in David Porter, ed., Internet Culture
(New York: Routledge, 1996), 23-37.
The Internet is clearly the foremost among new information technologies that promise to significantly impact the day to day circumstances of all social relations. The Internet is a real example of a broadband, wide-area computer network that allows each individual user an equal voice, or at the least an equal opportunity to speak. Increasing numbers of people, upon discovering the Internet, are enamored by the technology's ability to publicly legitimate their self-expression and by the freedom it provides from traditional space and time barriers. A central question is whether, as is often claimed, this empowerment and the ability to connect with increasing case to ever-growing numbers of like-minded people encourage a sense of community.
Obviously, communication and community have a common lineage. "The term communication comes from the Latin communis (common) or communicare (to establish a
community or a commonness)" (Merill & Lowenstein 1979, 5). But though communication serves as the basis of community, it must not be equated with it. One can communicate with another individual without considering that person to be a member of one's own community. This then, touches upon the real concern of this paper; to what degree can one say that the Internet facilitates "community"?
The Internet, for our purposes, provides a technological infrastructure for computer-mediated communication (CMC) across both time and space. The conceptual space in which this communication occurs is referred to as cyberspace, an environment in which face-to-face communication is impossible. A form of virtual co-presence, however, is established as a result of individuals' electronic interactions not being restricted by traditional boundaries of time and space: this is the basis of what is commonly refered to as "virtual community."
Howard Rheingold defines these virtual communities as the social aggregations that emerge from the Net when enough people carry on those public discussions long enough, with sufficient human feeling, to form webs of personal relationships in cyberspace" (Rheingold 1993, 5). It is this vision of the Internet which I propose to interrogate in this chapter. Any sense of community found on the Internet must, I contend, necessarily be virtual, but may not be sufficiently communal. Rheingold ascribes social meaning to cyberspatial gatherings, and presents us with a dialectic of the personal flowing unproblematically from the public. But I question the degree to which the traditional idea of community is an fact present in virtual communities" As more people gravitate to this new means of communication, concomitant changes in the conception of both community and identity will inevitably emerge.
The "virtual" nature of virtual communities should preclude any simple characterization of their existence. Observers of CMC typically associate the term with the containers of the communicative acts themselves. Thus, one frequently hears of a particular form of community that is associated with MUDs (multi-user dungeons) or even Usenet newsgroups. Others have chosen a different approach; Kumiko Aoki divided the study of virtual communities into three separate groupings: 1) those which totally overlap with physical communities; 2) those that overlap with these "real-life" communities to some degree; and 3) ones that are totally separated from physical communities (Aoki 1994). Each of these approaches has its merits. For our purposes, however, virtual communities are not
deemed to be the products of a particular means of structuring communication, nor those explicitly organized in relation to physical space. Rather, these "bodies," these "occupants" of conceptual space should be recognized as the ideal constructs that they are.
Benedict Anderson's Imagined Communities is insightful on this point: "All communities larger than primordial villages of face-to-face contact (and perhaps even these) are imagined. Communities are to be distinguished, not by their falsity or genuineness, but by the style in which they are imagined" (Anderson 1983, 6). The context of CMC necessarily emphasizes the act of imagination that is required to summon the image of communion with others who are often faceless, transient, or anonymous. In this regard, asking questions of the social-psychological aspects of CMC are fundamentally useful. Such questions allow us to place Rheingold's earlier "social aggregations" in perspective, and ask to what extent these can be seen as public or private expressions.
The term "community" is broadly used to refer to an ideal type of social relations known as Gemeinschaft, the embryo of which is found in the relations of kindred individuals (Toennies 1957, 37). Succinctly stated, the term embodies a set of voluntary, social, and reciprocal relations that are bound together by an immutable "we-feeling." This is typically contrasted with its polar opposite, Gesellschaft, or impersonal association. Gesellshaft is often cited as the utilitarian sentiment that underpins modern, industrial, urban life. Community assumes a solidarity among all those who comprise it. It is an entity that is seen as "emerging from the mutual commitment, mutual involvement, mutual responsibility, and mutual respect between a society and its individual members" (Walls 1993, 156).
Community, then, is built by a sufficient flow of "we-relevant" information. The "we" or the collective identity that results is structured around others who are seen as similar to the "me." In this sense, community, like any form of communication, is not fully realized without a conception of self. Essentially, this entails that "what goes to make up the organized self is the organization of the attitudes which are common to the group. A person is a personality because he belongs to a community" (Mead 1993, 158). This perspective is reflective of the tradition of Augustinian inwardness which states that "one's deepest identity is the one which binds one to one's fellow humans; there is something common to all men
and getting in touch with this common element is getting in touch with one's real self" (Rorty 1991, 196).
