Virtual Groups & Online Communities
As John Donne famously wrote, “No man is an island.”
On the internet, there seems to be a similar but not identical truth – few people want to be an island. And so we create enclaves.
Some of our enclaves mimic those we see in the offline world – we associate with people we went to school with, or work with, or live near. We associate with the people who used to be in such relationships to us as well. And we associate with family, and sometimes even ex-family. We might expand our horizons a little, to also include members of the same political party, or age group, or others who enjoy the same activities as we do, like knitting, or the same entertainments, such as Browncoats.
This changes online with virtual groups, but maybe less than naysayers had originally thought. The online world is not restricted by geography. It’s not restricted by socioeconomic background, either, except that you need to have access to a computer. But you can often get that for free from a library, so you don’t necessarily have to own the hardware, although that does make it easier.
As McKenna, K.Y.A. (2002). Virtual group dynamics. Group Dynamics, 6(1), 116–127. [Library Link] says, “One of the most basic interpersonal needs is to ‘belong,’ to feel that one is a member of a group of others who share similar interests and goals, and to feel that one is a valued (and unique) member of that group ( Baumeister & Leary, 1995; Brewer, 1991). On the Internet, there are a wealth of venues where one can connect with like-minded others who share core interests and values and thus fulfill this important need. Chat rooms, newsgroups, electronic mailing lists, message boards, interactive games, and major interactive Web sites provide individuals with the opportunity to join existing online groups or to create their own.”
This need for a sense of belonging appears to drive a lot of members of virtual groups. There is also a need to break the internet down into more manageable bite-sized chunks. With trillions of webpages online (estimated, See: http://www.factshunt.com/2014/01/total-number-of-websites-size-of.html), no one user can experience it all, not even if that person makes an executive decision to only look at sites written in Norwegian, or uploaded after June 15, 2012, etc. Therefore, users look for something smaller and easier to take. Otherwise, the scale is unfathomable.
Clay Shirky’s Take
As Clay Shirky says, in Shirky, C. (2003, July 1). A group is its own worst enemy. Networks, Economics, and Culture Mailing List. [Link], “You have to find some way to protect your own users from scale. This doesn’t mean the scale of the whole system can’t grow. But you can’t try to make the system large by taking individual conversations and blowing them up like a balloon; human interaction, many to many interaction, doesn’t blow up like a balloon. It either dissipates, or turns into broadcast, or collapses. So plan for dealing with scale in advance, because it’s going to happen anyway.”
Communities that become too large tend to suffer, as the number of conversations grows faster than the number of users (e. g. for three users, there are four possible conversations; user A + user B, user B + user C, user A + user C, and all three users). Users like to feel that they belong, and that a place can be understood.
At the same time, they also want to feel safe. In Dibbell, J. (1998). A rape in cyberspace (Or tiny society, and how to make one). In My tiny life (pp. 11–30). New York: Henry Holt and Company. [Link | Alternate Link], Julian Dibbell argues that a behavior whereby one user’s account was able to control another user’s account (against the second account holder’s will) was practically a cyber-rape. The site’s lack of moderation seems almost laughable today, that the designers and administrators of a large online community would leave it to its own devices with zero supervision. After all, even the most libertarian or even anarchic of users usually wants the spam to go away quickly.
Beyond basic safety, they often want positive support, too. As Wellman, B., & Gulia, M. (1999). Net-surfers don’t ride alone: Virtual communities as communities. Networks in the global village: Life in contemporary communities (pp. 331–366). New York: Westview Press. [PDF] say, “Even when online groups are not designed to be supportive, they often are.” (Page 7)
Finally, the use of internet communities is sometimes for even greater closeness than what the members can get in person, perhaps analogous to telling your troubles to a stranger in an airport bar who you will never see again.
As McKenna, (Ibid.) says, “The relative anonymity of the Internet allows individuals to take greater risks in making disclosures to Internet friends than they would to someone they know in more traditional, face-to-face settings (McKenna & Bargh, 1998; McKenna et al., 2002). Users are more likely to express how they truly feel and think (Spears & Lea, 1994) when interacting on the Internet, and when identity salience of the group is high, those who interact under conditions of anonymity are more likely than their nonymous, face-to-face counterparts to conform to group norms (e.g., Postmes, Spears, & Lea, 1999).”
When users mourn the deaths or departures of people they have never met in person, when they hug and kiss relative strangers when they finally do meet, and when they can provide comfort to the lonely online as a function of kindness and not for a quid pro quo, that’s when users move from a Gesellschaft to a Gemeinschaft, or from a rough collection to a true community.