Let’s approach the question of virtual communities from a reverse angle of
sorts. Much of the debate on this issue (here at FEED and elsewhere) has
concerned itself with the problem of authenticity in online relationships.
For most online novices, the initial, gut reaction to the idea of a virtual
community is a kind of humanist disbelief: how can a compelling social
bond form over something as cold and impersonal as the Internet? Defenders
of online society argue, from first-hand experience, that these virtual
bonds do exist, that they can be as powerful as real-world interactions
(think of Stacy’s "significant other" romancing her via modem.) Critics of
virtual communities question the validity of these experiences, as in
Mark’s comments about decline of real-world intimacy and accountability.

Despite the surface disagreement, both sides of this debate accept the
basic premise that intimacy and communion are crucial to social life,
whether online or off. It seems relatively clear to us that virtual
communities do, in fact, foster compelling relationships between people —
many of whom may never meet face to face. But there’s a danger here as
well. Community is not always just a matter of shared interests and civic,
humane interaction. It is also about conflict and contradiction — the
free-for-all of lifestyles, world-views, classes, interest groups, races,
and marketing niches that one finds on the streets of the modern
metropolis. As Mark suggests in his anecdote about his homophobic neighbor,
the virtue of these communities lies in the *tension* they create, the
tension that develops between people who think and act very differently,
but nonetheless share the same social space.

Virtual communities, built largely around shared interests and not physical
proximity, suggest a movement away from the tense vitality of city life.
When every "lifestyle" group has its own chat room, why bother venturing
outside this narrow frame of reference? From this angle, the rise of the
virtual community seems to follow the logic of suburbanization, as each
social group retreats behind the new gated communities of cyberspace. Or
does it? Do today’s virtual communities look more like Manhattan — or
more like Orange County?



There’s a Nazi on Echo. We didn’t know this about him, we’ve been talking
to him for years, it just came out a few months ago. Now what do we do?
He’s the bad guy. Except we’ve already know that he’s human. And, at
times, humane. It’s not so easy to turn him into a cartoon. A friend once
said,"You can get into the minds of people you hate online." This is true!
Years of talking to the large number of Jews on Echo doesn’t seem to have
had much effect on this neo-nazi though. He still plans for a future
without them. And the people of Echo are slowly managing to turn him into a
cartoon. (Some contradictions are harder or impossible to handle.)

Every so often a racist emerges. When they find out later that they’ve been
talking to the very people they despise they still come back with long
rationalizations of why it’s okay to hate "fill in the blank" even though
so and so doesn’t seem so bad.

And it’s like watching a horror movie reading people on either side of the
abortion issue argue. Both sides flat out refuse to budge towards anything
approaching a middle ground. It’s like it would be admitting defeat to
recognize that anyone on the other side is human and not completely evil.

I don’t bring this up to get into a moral debate. I wanted to make two
points. First: I don’t know any neo-nazi’s, racists or anti-abortionists
offline. Or, at least they don’t reveal themselves to me offline if they
are, and so I have never had any conversations with any member of these
groups about any of these issues. Just because you share some interests
with people doesn’t mean you’re going to share them all. (I’m bringing up
the most extreme examples.)

So if there actually are people who get online to avoid tension and
conflict they will be disappointed. (Do we become miraculously conflict
free when we sit down at the computer?) I personally don’t think people
would be online if there weren’t tension and conflict. Usage went up when
our neo-nazi revealed himself. Usage always goes up when there is a
conflict. Even on a relatively small place like Echo we get "all kinds" and
everyone seems to like it that way.

And the other point I am making is this: Journalists ask me, will
cyberspace reduce global conflict? Answer: No. But we’ll get to see in
excruciatingly slow, minute detail, how people refuse to move. Or listen.
Even when the words are right there in front of them. That’s not entirely
true. I do see people move a little. In agonizingly small amounts it’s true
but what do we expect? When I was in therapy it took forever to change even
the littlest thing and I wanted to change! People are perverse. Did I
mention that yet?

That said, I want to say that I prefer online communities that are based on
physical proximity and visiting others as I sometimes like to visit other
cities and countries. I know in cyberspace it isn’t supposed to matter,
like minds and all that, but it matters to me that I’m talking mostly to
people in my hometown (New York City). And some visitors! Visitors are
always nice of course.



Can online relationships be authentic? Are virtual communities just pale,
one-dimensional caricatures of "real" ones?

This framing of the issue suggests that we must belong to "a" community.
But, in the modern (or, if you like, postmodern) world, most of us do not.
Instead, each of us belongs to multiple, overlapping communities — with
differing modes and levels of participation in different ones.

