Will The Web Evolve Communities?

By Howard Rheingold

...we need to keep in mind the importance of human-to-human communication.

Will the Web become a social medium?

The World Wide Web makes it possible for for citizens, artists, scientists, activists, educators, entertainers, businesses worldwide to become global multimedia publishers. Because the Web rides on the Internet, anyone with a personal computer and a modem, anywhere in the world, can put up multimedia billboards for all the rest of the (wired) world to see and hear. Every desktop computer within reach of a telephone is potentially a (color) printing press and (very slow) radio-television broadcasting station.

But so far, the Web has not been a medium for person-to-person communication.

Now that Web browsers have turned the Net into a multimedia carnival, and people everywhere are caught up with the graphics and sounds and hyperlinks, the most important action shifts to the realms of human-to-human communication.

The first, explosive phase of growth of the Web as a medium, a culture, and an industry, could now evolve into the next stage of growth, where the multimedia display tools of the Web are joined by tools for group conversation.

There is no reason to believe Web technology won't solve the communication-tool problem, but I implore the designers of the world's next big communication medium to look at what people are doing by the millions right now without the benefit of little pictures and sound bytes.

So far, the Web has lacked some of the most important tools people need to build virtual communities. Web publishers are responding to this lack by creating new tools, but as one of the first people to design a Web-based conferencing system, I can say that the most important thing designers of future systems can do is to become very familiar with the dynamics of group conversation in the pre-multimedia age. You can know all there is to know about graphics compression and other technical matters, but if you don't know why people spend hours a day, years at a time, participating in the same ongoing exchange of silent, visually uninteresting, typed messages, it doesn't matter how slick you make it look. If you don't know why people grew so enchanted with many to many communication back in the text-only days, you won't know how to build the foundation of a virtual community.

I was one of the architects of one of the first experiments, the "Threads" feature of HotWired. Integrating editorial content with audience-generated conversation was fundamental to HotWired's design. At the bottom of the page of most of the editorial content is a button that invites HotWired readers to read and participate in a conference-type conversation . Threads was revolutionary. It was exhilarating to be able to format text, include small inline graphics, and link out from the text of my contribution to the conversation. After working in pen and ink, it's nice to get your hands on clay; you don't know at first what to do with the new dimension, but you know you like the feel of it. Within a few days of starting, Threads had already collected a few volunteers from Web-land who started learning/demonstrating how to move beyond formatting tricks to real hyperconversation. The nascent community at HotWired died for a number of reasons, primarily because resources were not devoted to nurturing the nascent .community in its early stages.

The second generation of Web conferencing is beginning to arrive. allows you to append a graphic of your face to your messages. It does make a difference to see people's faces along with their messages. Other HotWired expatriates Jonathan Steuer and Michael Gold have created a members-only conversation area at . Utne reader's Utne Lens is trying to build communities to mirror the Utne salons that take place IRL.. I participated in a cool dialogue on FEED last week that integrated a hyperlinked multilogue between FEED editors and invited contributors with a Usenet discussion that readers were encouraged to join.

Two of the most interesting new experiments come from two of the oldest virtual communities, The WELL and Metanet. Both conferencing systems are over ten years old, and each uses a different flavor of conferencing software. The WELL is rolling out a web-browser-based front end to it's PicoSpan conferencing software, but so far, the performance is too slow for my tastes. And MetaNet has built Caucus Markup Language on top of Caucus conferencing software. Both the WELL and Metanet are password-protected; you can visit the home page, but participation in conferences is limited to members only.

The performance of webservers and bandwidth and sophistication of the user interface all need to improve and evolve , but at last there is some hope that webconferencing will make group conversations possible and tolerable on the Web In early 1996, the best of th e new generation of webconferencing software began to emerge. I've been using Motet, one of the new webconferencing tools, for several months, to participate in discussions on Utne Cafe and SFGate. Warning: last time I looked, Utne Cafe allows women to register right away and requires up to four weeks wait for males. And I've been experimenting with < a href="">Web Crossing in a private conference with a group of college students. Both Motet and WebCrossing do the job. For the first time, it's possible to sustain a group conversation, using links and inline graphics, without waiting forever for pages to serve. I'd like to benchmark them by putting them on the same server and using identical, large , message bases to see if the performance degrades as the message base grows.

David Wooley maintains a page that points to various ongoing experiments in Web chat and Web conferencing. And I include whatever interesting virtual community experiments I find on my page of virtual community-related resources.

Software is evolving rapidly. Communities take more time. Nobody can predict whether the multiplicity of choices available on the WELL will fragment and dilute attention so much that no communities reach critical mass. Or perhaps that same multiplicity will amplify the ability of like-minded people to find each other. Humans and human relationships move more slowly than software. We need software tools to bring the Web to life, if it is to be more than a pretty picture book, but in our quest for the tools, let us not forget cooperation, community, and conviviality.