Internet based information and communication technologies have enabled the evolution of new ways to communicate and, in turn, created new and dispersed communities. According to Gusfield (1975) the definition of sense of community includes two types of community: territorial and Geographical Community; a community built around a neighbourhood, town or city, and Relational Community; a community built around interests, spirituality or profession without reference to location. According to Durheim (1964) modern society develops community around interests and skills more than around locality and this is true when it comes to online communities in cyberspace.
There are many different online communities which serve a wide range of purposes. You find small groups in forums talking about specific topics, massive multiplayer online role-playing game worlds with hundreds of participants as well as communities of millions of people connected worldwide by an interest in exchange networks for goods or information (Wilson & Peterson, 2002). The internet has made it possible for people to find their niche, to find others with similar interests, and to build cyber communities around these interests.
“These new media collectives might be mobilised to further particular political agendas or to bring together dispersed members of familial or ethnic groups, or they might be organised around commodity consumption or multinational corporate interests.” (Wilson & Peterson, 2002)
These virtual neighbourhoods have given people the ability to socialise in circumstances which suit them better rather than what is on offer to them in the ordinary, everyday real-world. In The Second Self Sherry Turkle talks about Mark, a junior MIT student, who has been playing Dungeons and Dragons for a couple of years and he states that the people who play this game do it to help express their personalities in ways they feel they can’t in the real world. This online community engages them and holds them while also giving them enough space for them to feel they can truly be themselves.
Dungeons and Dragons allows Mark to be with people in a way that is as comfortable for him as dealing with things. It is his solution to a familiar dilemma: he needs and yet fears personal intimacy. He has found a way of being a loner without being alone. One might say that for him Dungeons and Dragons becomes a social world structured like a machine (Turkle, 2005).
Online communities can give people a sense of identity and more and more people are gravitating towards them in recent years. It is easier to find like-minded people sitting at home on the computer than it is to go into your local town and find them. However, some people do not agree with the notion of traditional communities within the cybersphere. In Fernback’s (2007) study, the participants are more concerned about the mediation that is constantly being done by the computer during all communication and how each member is still technically a stranger to the next one. They also question whether these cyber communities could really develop any real folklore, customs or legacies.
The community metaphor placed on virtual social relations is inadequate and inappropriate.The metaphor is one of fellowship, respect and tolerance, but those qualities describe only a fraction of our culturally understood ideas about community (Fernback, 2007).
- The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit – Sherry Turkle, 2005
- The Anthropology of Online Communities – Samuel M. Wilson and Leighton C. Peterson, 2002
- Beyond the diluted community concept: a symbolic interactionist perspective on online social relations – Jan Fernback, 2007
- Sense of Community: A Definition and Theory – David W. McMillan and David M. Chavis, 1986