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What is a Virtual Community and Why Would You Ever Need One??

Last updated 1/02

Sue Boetcher
Heather Duggan
Nancy White

What is a "Virtual Community" Anyway?

The words "virtual community" and "online community" have been bandied about, hyped and interpreted in many ways. If you want to read about how others have tried to describe VC, check here (How Some Folks Have Tried to Describe Community). But for our purposes, we're going to keep it simple and in context of building your own community.

Online or virtual community is the gathering of people, in an online "space" where they come, communicate, connect, and get to know each other better over time. From that point on, the rest is up to you. Your community will be what you and your members make of it!

Want some examples? Ideas? Read on.

Why Do People Join and Build Virtual Communities?

People have been using online spaces since the beginning of the Internet to communicate. That includes prior to the World Wide Web, when BBS, or electronic bulletin boards and email loops connected folks across time and space. (For a good short history of the Internet, see http://www.dsv.su.se/internet/documents/internet-history.html). Many found that they began to form bonds of one sort of another. Today, the online forum tracking service, ForumOne (http://www.forumone.com) had more than 270,000 distinct communities and forums registered at their site in 1999. (The site no longer lists total numbers.) And many more remain unlisted.

Here are some of the types of activities people have enjoyed through these online connections.

  • Socialize - meeting people, playing around, sharing jokes, stories and just taking interest in each other. Communities like this often focus around bulletin boards and chat rooms. An example of such a community is Electric Minds at http://www.electricminds.org
  • Work together (business) - Distributed work groups within companies and between companies use online community to build their team, keep in touch and even work on projects together. A very detailed description of how online work groups work can be found at http://www.awaken.com and http://www.bigbangworkshops.com .
  • Work together (community - geographic) - Freenets (see the Freenet Directory) have offered local communities ways to communicate and work together. Some have even combined this with ISP service. Community groups such as soccer teams, school groups and others have used online community to provide forums for information and discussion, helping bring groups together.
  • Work together (issues) - Virtual communities have been very important to people who share interests in issues and causes. Support groups for people dealing with certain diseases, causes such as politics or the environment, or people studying together, all can form a nucleus for an online community.
  • Have topical conversations - Online salons and discussion forums such as the Well (http://www.well.com), Salon's TableTalk (as of mid 2001 a paid subscription model) (http://www.salon.com), Cafe Utne (http://www.utne.com) and others have formed communities of people who enjoy conversations about topics and shared interests. ForumOne noted in 1999 that the top ten topics for forums registered at their site are around the topics of (in order): relationships (16%), "mega sites (diverse topics, aggregations of smaller conferences - 11%), business and finance (8%), health (5%), hobbies (4%), religion (3%), music (3%), international (3%). It would be interesting to revisit those stats at the start of 2002.

Community Examples

The communities noted above and others across the Internet represent a wide range of interests and motivations. We asked a few community owners why they set up their communities and how it has turned out for them. Here are their stories.

