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Work in Progress - 9/13/1999Connecting: The Promise of Interactive Websites and Online Community When distilled down to its essence, most organizational goals, be they commercial, civic, or non-profit, revolve around transactions between individuals. The sending and receiving of information and knowledge. The buying and selling of goods and services. The giving and receiving of something beautiful: an image, words, ideas. The act of persuasion. The process of education. Each involves a connection between the sender and receiver. Something connects.
To many of us, the most compelling connection is a human connection, represented in face-to-face space, or cyberspace. Connecting brings us together and fulfills a range of human needs, both tangible and ephemeral. From sex, to business, to rock and roll.
The Internet has opened new avenues for connection. The power of this opportunity is evidenced by the Wall Street Internet stock feeding frenzy and the Holy Grail of e-commerce -- connecting to consumers! But there is more. Much more. The network that is the Internet along with emerging technologies, particularly sophisticated web-enabled databases and groupware, is facilitating new ways to connect people, ideas and information and allow them to collaborate regardless of time and distance. Some are calling this "community."
What Is This "Connection" Stuff?The Internet facilitates interactive communication. From the ease and ubiquity of email to the nuances of avatars in virtual worlds, there is a range of tools. Currently, most online interaction spaces utilize one or more of the following technologies to allow people to connect and communicate with each other.
These tools allow people to communicate, give feedback, ask questions, exchange information, pleasantries and flames, and even build relationships and reputations. They are the technologies of connection.
What Is This "Community" Stuff?
Much has been made of online community, currently a buzzword in the recent spate of community/portal alliances. Which portal is buying which online community aggregator? Who is "adding community" to their site? Dig a little deeper and there is the question of the very essence and definition of community respect to online and offline communities? Can there even be "community" online, without geographic representation, without face-to-face contact? Debates rage on what "qualifies" as a community, if anything, online. Is a GeoCities' personal web page aggregation a community? Is a site buzzing with e-commerce transactions a community? For the purposes of this piece, the answer is probably not. But they all might be components or enablers of community, and have community emerge from within as they provide the opportunity for connection.
How Some Folks Have Tried to Describe Community
Search the web and you will find dozens and dozens of discussions on the definition and existence of online communities. Here are a few.
Cliff Figallo, in his book Hosting Web Communities, describes a set of attributes that might capture this 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, offers this set of parameters 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 at http://www.co-i-l.com ).The UCLA Center for the Study of Online Community in their site introduction say 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, states " Communities are characterized by three things: common interests, frequent interaction, and identification." He posits 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 FCC 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.)
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?
From a more academic perspective, Luciano Paccagnella of the University of Milan suggests, "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 , 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://jcmc.mscc.huji.ac.il/vol3/issue1/paccagnella.html
Hagel and Armstrong in their definitive book on business related 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.
Howard Rheingold 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."
"Towntalk," a listserv on online community offers this description: "We define a virtual community this way:
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 recent 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 further, 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."
Marc Smith and Peter Kollock have 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.
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
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.)
Community as Connection
What each of these definitions offers is a variation on the theme of connecting. Be it a simple melody or a fugue of interwoven relationships, there is a connection in every view. So for this article, community is defined loosely as where people come together and share something of themselves with each other thus establishing interpersonal connections over time. Some capture this with the word "purpose."
If we try and nail "community" down any tighter, we start losing people. This seems counterproductive so my urge is to let it evolve. The borders are still hazy and shifting. And perhaps that is OK. We are trying to use and adapt new tools and it takes a little time. What may be more important is the need for each community to agree within its own membership on what it "is" and how that is represented through the community architecture, values and evolving culture.
The Nature of Connections Online
What is "being together" online and how do we do it?
The real tickler comes when we try and figure out how we manifest our connections online. What is it to "be" together online so that we can connect? How do we use language, software or our online "spaces" to code and decode the information, knowledge and meaning we wish to convey? How easy is it to join into a community and form connections? How easy is it to leave? How private is the space ? How "safe?" How much will a person risk in posting where their words are, in some senses, permanent records of their presence? Far more questions than answers. How will we express our identity and how is the online identity related to our offline identity? Here are a few simple points of departure. But remember, this is a web. The road signs are meager at best! (And please, share your ideas on the nature of online connections to firstname.lastname@example.org and I'll add them to this evolving piece!)
Connection through shared purpose or values
Communities of purpose and practice present engaging opportunities for online communication. With shared passion, purpose or goals, people seem willing to go "the extra mile" to try and communicate and exchange ideas. Reciprocity is critical helping people take the time to engage and participate in an exchange. Also, the ease of entry into a group where there is something in common can facilitate the process. Many people tend to gravitate to the familiar. Where there is shared purpose, there is an explicit link of commonality from which to build. Relationships have the opportunity for stability and people often hold each other accountable for showing up. People gone missing are more likely to be contacted through other means (email) to find out "where they are," making ease of exit slightly more difficult than a diffuse social community.
Connection that develops through ongoing conversations
Often characterized as an online party or cocktail gathering, ongoing social or business conversations provide a "meeting place" where people can reveal as much or as little about themselves as they care to in a process of exploration. When there is a connection, people come back and connect some more, building relationships and exchanging information together. Sometimes this takes the form of verbal game playing, dialog or even full blown debate (in all its forms!). The ease of entry varies -- for those more facile with words it is easier. For those more concerned with how their words will be judged, it can be more difficult. The ease of exit is very high until the relationships take form. Even then, in the electronic environment, it is very easy to disappear and perhaps no one will notice, providing little incentive to return.
Connections through shared conventions
Playing group games, from word games to complex multi-player virtual reality games, provides an opportunity to build connections much like communities that share purpose. By playing together, the group agrees to certain ground rules and conventions. You know the rules and if you choose to agree to them, you become part of the group. The conventions provide the initial bonds for the connections.
Connection engendered through specific transactions
The question of community and commerce is tantalizing as it offers elements of opportunity for businesses and potentially an element of consumer control. In this intersection, the theory is that this type of interaction can create stronger relationships that traditional commerce and could, in a sense, form enough connection to become community. Discussions about products, reviews and critiques still seem like one broadcasting their ideas to many, but the potential tempts. This is an area of online community that will provoke a great deal of experimentation and research, as there are potentially significant financial rewards at the end of the rainbow. But it is probably safe to say no one who has ventured here will say it is "easy" or "cheap" to explore the territory.
Is "Connection" Enough?
For some, merely connecting is still a superficial form of interaction, leading to the idea put forth by knowledge management consultant Denham Grey, that engagement is the next level that might lead us to community. Engagement implies some form of reciprocity, of give as well as take, of response instead of just "reading." Some forms of engagement might include dialog, teaching/learning, barter, information exchange or even flirting. We are just beginning to explore how far we can take this in our virtual interactions.
Online connections and online community can provide us bridges between ideas, cultures, worlds, time and space. For the optimists and idealists, this presents a promise that can reinvigorate and drive to action. For the pessimists, this may be another mindless time sink that removes us from daily face-to-face human interactions. Like most things, it is probably a little of both, and something more. The adventure continues!
For more on online community building and connecting, see:
© 1999-2007 Nancy White, Full Circle Associates