Mark offers a provocative distinction between positive and negative uses for
virtual communities: “the transmission of data [vs.] the transmission of
experience.” His line in the sand points to the promise of new
technologies. This of course isn’t the first time we’ve had to tease the
benefits of new technology out of the hype: radio and TV are just two
examples. We’ve also seen how difficult it is to wrest the benefits from
these technologies once in play. TV created a nation of couch potatoes,
each passively absorbing images created and filtered by media
conglomerates. By now, it’s a tired statistic that the average American
spends far more of her leisure time watching TV than reading. Virtual
communities are offered up as an antidote: now we can reclaim democracy,
vent our opinions about the OJ trial, and circumvent Op-Ed page editors,
not to mention obtain tons of useful information. Consensus seems to be,
from both dialog readers and participants, that virtual communities are a
step up from the boob-tube. So let’s consider some of the more subtle
aspects of hanging out in virtual communities: Do they really engender
deeper, more informed conversations far from the distraction of pundits? Or
do members trade serious reflection on an issue for postable prose,
do-it-yourself soundbites?

And finally — we’ve spent a great deal of time here speculating on the
future of online culture, the social possibilities unleashed by the new
technologies of the information revolution. But as Tim Burke and other
readers point out, “community” is often more of a state of mind than
anything else. However much our virtual communities may be shaped by their
underlying hardware, they are also profoundly shaped by us — the citizens
and the cybernauts. So let’s end on a note of activism: what can we do to
make the electropolis as meaningful, lively, and diverse as its real-world
predecessor? How do we ensure that virtual communities do not become yet
another platform for an atomized world, where everyone lives in her own
cube and connects to the Outside only through videophone and e-mail? As
millions of Americans jet into cyberspace, how do we make sure the virtual
community remains a useful community-building “tool” — as Howard puts it
— and not an enveloping surrogate life?

How does digital telecommunications technology become a useful
community-building tool? How do we avoid the downsides?

I doubt that it’s very useful to try to answer these questions at some high
level of abstraction. But they become interesting when we consider the
options that may face us in concrete, specific contexts.

Take the case of MIT, for example. (It’s a very immediate and pressing one
for me.) One possible future for us is to go virtual in a dramatic and
sweeping way. We could sell all that valuable real estate along the Charles
River, put the proceeds into endowment, and rent whatever laboratory and
office space we still needed at some lower-cost location out along Route
128. We could (pretty soon) use high-bandwidth, two-way, multimedia
telecommunications to deliver lectures, seminars, and even one-to-one
discussions with professors to homes, workplaces, and classrooms throughout
the world. Our student body would be dispersed and international, and so
would our faculty — since they could conduct their research deliver their
teaching from pretty much anywhere. Essentially, MIT would become a
research and education brokering service operating internationally to connect
teachers to students and researchers to each other and to their sponsors.
We would probably end up merging with some giant telecommunications
conglomerate, much as movie and recording studios have done. Of course we
would jealously protect the historic MIT name and logo, and zealously
defend our intellectual property.

This could be a pretty good business, and I have no doubt that we will
quite soon see some businesses flourishing along essentially these lines
(and scaring the pants off established educational institutions in the
process). But, as we’d probably all feel, something very important would be
lost if we were to go that way? What, precisely, is that?

Well, consider what’s particularly valuable about MIT. It is, of course,
the special — indeed, unique — character of the community that it
supports. Students compete to be admitted to that community, and their
parents are prepared to pay a great deal to keep them in it for some years,
because its attractions cannot be duplicated elsewhere. Similarly,
outstanding faculty members can be recruited largely because the
intellectual advantages of participating in the MIT community seem
compelling. This all depends on the density and intensity of face-to-face
interactions made possible by concentrating the whole enterprise on one
small patch of ground. If you inhabit that patch of ground, you just get
more stimulating and important intellectual interactions per day than you
can in most other places. If MIT were to go virtual, the special character
of the community — on which everything depends — would quickly be lost.
It’s a bad option.

