Social entities on the Net that are created when people carry on public discussions long enough and with enough feeling to form true personal relationships in cyberspace. The phenomenon was described by Howard Rheingold in his book, The Virtual Community.

The need for public discussion usually implies some sort of conferencing capability. Examples of virtual communities on the Web include The WELL, Electric Minds, and Slashdot (in certain respects).

The following monograph was written in the Spring of 1999 for completion of a doctoral seminar at the University of Michigan. I would add several new twists to this definition of virtual community based on subsequent reading, but feel that this remains a good introduction to a wide range of literature on the subject.


The word “community”, like “information” suffers from a wealth of definitions. It is defined geographically, functionally, by interest, by demographics and any other number of alternate meanings. It may be the reason there are so many definitions of both community and information is that they are both qualities that, while ambiguous, have some perceived value that remains elusive. Again like the concept of information, the concept of community is probably not best served by tying it to a single definition. The School of Information is interested in the idea of community in several differing aspects of the term. Even more, we seem interested in how virtual communities reflect or differ from traditional usages of the term. This review will address the characteristics of community as it intersects with information or information technologies. The focus of that review will fall mainly on virtual communities.

Differing perspectives on “community”

As had already been observed, the rhetoric about virtual communities is easily muddied by the preponderance of meanings for the word “community.” The classic sociological definition of communities by Thomas Bender (Bender and Kruger 1982) is:

“A community involves a limited number of people in a somewhat restricted social space or network held together by shared understandings and a sense of obligation. Relationships are close, often intimate, and usually face to face. Individuals are bound together by affective or emotional ties rather than by a perception of individual self-interest. There is a “we-ness” in a community; one is a member.”

Different pedagogues seem to focus on different aspects of this definition. Some focus on the affective ties, some on the mutual obligation and others on shared understanding. This picking and choosing of elements of a community can lead to semantic arguments where iVillage can claim to be a community based on the common understanding of being a woman, while critics like Galston (1999) say this type of gathering cannot in any way be called a community.

Having reviewed the literature, this paper will roughly divide discussion of community into three categories. Communities of practice are centered around limited groups of people who have “common ground” usually typified by scientific communities, writer’s circles or the like. Communities of interest are perhaps the least satisfying type of community, and rarely discussed in the academic literature on virtual communities, though most commonly discussed in e-commerce discourse. These groups are people bound together by common interests, or demographics and can include things like new parents, Tom Waits fans, or gaming groups. The third type of community discussed here is perhaps the most elusive to pin down. Communities as naturally occurring social phenomena tend to have a pervasive geographic metaphor. Main street, German bier-gartens and the like held up as proto-typical examples of this type of community, and have become something of a Grail Quest for virtual communities. Research in this area usually centers around either using technology to replace these geographically centered communities (or bemoaning that replacement) or to supplement and support geographically centered communities. In this paper they will be referred to as communities of obligation, to mark the affective bonds usually inherent in this type of community.

The following section discusses each of these types of community, including current threads of research in each of these areas.

Communities of Practice

“Communities of Practice” is a term most fully developed by Wenger (Wenger 1999). For Wenger, communities of practice are defined by three dimensions:

Wenger claims that communities of practice exist within any organization, but are different from typically defined organizational flowcharts. It is different from a functional unit in that it is emergent from practice in ways mandated units are not. Community of practice is different from teams in that shared learning and has a life cycle determined by its use to its members rather than an institutionally mandated existence. Also, communities of practice are different from networks, in that they have meaning and are not simply an evaluation of relationships between group members. Sometimes these communities are mandated by organizations, and sometimes operate outside of, or in spite of, organizational norms.

This literature intersects with a major collaborator of Wenger, Jean Lave. She addresses specifically learning and the training of new members in communities of practice (Lave 1991). Lave uses the terms of apprenticeship to explain the different structure of learning in communities of practice. Being an apprentice is not the same as being a pupil. Apprenticeship for Lave here is learning as a peripheral participant. Lave uses examples of Yucatec midwives and newcomers to Alcoholics Anonymous to show how new members learn by participating with increasing depth with old members. Lave and Wenger in their book (Lave and Wenger 1993) discuss how situated learning is an ongoing practice in many groups, creating a constantly renegotiated sense of community, a living group identity.

