean "ordinary" or "vulgar." Somewhat in contrast with common, community has only favorable connotations and lacks an antithetical counterpart. (Williams, 1983) What makes this etymology interesting and pertinent is that discourses surrounding communication and community often revolve around the issues of bringing people closer together or exacerbating social divisions, and the root word common contains elements of both.

The notion of community has been long recognized as having a central place in our social fabric. But it was T馬nies (1988/1887) who, by distinguishing between community and society (Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft), placed this enduring aspect of social relationships in the context of modernity and the concomitant degeneration of traditional social structures.

Aspects of the tensions surrounding community are appearing globally. Barber (1992) has written of the twin forces of "jihad" and "McWorld" at work in the modern world. By this he means that tribalism is manifesting itself in various areas around the world (not just in Muslim countries) while at the same time Western influences have made inroads in even the most remote societies. Although hardly remote, we noticed in Sydney, Australia, for example, that young people were wearing Los Angeles Raiders T-shirts. We felt certain they were not American football aficionados but were merely caught up in the worldwide marketing of things American. Illustrations from more remote corners of the world also are common (Smith, 1980). Less prosaically, Kumar (1988) says that Western industrialization became the model for modernization elsewhere, even though Japan is the only non-Western country to have become fully industrialized. Examples of jihad are in the news on an almost daily basis. The fighting in Bosnia and the Russian republic of Chechnya are but some of the most recent of numerous possible examples. Closer to home, the Indians in Chiapas, Mexico, are waging their own fight for self-determination. In each of these cases, the national "community" was not sufficient to maintain the allegiance of the protesting groups.

As modernity gives way to post-modernity and as new communication technologies are developed, it is worth examining the ways of relating that they entail and the potentialities for new or renewed relationships. The online world of computer- mediated communication (CMC) is one of those new ways for humans to relate to one another, and it is growing rapidly. On-line services grew more than 40 percent from 1993 to 1994 and now have more than 6.3 million subscribers, according to Information and Interactive Services Report (On-line services, 1995). This project is an effort to explicate some of the implications of CMC for the development and maintenance of communities within the context of larger society.

II. Changing Notions of Community

Richard Sennett (1977) argues that the res publica is in decay. Because of our credo of rugged individualism, America is more vulnerable than other cultures to regard social intercourse in terms of personal feelings rather than in rational or objective terms. Thus, our community, our shared sense of collective self, fails to embrace the public and instead becomes enmeshed in the cult of personality this is the manner in which social phenomena are translated into meaningful interpretations. For example, politics becomes a show of personality and individual credibility rather than a discourse about public issues. Social engagement has, therefore, become centered on personality and individualism as people seek to "feel" rather than to "think." Sennett remarks about this evolution, "the impulses governing the public were those of will and artifice; the impulses governing the private were those of restraint and the effacement of artifice. The public was human creation; the private was the human condition" (1977, p. 98).

Sennett's point is that our notion of community has evolved from one of Gemeinschaft, in which public relationships are tied to social status and a context of cultural homogeneity (essentially public community) toward one of Gesellschaft, in which relationships are individualistic, impersonal, contractual, often employing clear conceptions of rationality and efficiency (essentially private community). He argues that, as personality and community became more inextricably linked during the 19th century, people began regarding public action as an expression of individual psyche (e.g., a person's mode of dress is an expression of his or her essence). With the rise of industrialization and the concept of mass society, people became atomized and the social order was characterized by anomie; thus, Sennett claims, public culture declined as individuals exhibited nostalgic desire for a romanticized notion of community as "like- minded individuals" rather than the detached notion of community as a bounded, local territory. Sennett writes:

Myths of an absence of community, like those of the soulless or vicious crowd, serve the function of goading men to seek out community in terms of a created common self. The more the myth of empty impersonality . . . becomes the common sense of a society, the more will that populace feel morally justified in destroying the essence of urbanity, which is that men can act together, without the compulsion to be the same. (p. 255)

Sennett's words illustrate the problematic character of the notion of community. The concept of community commonly refers to a set of social relationships that operate within specified boundaries or locales, but community has an ideological component as well, in that it refers to a sense of common character, identity or interests. These notions of community illustrate that the term encompasses both material and symbolic dimensions; for example, the European Community was created to foster the economic interests of its constituent nations, while the New Age community of Santa Fe, New Mexico, exists around a core of symbolic, quasi-religious interests. Despite these somewhat prosaic conceptions of community, many scholars have debated the constitution of community and its importance within our public culture.

