keywords: virtual community; electronic community; online community; CMC; electronic mail; community of practice; ethnography; electronic groups; computer-mediatedcommunication; commmunities; information society; information technology; ICTs; information and communication technologies

Virtual Communities: paradise or mirage?

Dr. Lee Komito
Department of Library and Information Studies
University College Dublin

COMMUNITARIAN SUMMIT 1999; February 27-28, 1999 Washington, D.C.

The Demise of Community?

It is a frequent theme that modern life is destroying a sense of community. The world of work, partially as a result of new computer technologies, is changing. Among other changes, individuals now collaborate with workers with whom they have little face to face contact, there is greater expectation of moving from one work location to another as well as from one company to another, and workers who have become more specialised also have less and less in common with their local colleagues.

There are parallel changes in domestic life. For many, there are fewer members of an extended family in close proximity. A feature of post-industrial society is the increase in proximate neighbours who no longer share a common experience. There is less access to neighbours or extended family for reciprocity and assistance, or reaffirmation, or even information. From whom do you get advice, if there is a problem? Individuals feel more and more isolated, deprived of both family and neighbours in the new post-industrial society. Thus, one hears talk about the loss of community feeling and the general sense of collective commitment, and life seems more anonymous and less satisfactory.

Most of us understand a community as a group of people who share a common sense of 'belonging'. This sense of 'us', individuals who understand one another and have much in common, has been founded on collective interaction and experience. Community was the interactions, common experience, and collective commitment among individuals in a particular location. As a result of economic and technological changes, community appears, to many, to be under threat.

technology and community

Previously, interaction and experience has been limited or bounded by proximity. Community was the interactions, common experience, and collective commitment among individuals in a particular location. Culture was also founded on common experience, even if not necessarily common social interaction. Individuals shared a common experience, as they grew up, leading to a common culture. These geographical limitations are now less relevant, as technology facilitates non-geographically bounded interactions.

Communication outside of one's immediate locale has long been possible, every since the invention of writing, and more recently expanded with newspapers, television, and telephones, even before new information and communications technologies are taken into account. Many of these technologies, however, remained geographically constrained (i.e., it was costly to spend an hour on the telephone to the United States). Even mass media communication, such as television or newspapers, had a geographical limitation: print newspapers could only be distributed a limited distance, television could only be transmitted in line of sight, and so on. Thus, one's proximate neighbours shared the same experiences and interacted with each other.

New communications technologies, such as cable and satellite television, as well as internet based communication, remove the geographical limitation on both mass media and one-to-one interaction. In consequence, one's experiences are automatically shared with one's proximate neighbours. New technologies of communication and consumption enable more choice about what people experience, and how that becomes the basis for a created and chosen identity, rather than inherited identity fashioned out of involuntary experience.

Thus, individuals find they not longer share common experiences with their immediate neighbours, and, feeling isolated, want to find some means of recreate this solidarity. One solution, of course, is to move, physically, so that one *does* live near people with similar interests and ideas, or near one's extended family. But many people are entangled in their current location - it is not easy to leave one's employment, or to find a new house. There may not be any alternative locale that would provide both the social rewards and economic employment that is necessary. Another solution is to foster more common experience amongst neighbours, perhaps using community networks. The third option is to use new technologies to find alternative types of community. Rather than facing moving to a new place, or trying to recreate common experience amongst proximate neighbours, people find others to share common experience and social interaction via new technologies. Electronic communities seem to provide the sense of common experience and involvement that seems lacking in modern society. Where, previously, a woman pregnant for the first time consulted with relations or neighbours to get information or moral support, she might now join an electronic discussion lists to talk with women who are at the exact same stage of pregnancy. Can virtual communities provide such solidarity? Are such communities really possible, or is the idea of a virtual community a contradiction in terms? There are a number of criticisms that have been made, concerning virtual communities, suggesting that they may not be impossible. The difficulty is that, in many cases, terms such as 'community' as being used in different ways and, in other cases, there is a confusion between mode of communication, content of interaction, and type of common experience that emerges.

'Real' Interaction

The first issue regarding electronic community is the nature of electronic communication. There is often a sense that electronic interaction isn't 'real', whereas face to face interaction is. In this view, a 'real' community requires a sense of presence, which cannot be replicated electronically. All the efforts, to add smileys or MUDs/MOOs, result in an ersatz reality, at best. Electronic communication is a very limited mode of communication, and can't transmit the kinds of messages that (e.g., non-verbal) that are necessary for 'real' communication.

electronic versus face to face communication

The problem is that 'real' interaction and 'real' communication aren't real either. Face to face communication is based on individuals who have learned how to interpret cultural cues - these are not 'innate' or 'natural' - which is why inter-cultural misunderstandings are so frequent. The distinction between 'natural' versus 'artificial' communication is false - almost all communication is culturally constructed, and that construction can be founded on a variety of communication inputs. For instance, telephone conversations are technologically mediated communication and lack visual cues, yet they are considered to be 'real' conversations and support 'real' commitment between and among individuals.

imaginary community

There is an image of individuals staring into their computer screens, and the presumption that such individuals can't develop 'real' relationships or commitments. Or, if they do, such people are probably incapable of normal interaction anyway. Can emotional commitments develop, given the limited social presence afforded by computer mediated communication?