Obviously then, just as self-definition underlies our relations with others, so too does it structure our communities: the organization of the self is the foundation of the communicative effort. The question then, of how CMC affects the organization of the self is very pertinent. Are virtual communities most appropriately viewed as being structured around personal identity or communal identity? One would like to presume that it is the latter-that in the creation of solidarity, that which we ascribe to Gemeinschaft, we are made more sensitive to the situation of the other. This searching for community makes it more difficult to marginalize people who are different from ourselves. On the other hand, CMC can free individuals from the yoke of traditional restraints upon information retrieval; individual pursuits and specific fields of interest can be easily pursued through increasingly narrow fields of vision. In this respect, the self is pursued, but not entirely in blissful ignorance of the other. It is merely that the other has been relegated to a sub-strata of the self. "The striving subject enters into conversation in order to build itself up through the search for truth. Thus the person who converses relates to herself/himself even when s/he seems to be relating to others" (Taylor 1991, 17).
This, then, is a particular danger of CMC. Solipsism, or the extreme preoccupation with and indulgence of one's own inclinations, is potentially engendered in the technology. The reification of private space occurs as one's own idiosyncratic world view acts as a protective enclosure against the onslaught of a brave new world of information. This notion of protection still assumes that the other exists. The importance of our relations to others for the assertion of one's own self-identity never wavers, such that "self-consciousness presupposes the re-cognition of self in other" (Taylor 1991, 18). However, as the private becomes more all-encompassing and the image of one's own world view becomes more convincing, one can lose sight of the other altogether.
Even the human/computer interface itself obscures the stage that individuals place themselves upon: "The 'content' of a medium is like the juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind" (McLuhan 1964, 32). In this respect, the connectivity that CMC virtual communities confer upon us blinds the observer to the real character of the technology-all of its users exist as individuals extending their
selves through the computer network, but isolated by the necessary mediation of the cathode ray tube and the keyboard. This should not be taken to mean that virtual communities are havens for antisocial behavior. Nor should one infer that virtual communities attract the alienated person, or encourage a general state of anomic. The latter situation is said to exist under conditions in which "most people no longer feel that they are 'getting anywhere' with reference to what they desire" (Clinard 1964, 5). The very fact that individuals are seeking to communicate their vision of self in public obviates this. The self is not all that exists, but egoistic self-absorption, such as CMC may encourage, embodies a situation in which "the other is not really other, but is actually a moment in my own self-becoming" (Taylor 1991, 17). In such a situation, one might term the computer-mediated subject a conscious one, but one without self-consciousness.
Evidently then, CMC has the potential to reify both personal and communal identity. In this regard, it may even be making the distinction between the two redundant. In a pioneering work in the psychoanalytic theory of communication, it was observed that communication always involves a dialectic between unconscious centrifugal and centripetal tendencies in self-expression (Spitz, 1957). CMC magnifies this ability simultaneously to express both the self and the other, the individual and the community.
Framed from another perspective, this dialectic entails a "continual oscillation between relative openness and closedness--resilient adjustment to intakes of information/entropy" (Klapp 1978, 17). Good forms of openness embody the tenets of liberal solidarity; expressive, well-informed individuals leading to the cross-fertilization of knowledge. Just as there are bad forms of openness--the communicative act undertaken indiscriminately and without direction--so too are there good forms of closure. These entail ability on the part of the "net.denizen" to exert self-control, and to be discriminating and selective in the face of so much information. On the other hand, there is also the possibility of bad closure, the individual who becomes insular, narrow-minded, and isolated.
Baudrillard has a unique outlook on this form of closed mind when he states that "every individual sees himself promoted to the controls of a hypothetical machine, isolated in a position of perfect sovereignty" (Baudrillard 1988, 15). CMC, in fact, offers a form of this ecstacy of communication. The newfound ability to communicate with vast numbers of like-
minded others, regardless of barriers of time and space, obscures the "electronic encephelization" (Baudrillard 1988, 17) of ourselves at the expense of the other.
