2.1 Definitions of Community
The difficulty in discussing online communities is that the word "community"
itself is loaded with subjective meaning. Community as a term is used independently
in those involved with online groups, and those in academic professions studying
2.1.1 Different definitions of community
There are almost as many definitions of community as there are people to define
it.Pacagnella defines virtual communities as "the articulated patterns of relationships,
roles, norms, institutions, and languages developed on-line" which shares a
sense of "createdness" with Rheingold's definition "Virtual communities are
social aggregations that emerge from the Net when people carry on these public
discussions long enough, with sufficient human feeling, to form webs of personal
relationships in cyberspace." Both researchers emphasize community as a process
by emphasizing the words "articulated" and "aggregated", and share as well as
sense of importance of the relationships that are part of that process. Cothrel
and Williams initially approached online community as "A group of people who
use computer networks as their primary mode of interaction." This seems more
in accordance with the general Web definition of community that includes such
things as Usenet and public chat rooms.
However, the authors found in their data collection that other issues such
as a sense of commonality, common interests, common objectives and a social
element were critical in separating a community from a group of online users.
Donath argues "People on the net should be thought of not only as solitary information
processors, but also as social beings. People are not only looking for information,
they are also looking for affiliation, support and affirmation." This is in
accordance with some of Dervin's work in the Library and Information Science
literature, which shows that people seeking information may not be seeking the
right answer, but rather support in the process that led for there to be an
information shortage in the first place. This same research indicates that people
first turn to family and friends for information, spiraling out into less personal
resources only if the more personal ones fail them.
2.1.2 The Bender definition of community
Thomas Bender offers a definition that in some ways is the most restrictive
when applied to online interaction: "A community involves a limited number of
people in a somewhat restricted social space or network held together by shared
understandings and sense of obligation. Relationships are close, almost intimate,
and usually face to face. Individuals are bound together by affective or emotional
ties rather than by a perception of individual self-interest. There is a 'we-ness'
in a community; one is a member." Bender paints this as a series of concentric
circles, starting with the family group, then spiraling out to include friends
considered as family, people surrounding those people and so forth.
This maps to Granovetter's work on strong and weak social ties. Granovetter
describes strong social ties as those that provide emotional support and affective
richness, whereas weak social ties, likely to be gained through casual acquaintances
rather than relatives or close friends, provide more material gains. The combination
of the two types of benefits that can be gained through relationships is called
"social capital", as lately described by Robert Putnam. The concept of strong
social ties is reflected in the literature on trust. Researchers on trust distinguish
between two kinds : cognitive, where you trust the other person to act in a
consistent manner, and affective, where you trust that person to have your best
interests at heart. Affective trust would seem to be a key component of strong
social bonds, which in turn are an aspect of community. The research on trust
seems to indicate that trust is cannot be established in electronic contexts
. However, these studies typically deal with students involved in brief negotiation
tasks, typically some variation of the Prisoner's Dilemma, and have not been
applied to more persistent, ongoing online interactions.
This more general definition can be brought into line with some of the definitions
of virtual community listed above. Characteristics in common include the focus
on relationships rather than information, the presence of affect, and shared
understanding. Differences between the Bender definition and the others is the
sense of limitation of membership and a sense of obligation.
The question becomes whether physical collocation is as necessary as Bender
indicated in his definition. Has the increased access to virtual groups decreased
transaction costs to the point that they can substitute for face to face interaction?
Some of the affordances provided by physical space also included limitations
in group membership, and an increased cost of leaving the community. William
Galston would argue that some of the online interactions typically described
as communities, i.e. newsgroups, listserves, and chat rooms for instance, do
not meet the definition of community above.
Most of Galston's criticisms relate to the lack of boundaries afforded by physical
location. In a chat room there is no cost of entry or exit, which means that
there are no consequence measures for behavior contrary to the norms of the
community. In other words, being thrown out of the group, or even ignored, is
a threat that does not carry sufficient strength to affect individual online
behavior. Some of the issues of physical presence are addressed by Fitzpatrick,
Kaplan and Mansfield in looking at the behaviors of system administrators existing
in both physical and virtual work environments. The authors call for a shift
in the focus of researching work online from notions of "space" to "place".
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