2.1 Definitions of Community


The difficulty in discussing online communities is that the word "community" itself is loaded with subjective meaning. Community as a term is used independently in those involved with online groups, and those in academic professions studying online groups.

2.1.1 Different definitions of community

There are almost as many definitions of community as there are people to define it.Pacagnella defines virtual communities as "the articulated patterns of relationships, roles, norms, institutions, and languages developed on-line" which shares a sense of "createdness" with Rheingold's definition "Virtual communities are social aggregations that emerge from the Net when people carry on these public discussions long enough, with sufficient human feeling, to form webs of personal relationships in cyberspace." Both researchers emphasize community as a process by emphasizing the words "articulated" and "aggregated", and share as well as sense of importance of the relationships that are part of that process. Cothrel and Williams initially approached online community as "A group of people who use computer networks as their primary mode of interaction." This seems more in accordance with the general Web definition of community that includes such things as Usenet and public chat rooms.

However, the authors found in their data collection that other issues such as a sense of commonality, common interests, common objectives and a social element were critical in separating a community from a group of online users. Donath argues "People on the net should be thought of not only as solitary information processors, but also as social beings. People are not only looking for information, they are also looking for affiliation, support and affirmation." This is in accordance with some of Dervin's work in the Library and Information Science literature, which shows that people seeking information may not be seeking the right answer, but rather support in the process that led for there to be an information shortage in the first place. This same research indicates that people first turn to family and friends for information, spiraling out into less personal resources only if the more personal ones fail them.

2.1.2 The Bender definition of community

Thomas Bender offers a definition that in some ways is the most restrictive when applied to online interaction: "A community involves a limited number of people in a somewhat restricted social space or network held together by shared understandings and sense of obligation. Relationships are close, almost intimate, and usually face to face. Individuals are bound together by affective or emotional ties rather than by a perception of individual self-interest. There is a 'we-ness' in a community; one is a member." Bender paints this as a series of concentric circles, starting with the family group, then spiraling out to include friends considered as family, people surrounding those people and so forth.

This maps to Granovetter's work on strong and weak social ties. Granovetter describes strong social ties as those that provide emotional support and affective richness, whereas weak social ties, likely to be gained through casual acquaintances rather than relatives or close friends, provide more material gains. The combination of the two types of benefits that can be gained through relationships is called "social capital", as lately described by Robert Putnam. The concept of strong social ties is reflected in the literature on trust. Researchers on trust distinguish between two kinds : cognitive, where you trust the other person to act in a consistent manner, and affective, where you trust that person to have your best interests at heart. Affective trust would seem to be a key component of strong social bonds, which in turn are an aspect of community. The research on trust seems to indicate that trust is cannot be established in electronic contexts . However, these studies typically deal with students involved in brief negotiation tasks, typically some variation of the Prisoner's Dilemma, and have not been applied to more persistent, ongoing online interactions.

This more general definition can be brought into line with some of the definitions of virtual community listed above. Characteristics in common include the focus on relationships rather than information, the presence of affect, and shared understanding. Differences between the Bender definition and the others is the sense of limitation of membership and a sense of obligation.

The question becomes whether physical collocation is as necessary as Bender indicated in his definition. Has the increased access to virtual groups decreased transaction costs to the point that they can substitute for face to face interaction? Some of the affordances provided by physical space also included limitations in group membership, and an increased cost of leaving the community. William Galston would argue that some of the online interactions typically described as communities, i.e. newsgroups, listserves, and chat rooms for instance, do not meet the definition of community above.

Most of Galston's criticisms relate to the lack of boundaries afforded by physical location. In a chat room there is no cost of entry or exit, which means that there are no consequence measures for behavior contrary to the norms of the community. In other words, being thrown out of the group, or even ignored, is a threat that does not carry sufficient strength to affect individual online behavior. Some of the issues of physical presence are addressed by Fitzpatrick, Kaplan and Mansfield in looking at the behaviors of system administrators existing in both physical and virtual work environments. The authors call for a shift in the focus of researching work online from notions of "space" to "place".

  • 2.1 Definitions of community


  • 2.2 Everything2 as a community


  • 2.3 Features of Everything that foster community


  • 2.4 Everything sites as community


  • 2.5 How community relates to "work"


  • 2.6 Everything and the Grudin Problems


    Return to School of Information Analysis of Everything

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