Are Online Communities “Real”?

PC Magazine’s John Dvorak writes on the “fragility” of social networking:

I’m of the opinion that there is no such thing as a real community online. It’s a “pretend” community that we like to feel we’re a part of, but it’s composed of users who could jump ship at any moment, and often do.

…A good online community, whether it’s Second Life, Twitter, or something new, is indeed fun to belong to if you have the time or inclination. But please do not take it seriously, and never believe that you’re part of a true community. Get out of your house, and you’ll find the community out there in the street. That’s real.

This seems to counter the actual experience of anyone who has participated in an online community, as people indeed take these social interactions seriously. Howard Rheingold, in The Virtual Commmunity, writes about his life as part of the 1980s online site, The WELL. Here, he considers the question of “realness”:

Some people–many people–don’t do well in spontaneous spoken interaction, but turn out to have valuable contributions to make in a conversation in which they have time to think about what to say. These people, who might constitute a significant proportion of the population, can find written communication more authentic than the face-to-face kind. Who is to say that this preference for one mode of communication–informal written text–is somehow less authentically human than audible speech? Those who critique CMC because some people use it obsessively hit an important target, but miss a great deal more when they don’t take into consideration people who use the medium for genuine human interaction.

Rheingold, in fact, has just posted an old video on his blog, from a WELL party back in the day, which was picked up by Boing Boing. A quick glance through the comments shows just how much this community meant to its participants:

“…at 5:00 the man walking behind Howard is, I believe, David Morgenstern, a mordant wit whom I later worked with at MacWeek. I still recall (and tell) his joke about the thrice-married virgin.”

“I miss those days. Of all the services from back then (GEnie, Compuserve, Etc.), I wish I would of hung on to my Well account.”

“Yo bobert!”

“…FWIW, pozar had a 50th birthday party this weekend and I got to see a bunch of the old WELL gang f2f. Didn’t see flash, even though he had said he was coming. Hi to the rest of you!”

“…I was on the well from 1988 to around 1991, when I left to go to Asia to be a Buddhist nun, and then a bit after I got back (still a nun). Howard put me in his book about virtual community after the Well pulled together to help me when I was dying in India, and it’s sweet to see everyone again.”

A close look into other online communities reveals similar types of strong connections between people. Consider this exchange between bloggers in a post on Daily Kos, as one of them discusses his or her struggle with addiction:

…While I find myself re-entering the world outside my home gradually, I realize I’m still having a hard time connecting to people. I know I need to be patient but I also realize that it is this feeling of loneliness that triggers the desire to use. I only really feel I deserve to be around other addicts because I still feel too much shame about the damage I’ve done to myself. And the best thing for me to do would probably find some 12 Step Meetings with people I am comfortable with…

Good Ideas (38+ / 0-)
Working out, or riding a bike, or what about helping others? I’ve never been in your shoes, but my brother is a dead man walking and his whereabouts are unknown.
I’d give anything if he could be clean for even a week.
Stay strong.

… part of the process maybe? (25+ / 0-)
hang on. it’s my understanding learning how to deal with those feelings is part of the process of recovery from addiction.
do you have a counselor or a sponsor you can talk with?
if not, we’re always here …

… 18 years in May is nothing (25+ / 0-)
compared with your 83 days. Your success is immense and the world of goodness that awaits you hinges on you staying “clean and sober” today, not one week at a time.

Participants in online communities often share deeply personal, touching stories about their lives. While these examples are presented here anecdotally, they are actually quite common in the blogosphere, and speak to the strong, and often intimate, social ties created online. (To relate this to some of my prior posts, this parallels oral cultures, in what Walter Ong calls being close to the “human lifeworld.”)

Dvorak seems to be saying online communities aren’t “real” because they’re not permanent, that their users could “jump ship” at any time. Is this really all that much different from communities in the offline world? Don’t offline communities fail, or fizzle out, or base themselves on trivialities? Are we still friends with everyone we knew in high school, or college? Is the after work TGIF’s beer crowd anything more than a convenient gathering? Do most of our offline “communities” involve discussions about addiction, or engender the kind of heart-felt responses as seen in those comments about the WELL?

Perhaps more importantly, what Dvorak misses completely is that online communities are often conduits for real-life interaction. We see that in the WELL video, and we saw it in the Dean campaign’s use of Meetup.

Positive, working communities can certainly develop both online and off, and to question an online community’s “realness” misses the point completely. The trick, it seems, when considering the question of community, is to figure out why they work, and how we can replicate these successes more often.

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