But consider, now, the possibility of using advanced digital
telecommunications to extend and enrich, rather than to replace that
physically-based community. MIT might, for example, begin to offer
electronically delivered ongoing educational services to alumni. This would
be a return to the medieval idea of a university as a lifelong community of
scholars, but would usefully adapt to the circumstance that senior members
of the community now disperse widely into the world rather than remain for
life behind college walls. In a similar way, immediate electronic
connections to MIT might be offered to the most promising young
mathematicians and scientists among high school seniors. This model could
be elaborated endlessly, but I think the basic idea is now clear;
selectively and critically augment the physically-based community with
electronic links, rather than use electronics for wholesale replacement of
face-to-face contact by telecommunication.

Now generalize this approach to other contexts and types of communities. I
like Stacy’s notion that Echo provides some additional connections that
extend and enrich New York’s social and cultural life. I like the way that
Seniornet breaks down the physical isolation that affects so many older
members of our communities. I like the way that the Big Sky Telegraph (and
some emergent similar efforts in the Australian outback) begins to weld
tiny, isolated communities into a larger whole that provides greater
diversity and wider social, intellectual, and economic opportunity. I like
the proposal to create “Virtual Ireland” — a promising way to preserve and
strengthen the culture of an emigrant people. These things have all emerged
in response to very real human needs and desires in particular contexts,
and I think they are very successful for that reason.

You can always construct arguments that, by taking a wider view, we could
find better ways to deal with these needs. For example, it might make more
sense to resist a social system that systematically isolates its older
members, rather than to create a technological palliative for that
isolation. It’s always prudent to raise and debate this sort of point
before looking for a technological fix. (Mark could, no doubt, develop that
point eloquently.) And we certainly have to consider the sometimes-subtle
second-order effects that introducing a new technology can have. (Who could
forget the lesson of the automobile!) But I think we will find, with
increasing frequency, that telecommunications infrastructure is one of the
most practical and effective community building tools we now have. When we
find that deploying this infrastructure in some context can really make a
positive difference in people’s lives, we ought to go for it.

Will virtual communities help us “reclaim democracy,vent our opnions about
the OJ trial, and circumvent Op-Ed newspaper editors” etc.” Clearly,
there’s something very powerful (and potentially very positive) about a
technology that allows millions of people to share ideas and allows them to
side-step the occassionally ignorant or biased “filters” like magazine
Op-Ed editors. My concern (a viable one, to judge by the mass of stuff
online), is that the Net will privilege “venting” over debate and knee jerk
speed over reflection. There’s a very real chance that what the net will
produce is not “tons of useful information,” but virtual mountains of
babble among which the occasionally useful tidbit of information (the kind
not available in the local library), will be as easy to find as a nickel in
a landfill.

At some point, we may have to ask ourselves a few unpleasant questions. Do
we truly need another, even more egalitarian outlet for our ideas? Is
anyone truly being shut ourt of the debate in this country? After all,
there are currently thousands (probably tens of thousands) of outlets
available — newspapers, magazines, journals, of all descriptions and
political persuasions. To publish (even for the semi–literate or decidely
wacky) is simply not that tough. True, breaking onto the New York Times
Op-Ed page or into The New Yorker may require a level of accomodation to
the powers that be that many may find restricting, but there are other
outlets. And for those who would argue that these other outlets are often
marginal and do not let us enter the national debate, well, most are a
whole lot less marginal than the newsgroups and BBS’s on wich we can post
our thoughts on the Net.

In short, the apparent egalitarianism on the net, while appealing, hides
the unpleasant fact that some filtering is probably necessary; that not
everyone who can tap on a keyboard has something interesting or useful to
say. Sounds elitist, I know. But consider that Howard, Stacy, Bill and I
are here only because the folks at FEED selected us to be here, because we,
in turn, had done or written something which suggested that we had
something to offer. Does that mean there aren’t a hundred other people out
there whose thoughts aren’t potentially equally useful, or more so. Not at
all. It simply means that in order to survive (and to be readable), FEED
has to make certain choices. Not unlike The New Yorker after all.

