A virtual community is a group of people primarily or initially communicating or interacting with each other by means of information technologies or social software, typically over the Internet, rather than in person. Virtual communities are also known as online communities or computer-mediated communities (CMC).
Today, virtual community or online community can be used loosely for a variety of social groups interacting via the Internet. It does not necessarily mean that there is a strong bond among the members, although Rheingold mentions in that virtual communities form "when people carry on public discussions long enough, with sufficient human feeling, to form webs of personal relationships" . An email distribution list may have hundreds of members and the communication which takes place may be merely informational (questions and answers are posted), but members may remain relative strangers and the membership turnover rate could be high. This is in line with the liberal use of the term community.
The term virtual community is attributed to the book of the same title by Howard Rheingold, published in 1993. The book discussed his adventures on The WELL and onward into a range of computer-mediated communication and social groups. The technologies included Usenet, MUDs (Multi-User Dungeon) and their derivatives MUSHes and MOOs, IRC (Internet Relay Chat), chat rooms and electronic mailing lists; the World Wide Web as we know it today was not yet used by many people. Rheingold pointed out the potential benefits for personal psychological well-being, as well as for society at large, of belonging to such a group.
Virtual communities may synthesize Web 2.0 technologies with the community, and therefore have been described as Community 2.0, although strong community bonds have been forged online since the early days of USENET. Virtual communities depend upon social interaction and exchange between users online. This emphasizes the reciprocity element of the unwritten social contract between community members. Web 2.0 is essentially characterized by virtual communities such as Flickr, Facebook and Del.icio.us.
Different virtual communities have different levels of interaction and participation among their members. This ranges from adding comments or tags to a blog or message board post to competing against other people in online video games such as MMORPGs. Not unlike traditional social groups or clubs, virtual communities often divide themselves into cliques or even separate to form new communities. Author Amy Jo Kim points out a potential difference between traditional structured online communities (message boards, chat rooms, etc), and more individual-centric, bottom-up social tools (blogs, instant messaging buddy lists), and suggests the latter are gaining in popularity.
The ability to interact with likeminded individuals instantaneously from anywhere on the globe has considerable benefits, but virtual communities have bred some fear and criticism. Virtual communities can serve as dangerous hunting grounds for online criminals, such as identity thieves and stalkers, with children particularly at risk. Others fear that spending too much time in virtual communities may have negative repercussions on real-world interaction (see Internet addiction disorder).
The idea that media could generate a community is quite old. Progressive thinkers such as Charles Cooley, early in the 20th century in the United States, envisioned a nation whose members were united strongly because of the increased use of mass media. Also well-known is the term community without propinquity, coined by sociologist Melvin Webber in 1963. As well, Benedict Anderson's Imagined Communities describes how different technologies contributed to the development of a national consciousness among early nation-states. Particularly relevant is his description of how national newspapers, which collected and presented news from a certain geographical area, soon made it natural to think of that geographical area as comprising a single entity. In other words, national newspapers contributed to the idea of a nation, and from thence to the construction of a nation-state.
The explosive diffusion of the Internet into some countries such as the United States was also accompanied by the proliferation of virtual communities. The nature of those communities and communications is rather diverse, and the benefits that Rheingold envisioned are not necessarily realized, or pursued, by many. At the same time, it is rather commonplace to see anecdotes of someone in need of special help or in search of a community benefiting from the use of the Internet.
The term "community", when used about virtual communities, is contentious among some circles. The traditional definition of a community is of a geographically circumbscribed entity (neighbourhoods, villages, etc). Virtual communities, of course, are inherently dispersed geographically, and therefore are not communities under the original definition. However, if one considers communities to simply possess boundaries of some sort between their members and non-members, then a virtual community is certainly a community. The idea of neatly bounded communities is also being critiqued, since communities are fluid just as much as they are static, with members joining and leaving and even being part of different communities simultaneously.
Benchmark virtual communities
- BBS or Internet Forum: The WELL, GEnie
- Blog: LiveJournal, Xanga, MySpace, Facebook, Blogspot, Blogger
- Webcomic: UserFriendly, Penny Arcade, Sluggy Freelance
- Habitat: LucasFilm's Habitat, VZones
- IM: ICQ, Yahoo! Messenger, Windows Live Messenger, AIM
- MMORPG: Everquest, Ultima Online, World of Warcraft, Silk Road Online
- MOO: LambdaMOO
- MUD/MUSH: TinyMUD
- P2P: Kazaa, Morpheus, Napster, Limewire
- Wiki: Wikipedia, WikiWikiWeb, Wetpaint, PBWiki
- WWW: eBay, GeoCities, Slashdot
Additional virtual community listings
- Electric Minds
- Something Awful
- The Talk
- See article: List of social networking websites
- Albino Blacksheep
MUD, MUSH, MOO
- 4chan (imageboards)
- GameTZ.com (an online game, music, movie, and book trading community)
- Meetup (an online service designed to facilitate real-world meetings of people involved in various virtual communities)
- Hospitality Club (free accommodation world wide through hospitality exchange)
- eHarmony (online dating service)
- Del.icio.us (social bookmarking)
- Flickr (photo tagging)
- Stumbleupon (web surfing)
- YTMND (Picture, Sound, Text)
Virtual community pioneers and experts
- Jonathan Bishop
- Bart Cilfone
- Howard Rheingold
- Sherry Turkle
- Bulletin board system
- Chat Room
- Computer-mediated communication
- Discourse community
- Electronic advocacy
- Internet forum
- Internet social network
- Massively distributed collaboration
- Motivations for Contributing to Online Communities
- Massively Multiplayer Online Role-playing Games
- Network of practice
- Online deliberation
- Online wedding
- Social network
- Social software
- Social evolutionary computation
- The Virtual Community
- Virtual Community of Practice
- Virtual Ethnography
- Virtual Reality
- Web of trust
- Category:Virtual reality communities
- Anderson, B. (1983). Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso.
- Farmer, F. R. (1993). "Social Dimensions of Habitat's Citizenry." Virtual Realities: An Anthology of Industry and Culture, C. Loeffler, ed., Gijutsu Hyoron Sha, Tokyo, Japan
- Hagel, J. (1997). Net Gain: Expanding Markets through Virtual Communities. Boston: Harvard Business School Press (ISBN 0875847595)
- Kim, A.J. (2000). Community Building on the Web: Secret Strategies for Successful Online Communities. London: Addison Wesley (ISBN 0201874849)
- Kim, A.J. (2004). “Emergent Purpose.” Musings of a Social Architect. January 24, 2004. Retrieved April 4, 2006 .
- Kosorukoff, A. & Goldberg, D. E. (2002) Genetic algorithm as a form of organization, Proceedings of Genetic and Evolutionary Computation Conference, GECCO-2002, pp 965-972
- Morningstar, C. and F. R. Farmer (1990) "The Lessons of Lucasfilm's Habitat", The First International Conference on Cyberspace, Austin, TX, USA
- Preece, J. (2000). Online Communities: Supporting Sociability, Designing Usability. Chichester: John Wiley & Sons Ltd. (ISBN 0471805998)
- Rheingold, H. (2000). The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier. London: MIT Press. (ISBN 0262681218)
- The author has made available an online copy
- Building Electronic Communities and Networks - free e-learning module on designing, developing and facilitating virtual communities.
- The International Journal of Web-Based Communities
- News Consumption in Online Communities
- Online Community Report - news and trends in online collaboration.