In the foregoing discussion, I have tried to illuminate some of the conflict between the concepts of community and individuality and to dissuade the reader from making any facile assumptions about which of the two necessarily follows from the public presentation of our private selves. If any tentative conclusions are in order, however, they are likely to deal with the artificial sense of "we-feeling" that is typically an outgrowth of CMC under the conditions of non-presence. It is altogether too easy to ignore difference, and to attribute one's image of self to the other instead of defining one's self in reference to the other. When one's image of the communal self is thus distorted, any hopes of true Gemeinschaft-style relations are very faint indeed.
It is here, then, that we examine in greater depth the social ramifications of CMC, rather than the individuated psychological effects which have had more emphasis placed on them so far. We take from the psychological the stress on the privatization of the public, and now seek to comment on this as a social phenomenon, rather than a personal one. As Baudrillard said, ',the body as a stage, the landscape as a stage, and time as a stage are slowly disappearing. The same holds true for the public space" (Baudrillard 1988, 19).
What happens, then, to the public space when it is confronted with an enormous, ephemeral connecting space? To these ends, it is to Habermas' notion of the public sphere that we now turn:
By "the public sphere" we mean first of all a realm of our social life in which something approaching public opinion can be formed. Access is guaranteed to all citizens. A portion of the public sphere comes into being in every conversation in which private individuals assemble to form a public body.
(Habermas 1989, 136)
Habermas elevates his definition of public opinion to the level of informed discussion and reasoned argument. In doing so, he assumes that members of the public sphere are able to rationally think for themselves, to organize their own relations and to develop independent, critical opinions. The public sphere, therefore, is impoverished by the removal of public discourse. The elevation of the private occurs at the expense of the
public and the ability to arrive at public opinion. This curtails the possibility of Gemeinschaft-style relations, if we recognize these as flowing out of an open discourse among self-conscious members of a community.
Guaranteed access to all is an important aspect of the public sphere. If we view the public as a communally shared life-form, the ideal of this sharing can only be obtained through communicative action-the ability of individuals to engage in substantive public discourse. The public sphere can then be seen as an ideal speech community, one which is not obtainable if individuals are excluded from involvement in the public discourse. In trying to ascertain the significance of CMC, Garth Graham (1995) has stated that universal access includes the freedom to communicate. The interactivity of CMC is about human connections. It is about talking. It serves individuals and communities, not mass audiences.
Graham's insight is useful in that his notion of community is more than the simple access to the means to communicate. His vision also includes the assertion of public opinion, the elimination of privileges, and the discussion, and acting upon, of general norms and mores. Graham's vision of electronic community is both egalitarian and decentralized. One must not let the former obscure the latter such that once something approximating universal access is obtained, we have fooled ourselves into thinking that we have obtained public opinion or the Geist of Gemeinschaft.
This spirit of community is essential to the vitality of virtual communities. That which holds a virtual community intact is the subjective criterion of togetherness, a feeling of connectedness that confers a sense of belonging. Virtual communities require much more than the mere act of connection itself. "It seems that the key to a virtual community is the human interaction that computers, and the computer space allotted to the group, foster" (Lapachet, 1995a). The quality of this interaction must be questioned, especially in light of the preceding arguments about the intrusiveness of the private upon the public that is facilitated by CMC's transformation of social space.
A brief example of a pioneering attempt at a form of virtual community will help to illustrate. Santa Monica's Public Electronic Network (PEN) was an attempt at establishing a community online, but one whose feeling of community was arguably never so acute as to be termed an online community. The objectives of PEN embodied what we hope to find in
virtual communities--a new kind of public meeting ground in which all voices are equal, anyone can speak at any time, and no one can be silenced. Designed to serve the local needs of a geographic community, interactive communications and public information systems were provided through a computer network. In this respect, PEN represented "a community computing network [which] must be integrated into the real world community that it serves" (Cisler, 1993).
PEN certainly provided access to the means to communicate. While only 64 people could use the system at once, there were over 20 public terminals that were located in libraries, community centers, elderly housing and city buildings (Varley 1991, 44). The dream was that a "dialogue between citizens, between citizens and politicians, between citizens and public servants [could] be realized with the use of such networks with less dependence on time and space" (Alexander 1991, 5). Such a system was originally believed by many to be a sufficient step towards a reinvigoration of Gemeinschaft: "If only citizens could communicate more, discussion would eventually lead to consensus" (Dutton & Guthrie, quoted in Alexander 1991, 7). However, as should be obvious by now, communication alone does not constitute a community.