“Communities of practice are everywhere. We all belong to a number of them- at work, at school, at home, in our hobbies. Some have a name, some don’t. We are core members of some and we belong to others more peripherally.” (Wenger 1998). Communities of practice have the following characteristics:

  • They are nodes for the exchange and interpretation of information.
  • The can retain knowledge in ‘living’ ways, unlike a database or a manual.
  • They can steward competencies.
  • They provide homes for identities.
Brown and Duguid (Brown and Duguid 2000) are deeply affected by the work of Wenger and Lave in their discussions of practice vs. process. Their book, “The Social Life of Information” can be seen as a long argument against disturbing communities of practice. From the practice of Xerox technical representatives to the continued persistence of the university, their central thesis is that relationships between people, a common characteristic of community, are crucial in the development and deployment of technology.

Other researchers have noted the importance of relationship and common identity in organizing before Wenger and Lave. Work on “invisible colleges” (de Solla Price 1963) presages much of the discussion of communities of practice. Price describes the creation of invisible colleges as a reaction to a glut of scientific journals available to any one scientist. In reaction to this preponderance of literature, scientists carve smaller niches of colleagues on whose work they then spend their limited cognitive resources. How humans spend limited cognitive resources is addressed by a rich and complex literature, typified by the work of Herbert Simon (Simon 1996). The concept of an invisible college shares many of the same characteristics of the community of practice, though the former rarely expounds the importance of the relationships themselves, but rather focuses on the benefit to the individual.

Organization research and communities of practice

Since communities of practice are described as an organizational phenomenon, they are subject to much of the literature on organizational behavior, though most typically do not address specifically the nature of these specialized groups. The main crossover between the body of organizational research and communities of practice is in the creation and perpetuation of routines.

Aldrich makes an argument that communities of practice form as a natural process of growth in the evolution of an organization (Aldrich 1999). The core group that founds the organization seeks out like people, and as the group grows, separate communities of practice are formed. The creation of these communities of practice is essential to creating the boundaries of an organization, casting it in sharper relief against the environment. As boundaries are made clearer, organizational coherence increases. “Sharing knowledge through a community of practice thus increases organizational coherence.”

Karl Weick also applies his theory of sensemaking to communities of practice (Weick 1995), though like most organizational researchers his definition of a community typically means a community of organizations. “In an uncertain environment, evaluation is difficult unless there are similar others with whom one’s own performance can be compared.” In other words, people can use the others in their community of practice as a tacit sounding board to create a shared belief about how outcomes should be measured, especially if one is an organization. Communities of practice and CSCW

The literature on Computer Supported Cooperative Work is largely influenced by the concept of a community of practice. In many ways, CSCW attempts to mitigate the harm done to creating communities of practice by the addition of distance or asynchrony to a work situation.

The work on collaboratories most clearly illustrates this confluence of interests between communities of practice and CSCW. Collaboratories are described, in an unsatisfactory way, as “… centers without walls” (Finholt and Olson 1997). Finholt and Olson describe the collaboration fostered by laboratories as social organizations as being able to “… certify and disseminate knowledge, train future generations of scientists, and produce agreement about scientific practices and beliefs.” This shares many of the characteristics of communities of practice described by Wenger above.

Finholt provides an excellent review of the body of research on collaboratories (Finholt Forthcoming), which does not bear repeating here. In short, the author notes that collaboratories are created as a response to constrained resources, either in terms of expensive equipment or inability to be co-located. However, he also notes that collaborators may have developed a dependence on physical proximity based on long experience of such activities, undermining possible benefits of the collaboratory. The article also observes that graduate students and non-elite scientists have the most to gain from the development of collaboratories, since they have fewer opportunities to travel to remote locations.

Many examples of collaboratories are available. The Worm Community System (WCS) (Schatz 1991; Star and Ruhleder 1994) was developed for researchers of the C. elegans worm to be able to share information on that species. More recently, the Space Physics and Aeronomy Research Collaboratory (SPARC), an outgrowth of the Upper Atmospheric Research Collaboratory (UARC) (Atkins 1993), provides access to expensive equipment and distant colleagues in the space physics community of practice. Finholt, cited above, provides a more expansive list of current collaboratory projects.

