Introduction to Virtual Communities Research and Cybersociology Magazine Issue Two.

By: Robin Hamman

In this issue of Cybersociology, you will find several interesting articles about different virtual communities which are centred around specific chat rooms. Before we talk about virtual communities, it is important that we have a sociological definition of the term community. You will find such a definition below as well as an introduction to Oldenburg's "Third Place" and Rheingold's "Virtual Community". It's fairly basic stuff, but important if we are to answer some of the important questions which need to be asked about virtual communities and their effects upon us. At the end of this brief introduction you will find links to several annotated bibliographies of literature on virtual communities which may be helpful in your own investigations.

Towards a Definition of Community

"From it's inception as a discipline", writes Dennis Poplin, "sociology has been plagued by inconsistency and ambiguity in some of its basic terminology... the word community falls into this category. As an element in the sociological vocabulary, this term has been used in so many ways that it has been described as an omnibus word." (Poplin, 3) Indeed the term "community" has dozens if not hundreds of distinct definitions in the social sciences. It seems that many of these definitions are based upon value judgments and political viewpoints rather than social scientific reasoning, making consensus upon one sociological definition for the term impossible to reach thus far. Even the Oxford Dictionary of Sociology states that "the ambiguities of the term community make any wholly coherent sociological definition of communities, and hence the scope and limits for their empirical study, impossible to achieve." (p.75) Hence, we must move towards an agreed upon definition if we are to talk about something in a meaningful way. Freilich instructs us that, "since a requisite of science is specificity of terminology, we must conclude... that at this time `community' is a non-scientific term unless separately defined in every paper which uses it." (Freilich, "Toward an Operational Definition of Community," Rural Sociology, 29 (June, 1963 ), 118.) For this reason, it is important that I present a clear sociological definition of the term community here before proceeding.

In what may be the best attempt yet to assess agreement amongst definitions of community, George Hillery, Jr. subjected 94 sociological definitions of the term "community" to qualitative and quantitative analysis. ( Hillery, 1955, 111 ) He was able to identify 16 different definitional concepts within this sample. (Ibid. 115) Hillery found only one concept that was common amongst these 94 definitions: they all deal with people. (Ibid. 117) Despite this, there are other areas where the majority of studies analysed by Hillery are in agreement. Hillery states that "of the 94 definitions, 69 are in accord that social interaction, area, and a common tie or ties are commonly found in community life." (Ibid. 118)1 Poplin notes that in a more recent empirical study2 of 125 sociological definitions of the term community, the above definitional aspects were still present in the majority despite some changes in the usage of the term over the years. (Poplin, 1979, 8)

In the interests of keeping this piece brief, I have used Hillery's analysis of definitions of community to come to a single concise definition rather than to present dozens of different definitions. The sociological term community should be understood here as meaning (1) a group of people (2) who share social interaction (3) and some common ties between themselves and the other members of the group (4) and who share an area for at least some of the time.

Since the term community in both its everyday and sociological usage is almost always used in a positive, almost warm and fuzzy way, it is not at all surprising that we find that many have lamented it's loss over the past century as we have shifted from rural to urban societies. In his summary of the work of Tonnies, Marx, and Durkheim amongst others, Lyon comes to the conclusion that "it is fair to say that the strongest sense gained from classical sociology is that modernisation spelled a regrettable loss of community." (Ibid.) Indeed, even sociologists of today continue to speak of the loss of community, especially in the post-modern cities and suburbs of Western societies. (Foster, 1990; Sennett, 1973)

The Third Place and It's Importance Within Communities

Ray Oldenburg believes that the demise of community can be blamed upon the loss of what he calls the "Great Good Place ." Oldenburg's Great Good Place is the third place which is important to us in our everyday lives after home and work. In this third place, we meet members of our community on neutral ground, leaving possible divisions such as class or industrial rank at the door in the spirit of inclusion rather than exclusivity. These third places are described by Oldenburg as "the core settings of informal public life". (Oldenburg, 16) As the pub3, church, and other free or inexpensive local third places have disappeared, for many of us the feeling that community is lacking has increased. Third places, according to Oldenburg, are necessary for community to arise. They are places where members of a community interact with others and come to know the ties which they have in common. (Oldenburg, xxiii & 72) Looking at the definition of community used in this paper, it is clear that the existence of the third place is necessary for the building of community.