Returning to T馬nies, his distinction between Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft examined community within the confines of pre- industrial vs. industrial society. Gemeinschaft is characterized by an organic sense of community, fellowship, family, and custom, as well as a bounding together by understanding, consensus, and language. Gesellschaft, conversely, is characterized by a form of hyper-individualism in which relations among people become mechanical, transitory, and contractually oriented. T馬nies argued that the processes of urbanization and industrialization would result in the destruction of Gemeinschaft and consequently the destruction of traditional community, security, and intimacy (T馬nies, 1988/1887). Examining the notion of community in postindustrial society, Van Vliet and Burgers (1987) argue that communities contain the following elements: social interaction, a shared value system, and a shared symbol system. These elements constitute the four distinct realms of community: the social, economic, political, and cultural. For example, in their schema, the social realm of community encompasses social interaction, solidarity, and both individual and institutional relations. The economic realm of community involves the production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services. The political realm involves the collective formation of goals and the implementation of policy toward their realization. The cultural realm of community examines the shared value and symbol systems and even corresponds to the built environment. This conceptualization of community illustrates the oblique nature of boundaries within postindustrial society shifting national territorial boundaries and economic boundaries (resulting from multinational corporations and the European Community, for example) and the retribalization of certain religious and cultural interests have serious implications for the conceptualization of community.

Building on Durkheim's concept of the social division of labor, Cooke (1990) claims that community is a residual consequence of modernity that Enlightenment notions of egalitarian, heterogeneous communities were unrealistic because, for example, different social classes rarely associated with one another. He argues that community is functionally and geographically bounded based on the social division of labor. He states:

Something akin to community seems to be re-emerging in the workplace. As market relations, and in some contexts the definition of citizenship as freedom to consume based on economic choice, penetrate even deeper into our perceptions of what it is to be a normal, modern individual, communal relations seem to be pervading business. (p. 169) Thus, Cooke sees postindustrial, commodity culture as a type of "community" in that it encourages the territorialization of different consumer and producer markets in a manner tantamount to the territorialization of occupational communities (e.g., the mining communities of the Old West).

While these conceptualizations of community hardly comprise the totality of thinking on the subject, they do represent some of the scholarly theorizing about community as it has progressed from industrial to postindustrial society. Nonetheless, the corpus of work on community suggests that the concept is dynamic in nature that, as society evolves the notion of community evolves concomitantly. Our focus on one aspect of social evolution, the development of new communication technologies, will provide the context for examining the changing aspects of community in light of computer-mediated communication technology.

Scholars such as McLuhan (1964) have noted that the development of electronic communication technologies has essentially abrogated space and time so that we effectively live in a boundless "global village." Boorstin (1978) argues that communication technology creates ties bind nations into a new type of community, which he terms the "Republic of Technology." This community is one of shared utopian experience; he states, "with crushing inevitability, the advance of technology brings nations together and narrows the differences between the experiences of their people," (p. 6). Moreover, Meyrowitz (1985) asserts that community has been affected by electronic media's undermining of the relationship between location and access to information. He states:

Many categories of people women, ghetto dwellers, prisoners, children were once "naturally" restricted from much social information by being isolated in particular places. The identity and cohesion of many groupings and associations were fostered by the fact that members were "isolated together" in the same or similar locations. . . . Now, however, electronic messages . . . democratize and homogenize places by allowing people to experience and interact with others in spite of physical isolation. As a result, physical location now creates only one type of information-system, only one type of shared but special group experience. (pp. 143-144)

Converse to Meyrowitz's argument, Luke (1993) demonstrates that the expansion of communication technology has resulted in the creation of a "new class" of the information-elite that constitutes a tribal community that is committed to knowledge- based technological development which inevitably disenfranchises the information poor. Luke argues:

Composed of clients and consumers, communities today are not much more than an aggregation of atomized individuals organized into discrete geographic-legal units. Community becomes so thin because workplace and residence, production and consumption, identity and interests, administration and allocation are so divided in the New Class project of an advanced industrial society predicated primarily on geographic and social mobility. This division of interests, loss of common historical consciousness, weakening of shared beliefs, and lessening of ecological responsibility is what necessitates alternative approaches to understanding community. (pp. 209-210)

Thus, new communication technologies can both draw people together into cohesive communities of interest and further atomize them as they retreat deeper into tribalism. If the notions of community changed from pre-industrial to industrial society (as T馬nies argues), Cooke, Meyrowitz, and Luke affirm that the notion of community has changed with the dawn of the postindustrial era as well.