Brown and Duguid, Lave and Wenger both mention that communities of practice are “usually” face-to-face enterprises. CSCW research is interested in how the addition of distance can degrade the quality of that face-to-face interaction (Olson and Olson 2000), can be mitigated by information technologies (Rocco 1998), or can offer benefits to group interaction (Hollan and Stornetta 1992). Fitzpatrick studied systems administrators in an academic department and developed a difference between “place” and “space” deciding that the idea of place, independent on physical factors, should be the dominant metaphor for people working together over a network (Fitzpatrick, Kaplan et al. 1996).

Lee Sproull and Stephanie Kiesler have done a great deal of work in the CSCW literature on the importance of social relations to understanding group practice. Though not directly concerned with communities of practice, their focus on the social dimensions of group behavior are applicable to the same set of problems. For instance, the researchers argue that email, while reducing the cost of “telephone tag” could fundamentally restructure how groups interact in such a way as to short cut social relations between people (Sproull and Kiesler 1991). Thus, the choice of communication tools could have a profound influence on the development of communities of practice.

Not all CSCW literature applies to the study of virtual communities. In fact, the main body of CSCW work supports small groups, which may or may not be communities of practice. Analysis of trust relationships in computer-mediated communications, which does apply to the general topic of virtual communities, has a deeply detailed literature. Rooco, listed above is a above, provides a good detail on the influence of distance on trust relationships, as does the work of Olson (Olson and Teasley 1996).

Communities of interest

Communities of interest are groups of people who gather for demographic, informational, or recreational reasons. They are distinguished from communities of practice in that they do not have a shared practice or method, and from communities of obligation typically because they lack deep connectedness between members, a sense of mutual obligation and affect. Examples would include members of a fan club organized by a mailing list, but not members of a fan club who hold weekly meetings and share deep social interactions. Communities of interest can slip almost imperceptibly into becoming communities of practice or obligation, and vice versa (Preece 2000). This shifting line is what makes discussion of virtual communities so frustrating. Is Slashdot a community? The members have some sense of shared identities as geeks, but interaction is more based on a public broadcast model than individual interactions between members of the site. It is more easily defined as a community of interest. A problem with communities of interest is in their size. Referring to the Bender definition above, “a limited number of people in a somewhat restricted social space” is an important aspect of community, but most web sites are considered successful by having enormous memberships. It is a remarkable paradox that many special interest web sites want to create a sense of community, but at the same time want as many people as possible to be part of that community (Katz 2000).

There is not a good deal of literature on communities of interest, since most online groups consider themselves to meaningful in some deeper sense. Snyder misinterprets this when he argues that “a community is people who have greater things in common than a fascination with a narrowly defined topic” (Snyder 1996). Galston makes a similar misinterpretation when he applies Bender’s definition of community to online groups Galston, 1999 #22. Is a community? Would we ask if the people who watch CNN on television were a community? Somehow the Internet causes people to mix the medium with the message. Ludlow says that defining communities around interest rather than around “accidents of geography” are central to the ability to create communities in the more traditional sense (Ludlow 1996).

Communities of obligation

Communities of obligation are what one typically has in mind when hearing the word “community”. Whether discussing face-to-face or online communities, definitions of this lay type of community are hard to focus. Fowler addresses several definitions of community and discusses how sociological, political, and public policy research have all been affected by a lack of agreement of the term (Fowler 1991).

The American Heritage Dictionary defines “community as 1) a group of people living in the same locality and under the same government or 2) a group of people having common interests. Both definitions seem inadequate in the light of the importance people place on the concept of community. Robert Putnam tries to pinpoint generational changes in the perceived meaning of community by different responses over time to the survey question “In what ways do you get a real sense of meaning?” (Putnam 2000) Two results from that analysis are noteworthy here. The first is that there has been a generational shifts in how people feel this sense of belongingness. “Compared with Gen X’ers, men and women born before 1946 are nearly twice as likely to feel a sense of belonging to their neighborhood, to their church, to their local community.” The second important effect is that “Not surprisingly, electronic ties are more important to Gen X’ers than to the older generation, but even among the younger cohort, kith and kin are twenty times more important than cyberfriends (Putnam’s emphasis) as a source of community.” (pg. 275) This may not decrease the possibilities of virtual communities as communities of obligation, but it does show that traditional social ties are important.