  • Case History: A Community of Purpose - John Aravosis
  • Case Study: the IBM/Electric Minds'Kasparov v. Deep Blue
  • Nancy Rhine and Women's Wire
  • An anonymous parent at the neurology web is concerned that the anti-oxidant vitamins have too much copper for her 60 lb child with Tourette's Syndrome. Bonnie responds - "Copper increases the action of tryptophan 2,3 dioxygenase, thus breaking down tryptophan to kynurenine. In TS some studies have shown an already reduced level of tryptophan and increased level of kynurenine in the blood. Some copper is needed for the antioxidant action of superoxide dismutase and one of the cytoshromes, but the normal diet should provide enough copper without supplementing it further. Copper water pipes alone provide plenty (and sometimes too much if they are new) of copper."
    - From Neurology Web, Tourette Syndrome forum, http://neuro-www.mgh.harvard.edu/forum/TouretteSyndromeF/2.19.994.55PMQuestiontoBo.html
  • Jen CA9-Sunset19 worries about the leafless Butterfly Bush in her yard "I haven't under- or over-watered, etc. I planted it last fall. I guess I'll have to wait til spring really arrives (TRUE spring, not our pseudo/spring-wannabe winter) to see if it starts to come back. I know I could just get another one but I really don't want to have to do that." Within a day, she has four responses - Wanda's butterfly bush is in full bloom, Denise's is limping along. Gardening Gal and Kelli think it may be too cold. - From the GardenWeb, California Gardens (formerly at http://www.gardenweb.com/forums/load/calif/msg0210504717260.html?5)
  • Over in the Rock Hall of Fame forum, Robert Wilcox is hopping mad that AC/DC still hasn't been inducted into the hall of fame. "Let us not forget that the often forgotten AC/DC has sold more albums than the Stones. Yet for some reason, millions line up in droves to see the glorified British bar band perform the same antiquated riffs that Eddie Van Halen could play with his feet and a carboard pick." He falls into a dispute with Pay Attention, who insists that AC/DC is already an inductee.- From Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 500 Songs Forum, http://forums.rockhall.com/forums/get/songs/504.html

The Effect of Online Communities in Offline Lives

The rate of the growth of the Internet has generally exceeded most estimates, with increases in many, but not all segments of the population. The influence of the early adopter countries (such as the US) has had an effect on our online experiences. The concern that an ever growing "digital divide" is lessening the potential impact of the Internet in human life is an important issues. This has direct relevance if you are planning an online community for people with no Internet access. But more importantly, it is also a call to each of us to recognize how we can lessen the divide and look for ways to contribute to the improvement of our communities as part of our online life.

There has been much speculation on the affect of online activities on our offline lives, ranging from concerns about addiction, to meeting the "loves of our lives" online and getting married. There are examples from all the extreams, but the more relevant question is how do we integrate our offline and online experiences.

Amy Jo Kim, online community architect, has suggested that there are two ways we participate in online communites: "the kind where you're yourself and the kind where you are playing out a fantasy role. For example, the Well is a good example of a place where people are fundamentally themselves. It is not very hard to figure out someone's real name... But there are many online communities where you (a member of the community) actually can't find out who someone's is in "real life." People are role playing, and playing out a fantasy role. Many game communities are like that." (from an interview with Amy Jo Kim, 4/99)

Ms. Kim goes on to say, "I think that these two kinds of community play very different roles in people's lives. The gaming-oriented communities will affect you emotionally, but they won't tend to integrate into your life as what I would call 'augmented reality' communities do. I define these two types as "augmented reality" where you're "you," and you're there to integrate with your life -- deal with the issues in your life. The fantasy communities that are about escaping from who you are and pretending to be someone else. So much about augmenting reality is more about shaping your life. I think that the augmented reality type of communities have become progressively more entwined in people's lives."

" I think that it is good to remember that in many cases, it (online community) is another communications channel. The telephone is a communications channel that augments your life, so these communities are sort of like the telephone. But there's also data and sometimes it is asynchronous. Sometimes it creates gathering places for many people to come together, as do 900 numbers. I think that both of those trends will continue, and become much more integrated by people into their lives, and just another communications channel and other ways to hook up with people who share a common interest, shared purpose."

"I also think the fantasy aspect of communities will become even richer and even more immersive. And it will continue to be a place to escape to for entertainment. In that case, it may not integrate much with your life at all, but it will certainly affect your emotions."

What Kinds of Community Tools Can I Build With?

There are many interaction tools that you can use in building your community. Most online community-building systems offer you some or all of a range of features. Take a look at the features and how you can use them to build your community in the article Types of Online Community

What Steps Does it Take to Build a Virtual Community?

Interested now in building your own community? Read on, we have lots of materials and resources to help you on your way. But before you rush off, here is the overview of the steps it takes to build your own virtual community:

Where do I go from here?

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