In fact, there is little, if any, evidence to indicate that anything approaching consensus was reached through PEN. After two years of operation, only two percent of Santa Monicans were using the system (Alexander 1991, 10). This led some to claim that it is "nothing more than a high-tech toy kept alive by a few computer enthusiasts with nothing better to do" (Varley 1991, 44). PEN was also plagued by the lack of involvement of elected officials. These comprised a fundamental part of the other for whom PEN was intended. lndeed, "'PEN itself was subject to the competing objectives of a variety of players including interest groups, councillors, citizens, and city hall staff. Each of the players pursued different objectives" (Alexander 1991, 10).
In this sense, the dialogue that was meant to occur between the different players typically reverted to a monologue. Here, then, we can see how the public plurality of private spaces that CMC facilitates is evident even in a grounded communal cyberspace. The different games which each group of players brought to PEN encouraged the construction of "multiple cyberspaces," even within the city-space of Santa Monica. Viewed through the lens of a "social presence" model of CMC (Short et al. 1976, 65), we can see this plurality of
spaces existing wherever CMC occurs, not merely at the ethereal level of the global village:
These cyberspaces will not all be the same, and they will not all be open to the general public. [Any] network is a connected platform for the collection of diverse communities, but only a loose heterogeneous community itself.
(Progress & Freedom Foundation, 1994)
Gemeinschaft, or community, obviously makes any network more attractive than one which merely provides access to unlimited information. This aspect of a network implies that conversation with others can shape both the culture and the sociology of the conceptual space that its electronic interlocutors inhabit. As PEN demonstrates, however, "virtual communities are not electronic villages...often many virtual communities can help make up an electronic village, but virtual communities are more communication and people oriented, while electronic villages are hardware and connection oriented" (Lapachet, 1995b).
Peculiar forms of community exist even in these electronic villages. Observing these, one must ask whether the problem lies in technology or the uses to which individuals put that technology. Technology could be considered the root of the problem if one considers virtual communities a postmodern form of the spectacle-driving people indoors and making them think that virtual communities are real communities. This belief, however, obscures that fact that all reality is essentially a matter of perception. This includes the degree to which we associate aspects of our daily life with a sense of community. But it is also not entirely appropriate to vilify the individual. After all, virtual communities offer a means by which individuals can seek a new form of community, rather than shun a currently useful one. This tack is taken by Baudrillard, who "sees electronic communication as part of the whole web of hyper-realistic illusion we've turned to, in our technologically stimulated flight from the breakdown of human communities" (Rheingold 1993, 225).
Virtual communities fit into the hyper-real if one concedes that they offer the semblance of community but lack its fundamental characteristics. indeed, voices bemoaning of the loss of traditional forms of community are frequently heard in the discourse of virtual communities. A most popular lament is that "there is no place left where people can discuss the realities
which concern them, because they can never lastingly free themselves from the crushing presence of media discourse and the various forces organized to relay it" (Debord in Rheingold 1993, 298). Much of this rhetoric hearkens back to The Great Good Place by Ray Oldenburg, a work concerned with the loss of place and the fragmentation of the social fabric in modern American life. "The structure of shared experience beyond that offered by family, jobs, and passive consumerism is small and dwindling," Oldenburg writes. "The essential group experience is being replaced by the exaggerated self-consciousness of individuals"(Rheingold 1991, 25).
Those who trumpet the transformative power of virtual communities see them as loci for a reinvigorated informal public life. But if one places any merit in the social-psychological interrogation of virtual communities that we have conducted, one will not come such a conclusion quite so blissfully. The factors that make CMC so attractive, its ability to play with identity, anonymity, and the distanciation of time and space, are those that preclude the necessary ascendancy of Gemeinschaft over Gesellschaft in these conceptual spaces. CMC mediates our interactions in such a way that our social cyberspatial selves are far more likely an extension of our conscious selves than a representation of self-conscious being. To be properly self-conscious one must take account of the other, and there is no reason to believe that this is any easier in an environment of ostensibly "many-to-many" communication than it was under previous conditions. People "do want to be able to explore the social space of their surroundings on their own" (Debord 1977, 24), but this is too easily conducted under conditions of egoistic introspection. In such a case, any informal conviviality that is present will do nothing to further the vision of community. In fact, the mediated, necessarily nonpresence nature of CMC may further the solipsistic state of consciousness that Oldenburg was lamenting.
