Surely the question of text-only versus multimedia depends on what a
community is all about, what interests its members share, and what sorts
of exchanges are really important among community members.

If you’re interested in making appointments, exchanging gossip, getting
responses to queries, and expressing your opinion on current events,
then text is just great. Virtual communities that are animated largely
by these sorts of exchanges can work well with restricted bandwidth and
simple interfaces. And they’re not so revolutionary — not so different,
for example, from the London of yesteryear which had many mail
deliveries every day and a very flourishing tradition of frequent
written correspondence among the affluent and well-educated.

But my own far-flung community of interest happens to be one composed
largely of architects, graphic designers, photographers, and so on. Many
of our substantive exchanges are carried out (and important shared
experiences created) by exchanging images, jointly viewing images,
referring to images, altering images, and so on. If that kind of
community is going to go electronic/virtual in any serious way, you’ve
just got to have graphics.

The same thing goes for a community of musicians. Doesn’t seem to me
that it will get very far, or function in any very profound way, without
audio.

Of course text is going to remain very important to most people and
perhaps almost exclusively so to some. But saying that it will — by
itself — suffice to support any but the most narrow and rudimentary
sorts of virtual communities is like saying we should all just speak
Esperanto. This ignores the complexity and diversity of human purposes,
and the multiplicity of communication traditions, styles, and modes. As
we get the necessary bandwidth and computational horsepower, I think
we’ll see very strong pressure for sophisticated many-to-many
multimedia. Those virtual communities that survive in text-only mode
will seem increasingly quaint and archaic relics — like those mountain
villages where everyone wears the same clothing and speaks some rustic
and antique dialect.

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