Another unsettling thought regarding the “tons of useful information”
comment. Do we, after all need tons of useful information? Don’t we already
have available to us more information than we possibly know what to do
with? The New York Times worries continually (I notice again this morning)
about the “information have nots.” Is it a lack of information that gives
young black men in south-central LA the life expectancy of front-line
grunts during the Vietnam War, or that separates my bright (Anglo) six
year-old who reads on a fourth grade level from the equally birght
(Chicano) six year-old a mile away who doesn’t read at all? Is our
scandalous infant mortality rate due to a lack of information? No, no, and
no again. We’re drowning in information (and drowning just the same). It
seems to me that before buying into the Newt-like notion of information as
the panacea for all that ails us, the New York Times might do better to
worry about the “food have-nots,” or the “education have-nots,” or the
“immmunization have-nots.” The lap-tops can wait. As Neil Postman has
pointed out so well (and I’m entirely with him on this one), there are very
few problems we face that arise from a lack of information. We know what
ails us; we’re just not doing anything about it.

Let me end on a note of skepticism. “What can we do to make the
electropolis as meaningful, lively, and diverse as its real-world
predecessor?” In my opinion, not a damn thing. The real world is not
susceptible to duplication; it’s a problem no amount of bandwidth can
compensate for. “How do we ensure that virtual communities do not become
yet another platform for an atomized world, where everyone lives in her own
cube,” etc? At the risk of sounding glib, by turning off the machine
whenever possible. By denying it the allegiance it demands. By recognizing
that today (as Kevin Kelly has put it), we already “inhabit a terrain of
simulacra,” and that the trend is toward ever-more pervasive and
sophisticated simulations; by asserting, in the face of that trend, the
value of the unmediated moment, and reacquainting ourselves with the aura
of the real.

Teasing the benefits of new technology out of the hype is definitely a task
at hand. I think it’s deeper than that. *Every* technology changes us and
changes the world around us, and those changes usually don’t become evident
for years or decades after the technologies are first deployed. We don’t
have any vocabulary for discussing the fine points of technology effects
that are NOT beneficial. The only behavior that comes to hand, once you see
beyond the hype or even experience the horrors that naive technological
optimism ignores (Bhopal, Chernobyl, etc), is the extreme one of rejection.
I think we are a world of people who have never learned to see the shades
of gray. The virtual world is one area where we better crank up our ability
to discriminate.

Sad commentary, isn’t it? Making inane conversation with another human, far
away, insulated by wires and screens and ASCII, is better than being a
total zombie. At least there is the chance that you might go beyond inane
conversation. How much further than inane conversation is possible? How
much of the important parts of real communities are authentic in
cyberspace, and how much is cruel, even dangerous, illusion? I don’t know.
I don’t think enough people have looked closely enough or long enough to

Again, we’re mesmerized by the tool and need to pull back from a tight
focus to a long shot on the task that people are using the tool to
accomplish. So what are people trying to accomplish? Some of them seem to
be genuinely reaching out to each other. So what do you do when you reach
out and find other people in the cyber-realm? What then, in your real life?
I think that’s where we are now. As more and more people rush into online
discourse, we need to focus on what this actually does to affect our real
lives, and whether those affects are beneficial. The only thing I am
willing to bet on now is that the truth is neither in the realm of black
nor in the realm of white, but in the shades of gray.

This dialogue is a start. But discussions at this level need to be repeated
for many more people.

I’ve experienced enough real community through online discourse to know
that in some instances, the tool can be used to enhance authentic
community. But I don’t have a magical belief that just because people are
using computer conferencing software they are going to have the interest or
the patience to work through the long, arduous, often painful process of
community-building out in the world of bodoes.

Words have great power. I started using the term “virtual community” in the
nineteen eighties, in order to convince people that online discourse is not
the sole province of antisocial geeks who can’t handle face to face
conversation. Now I find myself fighting the magical belief, or the
perception of the magical belief, that adding computers will create
“electronic democracy” or that virtual worlds are going to solve the
problems we have in the nonvirtual world. I think talking about online
conversation as a tool, which then leaves an opening for talking about what
it is you are building with the tool, and how the building is designed, and
how the design might affect human life [is crucial].

I was one of those who were caught up in enthusiasm for the democratizing
potential inherent in many-to-many communication. When hundreds of millions
of people can have the technological power on their desktops that only the
Pentagon could afford twenty years ago, the potential is still significant.
I still believe that potential can be realized, but not through unthinking
enthusiasm. The time is right for looking cautiously, skeptically, but not
pessimistically, at what people managed to actually accomplish with the
tools of many-to-many communication over the coming years.

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