Definition of Web Based Community
Recognizing the words “common” and “united” as the root elements of the word community, we can now attempt to define the origin and definition of a web based community. As in other pursuits, personality and agenda come into play when seeking to define an online community. Therefore, after considering definitions as offered by various professionals in the field of online community building, we will attempt once again to understand the base elements which lie at the source of these definitions and determine if a common germ exist from which to unite them.
A federal judge at an FCC workshop is said to have remarked that "Community is like pornography, I don't know how to define it, but I sure know it when I see it" (Gozdz, 1995). It could be extrapolated from the above that the judge feels as if community is not easily defined but readily understood when experienced.
Those who have attempted to define web based communities have not been so free thinking in their opinions. In his book, Hosting Web Communities, Cliff Figallo describes a set of attributes which he feels capture the essence of connected communities in terms of relationships (Figallo, 1988). Using subjective vernacular, he chooses phrases such as “feeling part of a larger social whole”, “web of relationships”, “relationships that last through time creating shared histories” and “an exchange of commonly valued things”. Author M. Scott Peck goes even further when describing community stating, "If we are going to use the word meaningfully [community] we must restrict it to a group of individuals who have learned how to communicate honestly with each other, whose relationships go deeper than their masks of composure, and who have developed some significant commitment to "rejoice together, mourn together," and to "delight in each other, make others' conditions our own" (Peck, 2000).
It could be argued that while Mr. Peck’s description adds depth and character to the subject of community, it attempts to find a deeper meaning in the word community and does little to define community itself. Mr. Peck presumes, for instance, that “commitment” is requisite to community. To this requisite, he also adds “honesty” and the ability to “rejoice together, mourn together”. These attributes, though certainly noble, add degrees of complexity which are both environmentally subjective and functionally circumstantial. One may infer from Mr. Pecks remarks that a community is a community if it embodies these attributes, and is not a community if it lacks these attributes. What then if it lacks only one of the three? Does it then cease to be a community, or is it somehow less of a community? Following this train of thought, we could liken Mr. Peck’s ideal of a community to a still life painting of a basket with fruit. In the basket are peaches, pares and apples. If the artist had omitted apples from the basket, would the painting somehow cease to be a painting? Is it somehow less than the ideal painting? Such thinking presumes absolutes and that anything less is simply a shadow or counterfeit of the original.
Luciano Paccagnella of the University of Milan assumes a more academic perspective when describing web based communities stating, "Virtual communities has lately become a fashionable term which will be used here as a useful metaphor to indicate the articulated pattern of relationships, roles, norms, institutions, and languages developed on-line” ([Jones, 1995]; [McLaughlin et al. 1995]). Recognizing that the word “fashionable” is closely associated with trendy, it is admitted that any term or verbal configuration used to describe online communities is subject to frequent revision. Paccagnella’s use of the word “metaphor” in the context in which it is used seems inappropriate and is perhaps the result of poor translation.
Maintaining the academic perspective, Paccagnella further goes on to state, “This is not to say that we take the term virtual community as a positive value in itself, nor that we advocate an enthusiastic or optimistic view of computer networks. Even the very authenticity of communities developed on-line should not be taken for granted without an effort to come to a commonly accepted definition of what a community really is. The term virtual community is therefore still a problematic scientific concept.” (Jones, 1995).
As evidenced in the above statement, Paccagnella admits to the problematic nature of defining what a virtual community is and had in essence, given up on the attempt. It is unfortunate that after an otherwise worthy and scholarly approach, the author abandons the reader with no more clear understanding of online communities than what they began with.
Other scholars have attempted to bridge the gap by adding additional layers of complexity to the topic. In her book, "Inhabiting the Virtual City: The design of social environments for electronic communities", Judith Stefania Donath states, “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.” (Donath, 1997). Recognizing that the social aspect of humanity or consciousness is not turned off simply because a person is “online”, Donath suggest that online environments should cater to a person’s social needs and not informational curiosities only. Focusing on the latter only would yield a mechanical, one dimensional world in which personalities are essentially reduced to robotics. Such an online environment could not function as a community and might be considered nothing more than a database. Donath further goes on to state, “If we view people as social actors, then we should view the net as a social technology. A social technology is one that makes it possible to find people with common interests, to talk with them and listen to them, and to sustain connections with them over time." The additional element of complexity is introduced when Donath suggest that the net is a “social technology” which enables the users to find others of common interest. In this sense, the “net” exist as tool which is both a roadmap, and a vehicle. In this analogy, the roadmap is the means of identifying the location of like minded individuals and the vehicle is the means of interaction.