The most recent communication technology development within the postindustrial era is CMC. Comprised of different systems such as electronic mail, bulletin board systems, and real-time chat services, CMC is both an interpersonal, one-to-one medium of communication and a one-to-many or even many-to-many form of mass communication. With an estimated 25 million CMC users worldwide (Calem, 1992) computer-mediated communications have the potential to affect the nature of social life in terms of both interpersonal relationships and the character of community. "Virtual" community encompasses the economic, political, social, and cultural dimensions of community postulated by Van Vliet and Burgers (1987): social interaction and solidarity are evident within bulletin board conferences and real-time chat modes as friendships and romances blossom; economic and political activity expands within cyberspace as international business transactions are made and political advice is exchanged from, for example, the United States to Russia; and culturally, people are exposed to the value and symbol systems of other nations when, for example, Americans and Brazilians exchange comment about cultural rituals. Ideologically, community within cyberspace appears to emphasize a shared belief in the principles of free speech, individualism, equality, and open access the same symbolic interests that define the character of American democracy. Experientially, community within cyberspace emphasizes a community of interests, usually bounded by the topic under discussion, that can lead to a communal spirit and apparent social bonding. These communities can be purely instrumental in nature that is, they may never extend beyond talking to one another; or, they may promote action that is, virtual communities may manifest themselves in real political action, such as educational reform or political caucuses.

An examination of some conceptualizations of virtual community will enhance our understanding of the nature of the public sphere within cyberspace.

III. Virtual Community or Postmodern Simulacrum?

Rheingold (1993) defines virtual communities as "social aggregations that emerge from the [Internet] when enough people carry on those public discussions long enough, with sufficient human feeling, to form webs of personal relationships in cyberspace" (p. 5). Noting the absence of a spatial dimension in his definition, Rheingold uses a biological analogy to describe community within cyberspace, likening virtual community to the model of a petri dish. He says:

[T]hink of . . . the Net as the agar medium, and virtual communities, in all their diversity, as the colonies of microorganisms that grow in petri dishes. Each of the small colonies of microorganisms the communities on the Net is a social experiment that nobody planned but that is happening nevertheless. (p. 6) Rheingold postulates that community in cyberspace has burgeoned in part due to a public lament over the disappearance of informal public spaces in our real existence and in part due to the pioneering spirit of "Netsurfers" who are attracted to virtual community by means of interacting with other people on a completely novel level.

According to Rheingold and others, the notion of virtual community is not to be dismissed as a technological, cyberpunk fantasy in which people increasingly live in what Mills (1959) terms "second-hand worlds"; chained to their computer terminals, experiencing life through dehumanizing technology rather than through human contact and intimacy. Indeed, Rheingold waxes eloquent about the passionate character of his on-line relationships within cyberspace and particularly within the WELL (Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link), a San Francisco-based conference site. His relationships in the WELL community have spilled over into his personal life he has attended weddings, births, and funerals of his fellow WELL community members. Commenting on the strength of the bond within virtual communities, he notes:

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. To the millions who have been drawn into it, the richness and vitality of computer- linked cultures is attractive, even addictive. (p. 3)

One of these rich and vital computer-linked cultures is the Internet Relay Chat (IRC), a multi-user synchronous "chat" line that was designed for social rather than business use. The IRC is comprised of various channels that indicate the subject matter being discussed within (such as the homosexual sex channel) in order to manage the traffic flow resulting when hundreds of people use the IRC simultaneously. Users type words on their screens which instantaneously reach other users; but without the benefit of nonverbal cues that express subtlety of meaning, IRC users must use a series of symbols in order to communicate efficiently with one another and develop a unique sense of community based on the unconventional boundaries of the medium. For example, IRC users compensate for the lack of nonverbal cues by typing what are essentially stage directions to one another that serve to indicate a range of emotions: typing *heeheehee* might indicate playful laughter, *falls down laughing* indicates hilarity, and other words such as *squeeze* or *smooch* indicate a user's actions toward another user. These phrases or words are recognized symbolic conventions within the IRC community, and, as Reid (1991) indicates in her work on community on the IRC, "the textual cues utilised on IRC provide the symbols of interpretation and discourse that the users of IRC have devised to meet specific problems posed by situations they face in common. Without these textual cues to substitute for non-verbal language, the users of IRC would fail to constitute a community" (p. 18). Successful CMC, particularly within the IRC environment, depends on the use of these symbolic conventions. Despite the playful nature of these conventions, the expressions of emotion that they convey are, according to Reid, "not in any way thought to be shallow or ephemeral" (p. 13).

