The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier
a book by Howard Rheingold
(our site's book review)
Rheingold says—echoing M. Scott Peck—that we must transform ourselves from mere social animals into community animals. See Why Do We Need Communities?
He discusses the WELL, an Internet virtual community of people (established in 1985) who manifest community spirit more than most seem to. (There’s no reason that MCs could not evolve out of virtual communities—if some wanted to evolve them in this manner. See Why Register for an MC?.)
Registering for MC search and match
He asserts that Alvin Toffler (along with many others) bases utopian hopes on the Information Age, as a “techno-fix for social problems.” This isn’t exactly accurate. He isn’t a utopian. He’s a futurist that sees in such things as the electronic expanded family—a social configuration that is evolving at the turn of the century—and will succeed precisely because it is not utopian, but, rather pragmatically grounded in an external mission with an economic base. And it wouldn’t shun society because of it’s “superior” societal ideals, as utopians often did. It would thrive in mainstream society because it was one of its most effective and functional parts. It would be a practopia, the Tofflers’ term for a positive, realistic and effective alternative to dysfunctional Second Wave lifestyles trying hard to make it amidst the Third Wave civilizational forces evolving all around us.
The electronic cottage for the electronic expanded family
Many things Rheingold says, such as listing the advantages of many-to-many communication, lead one to see why the Third Wave MCs will profit from the utilization of the PSB communication and personal status monitoring tool. His future lifestyle scenarios depict people having sudden needs for communication, tutoring, rides, feelings expression and nurturance, some of which are done better in person than on a computer—so why settle for second best? PSBs empower just these things he lists.
PSBs, for the most efficient many-to-many or one-to-many or one-to-one communication
The author looks at parenting advantages, social communion enhancements, knowledge acquisition, and general community empowerment as a result of many-to-many communication in virtual communities. The mass media isn’t interactive enough to provide much but conditioning—its sound bites are designed not to get one to think or participate, but to entertain, get one to consume, and elicit emotional reactions that one gets dependent upon and will keep coming back to, thereby increasing the chances one will see more ads and consume more goods and keep up program ratings.
Rheingold sees the Net as a way to keep democracy healthy by restoring the living web of citizen-to-citizen communications that was the foundation of civil society when our Founders invented the American republic. But we'll cite his hesitations about such optimism later.
Besides being the source of community for the author, the WELL has also been a site of conflicts, interpersonal attacks, factionalism, gossip, jealousy, envy, feuds and brawls. He concluded that in spite of all this, enough love would see the WELL through the hard times. He also warns that the Net has too much trivia, superficiality and waste and the virtual communities should take themselves seriously and elicit human depth from one another. If only Facebook and Twitter fans would heed this advice!
Rheingold wrote in 1987 that the virtual communities are better than the traditional ones because
they allow you to find very quickly the people that you look for (with the same ideas, interests,
hobbies, problems, political options etc.), in offline communities people having to lose a lot of
time in order to reach that goal. (Exactly the problem of irl communities, which is why prior to MC formation, the MC search and matches are done so that people find just the right MC-compatible people, do some cybercommunication as an online MC, check things out thoroughly and confirm their desire to form an MC with these people, and then and only them begin searching for an irl f2f MC site.)
However, Rheingold also cautions us that " . . . we need to look closely at new technologies and ask how they could help build stronger, more humane communities—and how they might be obstacles to that goal." To see how they might supplement or thwart real humane bonding and supplement or thwart true or false community, see Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?.
Facebook made him lonely
Rheingold later abandoned some of the hopes expressed in The Virtual Community about the role virtual communities might play in reinventing social life. In the 2000 version of the book which has been updated with some new content, he introduces a counter-model for explaining how virtual communities are born and thrive. The model is especially skeptical about the capacity of virtual environments to amplify (only) the good in its denizens, be it generosity, emotional support or cooperation. He now believes that online conferencing can equally boost unhealthy attention-seeking behavior and attitudinal negativism, suggesting, although not openly, that on-line interaction can generate a form of destructive individualism and false self support. (If he'd written the book in 2015—the Facebook era—he'd list some of these negative phenomena such as flaming, trolling, spamming, bullying, sexual harrassment, etc.)
Rheingold is also far more skeptical about the democratic value of online communities: when deliberation becomes an end in itself, not a means toward an end, a representative, versus a direct, method of decision making might be preferable. The true virtue of virtual communities is their capacity for maintaining the ties between those who are already connected through values, social similarity, or personal ties, regardless of their geographic location, as many studies have confirmed.
"The relationship between individuality, self-expression, and communitarianism is probably one of the thorniest issues of our day, and many scholars and activists are still struggling to find the right balance between individualism and communitarianism. This arduous project is even more challenging online . . ." (Sorin Adam Matei, From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Virtual Community Discourse and the Dilemma of Modernity, Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication [main source for the last few paragraphs])
"Although the idea of a lost community frequently recurs, most researchers now accept that community is an ongoing process and that the disappearance of older community forms is accompanied by the emergence of newer kinds." (Paul Verschueren, From Virtual to Everyday Life) (MCs are the way to have BOTH the best of the new kind—virtual—via PSBs, and the best of the old f2f irl kind.)
"Perhaps the internet is our savior, appearing on the scene at just the moment it was needed most, and rescued us from our decaying communities." (Aaron Davidson, Online Communities v.s. Classical Communities) The irl communities are good for safety, childcare, emergencies, local civic duties, but have few people you can relate to, but the internet has tons of people that have a lot in common with you.
