While Robert D. Putnam lamented the decline of civic engagement in the U.S., online communities proliferate. In his book Bowling Alone Putnam demonstrated that the old 1950s social fabric is disappearing. Using data from a range of sources, he found
that social capital has been drying out since the 1960s. Social capital relates to the resources available within communities as a consequence of networks of mutual support, reciprocity, trust and obligation. It is accumulated when people interact with each other in families, workplaces, neighbourhoods, local associations and a range
of formal and informal meeting places. For example, trust and access to support networks are indicators for social capital.
Recent data about the extent, nature and activities of online groups from the U.S. show that last year 84 per cent of Americans have contacted an online group. Many used the Internet to connect to traditional groups such as professional and trade associations, religious and political groups. More than half of those who had contacted
an online group reported that they became active in a group – online and/or offline – after they began communicating with it over the Internet. Men tended to be drawn more to online groups involving professional activities, politics and sport, while women favoured online medical support groups, local community associations, and
cyber groups relating to entertainment.
People participate in online communities of interest that have no geographical boundaries. In addition, the Internet is a tool for those who are involved with local groups. More than one in four American Internet users have used the Internet to contact or get information about local groups. Further, many people reported that through
online communities they established contact with individuals of different racial, ethnic, and economic backgrounds or a different generation whom they otherwise would not have met.
There are many different concepts of community. Commonly, a community is described as a group of people with a set of social structures, shared values, commitment, cohesion, the provision of mutual support, and boundaries. Some people insist that the latter includes physical and spatial boundaries.
Sociologist Ronelle Lee Hutchinson examines the concept of community and how this applies to groups on the Internet, or virtual communities. In her PhD research undertaken at Monash University she takes a rather sceptical approach to the topic of virtual communities and critically examines these groups to see if they are in fact
communities. Her project takes six months of observations of a social support newsgroup and examines the interactions and effects of the technology design to see if traditional sociological concepts of community stand up when applied to a mediated setting.
I asked Ronelle for her definition of a community. This is her response:
Unfortunately, sociologists have had a lot of difficulty in the past trying to reach a consensus about what is an appropriate definition of "community". My approach is not so much to have one definitive statement that all groups must fit in to, if we are to call them communities, rather, I have looked at the different
ways groups of sociologist have examined communities and identified some of the characteristics that are common to most communities. Things like a defined membership, a common purpose, shared values and goals for the group, a trade of resources (either capital or human resources like information) and power structures/hierarchy are some
of the elements of groups that indicate we are looking at a "community".
It has been argued that cyberspace is not a true community because it evades the physical, that there is no actual, but only a virtual interaction. However, others consider the Internet as a social space. For example, Howard Rheingold, a virtual community pioneer, proposed that "virtual communities are social aggregations that
emerge from the Net when enough people carry on those public discussions long enough, with sufficient human feeling, to form webs of personal relationships in cyberspace".
So what are the similarities and the differences between online communities and those in the physical world? Here are Ronelle’s thoughts:
This is the tricky question that I am trying to answer. Obviously the big difference between online communities and offline communities is that online groups conduct the majority of their interaction via a computer-mediated environment. The community is not necessarily bounded by any geographic locality. Another difference is the
anonymity/pseudonymity that may be provided by online interactions. Although it may help people to overcome any shyness or uncertainty about participating in the group if they don't use their real names, I think it is problematic for the idea of community. In offline communities, like your local neighbourhood you are yourself and you
are responsible for your actions - people might know you as the person who helps out with the local school's fetes or in contrast as the person who is constantly complaining about loud noise. You are accountable and responsible overtly for your actions in real life to those who share your community. In mediated settings, the anonymity
provided by the technology allows you to act and then walk away if it suits you. No one really knows your true identity so you can not truly be accountable for your actions. There are other differences too, which are related to membership, share of resources, language and culture.
Similarities between online and offline communities have more to do with social interaction. Many offline communities are now communities of interest or communities of practice - groups who have come together, not only because of any shared locality but because they have a shared interest/value or goal - for example, church
groups, AA members, or the Albert Park Residents protesting against the Grand Prix. The Internet has provided the opportunity to develop spaces where people from diverse locations can come together to share common interests or goals - to get together with a group of other people who want social support for HIV or who value the craft of
cross stich. Communities of interest is a particularly useful sociological concept when we are trying to compare online groups to offline groups.
Are online communities filling the social vacuum created by the decline of social capital? Howard Rheingold thought so. He attributed the rise of virtual communities to the disappearance of informal public spaces from our real lives and the resultant "hunger for community". In his book The Virtual Community he
suggested that the logging onto online services and checking email and chat rooms is similar to the feeling of peeking into a café, the pub, the common room, to see who is there and to have a chat.
Similarly, Ray Oldenburg observed that modern societies have lost the "third places" (the first and second places being home and work), places where people can relax in good company on a regular basis, somewhere that meets people's need to come together as a community. He suggested that online communities may fill this
More recently, the Canadian sociologist Barry Wellman found that the observed decline of social capital has not led to social isolation, but to community becoming embedded in social networks rather than groups, and a movement of community relationships from easily observed public spaces to less accessible private homes.
It is obvious that information technology has changed the nature of communities. There is evidence that online communities do fulfil a social need, and it appears that social capital is being created in online communities. Online communities may replace the dwindling third places in our neighbourhoods. However, there is – yet –
little research about the extent of this phenomenon and its quality. In particular, most research comes from the U.S. and we know very little about the Australian situation.