The change in a sense of belonging described above is addressed by Ray Oldenberg, a professor of sociology at the University of West Florida, when he discusses the lack of “The Great Good Place” in the United States (Oldenberg 1999) Oldenberg’s argument is that there are “third places” where people can gather to meet with people who are part of their community. The first and second places are home and work, and he asserts that the third place is an important neutral ground away from both. Places that typify “The Great Good Place” for Oldenberg include French cafes, German bier-gartens, Japanese tea-houses, English pubs, and rural American main streets. It’s often odd what he leaves out, like libraries and parks. It seems Oldenberg has a predilection to beverages in his third places.

The role of these third places, argues Oldenberg, is manifold. They provide outlets of emotion for people, who then do not carry the stresses of the second place (work) to the first place (home). It provides opportunities for people to engage, and discuss events meaningful to their community. This discussion often leads to action, which is why Oldenberg provides evidence that despotic regimes often close down third places in order to limit free assembly. In fact, says the author, the framers of the constitution would have had third places in mind, not political rallies, when guaranteeing the right to assembly in the Bill of Rights. While Oldenberg does not discuss community outright very often, it is a pervasive current throughout a book that can sometimes seem nostalgic for a past that might never have been, except that the author shows these places exist now, if only in small quantities. He blames, in major part, the zoning patterns of American policy for destroying third places, the mass suburbanization of the country as an architectural barrier to the maintenance of community.

Elinor Orstrom has done comprehensive work looking at communities of collective action, examining the records of several such communities over hundreds of years of their existence (Ostrom 1991). She comes to the conclusion that communities can often take shared spaces and have an emergent action that is positive to the group of people, which is what creates that sense of community. Hardin (Hardin 1968) is more negative when he refers to the “tragedy of the commons” which is a Malthusian argument about limited shared resources being unable to support individual needs.

Online Communities

Also referred to as virtual communities, network communities and Researchers and pundits of online communities have developed several different definitions that share some common characteristics. Kim, in her popular book on creating online communities defines it as the following (Kim 2000):

“How is a Web community different than one in the real world? In terms of their social dynamics, physical and virtual communities are much the same. Both involve developing a web of relationships among people who have something in common, such as a beloved hobby, a life-altering illness, a political cause, a religious conviction, a professional relationship, or even simply a neighborhood or town. So in one sense, a Web community is simply a community that happens to exist online rather than in the physical world.”

Kim does go on to say that the nature on online communications does play a role in changing the tenor of online communities, especially in terms of anonymous members, reduced transaction costs of interaction and difficulties in controlling the behaviors of troublesome members. The important factor that separates Kim’s definition from communities of interest is the “web of relationships” she mentions. This is reflected in Etzioni’s definition of community (Etzioni and Etzioni 1999).

“First, it is a web of affect-laden relationships that encompasses a group of individuals- relationships that crisscross and reinforce one another, rather than simply a chain of one-to-one relationships. To save breath, this attribute will be referred to as bonding. Second, a community requires a measure of commitment to a set of shared values, mores, meanings, and a shared historical identity- in short, a culture.”

In this and other work (Etzioni and Etzioni 1997), the Etzioni’s have taken their definition of community and shown how its expression differs in face-to-face and computer-mediated forums. They claim that both types of community provide adequate levels of access, with CMC communities often increasing access to distributed communities, while face-to-face communities have better affordances for identity, authentication and authorization. The authors see some of this as being overcome in changes in technology, as more evocative media are enabled over the network. They also feel that the architecture of the online community is important, and must provide mechanisms for “breakout discussions”, broadcasts to the community and “cooling off.” Memory, which they claim is central to the development of cultural identity, is more fully articulated in CMC communities. Preece in her book “Online Communities” has the following characteristics defining online communities:

  • People, who interact socially as they strive to satisfy their own needs or perform special roles, such as leading or moderating.
  • A shared purpose, such as an interest, need, information exchange, or service that provides a reason for the community.
  • Policies, in the form of tacit assumptions, rituals, protocols, rules, and laws that guide people’s actions
  • Computer systems, to support and mediate social interaction and facilitate a sense of togetherness. (Preece 2000) This definition, while incorporating several aspects of previous definitions, adds the computer system as an active player. This is an important addition since design issues of software and hardware supporting online communities are often unmentioned in the literature, and rarely seen as active participants in the creation of community.

