virtual community

I have been to so many conferences where people compared Communities and Virtual Communities to show how they are similar but not many have emphasized on their differences and the impact of these differences. In this blog post I shall try to point out the differences and their impact.

Communities and virtual communities are similar as they both are social aggregations on people based on atleast one common characteristic but at the same time they differ in following ways:

  1. How individuals participate in the community
  2. How individuals connect with each other to exchange information 

1. How individuals participate in the community:

In conventional communication there is a distinction made between private vs. public and direct vs. mediated.  The private vs. public distinction is based on the accessibility of conversation. Direct vs. mediated distinction is based on communication is held face to face or mediated through technology. Based on these distinctions the communication can be classified as follows:

  • Private and direct communication includes all exchanges which take place in the course of face-to-face personal interaction. Ex: confidential board meeting (Diani, 1992).
  • Private and mediated forms include all the occurrences in which transmission of information and ideas takes place through some technical device, regardless of the level of technical sophistication. Ex: using phone to call friends (Cerulo & Ruane, 1998).
  • Public and direct communication takes place mostly in public spaces, for example on the occasion of public demonstrations or recruitment initiatives (Polletta, 1999).
  • Public and mediated communication includes all mass media related forms. These may consist of press releases, advertising and information campaigns (Gitlin, 1980).

The nature communication that happens in virtual communities is not exactly private or public. It represents new version of public communication but the identity of the sender of the message is anonymous unless the sender wishes to reveal the identity. This breaks with the view of the democratic public sphere as a space where information are exchanged, and opinions debated, between actors prepared to take responsibility for their stances.

The communication in virtual communications is neither strictly directed nor mediated. The communication in a community may involve multiple actors starting an interactive process, extending way beyond intended sender and originator. Most interactions (the emphasis is on the word most) taking place in the virtual sphere actually expand on and reinforce face to face acquaintances and exchanges, instead of creating new ones (Wellman & Gulia,1999; Virnoche and Marx, 1997). 

2. How individuals connect with each other to exchange information:

Virtual communities bring together people who do not share any specific social linkage but share same specific grievance. Example: They help mobilize people with permanently illness, disabled people, victims of road accidents, drug addicts and their relatives, etc.. They may be expected to profit heavily from the opportunities for connection offered. The same may apply to groups with specific socio-economic positions and interests, but whose social and geographical isolation discourages collective action (Rheingold, 1993). In these cases geographical distances become irrelevant as the grievances and the interests of the people participating may be the same. 

The notion of place in virtual communities is an important but troublesome concept because of the aspatial nature of such communities (Jones, 1997). Traditional communities often are associated with a specific, geographically bounded location. Within such a location, community-based interaction leads members to feel a sense of belongingness, shared values and understandings. Thus, the notion of community implies both something structural (e.g. a bounded location) and something socio-psychological (e.g. a sense of shared values developed through interaction with members). Harrison and Dourish (1996) describe the structural properties of virtual communities as those that deal with the community’s space (i.e. physical structure) and the socio-cultural properties of virtual communities as those that deal with the community’s place (i.e. socio-cultural). They suggest that a virtual space is to a virtual place as a house is to a home that dwells within its physical boundaries. Likewise, they say that a virtual space only presents the opportunity for a virtual place to develop (Harrison and Dourish, 1996).             

Blanchard (2004) suggests that community members perceived sense of place is influenced by perceptual cues in the virtual environment (e. g. type of access, timing of interaction and membership boundaries). The members use such cues to determine where community interaction occurs, where they are in the flow of conversations with other members and whether other members are present. Each community member has a sense of place, even if individual differences in perception lead members of the same virtual community to different senses of place.

Blanchard (2004) uses a different concept of sense of place than that used by Harrison and Dourish (1996). Blanchards notion of sense of place is one that is based on a members psychological awareness of the location or co-presence of others in a particular location. Thus, it is more consistent with Harrison and Dourishs structural conceptualization of space.

As you can see understanding the communication process, the sense of virtual space and virtual place is something that one should be aware of while creating a community because these aspects and the cues that they generate help people in connecting with each other and create an experience, based on which people will decide if they want to be a part of the community or not. These aspects basically impact the type of governance mechanisms and structural design needed for the community which in turn effects influencers (who becomes one) . I hope you liked this blog post and I am waiting to hear from you about how you take into consideration the above mentioned factors.