Oldenburg notes that cities of the Western world have seen a decline of such third places. This is especially true in America, where most of the population lives in suburbs, far from within walking distance to a shops and businesses, a local pub or coffee shop, or other community centres which bring populations together. In the words of Oldenburg, "Houses alone do not a community make, and the typical subdivision proved hostile to the emergence of any structure or space utilisation beyond the uniform houses and streets that characterised it. (Oldenburg, 4) Or, as Richard Goodwin complained, in the suburbs "there is virtual no place where neighbours can anticipate unplanned meetings - no pub or corner store or park." ( Richard N. Goodwin, "The American Condition," The New Yorker (28 January, 1974), 38 ) In fact, it has been demonstrated that even the architecture of our cities di scourages free association amongst members of the community ( Davis, Harvey ). Because of the lack of third places withi n easy reach of the majority of the population, many people, especially those with a high level of education and expendable income, have flocked to third places accessible through computer mediated communications technologies. Centred around these virtual third places online are the relatively new social formation called the virtual community. Howard Rheingold argues that the development of virtual communities is "in part a response to the hunger for community that has followed the disintegration of traditional communities around the world." (418)

Virtual Communities: a starting point

The work of Rheingold is a good starting point for any sociological investigation of online communities. Rheingold was probably the first to write of the existence of online communities, saying that "Virtual communities are cultural aggregations that emerge when enough people bump into each other often enough in cyberspace." (413) These virtual communities are based around online third places such as chat rooms and conferencing systems. Rheingold goes on to say that members of virtual communities join together online to do everything that others do in the physical world. The obvious difference is that members of online communities interact, many times exclusively, via text on computer screens.

Despite the plethora of investigations of virtual community over recent years, there remain some very important questions which need to be addressed by sociologists studying virtual communities: Do they make people more or less isolated from the physical world communities around them? Do they cause us to neglect communities in our physical realm? Will virtual communities continue to be inclusive or will we be forced to make them exclusive as more people come online? Will we ever see truly diverse virtual communities? Sadly, there are no answers to these questions here, so I encourage readers to begin investigating these and other important questions now before it becomes to late. To help us towards this goals, Howard and myself would like to invite every reader of cybersociology magazine to Electric Minds where we (and many others) are debating these issues in the community and fundamentals forums.

Cybersoc, the parent site of Cybersociology Magazine, contains a fairly extensive annotated bibliography of (mostly recent) articles on virtual community.

The Resource Center for Cyberculture Studies also has an excellent annotated bibliography of virtual communities articles and texts.

Emily Reich's Bibliography of Virtual Community was one of the first annotated bibliographies of articles on virtual community and it remains a good resource.

1 94/94 (100%) agreed that a community consists of a group of people. 73/94 (78%) further agree that social interaction and common ties between people in the group are important defining aspects of community, while 69/94 (73%) further agreed that having a shared area is an important defining aspect of community. (Hillery, 1955, 118) Hillery also notes that, significantly, none of the definitions under study ruled out the idea "that area could be an element of community." (Ibid. 117)
2 Poplin sites this study as: Willis A. Sutton, Jr., and Thomas Munson, "Definitions of Community: 1954 through 1973," a paper presented to the American Sociological Association, New York, August 30, 1976. I made attempts at locating this paper through inter-library loan as well as through an email appeal made to the head of Department of Sociology at Lexington, Kentucky where Sutton was a professor. These attempts were unsuccessful, so if anyone can get a copy of it for me I would be grateful.
3 In America, the proportion of alcoholic beverages consumed on premises has declined from about 90% in the late 1940's to about 30% today. This demonstrates the decline of bars, pubs, and other third places where alcohol is traditionally consumed. (Oldenburg, 9) In Britain, a similar, although less drastic, decline in alcohol consumption has occurred. 25% of alcohol consumed in Britain is done so at home with the most dramatic drop (10%) occurring between 1979 and 1981. (Oldenburg, 139)The number of church-goers has also declined and research shows that this often occurs when other third places disappear which, in turn, leads to an increase in the number of "salons of the unsavoury kind" . (Oldenburg, 73) Today, people are staying home rather than visiting third places, evidence of which can be seen in the massive growth in the home entertainment industry. (Ibid. 12)