    Lack of persistent identity is often cited as a feature of virtual communities. Kiesler et al. identify four features that distinguish computer-mediated communication from face-to-face: 1) an absence of regulating feedback, 2) incomplete or limited expressions of emotion, 3) a lack of social status cues, and 4) social anonymity (Kiesler, Siegel et al. 1984). This lack of social responsibility is often held responsible for “flaming” and other antisocial behaviors in communities.

    Social Capital and Online Communities

    Rather than dwell on a series of definitions of community, it is useful to take a moment to describe what is typically described as the major benefit of involvement in a community: social capital.

    The idea of social capital was first fully articulated by Coleman in his discussion of differing rates of drop out in Catholic vs. secular high schools (Coleman 1988). The most influential work on social capital was done by Granovetter, who argued that there is a difference between strong and weak ties in social relationships (Granovetter 1973). By examining job seeking behavior, Granovetter showed that weak ties characterized by periodic encounters and low levels of affective involvement, are helpful for getting access to additional resources. It is those contacts outside of one’s intimate circle who would have differing access to information or resources, by the very nature of being outside.

    Robert Putnam changes the rhetoric of strong vs. weak ties to bonding social capital vs. bridging social capital. “Bonding social capital constitutes a kind of sociological superglue, whereas bridging social capital provides a sociological WD-40.” In other words, bonding social capital holds individuals together as communities, whereas bridging social capital helps them to interact with out-groups. The concept of bridging social capital is central to the development of “generalized reciprocity” which is the quality of helping out another individual without expectation of specific rewards for that activity. Putnam argues the generalized reciprocity helps make more the conduct of a civic society more efficient, like money makes a market more efficient than if we depended upon barter. His book is a long argument about the decline of social capital of all types in American society over the past 40 years, which he attributes mainly to changing patterns of recreation (television watching) and generational differences.

    The formation of a community is typically seen as creating both bonding and bridging social capital, by allowing both strong and weak ties to form. The main question for online communities has centered more on those strong ties than the weak ones. As Castells describes virtual communities,

    “They are communities, but not physical ones, and they do not follow the same pattern of communication and interaction that physical communities do. But they are not ‘unreal,’ they work in a different plane of reality. They are interpersonal social networks, most of them based on weak ties, highly diversified and specialized, still able to generate reciprocity and support by the dynamics of sustained interaction.” (Castells 1996)

    Castells makes a point that bears further research, which is that the metaphor of the geographic, face-to-face community might be the wrong level of analysis for online communities. Like many of the “horseless carriage” discussions of information technology, the concept of a traditional sense of community applied to online groups may deserve more critical analysis.

    Resnick has expanded the idea of social capital into a framework of “SocioTechnical Capital” (Resnick 2001). He asserts that information and communication technologies can help increase social capital by removing barriers to interaction, expanding interaction networks, restricting information flows, managing dependencies, naming and maintaining history. Even more interestingly, Resnick claims that information technologies afford the creation of different kinds of social capital, which he calls SocioTechnical capital. Examples of this type of capital include enhanced group self-awareness, ability to form brief interactions, maintaining ties while spending less time, support for larger social groups and introducer systems that enable “just-in-time social ties.” This framework, like that of Preece above, includes technology as an important player in creating different forms of online communities, and reflects Castells argument about the different nature of online communities. Resnick makes an important contribution, as again does Preece, about the role of design and usability engineering in the creation of online communities and social capital.

    Virtual living: past discussions of online community

    There have been discussions of the nature of online community for a number of years. Bulletin Board Services (BBS’s) are often held up as prototypical examples of online community (Preece 2000). Reid discussed how communities form in Internet Relay Chat (IRC), making an early case that the persistent interaction of groups online constituted something that could be referred to as community (Reid 1991). Curtis describes the creation of LambdaMOO and how virtual social worlds are created in Multi User Domains (MUDs) (Curtis 1992). He finds that people automatically form shared practices and identity, often despite the intentions of the system designer. Bruckman describes the creation of a community of users centered around the professional practice of communications professionals, differing from the recreational MUD’s described by Curtis (Bruckman 1993).