Yet, most of us have little problem with the idea of 'imagined community' (Anderson, 1991), where national solidarity is a projection, on the part of individuals, rather than a practice founded on face to face interaction or communication. The common experience of newspapers, television, cinema, and education seems sufficient to explain the solidarity of national identity, and leads to commitment sufficient to motivate people to go to war and risk death.

Why should the solidarity of community be less feasible than the solidarity of nationhood? There is no necessary reason to suppose that electronic communication, as a mode of communication, is less capable of supporting relations of reciprocity, common commitment and trust than any other mode of communication; this depends on external factors rather than intrinsic differences between face-to-face and electronic communication.

There may be problems fostering such identity, when face to face interaction does not exist, but that is different from asserting that 'real' collective identification can only exist via face to face interaction. Such an assertion confuses mode of communication (digital, analogue, face-to-to-face), with the content of communication or the social formation that emerges out of it. The mode of communication does not determine the type of community that emerges.

Idealised Community

A second issue regarding electronic community is the content of the interaction amongst members of such communities. When people talk about communities on the internet, whether using terms such as cyber-culture or virtual community, the 'stories' they tell are of people who know each other, and help each other out, with reciprocal exchange. There is give and take or a barter system, there are rules about how one behaves, what one should do for friends and neighbours. The overriding notion is solidarity and that people put the interests of others and the interests of the group above self interest.

Proponents of this view of electronic community often imply that 'real' life, in the 'good old days' of small town rural life, or pre-industrial life, consisted of people who shared common values and beliefs and who worked together to assist each other, for mutual benefit. A return to such a community is the remedy to the anonymity, alienation and impersonalism of industrial society, and the advent of computer mediated communication provided a solution for this problem. Individuals may be isolated, physically, but they could, through electronic communication, share a common experience and perspective.

Such an idealised community is not one that most anthropologists who have carried out fieldwork in villages and small towns, would recognise. It is rare, in any group, that social relations are without relations of conflict, hierarchy and inequality. However strong the commitment to shared values based family, kinship, or ethnicity, there is negotiation based on conflicting individual interests and concerns. Collective solidarity is often a goal that is rarely achieved, and rituals are often used to create, even if only temporarily, that shared commitment that so quickly disappears (cf. Turner, 1957, 1969). The communities that anthropologists have observed, are composed of people who like, but also hate each other, who both co-operate and compete with each other. In such communities, people have one face for some, and another face for others, where diversity is disliked and uniformity is enforced, where there is public knowledge and private knowledge and where control over private knowledge is both vital and contested. There are sometimes elements of common commitment, but it is only part of the overall social structure and cultural system of the group.

moral community

The type of community in which individuals share a common ethical system that constrains interactions amongst members, and where mutual benefit is emphasised above self interest or personal goals, might be described as a moral community. That is, there is a moral bond amongst members. Such a group involves like-minded individuals, with a common purpose or moral commitment to each other, who trust one another, regardless of the merits of the common goal. This is a moral community not in the sense of right or wrong, since the Mafia may be seen as such a moral community, but in that members have an intrinsic obligation to other members of the group, which is a moral one. This is a system of generalised reciprocity, where economic exchange embedded in a social system. People identify with the group, and have complex, ongoing relations with individuals in the group.

Can such a moral community exist as a virtual phenomenon? More accurately, can such a community exist, whether relations amongst individuals are face to face, electronic or both? We are all aware that such communities can exist, but also that such communities are the exception rather than the rule, and were certainly never a universal feature of 'community'. Can one legislate or mandate, or, as economic vocabulary would suggest, 'grow' a moral community based partially or solely on electronic communication? Alternatively, can there be a different sort of community other than a moral community?

normative community

In contrast moral communities, there are a communities composed of people who all share a set of rules about how to behave and how to interpret each other's actions. To suggest that if a group of people share a common value or meaning system, they constitute a community, is not so unusual. Definitions of pornography, for example, derive standards of 'good taste' from the norms of a local 'community'; the existence of norms regarding taste demonstrates the existence of a community, and the extent of agreement maps the limit of the community. In contrast to the earlier definition of moral community, this can be defined as a normative community. There are shared meanings and a knowledge of others as individuals, but not a shared collective commitment.

