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How Some Folks Have Tried to Describe Community

By Nancy White
Updated April, 2005 (first version, 1999)

Search the web and you will find dozens and dozens of discussions on the definition and existence of online communities. In 1999 I collected a few that struck me as thoughtful and useful. A recent thread on Corante's Many2Many group blog prompted me to update this article. (Read the comments to the blog post -- that's where it gets interesting.) I've interspersed the old with the new.

Cliff Figallo, in his book Hosting Web Communities, described a set of attributes captured the essence of "connection" as manifest in community in terms of relationships. He uses words like "feeling part of a larger social whole," "web of relationships," "an exchange...of commonly valued things," and "relationships...that last through time creating shared histories." (p.15)

Mihaela Moussou, an experienced online community builder offered this set of parameters in 1999 for community as a group "supportive of all its members, accepts individual styles and fills in gaps when/where needed in order to sustain itself and for the good of the whole." (from a private conference).

The UCLA Center for the Study of Online Community in their site introduction state that the Center "seeks to present and foster studies that focus on how computers and networks alter people's capacity to form groups, organizations, institutions, and how those social formations are able to serve the collective interests of their members. If you are willing to use the word loosely, all of these social formations can be thought of as some form of community."

Wally Bock, an online commentator stated "Communities are characterized by three things: common interests, frequent interaction, and identification." He posited in 1999 that all three things must be present for an online space to be a community.

A federal judge at a FCC workshop said "Community is like pornography, I don't know how to define it, but I sure know it when I see it." "When we talk about communities at FE we are not referring to any aggregate of people, but to the quality of communication among them," said M. Scott Peck (Both quotes from Community Building, Renewing Spirit and Learning in Business.).

From a more academic perspective, Luciano Paccagnella of the University of Milan suggested, "Virtual communities has lately become a fashionable term which will be used here as a useful metaphor to indicate the articulated pattern of relationships, roles, norms, institutions, and languages developed on-line. This is not to say that we take the term virtual community as a positive value in itself, nor that we advocate an enthusiastic or optimistic view of computer networks. Even the very authenticity of communities developed on-line should not be taken for granted without an effort to come to a commonly accepted definition of what a community really is. The term virtual community is therefore still a problematic scientific concept ([Jones, 1995b]; [McLaughlin et al. 1995]). Anyway, communities are indeed worth studying when we do not look at them with romantic eyes, but with the eyes of the interpretivist ethnographer: according to Geertz [1973], man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun and the job of the researcher is to achieve a thick description of those webs." http://www.ascusc.org/jcmc/vol3/issue1/paccagnella.html

Hagel and Armstrong in their definitive book on business related online community, Net Gain, suggested there are five elements that define community which include: distinctive focus, integration of content and communications, a valuing of member generated content, an openness to competitive information/access and a commercial orientation.

In her book, "Inhabiting the Virtual City: The design of social environments for electronic communities" (Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1996), Judith Stefania Donath wrote, "People on the net should be thought of not only as solitary information processors, but also as social beings. People are not only looking for information, they are also looking for affiliation, support and affirmation... If we view people as social actors, then we should view the net as a social technology. A social technology is one that makes it possible to find people with common interests, to talk with them and listen to them, and to sustain connections with them over time." Is this community?

Howard Rheingold, the man who coined the term "virtual community" (and later suggested that that might have been a mistake!) offered in his book, The Virtual Community, "Virtual communities are social aggregations that emerge from the Net when enough people carry on those public discussions long enough, with sufficient human feeling, to form webs of personal relationships in cyberspace."

From a very different perspective, Nicholas J. Gervassis from the University of Edinburgh Law School writes about two types of virtual communities. " The first community, the intellectual virtual community, can be characterised on the basis of a shared (intellectual) interest, for example, members of a political organisation, or a Lords of the Rings fan club. The second, the functional virtual community, can be defined as a group of users participating on a single application platform, for example, an online game such as Ultima Online.[1] To understand the difference as well as the potential for operational conflict between the two, one might draw upon the contrast between nations and states. Where states constitute regionally limited legal formations, nations are broader in their geographical manifestations and are decided upon shared cultural characteristics that distinguish ethnical groups.[2] Functional communities resemble states: pinpointing their online locus at specific IP addresses, they submit to fundamental operational rules, set in the launching software’s computer code.[3] Similarly, intellectual communities resemble nations. Although group members rely upon a functional community as a means of gaining network access (citizenship), they adhere to collective basic characteristics, tastes and intellectual qualities that define their shared bond beyond the procedural mechanisms of limited online geographies (nationality)." (This is a very interesting article - read the rest of it!

"Towntalk," a listserv on online community (now defunct) offered this description in 1999: "We define a virtual community this way:

    1) It is interactive and built on the concept of many-to-many communications ...;
    2) It is designed to attract and retain community members who become more than superficially involved in community events ... and ... are able to make new friends through the community;
    3) It has a single defining focus; ... (that) gives them a reason to return;
    4) It provides services to community members, ... that meet community member needs;
    5) It has, or has the potential to develop, a strong commercial element..."