Such a perspective treats the idea that when individuals go to new places they learn new things about themselves with some skepticism. Garth Graham (1995) claims that this is what occurs in the strange spaces of cyberspace--one opts in and out of many communities, with many different norms and values. Occupying each of these requires that the individual make personal adjustments. Instead of simply assuming that beneficent acculturation occurs, one might rather see the individual gravitating towards spaces that do not seem so strange, and engaging in a process of self-legitimation. in
order to reduce cognitive dissonance, individuals engage in selective exposure as they embark upon their potential learning experience.
Selective exposure is probably the most common heuristic device, or mental shortcut, that individuals use to simplify their information processing. It is typically used to create an environment of supporting information as individuals pursue an orientation that is consistent with their currently held world view. There is no reason to believe that people would act any differently than usual when confronting information in cyberspace. In fact, the nature of this information, often appearing as it does devoid of context, may make the process of creating cognitive balance easier. To create this balance, one typically either ignores information that is contradictory to what is already known, or somehow adapts the incoming information to that body of knowledge.
Somewhat surprisingly, after his earlier characterization of online communities, Graham (1995) makes reference to this characteristic of CMC: "Choices, perhaps unconsciously, are made about the shape of the group. In other words, even how it feels, its physicality, is, to a certain degree, self-selected." The diagram presented below is partially grounded in this belief; it is an adaptation of the model which Graham presents of how a CMC structured community might appear:
For our purposes, we can take the process axis to deal with social dynamics, or the extent to which either Gemeinschaft or Gesellschaft are realized. The context axis deals with the struc-
turing of interest. We can take this to summarize the dialectic between self and other, or private and public. The center point of equilibrium is the utopian goal, the point at which the individual is fully realized within the community. Graham (1995) notes that at a basic level, such a model describes any informal discussion. But its location within cyberspace reveals that "computer mediated conversations are self-referential...[CMC exposes] the dynamic nature of the structure of a self-organizing community."
As any attempt at mapping must admit to being, the above model can only be as accurate as our understanding of the conceptual space with which we engage. Obviously, the descriptions of the four sectors are not fixed, as any intersection of two different points will conjure up a different impression of the nature of community that is involved. Therefore, we should not be content with a rudimentary representation of social aggregations; we should coordinate this with a representation of how we aggregate these social units. "Society not only continues to exist by transmission, by communication, but it may fairly be said to exist in transmission, in communication" (Dewey 1916, 5). We can say that the same holds true for community. In this perspective then, the culture of virtual communities is formally ascertained by relating the communicative act to the broader environment in which it occurs.
Relating community to the symbolic act of communicating is useful in that the contingency of community is linked to the contingency of identity, and identity, as has already been demonstrated, is dependent upon the means by which we communicate it. Habermas assists us in that his treatment of effective communication is divided into four domains also:
We must, with CMC, take with doubled seriousness the
internal world of the person communicating, the realm of subjectivity. This is especially true when one acknowledges the illusory status of self-conscious actors who exercise their "information sovereignty." In such a situation, the inner thoughts, feelings, and perceptions of culture-producing actors is very important. Yet one cannot simply reduce virtual communities to a dialectic between subjectively and objectively observed sociocultural reality. Unlike "real" physical communities, the "truthfulness" of virtual communities is problematic; the "virtual" in the term entails that one must internalize the definition of community; it cannot be externalized into a specific, objective product.
So upon what, then, is the contingency of virtual communities most properly structured? While language and social norms certainly contribute towards a conception of the term, neither fully encapsulates it. Without fail, the realm of external nature is vitiated of any practical usefulness, and yet to ground the term "virtual community" entirely within the realm of the subjective actor is also ill-advised; this leaves one open to unfailing critiques of the absolute relativity of truth. Perhaps, then, the fullest understanding of the term is gained by grounding it in the communicative act itself. If, as we have repeatedly seen, the nature of computer-mediated communication is such that it affects the social relationships of its participants, perhaps one might actually say that the "medium is the message.
This paper has attempted to map some largely uncharted territory. The unique infrastructure of CMC and the new forms of social relations it has brought about raise pressing issues of communication and community that need to be critically interrogated. This should be done, however, in a manner that leaves room for negotiation with the technology, and which does not outwardly ascribe the highest form of consciousness to either of the blissful states of communal connectivity or isolated individualism. Rather, virtual communities should be seen as being co-determined by the simultaneous forces of Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft. It is this aspect which makes them crucial sites for the redefinition of both the public and the private self and other, and for further investigation of the ever-expanding possibilities of human interaction.
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