A normative community need not be restricted to groups with a geographical or physical focus. Doctors, for instance, share a common meaning or symbol system, with specifiable aims or goals. Their common experiences creates a set of common understandings; all doctors would have had similar experiences with patients, just as all would have dealt with death and disease. Concepts such as 'communities of interest' and 'community of practice' have been used to describe people who, as a result of common interests or experiences, share a framework of understandings. In the case of communities of practice, this framework develops from shared interaction with others carrying out similar tasks or undergoing similar experiences (Lave and Wenger, 1991; Brown and Duguid, 1991). A shared discourse emerges and people with such understandings can make 'small talk' with each other, based on their common experience and values. Such communities have no distinct geographical boundaries and members of such communities of shared interest or experience may not even interact with each other.2

There will be shared understandings, evidenced by a particular discourse which new members have to learn, and such groups may develop some of the characteristics of a moral community, as shared experience develops into mutual assistance and commitment. It is important, however, to distinguish between cognitive and affective systems. Tasks and activities can be the foundation for shared meaning systems, but shared cognitive systems do not require, or necessarily lead to, shared moral systems. Normative communities are constituted by ideal rules; individuals can share common norms and yet still disagree on most other issues. This is a lesson learned in studies of personality and culture, where it became clear that people could share a common culture, defined as a shared cognitive system, without sharing similar motivations (Wallace, 1970). Individuals can have different interests and concerns, demonstrate little emotional commitment to each other, share few goals, and yet still share a set of understandings that permits them to interact with each other and thus share a common culture. As long as people share basic rules of conduct, they can interact: they understand the meaning of other people's behaviour and can respond appropriately in turn.

Proximate Communities

Thus, a normative community is composed of people who with shared beliefs and meanings. But, does it have to be the same people all the time? Something often see as fundamental in proximate communities, and more crucial than simply the presence of face to face interaction, is long-term association. In real communities, there are complex webs of social relationships which bind people together, and they are constrained, by economic and geographical realities that require interaction over time. In such groups, there are accidental meetings, there are long-term understandings, there are the complex social relations that can only develop, over time, when people are forced to interact with each other. Since such characteristics are rarely found in electronic groups, it is often argued that, by definition, electronic groups cannot constitute a community.

involuntary association

Proximate communities are founded on long-term and involuntary residence. People are stuck in the location, and can't leave. People depend on each other and learn to interact with each other in a relatively harmonious way because they have little choice. People have to get along and settle disputes. If things get out of hand, the state is brought in, to impose, through the threat of coercive force, a resolution of the conflict.

Such communities differ, fundamentally, from what is possible in electronic groups. In electronic groups, there is no sanction that can be used to compel adherence to collective norms of behaviour. If people don't like what is going on, they leave. They have no great personal investment is the group, because they have no commitment to the group. Where the social structure of a proximate community is well-defined, and replicates itself over time (even if it also changes slowly over time), the social structure of electronic groups is amorphous and rapidly changing. By this reckoning, electronic groups are fundamentally different from proximate communities, and so electronic or virtual community is, by definition, impossible.

foraging communities

In most proximate communities, individuals are rooted to a specific location by social, economic, cultural forces. Individuals are 'tethered' by house, property, employment, land, or even just emotional investment. This pattern has existed since the Agricultural Revolution, when land became a productive resource, which was to be controlled, allocated, and inherited. Thus, there is an involuntary aspect to people's participation in proximate communities: leaving the community may be, at the very least, costly and wasteful and, at the very most, impossible. People do not have the option of withdrawing their support and participation from the group, and this involuntary participation contrasts strongly with ease of movement in and out of technologically mediated social groups. What, however, of societies where there is less attachment to specific geographical locations or fixed resources?

Prior to the domestication of plant and animals, and their subsequent use for human food consumption, approximately 10,000 years ago, individuals depended on foraging for food. Wild plants and animals were the source of food, and individuals usually had to travel distances, daily, to find sufficient food. In addition, there was rarely enough food in any one area to permit people stay in one location for very long; individuals moved from one location to another, often on a seasonal basis, to obtain food. Because these societies were usually nomadic, there was very little investment in fixed resources and people owned only what they could carry.1

While proximate communities are often thought to be clearly defined entities, foraging communities were temporary aggregations of individuals, with little sense of collective identity (for a discussion of variations within foraging societies, see Smith, 1988). Membership in a community was voluntary and temporary, and individuals moved and groups were redefined, depending on ecological and personal factors. The foundation, or building block, of band societies was the kinship network. Foraging societies had an egocentric kinship system, similar to industrial societies, in which kinship was traced from the person outwards. These kinship links became resources; kin were scattered geographically, and kinship links were the means for both gaining entry to a group and also structuring social relations within the group (see Woodburn, 1968).