Joseph Cothrel and Ruth Williams, in their 1999 article in Knowledge Management Review (Jan/Feb 1999, pp. 20-25) interviewed people who worked together online. Their initial definition of online community was "a group of people who use computer networks as their primary mode of interaction." But users were more apt to say they were participants in "communities of practice" or "communities of interest." Probing future, the things people most associated with "community" were "a sense of commonality: common interests; purpose; or objectives" and felt "the social element was critical to distinguishing a community from a mere group of individuals."

Jake at Community Guy wrote in 2005 about community "People often think that blogs, forums, wikis, and other tools are community. In actuality, those tools are just that - tools. They can help you to build community, but they aren't actually "community". When we talk community, we're simply talking about an interaction, a connection. Blogs or forums are a way to initiate and sustain that interaction." He wrote that community is "A group of people who form relationships over time by interacting regularly around shared experiences, which are of interest to all of them for varying individual reasons."

Marc Smith and Peter Kollock edited a fascinating collections of essays in their 1999 book, Communities in Cyberspace, which delve deeper into the related issues of online community including governance, identity and reciprocity. The thread that runs through the essays is that people make real connections on the net.

247Webpages.com's Glossary in 2005 defines online community -- "While the entire global Internet is one online community the term is more specifically applied to particular interest groups, trades, cultural genres and local neighborhoods. For instance the "online arts community" refers to web sites and surfers in the arts. The Internet is experiencing its most recent growth in actual physical neighborhoods going online from community groups to shopping. In reality there are hundreds of thousands of online communities on the web. In most cases it will be critical for you to identify the best and highest number possible of web sites within particular online communities which may relate to your concern as these are your avenues for promotion of your own web site and audience cultivation."

Barry Wellman (2001) wrote "I define "community" as networks of interpersonal ties that provide sociability, support, information, a sense of belonging, and social identity. I do not limit my thinking about community to neighbourhoods and villages. This is good advice for any epoch and especially pertinent for the twenty-first century." Wellman has also talked more about networks than groups online which is another important angle into the definition of online community. "We find community in networks, not groups. Although people often view the world in terms of groups (Freeman 1992), they function in networks. In networked societies: boundaries are permeable, interactions are with diverse others, connections switch between multiple networks, and hierarchies can be flatter and recursive." (See also his useful note.)

Amy Jo Kim, author of "Community Building on the Web" wrote in 2001, "My own definition is a working, pragmatic definition, not the definition: A group of people who share a common interest or purpose; who have the ability to get to know each other better over time. There are two pieces to that definition. That second piece — getting to know each other better over time — means that there needs to be some mechanism of identity and communication. Something as simple as a mailing list has that. People have an identity, you know what their e-mail is, and you can communicate with them in the group setting. "

In the context of non profits, the Benton Foundation (2001) stated " "Online community" is the concept of convening people in virtual space and describes a range of online activities including electronic collaboration, virtual networks, Web-based discussions or electronic mailing lists."

If we step further back to more general definitions of community, there is another layer of meaning which has relevance for online communities. Here are a few:

"A community is a group of two or more people who have been able to accept and transcend their differences regardless of the diversity of their backgrounds (social, spiritual, educational, ethnic, economic, political, etc.). This enables them to communicate effectively and openly and to work together toward goals identified as being for their common good. " From the website of the Foundation for Community Encouragement

From the folks at Learnativity a bit more on the roots of "community." "In the physical world, communities are typically groups of people (a town, for instance) held together by some common identity or interest. The same holds true for virtual or online communities in that they, too, are comprised of people with shared identity or interests coming together for a shared purpose...Coming from two Latin words meaning "with gifts," the term community suggests a general sense of altruism, reciprocity, and beneficence that comes from working together. Communities help generate a shared language, rituals and customers, and collective memory of those that join the group."

And again from M. Scott Peck, "If we are going to use the word meaningfully [community] we must restrict it to a group of individuals who have learned how to communicate honestly with each other, whose relationships go deeper than their masks of composure, and who have developed some significant commitment to "rejoice together, mourn together," and to "delight in each other, make others' conditions our own." (The Different Drum: Community Making and Peace by M. Scott Peck M.D.)

References and Other Sources

Beck, Frank. 2000. "Re Communities." Comment on the American Sociological Association Community and Urban Sociology discussion list, January 15: http://www.commurb.org/features/futurecommunity.shtml
Castells, Manuel. 1996. The Rise of the Network Society. Malden, MA: Blackwell.
Darkwa, Osei and Fikile Mazibuko. 2000. "Creating Virtual Learning Communities in Africa: Challenges and Prospects." First Monday 5 (5), website: http://firstmonday.org/issues/issue5_5/darkwa/index.html.
Gervassis, N. ‘In Search of the Value of Online Electronic Personae:Commercial MMORPGs and the Terms of Participation in Virtual Communities', 2004 (3) The Journal of Information, Law and Technology (JILT).
Hillery, George Jr. 1955. "Definitions of Community: Areas of Agreement." Rural Sociology 20: 111-122.
Putnam, Robert. 2000. Bowling Alone. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Peck, M.S. "The Different Drum" Rheingold, Howard. 2000. The Virtual Community. revised edition. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Wellman, Barry. 1979. "The Community Question." American Journal of Sociology 84: 1201-31.

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