This isn’t such a new thing, and it isn’t a result of digital
telecommunications. Back in the 1960s, the historian Robert H. Wiebe
pointed out that, "America during the nineteenth century was a society of
island communities. Weak communication severely restricted the interaction
among these islands and dispersed the power to form opinion and enact
public policy. Education, both formal and informal, inhibited
specialization and discouraged the accumulation of knowledge. The heart of
American democracy was local autonomy." He then went on to describe "the
breakdown of this society and the emergence of a new system" as the
twentieth century unfolded. With increased mobility and better
communications, "men were now separated more by skill and occupation than
by community; they identified themselves more by their tasks in an
urban-industrial society than by their reputations in a town or a city
neighborhood." (Robert H. Wiebe, Preface to The Search for Order 877-1920,
Hill and Wang, New York, 1967.) One can take issue with Wiebe’s analysis in
various ways, but he basically had a very good point; by the 1920s,
non-place communities of interest had begun to rival and sometimes
transcend the older, place-based "island communities."

Look at what a complicated situation we have now. My house, for example,
happens to be located in Cambridge Massachusetts — a couple of blocks from
the heart of Harvard Square. As a result, I do participate in the local,
Cambridge community in a very traditional way; I know my neighbors and
local storekeepers and restauranteurs, I rub shoulders with all kinds of
people in the Square (and greatly value that, in the ways that Mark so
eloquently celebrates), I get involved to some extent in local politics,
and I sometimes get irritated at what a smug, self-righteous, provincial
little town it is. In addition, since I’ve lived a fairly mobile life, I
retain strong ties to a number of other cities and towns (on several
continents), and find that I quickly reactivate my dormant community
membership when I’m in these places. Then, professionally, I belong to the
MIT community — a very complex structure of current students and faculty
and alumni scattered throughout the world; this is maintained partially
through face-to-face contact on campus and partially through paper and
electronic communication. Furthermore, I belong to several intellectual
communities of interest; these are spread across the world, and maintain
themselves through journals and newsletters, conferences, and
(increasingly) the Internet.

I would not want to give any of my communities up, and I would not want to
be restricted to any one of them either. (Confinement to Cambridge would be
stultifying. On the other hand, I certainly couldn’t stand to spend all my
free time in international email exchanges with computer graphics geeks.)
And it’s very handy to have different modes and sites for communication in
different ways for different purposes. I normally don’t WANT gritty
intimacy with the far-flung members of my intellectual communities, I
certainly don’t want to be forced into it, and find myself quite content
with the arm’s-length of email. At the same time, there would be no point
in paying a rather large price to live in Harvard Square if I didn’t value
the diverse, unpredictable face-to-face interactions that it gives me.

Today’s urban design challenge, then (and I include cyberspace in urban
design) is to invent and create a diversity of places — both physical and
virtual — to support the many different sorts of human interactions and
modes of community participation that now make up the complicated fabrics
of our lives. One-dimensional responses just won’t do it;
neo-traditionalist nostalgia for the nineteenth century small town and its
supposed lost authenticity (or the provincial belief that you can find
everything you need in Manhattan) is as limiting and dangerous as
technoromantic satisfaction with walled, electronically serviced Orange
County paradises. I want my Internet connection AND I want my Harvard
Square! And, when I can get to it, I want my Southern California beach as
well!

Can we have this diversity? (Or must the virtual drive out the physical, to
create a flat and limited electronically mediated world, as Mark worries?)
I believe we can, since people will seek a variety of settings and
experiences if given the chance. They want to eat at home sometimes, and
they want to go out to restaurants as well. They sometimes want to watch
videos in their living rooms, and on other occasions they want the shared
experience of going to the movies with a big crowd of others. They want
public spaces for some purposes, and private places for others. They want
to be able to connect electronically, for a few minutes, to someone on the
other side of the world, and the next moment they want to chat to a
neighbor over the back fence while watering the garden.



One of our readers (Malcolm Parks), I notice, exhorts us to be wary of
passing off "personal experiences as empirical generalizations" ("let’s
acknowledge what we don’t know," he writes), as well as to "be thoughtful"
about the word "community." On the first point (though it’s always a good
idea to avoid generalizations and to admit what you don’t know), I think
we’re stuck: until we have more systematic studies on social relationships
in cyberspace, anecdotal evidence will have to fill the void. On the second
point, though, I think he’s dead-on target. We do need to think hard about
the term community. In this content, Howard’s notion of conferencing
systems as "tool for (among other things) building communities," strikes me
as particularly apt. It hits (to my mind, anyway), the right hierarchical
tone, and suggests a commitment to the real world community all too often
missing from the writings of the technologically devout.

In fact, I find myself in agreement with Howard (both generally, in terms
of his emphases and priorities, as well as specifically, in regard to his
qualifications), more than I might have expected. A few of the many points
on which seem to see entirely eye to eye: "We need to do something that is
spiritual," he writes, "not technical." Absolutely. Couldn’t agree more.
The only qualification that I would make is, admittedly, a personal one.
For me, transcendence comes (must come), through the offices of the real
world. What I labor at, daily, is to more and more "here," as Thoreau put
it. If a machine can help us pay attention to what remains of the natural
world, or to the increasingly tattered physical community human community
— terrific. If it distracts us further, then I think it’s a bad thing.