Such societies still, of course, had disputes and conflict. In the absence of a state, there was no central authority with a monopoly over coercive force and so no possibility of imposing solutions on unwilling participants. What are the mechanisms of conflict resolution in the absence of formal structures? In so far as there are leaders, whose opinions are respected, they lead through example or persuasion, with an emphasis on their rhetorical abilities and their achievements and skills. Conflict was either avoided, resolved through levelling mechanisms such as song duels or public joking that may verge on humiliation (Balikci, 1970; Lee, 1988), relatively rarely, through recourse to physical force. Most importantly, conflict could also be resolved by one or both of the parties simply departing. Individuals could move easily, without losing access to any of the resources needed to survive, unlike state societies, where people are often attached to neighbourhood, job, land or business. In foraging communities, the community may coalesce temporarily, split and reconfigure itself again frequently, and participants have little investment in maintaining their community membership. In foraging societies, people can 'vote with their feet' if things get out of hand. This is both a useful last resort, and also a motivation to avoid letting conflict get out of control.

So, foraging communities do not satisfy the criteria of long-term, involuntary membership as is common in other societies. They also lack the political features of such other societies. They also seem very similar to what can be found in many electronic discussion lists. In many groups whose members interact electronically, there are shifting memberships, but a common set of meanings or understandings. If community is to be defined in terms of long-term membership, then community is something that emerged only very recently in human social development. It seems preferable to accept that social groups without fixed memberships can exist as communities, though the social structures of such communities will differ from those communities with fixed memberships.


So, there are moral communities, normative communities with stable memberships and communities with flexible memberships. What, then, of virtual communities? There are communities whose members communicate electronically, however temporary the collective aggregation is. There are electronic groups which constitute normative communities, with rules and expectations amongst members. These communities are not a replacement for the demise of proximate communities, in that electronic groups do not have the same manipulation of private and public knowledge, or nuanced interaction that characteristizes proximate communities with long-term members. However, such interactions are equally lacking in most contemporary 'embodied' interactions as well.

It is moral communities that many people aspire to, whatever the mode of interaction. Are moral communities, based largely on electronic communication, sustainable? Many electronic groups lack complementary face to face interaction, as well as a long-term and involuntary membership in the group by particiapnts. Is face to face communication a prior condition to developing such a moral community, and can moral communities develop in the absence of long-term, involuntary memberships?

Moral communities are rare, under any circumstances, and it is hard to legislate or mandate for them, even in face to face social groups. In many organisations, managers who talk about developing an organisational culture are talking about moral community, and they have markedly little success to 'growing' such communities.

The most useful strategy for thinking about moral communities may be to treat 'community' as background, and focus instead on how individuals and groups cope with continuously changing sets of resources and constraints and how individuals make regular adjustments in their rules for social interaction. 'Community' is not fixed in form or function, but is a mixed bag of possible options whose meanings and concreteness are always being negotiated by individuals, in the context of changing external constraints. This is true whether group members interact electronically, via face-to-face communication, or both.

A moral community is a group where exchanges are embedded in social and cultural forms, with mutual reciprocity and collective identity. There is no clear answer as to whether such communities are possible when the individuals who constitute them communicate electronically. It is clear that duplicating, electronically, the characteristics of proximate communities cannot be expected to create moral communities, since many proximate communities are not moral communities, in the first place. Yet, the lack of face-to-face interaction, the reduced cues of electronic communication are not, of necessity, barriers to the development of a normative or moral community. A moral community whose members largely communicate electronically would no doubt develop along a different path that one which develops out of a proximate community in a industrial society, but people who communicate electronically can develop the same sense of moral membership as any other people.

Moral communities have always existed, in the context of wider social formations; they are fragile whether constituted through face to face communication, electronic communication, or both. They will always constitute only one strand in the webs of social relations among members of a society, and will be embedded in a complex network of social ties and interactions. One must avoid both technological utopianism that characterizes proponents of electronic moral communities, as well as the technological determinism that is used to deny the possibility of such communities. The issue is a social, not a technological, one.


1. For more detailed discussions of foraging or hunter/gatherer societies, see Woodburn (1982), Ingold, Riches and Woodburn (1988), or Burch and Ellanna (1994).

2. While communities of practice depend on interaction to create and maintain shared understandings, not all members of such communities would interact with everyone else in that 'community'. If doctors constitute a community of practice, they have only interacted with a small portion of the members of that 'community' during their formative education and subsequent medical experience.


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last revised: 2 March 1999