This isn’t technology’s second coming. It is, however, a good way to find a
community of interest. Computer mediated communication is a very effective
way for groups of people to carry on conversations about mutual interests
over a period of time, even if the people are geographically separated.
Relationships between correspondents have in fact grown, over years and
many events offline as well as online, into something resembling
communities.

Although I plead guilty to popularizing the phrase “virtual community,” I
believe it is time to strive to make our discussions in this regard more
precise. Much reflection and observation and soaking in online discussions
about the topic has led me to conclude that computer conferencing systems,
Usenet newsgroups, BBSs, e-mail lists, IRC channels, MUDs are all *tools*
for (among other things) building communities. In many senses, many of
those communities will resemble traditional communities: people will get
together face-to-face, daily or annually; people will do things that affect
each other’s lives in the offline world; it will take years to build deep
trust.

But we need to clearly distinguish between the tool and the task. You can
use the same medium to run a world-wide widget company, as many do. You
can use it to plan and rehearse warfare, which is the reason US taxpayers
funded the invention of computer networking in the first place. You can use
it to organize, educate, and employ people in a low-income community. You
can use it to exchange scientific information worldwide, quickly, at low
cost, which is where the World Wide Web came from. You can use it to
identify constituents, send our action alerts, organize get-out-the-vote
campaigns, no matter what the political cause may be. But these are all
carefully deliberated acts by people who have made a commitment to a
specific goal. Online communication forms are tools that are well-suited to
some tasks (brainstorming, for example, or carrying on a debate that
includes several distinctly different points of view) and not well-suited
to other tasks (if you and your boss or you and your spouse are in
conflict, you’d better go offline and face-to-face). We need to learn the
hammers from the nails, the screwdrivers from the pencils, we need to learn
how to build things, and we need to do something that is spiritual, not
technical: we need to agree upon what is worth building.

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