The CMC community also contains sanctions against those who violate its norms by ignoring Internet etiquette, sometimes called "netiquette," essentially the ethics code of cyberspace. The two primary ethical principles governing the use of CMC are 1) individualism is honored and fostered, and 2) the network is good and must be protected (Krol, 1992, p. 35). Abuses such as hateful or antisocial postings on bulletin boards and using other people's names or identities on IRC are discouraged and can be punished by means of ostracization from the community or through system operator-enforced severing of an individual's link to the IRC (known as the "kill" function). Thus, the construction of the boundaries of community within cyberspace is not a completely arbitrary matter, and CMC may not be as egalitarian as its advocates suggest.

Some virtual community boundaries have a definite purpose to them, aside from social camaraderie. The Public Electronic Network (PEN), a self-described "new urban polis" is a computer system that encourages participatory democracy within the community of Santa Monica, California. Through PEN, citizens can retrieve local government information (such as city council meeting schedules) and converse with public officials (Schuler, 1994). In addition, Community Memory of Berkeley, California, is a series of terminals in public places throughout Berkeley designed to foster community, especially among those without ready access to information technology. Community Memory's agenda states that, "strong, free, non-hierarchical channels of communication whether by computer and modem, pen and ink, telephone, or face-to-face are the front line of reclaiming and revitalizing our communities" (Schuler, 1994, p. 38). Although virtual communities of this nature are generally bound within some geographic area, bulletin boards and conferences that advocate specific national political reform (such as EcoNet or the Aryan Nations Liberty Net) can foster a strong sense of community among members united in a common zeal for an issue of mutual concern.

One conference group has been created to address these issues. Communet, a conference group devoted to a discussion of on-line community and community-building through computer networks, recently offered a series of exchanges debating the nature of virtual community as a form of "real" community or as a simulacrum of community. Ed Schwartz argues that computer bulletin boards serve to "add the final mechanism needed to insure that we never talk to people beyond our immediate friends and family on a personal level about anything. The global community, linked by terminals, replaces community where we are" (Schwartz, 1994). He goes on, however, to note that local bulletin boards can reverse this trend by encouraging local CMC to burgeon into face-to-face meetings. He claims that this type of interaction is irreplaceable, but that computers can reinforce either individualism or community, depending on "our vision of the society that shapes their use." He asks whether computer communications fragment society, reintegrate it, or provide a form of ersatz contact tantamount to Tocqueville's (1990/1840) image of the unique form of despotism facing American citizens:

Each of them, living apart, is a stranger to the fate of all the rest; his children and his private friends constitute to him the whole of mankind. As for the rest of his fellow citizens, he is close to them, but he sees them not; he touches them, but he feels them not; he exists but in himself and for himself alone; and if his kindred still remain to him, he may be said at any rate to have lost his country. (p. 318)

A posting by Caroline Ferguson (1994), however, challenges Schwartz's fatalistic vision of the nature of community in cyberspace by arguing that community can be based on intellectual and emotional proximity rather than mere physical proximity. She states, "We are social creatures and we long for contact; I don't think it matters that contact is via phone, Net, or face-to-face if it promotes and reinforces understanding, action, and human connections."

Rheingold (1992) supports Ferguson's statement when he argues that virtual communities, if they do answer people's needs, could experience astronomical growth over the next decade. He states:

When a group of people remain in communication with one another for extended periods of time, the question of whether it is a community arises. Virtual communities might be real communities, they might be pseudocommunities, or they might be something entirely new in the realm of social contracts, but I believe they are in part a response to the hunger for community that has followed the disintegration of traditional communities around the world. (p. 4)

Rheingold claims that his "sense of place" within his WELL virtual community is strong, partly because it serves as what Oldenburg (1991) refers to as the last of the three essential places in people's lives: the place they live, the place they work, and the place they gather for conviviality. These third places, Oldenburg argues, are where community is built and sustained. The WELL is this place for Rheingold: he likens his WELL community to a neighborhood salon or coffee shop where he visits friends for conversation, whether idle chat or spirited debate about philosophical or political issues; for gathering information on subjects ranging from child care to medicine; or for supporting members of the community during trying circumstances. This ability to network, gain knowledge, or find communion within cyberspace is, according to Rheingold (1994), the social glue that binds formerly isolated individuals into a community.