Lest this seem to be getting too warm and fuzzy, let me cool it down (and
shave it off) by turning to William and Stacy’s contributions. Picking up
on his earlier both/and argument, William points out that diversity is good
(who could argue?), that real world communities already offer a variety of
settings appropriate to different stages in human relationships" (true
again) and that cyberspace communities "simply add some interesting new
possibilities to the urban repertoire." What’s the problem? he seems to be
saying. It’s a free society. Like shoppers in the great American
supermarket, we can all pick and choose what we want.

At the risk of seeming harsh, this strikes me as being either disingenuous
or naive. Technologies both reflect and shape the dominant culture. They
can alter our perceptions, redefine our values, change the very shape and
grain of our lives in ways we can rarely predict. All too often we make
certain decisions, then stare dumbfounded at the disaster we’ve wrought.
More often still we think we’re making certain choices of our own free
will, even as we’re being herded in a particular direction by market forces
or by earlier technological/cultural developments which neatly set the
stage for the next generation of machines, effectively greasing one path
while blocking another. In short, the notion of choice (or easy choice,
anyway) is a myth: technologies, by and large, work like those tire-busting
spikes in parking lots: they’re pretty much one. Arguing that virtual
communities simply add another ingredient to the stew (which we are free to
sample or not), is a bit like arguing that genetically-altered vegetables
simply expand the consumer’s options. It’s more complicated (and
potentially coercive) than that. A lot more.

While I’m at it, let me suggest (while neatly sidestepping all conspiracy
theories), that the marketplace stands to gain something by first isolating
us from one another, then selling us simulated versions of the things we
used to have available to us, for free. As life in the West collapses (with
increasing speed), into a series of internal spaces (the home, the car, the
office, etc.), we are reduced to peering through screens of one sort of
another at the world we used to know. Resisting this centripetal pull (if
we decide that’s a good thing to do), is going to be tough as hell.

One (or two) last things, which neatly bring us back to the question of
whether virtual communities can result in a kind of ideological
ghettoization. For critics like myself, you write, "the rise of the virtual
community seems to follow the logic of suburbanization, as each social
group retreats behind the new gated communities of cyberspace." It strikes
me that this potential drawback is perfectly illustrated by Stacy’s
non-response to my questions. "I’m happy to have Mark and others like him
continue on thinking whatever they like," she writes. "What do I care?
There’s always William and others like him to talk to." Suburbanization?
You can almost hear the gates slam. In the increasingly feudal (and
insular) communities of suburbia, as in some of their virtual equivalents,
the logic of exclusion is strikingly similar and utterly unapologetic:
screw you, you’re not exactly like me. You make me uncomfortable. Besides,
"there’s always William," etc.

Last but not least, let me struggle for a moment with Stacy’s partial quote
(a pinch of exegesis would have helped here), of Robert Penn Warren’s
"Little Black Heart of the Telephone," which I’d always taken as a
nightmare evocation of the moment when electronic realities bleed into the
quiet spaces of the soul. Hoping to shed some light on Stacy’s reading of
the poem, I looked up the missing stanzas. No help. But there on the next
page was an epigraph from "Rattlesnake Country" which I found oddly
suggestive: "Is ‘was’ a word for wisdom, its price?"

I mention this line because history (and the hard wisdom we gain from it),
is one of the things I find most conspicuously lacking in the evanescent,
ever-unfolding world of the Net. As I see it (and it’s a difficult subject
to take up in a limited space), history, both personal and communal, is to
a large extent dependent on our identification with the specific features
of a particular landscape; that’s the stoop my mother liked to sit on;
there’s the tree Betty-Sue fell out of when I was six. That sort of thing.
Semi-nomadic, increasingly separated from place (for many of us, Rosanne’s
living room is as familiar as our own), we seem in danger of cutting
ourselves off from place entirely, and thereby from our own history.
Cyberspace, in this regard, represents the end of the road; a non-place
populated by ghosts. The price of inhabiting it, I fear, will be an
increasingly unmoored populace, a people severed from one of the
fundamental roots of personal identity.




Another criticism is that participating in online forums might give us
the feeling that we are participating in civic life, but in fact is
simply removing us from the eroding commons, where real people meet and do
all the unwritten things that keep democracies together. I hope that
virtual communities, properly used, can help revitalize the participation of
all citizens in civic life — teaching literacy, attending a PTA meeting or
a school picnic, entertaining at a nursing home, meeting with developers to
discuss the future of the neighborhood-online culture that isn’t written by
someone who hates it. One of the best critiques of virtual communities as
dangerous simulations of true civic life is by Jan Fernback and Brad
Thompson, "Virtual Communities: Abort, Retry, Failure?". With the author’s
permission, I posted a copy of their essay.

[Whether today’s virtual communities look more like Manhattan — or more
like Orange County?] is a good question to keep asking. I think it’s too
early to tell. Ask me again in five years whether I’ve left my house since
1995, and we’ll know the answer!



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