There is great emphasis on the commercial and entertainment values/opportunities brought about by the development of the Internet. This type of focus may blur the true potential of the Internet as a toll for social development, or, in other words, the 'Developmental Internet'. The ability to converse, play Quake in 'real-time', exchange files with persons known or unknown on the other side of the planet via various computer-mediated means has opened whole new possibilities and realities for human social networking. This ability to communicate as never before has seen the emergence of so-called 'virtual communities' (VCs) to cater for human interactions in cyberspace. Some claim to actually provide a sense of community1 which others argue has come to take digital form through the breakdown of location-specific communities. The issue of what actually constitutes a community and whether such a concept can be represented in cyberspace has provoked much discord among literati.
Many VCs take the form of 'interest groups' as forums for synchronous discussions at a communal meeting place (commonly known as a 'chat room') on the Internet. Others are equally 'groups' of individuals who communicate asynchronously by email via a discussion list, or even posting to a message board on a web page. These and similar types hold a number of things in common: by virtue of the mediating technology they interface with they are groups of networked individuals; they all have a common interest particular to their group, be it social, cultural or otherwise; and their communication invariably takes the form of text-based discursive gestures.
Of focus in this study are the VCs whose interactions take place in the asynchronous environment of discussion lists via email. Of particular interest are the so-called 'Communities of Practice' (CoP) whose name implies more than a computer-mediated network of people. My interest in this came out of my university placement experience in the Dominican Republic working for FUNREDES2, whose role as host to the MISTICA discussion list introduced me to the dynamics of VCs which was all the more impacted by my attendance and faciliatory role during a physical reunion of the MISTICA VC in March 2001. I have also subscribed to the Community Informatics discussion list3which has proved to be an unrelenting source of rich information and informed comment concerning CoPs and the application of ICT (Information and Communication Technologies) to physical community settings.
I begin with an exploration of semiotics as a way of describing the communicative processes which take place in the interactions between the participants of CoPs. This involves putting communication in the context of information systems. I move on to discuss the particular style of such communication and how its adoption has brought about the emergence of a new oral mode of communication which takes on board Habermas' theory of communicative action as the basis for pragmatic communication.
In the next section I examine the need for meaningful communication in relation to the interactive groups which deploy this mode of communication. I use a recently published holistic approach to investigate the environment of CoPs and their use as Knowledge Management Systems.
Next, I distinguish between interaction and participation. I explore potential barriers to participation in a CoP, as well as to the flow of knowledge within the CoP. I then explore the artefacts produced by the activities of the CoP and investigate Kollock's concept of 'generalised exchange'4.
Finally, I conclude with a critique of my approach and its limitations; and carry out a synthesis of what I have explored.
Section 1: Semiotics and its role in meaning creation in the context of discussion lists
1.Wellman (2001), p. 2031
2.See Appendix 1
3.See Appendix 2