Or as another researcher says, the effects of virtual community is a "thickening of preexisting relations with friends, family and neighbors" and the beginnings of the "emergence of greater scope for limited-purpose, loose relationships." (Benkler, Yochai, 2006. The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom)
And another researcher: J. McClellan criticizes cyberspace communities as pseudocommunities that have only the appearance of true social bonding. He states: "Rather 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" (McClellan, J. ,1994, February 13, Netsurfers. The Observer)
This mouse potato needs less cheese and more exercise
And another researcher: " . . . the simple idea that people search for something new, that they want to overcome the limits of the representative democracy, that they organize themselves locally and, sometimes, globally is good news. The lack of confidence in today’s politics can be transformed in the desire to change some aspects of the political life by creating pressure on the Internet." (Camelia Gradinaru, The Potential Role of New Media in the Creation of Communities)
Rheingold says that the occupational hazard of "symbolic analysts"—á la Robert Reich’s The Work of Nations—is isolation, which is cured via virtual community. Hmmmmm . . . not REAL irl f2f community? Why not? It has worked for thousands—even millions—of years, across most mammal, bird, and insect species. Shouldn't virtual community be substituted only when the real deal is impossible or highly impractical, such as bedridden elderly, sick, or disabled, or between spouses, friends, or business associates who are far apart?
Shouldn't virtual community be substituted for irl f2f only when the real deal is impossible or highly impractical, such as bedridden elderly, sick, or disabled, or between spouses, friends, or business associates who are far apart?
There are many downsides of virtual community and social networks—Howard Rheingold may have initiated the conversation, evolving from 1993 utopianist hyperbole to 2000 pessimistic wariness as outlined above, but thousands of researchers have joined the dialog, and they didn't miss these downsides:
"Jim Hightower warned over the ABC radio network: While all this razzle-dazzle connects us electronically, it disconnects us from each other, having us 'interfacing' more with computers and TV screens than looking in the face of our fellow human beings." (Barry Wellman and Milena Gulia, 1999, Net Surfers Dont Ride Alone: Virtual Community as Community)
'We're interfacing more with computers and TV screens than looking in the face of our fellow human beings'
"The commercial nature of online activity precludes the internet, for this user, from having a useful place in public life. . . Cyberspace, with its myriad of little consensual communities, is a place where you will go in order to find confirmation and endorsement of your identity." (Jan Fernback, Beyond the diluted community concept: a symbolic interactionist perspective on online social relations, New Media & Society)
Clifford Stoll asserts in his 1995 book, Silicon Snake Oil: Second Thoughts on the Information Highway that claims about the Internet as a community are false and that the Internet can only provide the illusion of community.
"For most, Facebook is used as an extension of social lives, a way to keep up to date with friends and family. However, for a small minority, this is not the case – Facebook becomes their social life and an alternative to society." (David Bell and Emily Marshall, How Does Facebook Shape the Way We Think and Communicate?)
Many technology experts found that online social networking sites (e.g. Facebook) are damaging in many ways, from revealing private information, to people relying on the internet as their dominant form of social interaction and thus, becoming more awkward in real life, e.g. not being able to read body language and so forth. (Jordan Hunkin, 2011, How the Internet Highlights our Fears and Desires)
In The Benefits of Face-to-Face Communication, Virginette Acacio says that ". . . 90% of how we communicate is through nonverbal cues like gestures and facial expressions." So we lose our communication skills and ability to create f2f irl bonds when we spend too much time "networking" online, creating a race of social incompetents. Imagine how these Facebook addicts will bungle important irl f2f business meetings in their futures—or even mess up meeting their fiance's parents!
" . . . virtual communities would contribute to isolation, to a decrease of human interdependence, to the decline of local communities in the physical world . . . " (Kroker, A., Weinstein M. A. 1994. Data Trash: The Theory of the Virtual Class, New York: St. Martin’s Press)
". . . coupled with the possibly transitory nature of cybercommunities is the risk of superficiality." McLaughlin et al. see on-line communities as pseudo-communities, in that they are built on superficial exchanges, little responsibility, and escapism. (McLaughlin, M.L., Osborne, K.K. & Smith, C.B., 1995, Standards of conduct on Usenet, in Jones, S.G . [ed.], Cybersociety: computer mediated communication and community, Sage, London, pp. 90–111)
“Without civic morality communities perish; without personal morality their survival has no value.”—Bertrand Russell. If we care nothing for our communities, how can civic morality survive? if we keep letting media, consumption, and Facebook be the formers of our personal morality, how can we end up as anything but "anything goes" AMORAL beings?
"Real communication should be based on people's true feelings when meeting each other; only thus can people escape from loneliness," (Dominique Wolton, research director at France's National Center for Scientific Research, Expert: Internet can't replace social life) Though the methods for Internet contact continue to expand, he says these are not real communication and can make people more isolated and lonely. He says companies should act to curb Internet addiction and promote face-to-face communication.
“The information paradox—that the more data we have, the stupider we become—has a social corollary, too: that the more frantically we connect, one to another, the more disconnected our relationships become.” (Susan Maushart, The Winter of Our Disconnect.) Maushart believes our relationships and connections will suffer the more we use social networking sites to communicate, such as Facebook. “Online chatting, on the other hand, has been linked to symptoms of loneliness, confusion, anxiety, depression, fatigue, and addiction.” Facebook addiction is an established and diagnosable affliction.
Online chatting has been linked to symptoms of loneliness, confusion, anxiety, depression, fatigue, and addiction
All in all, many researchers are asserting that only the "illusion" of community is created via CMC, that the only relationships created are "shallow, impersonal, and often hostile" (Parks, M., & Floyd, K., 1996, Making Friends in Cyberspace. Journal of Communication, 46: 80-97)