Similarly, Catalfo (1993) argues that the same rituals and rites of passage that mark physical communities can be found on- line as well. Death, illness, sex, therapy and other intensely personal issues are addressed in on-line communities in addition to the more public discussions of political policy or environmental activism. One Massachusetts WELL subscriber turned to his virtual community (the WELL's parenting conference) when he experienced anxiety over his 2-year-old daughter's illness. He described the atmosphere on the WELL during his crisis:

I found it full of twenty-four-hour compassionate ears and souls. They not only listened, they talked back. They helped. I found myself keeping a kind of online journal in the company of these people I'd never laid eyes on. It seemed kind of miraculous, really, this communion late at night in front of the screen. (Catalfo, 1993, p. 167)

Catalfo notes that WELL members also conducted a type of virtual ritual when one of its most active and controversial members committed suicide. WELL participants held an impromptu on-line memorial service during which members eulogized him with an exchange of hundreds of messages documenting their virtual experiences with him. Catalfo argues that this type of spirit illustrates that community can indeed exist in cyberspace where people

[gather] on a central, common ground to share the prosaic and the profound, the small facts and large events that become landmarks in a community's life. And in the end, it is this spirit the type of fundamental human regard that so often appears to be in short supply in the "real" world that may prove to be the most exhilarating and empowering aspect of this evolving technology. (p. 175)

Not all are so positive about the notion of virtual community, however. Obviously, the millions that have been drawn into virtual communities have access to the technology that enables them to experience this type of community. Access to CMC both economic access in terms of the ability to afford a computer and an Internet subscription as well as intellectual access in terms of the ability to read and comprehend the lexicon of CMC is critical to the notion that virtual community is a pre-selected community in which, despite the Internet's egalitarian rhetoric, a true sense of equality will not be tested until the technology becomes widespread. Thus, we must recognize that contemporary virtual communities are essentially a class phenomenon the New Class of information elite that Luke (1993) describes.

McClellan (1994) claims that the character of virtual communities can be as provincial as small town communities. He notes that the WELL has been criticized as too "New Agey" and "little more than a middle-class residents association in cyberspace" (p. 10). McClellan criticizes cyberspace communities as pseudocommunities that have only the appearance of true social bonding. He states:

[R]ather than providing a replacement for the crumbling public realm, virtual communities are actually contributing to its decline. They're another thing keeping people indoors and off the streets. Just as TV produces couch potatoes, so on-line culture creates mouse potatoes, people who hide from real life and spend their whole life goofing off in cyberspace. (p 10)

Nevertheless, virtual community as a concept is still amorphous due to a lack of shared mental models about what exactly constitutes community in cyberspace. Until the vagaries of communication within this new technological development are more firmly understood, the conceptualization of on-line community may remain somewhat vague. The extension of community into cyberspace is a natural outgrowth of the shift from an emphasis on the public to the private in the United States. The notion of community is a "public" concept in that it entails a collectivity of sorts. But virtual community has a private quality about it; it may be who we are as private individuals that constitutes our membership in certain communities, e.g., virtual communities based on political ties or communities of interest based on world view, hobbies, or professional status. Thus, a private character is ascribed to the idea of community as our individuality increasingly defines our choice of community membership, despite the nature of community as a social bond.

Keeping in mind the corpus of work regarding virtual community and the examples noted herein, we assert our own definition of on-line community: social relationships forged in cyberspace through repeated contact within a specified boundary or place (e.g., a conference or chat line) that is symbolically delineated by topic of interest.

Using this definition, we shall now examine how the notion of virtual community informs public sentiment regarding the nearly extinct American public sphere. V. (Re)Inventing the Collectivity

What role can computer-mediated communication (and on-line community in particular) play in redefining a sense of wholeness within American public life? Do communities within cyberspace have the capability of serving as a series of new public spheres in contemporary Western nations? As noted earlier, the desirability of a collectivity hinges on the assumption that there can be a universality within public discourse because there is a universality of public interests. According to Habermas's (1989/1962) definition of the public sphere as a forum for rational debate within a sphere of competing ideas, public discourse is aimed at achieving consensus. These arguments make sweeping, perhaps unfounded assumptions; can we indeed assume that consensus is realistic within a multiplicity of public interests?

Garnham (1992) claims that "it is impossible to conceive of a viable democratic polity without at the same time conceiving of at least some common normative dimension" (p. 369), but that cultural relativism is incommensurate with the achievement of consensus that is the crux of a democratic polity. He argues that, if universal outcomes are not desired, a multiplicity of publics may exist; however, if consensus is sought, a single public sphere (even if it is comprised of subsidiary public spheres pursuing their own interests) must be in place. In light of Garnham's vision of public life, Habermas (1992) has recently responded to criticisms of his articulation of the public sphere by reconceptualizing it; he argues:

[T]he presumption that society as a whole can be conceived as an association writ large, directing itself via the media of law and political power, has become entirely implausible in view of the high level of complexity of functionally differentiated societies. (p. 443)