Jake McKee of Community Guy (McKee, 2005), is quick to distinguish between the tool and the intent as he states, “People often think that blogs, forums, wikis, and other tools are community. In actuality, those tools are just that - tools. They can help you to build community, but they aren't actually "community". When we talk community, we're simply talking about an interaction, a connection. Blogs or forums are a way to initiate and sustain that interaction.” McKee’s view of what constitutes community is in opposition to that of Peck. In McKee’s opinion, community is crystallized in the word “interaction”, regardless of the intent or level of commitment of the participant. At surface level, such disparities would seem devoid of common ground. If, as Peck suggest, community is not simply the result of interaction, but is a function of the depth and character of that interaction, how can McKee’s view be valid? Considering that the above question can be easily reversed, the same could be said of Peck’s view. In the absence of common ground, both views become mutually exclusive. Interjecting Donath’s view of the web as a “social technology”, recognition of an individual’s social need is implied and built into the architecture of the community. A community which fails to offer social functionality would cease to exist as a community. It is in this view that the opinions of both Peck and McKee become sustainable. Perhaps Kirk Donovan in “The Life Cycles of Communities” (Donovan, 2005) offers the best definition of online communities as he states, “Simply put, an online community is a medium of interaction to connect people in different locations based on a common interest or need” (Kollock and Smith 1999).
It should be stated that defining Web Based Communities does not imply consensus. A debate continues within the ethnographic community as to the validity of community like relationships which develop through the means of computer-mediated interaction, with some scholars suggesting that web based interaction is too ephemeral or superficial to warrant serious research. Calhoun (1991) contends that the modern condition is suggestive of “indirect social relationships in which connectivity with others is more imagined, or parasocial, than “real.” Calhoun further suggest that computer based interaction may facilitate the development of “categorical identities” or “imagined communities”, in which the only true element of community is in the “feeling” of belonging to a group. In so stating, Calhoun contends that true community only exists in the presence of direct relationships. Calhoun further suggest that computer based communities are more likely to produce social isolation than true connectivity in that the absence of self disclosure and intimacy found in traditional relationships renders online activities incapable of producing legitimate social bonding.
In opposition to this, Oldenburg (1989) argues that closeness and social bonding in modern communities has eroded into an emotional disconnect of impersonal relationships and that online communities may fill a social need in this regard. Oldenburg states that a person moves through life in three basic environments. These include where we work, where we live, and where we join with others for social intercourse. Oldenburg defines the third as the place of “idle talk and banter with acquaintances and friends”, suggesting that this is where the sense of community is experienced. While barber shops, cafes and social clubs once served this purpose, shopping malls, fast food and busy schedules have left this need largely unfulfilled. Therefore, Oldenburg feels it not a surprising thing that many turn to the internet to recreate a sense of connectivity and community.
Jones (1995) shares Oldenburg’s view that bulletin boards, newsgroups, chat rooms and other types of computer facilitated interaction have evolved from the need to recreate the sense of community as people struggle with the disappearance of informal public space.
Cerulo (1997) attempts to add balance to this issue writing that sociologist and communication researchers must reevaluate their view of the computer mediated world, as well as past assumptions concerning human interactions in order to effectively understand online communities. This sentiment is echoed by Virnoche and Marx (1997) who suggest a need to redefine “community” in consideration of an increasing overlap between the “real” and the “virtual” worlds, and the increasing number of people who interact via online communities. In light of new and expanding modalities of communication afforded via the internet, the writer adds that historical definitions of community cannot be held as definitive standards by which to validate present day communities whether real or virtual.
Following Calhoun’s logic, one might conclude that communications which occur over a telephone are not conversation in the true sense because intimate physical proximity is lacking. Though this argument would seem absurd in the present day, ethnologist of the last century may not have found it so and argued for the former. Motorized vehicles were once considered a passing fad and telephones were luxuries of the wealthy. With the progression of time, these things have become integral elements of modern society. Today, no rational person would deny that two people talking over a phone line are having a conversation. So it may be with web based communities. As the debate continues among ethnographers and sociologist, the day may not be far off when one questions the logic of those who questioned the validity of online communities to begin with.