From the Boidem - 
an occasional column on computers and information technologies in everyday life

February 21, 1999*: Just browsing, thank you.

I guess that it's a hot, and wide, enough topic to merit more than one column, and with that in mind, here comes: Community - The Sequel. In our first episode, we found that our heroes are hungry for contact, yet remain at home and wait, or stand around as wallflowers at a party, hoping someone will invite them to dance. This time we'll stare, open mouthed, as they actually reach out to try and touch somebody.

There's certainly no lack of internet technologies that allow contact, either one-on-one, or "community". Newsgroups and e-mail based discussion groups were among the first, and although today these are often seen as rather primitive technological alternatives, they did, and still do, get the job done. And of course there's chat. I admit that I'm the wrong person to give an in-depth examination of chat since I don't seem to have the patience for it. It's worth examining whether chat offers "community of the moment" or "continuing community", but actually examining that would be an arduous task.

Perhaps a definition of community is called for here. After all, maybe we all use the same word, but refer to different concepts. Admittedly, a dictionary definition isn't particularly helpful. On the one hand, it seems to lack the distinguishing characteristics that cause us to see one grouping of people as mere acquaintances, another as community, while on the other, it should be an accepted given that virtual, or internet, community will be unavoidably different from traditional community. Still, a dictionary definition can serve as a starting point. Webster's for instance defines community (among other definitions) as:

Want a couple of online definitions? Try here.

An online community doesn't consist of people living in the same anything, or under the same laws. As to the second definition, common interests is definitely a defining factor, but without "living together". The "participation in common" of the third definition is perhaps a focal point of community, except that too many instances exist in which there is common participation without community.

Often, what seems to be an online community may be no more than a common lurking ground. Sometimes people who frequent a bar do so because they have something in common with others who are there (this seems to happen more on television than in real life, but I don't have enough experience to really know), but more often than not, though they have common reasons for being there, they don't coagulate into a community. This might be called the waiting room metaphor of internet participation: People share a common space, but occupy it for different reasons, and thus, although a commonality of space and/or time exists, no true contact is established.

Does everybody really want all that contact? My own, first hand, experience of an internet community (at least the experience that I originally saw as the basis for what became this column) lasted almost a year and concluded about a year and a half ago. The community in question was a group of perhaps 200 educators who, through the act of joining the community, ostensibly expressed a commitment to that group. But though the leadership of the group tried in numerous ways to more actively involve the membership, hardly 10% of that membership ever assumed more than passive participation. The idea of community was certainly attractive (and even somewhat novel back then), but it seems that the idea alone wasn't enough to bring it about. Some people seem to have more than their fair share of contact without online community.

But I promised something else. I promised that in this column we'd see how people try and actually contact others. To tell the truth, there are truly countless examples of this. These examples can be found in newsgroups, in listservs, in discussion forums, and as responses to queries on innumerable sites. It's not hard to take a peek at these. What is hard to determine is whether those that take part do so once and then move on, or whether they develop some sense of commitment toward the virtual entity that, for an ever so short moment, they've become part of. Do people who post messages on a public site return there daily in order to see whether they've generated any reactions, and only after perhaps a week of returning decide that it's time to move on? Have internauts heard so much about this virtual community stuff that they want to give it a try, but after doing so say to themselves that they've understood the idea and turn toward newer and more exciting adventures?

I admit to feeling a bit of discomfort in bringing up a commercially oriented metaphor at the end, but I can't help feeling that most web surfers who have a one time fling with internet community are most similar to department store shoppers. They may want to buy something, but more than that, they want to enjoy the experience of having a good look at what's available. Salespeople can perhaps make a sale by approaching them and trying to offer them help, but more often than not, it's more a case of window shopping than of actually purchasing something.

That's it for this edition. Reactions and suggestions can be sent to:

Jay Hurvitz

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