He goes on to propose the formation of a "political public sphere" in which communicative acts denote a "discursive formation of opinion and will on the part of a public composed of the citizens of a state. This is why it is suitable as the fundamental concept of a theory of democracy whose intent is normative" (p. 446). He refers to this definition as a "discourse-centered concept of democracy" in which political conflicts remain at the behest of rational regulation in the mutual interest of all constituencies. Thus, Habermas is attempting to reconcile the problem of civil society by theorizing this discourse-centered approach to democracy as less organized, less teleological. He states:

[T]he expectation deriving from a discourse-centered theoretical approach, that rational results will obtain, is based on the interplay between a constitutionally instituted formation of the political will and the spontaneous flow of communication unsubverted by power, within a public sphere that is not geared toward decision making but toward discovery and problem resolution and that in this sense is nonorganized [emphasis in original]. If there still is to be a realistic application of the idea of the sovereignty of the people to highly complex societies, it must be uncoupled from the concrete understanding of its embodiment in physically present, participating, and jointly deciding members of a collectivity. (p. 451)

Here Habermas seems to be making a case for the type of communication that is practiced within cyberspace it is discourse centered and many-to-many. Yet, Fraser's (1990) notion that a multiplicity of publics is necessary within civil society seems to better fit with the reality of the pluralization of roles and lifestyles evident in contemporary Western culture.

VII. Politics of the Issue

To offer a definition of community that incorporates CMC is only part of the equation. The form of communication, as already indicated by the examples of the emoticons, and the technology used by the community may reveal a great deal about the nature of that community. We will now explore what we believe are some of the implications for a community and public discourse formed through the technology of CMC.

As Winner (1980) has suggested, technologies have political and ideological significance. These attributes suggest themselves in two ways. First, the form a technology takes can influence power relationships; that is, how authority is distributed among those affected by the technology. Second, a technology, once adopted, may inevitably lead to certain institutionalized patterns of authority. Winner believes that the technology ought to be considered at least on a par with the context of its use. We would suggest that computers already are prevalent and likely to grow more so. Therefore, with CMC, the context is even more important. If CMC is to be used primarily as electronic mail, as currently is the situation, the power relations that Winner is concerned about have little effect on the vast majority of users insofar as other means of communications remain open. If, however, a significant part of a population begins to form social relationships on computer networks, then the rest of the population, even if it is the majority, will be less able to participate fully in all aspects of the society, much less to monitor, even benignly, the activities of computer users. Thus, contextualizing the use of CMC is an important aspect of studying it. As communities develop on the net, it will become increasingly important to observe how power and authority are distributed and what effect that distribution has on discourse within the public sphere.

Another aspect of the development of virtual communities is the population that makes up those communities. It is generally recognized that there are at least three barriers to widespread computer use. First, it must be affordable. Second, it must be intellectually accessible. And third, time must be available to use it. The implications of these three dimensions for the development of community are so obvious that they should hardly need to be stated. But just so there is no mistake, the poor and the least educated are at a severe disadvantage. Further, even though computers are becoming less expensive and more powerful, there always will be members of the society for whom they will remain dreams. In addition, as computers get more powerful, the baseline will rise; that is, the barrier to entry will increase to keep the more capable equipment out of reach for the least well off. The most endowed segments of society will maintain their dominant position.

Virtually the same argument can be made in terms of intellectual access, at least until more powerful software toolsare developed. A parallel might be made with the development of radio. In the early, experimental days, only those with technical expertise could build radios or antennas. Eventually that group gave rise to less skilled but still highly motivated people who took pleasure in tuning in weak or distant stations regardless of the program. Finally, the general public took an interest in radio programs without much concern for the technology in the box. We can see that computer hardware and software technology is somewhere between the first and second of these stages of development.

The last concern has to do with time. People are limited in the amount of time they can devote each day to any activity, including mediated communication. The maximum, of course, is 24 hours, but that obviously cannot be sustained for more than a day or two at a time. In addition to the necessities of life such as sleeping, eating, and working, much of each day already is devoted to social interaction via newspapers, radio, television, and the telephone. With the introduction of CMC, these traditional forms of mediated communication will lose some portion of the public's attention. More than anything else, time is a zero-sum game. Thus, the people who will make up the virtual communities will be the better educated, the financially endowed and those with time to commit to communication tasks. That presents a rather limited version of opportunities for building community in any real sense. It also placed limits on the potential for virtual communities to represent anything new within the multiplicity of publics that comprise the American collectivity.

