This week I started out by trying to get to grips with the concept of community and at the end of the week I’m not sure I’m much further on. I began with empathising with Rheingold’s vision of the lost local community regained in the virtual environment I visited The Well where it seemed that members had indeed found value in the connections they were making with others in their favourite conferences. Evidence in gains of ‘social network capital, knowledge capital and communion’ as Rheingold articulates in his seminal book ‘Virtual Community’ are evident here http://www.well.com/raves/ As a virtual meeting place the Well prides itself on the authenticity of interactions “As a WELL member, you use your real name. This leads to real conversations and relationships.” I was struck by how long this community(ies) had been in place and wondered if the Well was the same type of community now as when it had started out.
Buckman & Jensen chart the life and death of an online community. For me this highlighted the ephemeral nature of virtual community which strikes me as a feature that distinguishes them from ‘real’ communities. Virtual communities that emerge around an image in Flickr or a blogpost or a youtube video may be extremely short lived. Perhaps one reason is that there are relatively few social costs associated with joining or leaving these communities. However these might not be communities at all but mere associations. Bell for example sees longevity, critical mass and human feeling as criteria for distinguishing an association (or market segment) from a community. For me longevity seems less important then human feeling.
Buckman & Jensen also offer a much looser definition of community as “a group of people interacting with one another in some fashion” and Fish has a different take altogether. His idea of interpretive communities brought an interesting link with Kress’s work. For Fish the way we read a text is strongly culturally determined so the interpretive community is one that shares a “reading”. I wonder if the communities that form around particular art genre for example on DeviantArt http://www.deviantart.com/ are examples of interpretive communities and whether Bell and Rheingold would consider them as communities.
In looking at different definitions and conceptions of community I revisited Wenger’s ideas around communities of practice. “Communities of practice are groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.” http://www.ewenger.com/theory/ Using this definition I wondered to what extent learning might be considered as an outcome of all community interactions, whether these be professionally or socially oriented. Perhaps the difference in a community of practice is that the learning is intentional.
Some interesting questions about the implications of virtual community for real community are raised in one of Wellman et al.’s papers I came across entitled the Social Affordances of the Internet for Networked Individualism. Here the authors draws on empirical research to explore three possible scenarios a) local communities breakdown (further?) due to the distractions of the internet. b) “Widely dispersed communities of shared interest become dominant; neighbourhood communities become quaint residuals.” c) existing relations continue online which enrich existing ‘real’ communities and new virtual communities emerge around shared interest . The World Café is arguably an example of such a virtual community which encourages activism around local issues while emphasises its global reach. The reciprocity of the relationships between community members is highlighted in these tagclouds http://www.theworldcafecommunity.org/page/tag-clouds generated from member profiles. The norms of the community are engagingly expressed in this graphic.
Towards the end of this week I discovered Wesch’s Youtube ethnography. Absolutely fascinating as it turns so many of the ideas of virtual community on their head. Authenticity is uncertain, the individual is foregrounded in a narcissistic way and asynchronous face to face interaction shapes the ‘conversation’ in strange ways. I’m hoping to return to some of these issues in my virtual ethnography.