But more than the relatively advantaged socio-economic group that is likely to populate the virtual communities, it is widely understood that virtual communities will be communities of interest rather than of geographical proximity or of historical or ethnic origin. As such, they will be further insulated from having to deal with vagaries of the workaday world. So although communities may be formed that reinforce social relationships among like-minded individuals, those groups will have a decreasing need or opportunity to interact with other members of the larger society. Instead of creating increasing cohesion, virtual communities are likely to have the opposite effect on the larger collectivity. We should not mistake a desire for communities of interest with a hope for a more just and egalitarian society. Just as multiculturalism can and does have a positive influence on self and group identity but when taken to an extreme can disrupt the larger society, so virtual communities can foster anomie. Instead of mass society leading to atomized individuals, however, it may be that it leads to "atomized" communities. And, again, as with multiculturalism, different views can be assimilated into the larger society. But becausevirtual communities are likely to be private communities of interest, they will not readily or serendipitously be exposed to differing views that will help them and the larger society grow and adapt to a changing world.

Another characteristic of CMC that is sometimes overlooked is the possibility, even likelihood, that as CMC grows in popularity, there will be less need for face-to-face interaction. It is one of the supreme ironies of the utopian view of CMC that it is likely to reduce that felt sense of community that it so nostalgically seems to uphold as virtuous. In its place will be a community of interest in which members will be able to drift in and out. One of the key aspects of community is having to deal with and resolve conflicts. It is either the height of arrogance or defeat when one chooses or is forced to leave his or her community over an unresolved conflict. Typically, leaving a community is emotionally traumatic. Leaving a virtual community might be as easy as changing the channel on a television set. So, to return to Winner's (1980) argument, another political consequence of widespread adoption of CMC technology will be to create communities that are less stable than traditional geographic, historic or ethnic communities. Again, virtual community seems to merely reinforce the already fragmented landscape of the public sphere.

A further irony of CMC is that the nostalgic view of community its proponents hold out as "virtually" possible is ever less likely to be achieved as society itself becomes more complex. Indeed, the technology associated with CMC is contributing to the growing complexity at the very least by adding another communications medium. The least complex and most informative means of communications is to meet face to face. Direct, personal conversation has multiple levels of communication. In addition to the words that are spoken, vocal inflections, body language and even the setting carry meaning. The lack of these in CMC is made abundantly clear by the need users feel to invent emoticons to help fill the language gap. Further, although mediated and unmediated communication both allow participants to organize, for example to resist power, without institutions mediating the conversation, there is less likelihood of ambiguities or misunderstandings developing. But face-to-face communication is becoming less and less common. Of course, the trade-off is that one can communicate instantaneously with a larger number of people through mediated communication technologies. That is called efficiency, and that is the politics the ideology that CMC reflects.

Still another component of CMC that is both troubling and constructive is the permanent nature of the conversation. It seldom will be argued that it is beneficial to not have a record of positions taken in a dialogue. Yet, that is what we are proposing. Such a verbatim record often is lacking with television, radio, or telephone interactions or even the more directly edited newspaper interview. Without such a record, a person can subtly change his or her position to reach a compromise with an antagonist. (Of course, transcripts of radio and television programs are becoming increasingly common, and this may be contributing to current political turmoils.) In short, lack of a clear record allows deniability, which can be useful in reaching consensus. With CMC, however, the precise words of the author can be preserved, locking a person into a perhaps untenable position without allowing a face-saving retreat. Thus, ideas can become concretized before they are fully developed through the give and take of freewheeling dialogue.

Finally, it might argued that the forces that are developing the means to establish virtual communities have their own agendas. First, there is the issue of control. Certainly advocates of CMC see control as dispersed. But that fails to recognize who or what is actually in control. The scientists and technologists who develop computer hardware and software are designing to their own specifications what is most convenient technologically or what will yield the greatest return on investment, both of which are arguments for efficiency rather than democracy not to the needs of the general user. For example, more comprehensible computer interfaces than DOS (for IBM standard personal computers) or UNIX were imaginable. The historical development of DOS, UNIX, and other specific examples are outside the scope of this paper, but they nonetheless serve to illustrate why, for a variety of reasons (the justifications for which a technologically compliant public had no arguments), an arcane disk operating system was implemented that effectively excluded many people from understanding microcomputers. By controlling the technology, the developers maintained control over not only their products but social development in general. Similarly, on the Apple side, by maintaining the computer architecture as proprietary, the company was able to control development, distribution and, ultimately, the parameters for how the computers are used.

Second, computer makers and the communications industry encourage the use of their products and services. One way to do so is to suggest that they will alleviate social problems, as is the case with CMC. Third, the issue of control emerges in the CMC network itself. For example, the network service America On- Line recently terminated several subscribers' accounts when other subscribers complained that child pornography was being transferred through the network. The head of the company then notified all users that their accounts would be terminated and authorities would be notified if illegal activities were detected. As laudable as this stance on child pornography may be, it raises serious questions about free speech, due process and, by extension, control. These accounts were closed without a judicial determination that the material in question was, in fact, illegal child porn. Will subscriber complaints about less offensive material lead to similarly arbitrary and capricious action? As court cases have shown, states may allow access to private property which America On-Line and others are for purposes of free speech. (Pruneyard, 1980).

If CMC is to have the impact on society that its advocates suggest (and, indeed, if it is to constitute a public sphere of sorts), the quasi-public nature of the network demands that these issues be addressed. Within just these examples, one can see at work not only the ideology of the free market but, somewhat paradoxically, the more insidious ideology of centralized control. Indeed, such control is so ingrained in society's psyche that few people are even able to discern it. These examples are not meant as a broadside against capitalism, the free market or a society's right to self-determination, but they are intended to show the general lack of debate about issues of who controls the technology and for whose benefit it is being developed. To date, these issues have not received sufficient attention with regard to CMC.

VIII. Conclusion

We all need a sense of place, whether it be bounded territorially or in the "placeless" realm of cyberspace. However, the bounded nature of virtual community as we have defined it by topic of interest can indeed be a transnational, transcultural phenomenon that is essentially antithetical to the notion of the American collectivity as a public sphere. Perhaps the reconceptualization of community derived from our increasing participation within the realm of CMC will guide us to a clearer picture of public vs. private life within the United States.

Although CMC offers some advantages over face-to-face communication, e.g., no preconceptions of another person based on appearance, ease of coming together, and equal access to the conversation among those participating, we find the disadvantages outweigh the advantages. Indeed, each of the "advantages" could be construed as a disadvantage: appearances do matter; conversation should not be based on solely efficiency; and some ideas are more useful than others. Even such proponents of virtual community as Rheingold (1993), Schwartz (1994), and McClellan (1994) maintain that face-to-face meetings can be valuable in the formation of a true sense of community.

For the reasons stated in the preceding section, the likely result of the development of virtual communities through CMC will be that a hegemonic culture will maintain its dominance. Certainly, it cannot be assumed that the current political and technical elites would willingly cede their position of dominance or knowingly sow the seeds of their own destruction.

Indeed, it seems most likely that the virtual public sphere brought about by CMC will serve a cathartic role, allowing the public to feel involved rather than to advance actual participation. Communities seem more likely to be formed or reinforced when action is needed, as when a country goes to war, rather than through discourse alone. Citizenship via cyberspace has not proven to be the panacea for the problems of democratic representation within American society; although communities of interest have been formed and strengthened (as noted previously) and have demonstrated a sense of solidarity, they have nevertheless contributed to the fragmented cultural and political landscape of the United States that is replete with identity politics and the unfulfilled promise of a renewed vita activa.

This research poses a larger question that has been addressed by other scholars (see Elshtain, 1995 and Lasch, 1995) which emphasizes the connection between the condition of fragmentation that exists within the American collectivity and democracy in theoretical terms. CMC does not, at this point, hold the promise of enhancing democracy because it promotes communities of interest that are just as narrowly defined ascurrent public factions defined by identity (whether it be racial, sexual, or religious). Public discourse ends when identities become the last, unyielding basis for argumentation that strives ideally to achieve consensus based on a common good.

If nothing else, the expressions of hope and desire for new modes of communication such as CMC speak volumes about the failures of present and past technologies to help create a just and equitable society. Perhaps these failures should prompt us to re-examine why we continue to place so much hope in technology after so many disappointments. Ultimately, we believe, the hope placed in CMC is misplaced because change will occur not by altering the technology but by reforming the political and social environment from which that technology flows.

Finally, we suggest that the term virtual community is more indicative of an assemblage of people being "virtually" a community than being a real community in the nostalgic sense that advocates of CMC would seem to be endorsing. Our comments should not be construed as protests against the corruption of a term; we recognize that community has a dynamic meaning. Our concern is that the public is more likely to forget what it means to form a true community. If, on the other hand, virtual communities can lead to action, that may be the basis for the formation of real and lasting communities of interest. But until then, any change in the communications structure, such as the widespread use of CMC, is likely to be unsettling. Therefore, we must agree with Cooley (1983), who wrote in 1909:

"[A] rapid improvement in the means of communication, as we see in our own time, supplies the basis for a larger and freer society, and yet it may, by disordering settled relations, and by fixing attention too much upon mechanical phases of progress, bring in conditions of confusion and injustice that are the opposite of free." (p. 55)


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Virtual Communities, Phony Civil Society?
rheingold's Brainstorms