    For better or worse, perhaps the most famous description of online community is “The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier” by Howard Rheingold (Rheingold 2000). Originally produced in 1993, a new edition has recently been published that includes Rheingold’s reflections on the changes in his central argument after the advent of the World Wide Web.

    “The Virtual Community” started as a description of life in the WELL (Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link), giving ample description of the affective bonds that connected a wide body of users in that forum. Rheingold offered a rich view of online life that was intended to show people the real-like nature of online interactions:

    “In cyberspace, we chat and argue, engage in intellectual discourse, perform acts of commerce, exchange knowledge, share emotional support, make plans, brainstorm, gossip, feud, fall in love, find friends and lose them, play game and metagames, flirt… We do everything people do when people get together, but we do it with words on computer screens, leaving our bodies behind… our identities commingle and interact electronically, independent of local time or location.” (pg. 58)

    In his chapter on “Rethinking Virtual Community,” Rheingold seems to take a more sober view on the nature of virtual community. Reflecting on what caused him to define online interactions as community, he says, “I just knew that there was something very wrong with the public image of online social life in 1992. I was witnessing heartbreak and love and life-death struggles online. My family and I experienced numerous occasions when people cooperated in the physical world to help one another. The common wisdom of that time, however, was that only socially crippled adolescents would use the Internet to communicate with other people. Perhaps I put a rosier tint on my portrait of online socializing in reaction to that stereotype. Perhaps prospects for life online were brighter then, seven years before the dotcom era. And perhaps I’ve grown more critical of ideas I once proposed, out of more prolonged exposure to their shortcomings. (pg. 324)”

    Lessons from the WELL, research on forming virtual communities

    There is a large body of research on different design principles for creating online communities, several directly related to lessons from the creation and description of the WELL. Kim and Preece have already been mentioned as providing excellent reference books for designing online communities. Hewlett-Packard has created a book heavily geared towards the design of online communities, especially applied to e-commerce and online communities (Werry and Mowbry 2001).

    A host of articles also exist on the subject. Schatz provides some early work in the area, giving advice about using the affordances of the network to organize community identity (Schatz 1991). Kollock and Smith specifically address overcoming the free-rider problem and mitigating the “tragedy of the commons” (Kollock and Smith 1996). Smith later pursues this with examples directly from his experience as a participant of the WELL, arguing that communities organize themselves to create collective goods (Smith 199x). His article goes into welcome detail on the nature of successful communities, giving rich detail of interaction on the WELL he claims show success behaviors. Coate gives a very straightforward how-to guide on creating and maintaining online discussion, though he seems leery of the term “community,” due to its overuse (Coate 1998). Coate is heavily influenced by Oldenberg’s concept of the third place.

    Donath has done a lot of work on the affective nature of online communities. “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.” (Donath 1996)

    Virtual Community and Identity

    Sherry Turkle has probably done the most work on how identity and online interaction are conflated (Turkle 1995). She asserts that our very interaction with the personal computer and the network change the way we think about ourselves. She also discusses how identity can be altered by interaction in a virtual environment, as happens in MUDs (Turkle 1992).

    Manuel Castells has also done a large amount of work on how identity has been changed by our understanding of networks (Castells 1996), (Castells 1997). Castells makes the argument that the network has created a “globalization of identity” which is facilitated by computer-mediated communication. “The dissolution of shared identities, which is tantamount to the dissolution of society as a meaningful social system, may well be the state of affairs in our time.” In other words, if we can create community identities not bound by space and time, that is likely to have a serious consequence for those aspects of our identity which do exist as part of a geographic locality.

    Slack and Williams critique Castells by saying he mixes the importance of “place” and “space”, saying that identity can easily encompass both concepts without being washed out as Castells predicts (Slack and Williams 2000). Social Network Theory

    In his final chapter, Rheingold says “If I had encountered sociologist Barry Wellman and learned about social network analysis when I first wrote about cyberspace cultures, I could have saved us all a decade of debate by calling them ‘online social networks’ instead of ‘virtual communities.’” Wellman argues that the idea of the “pastoralist, village-like community” is not an applicable metaphor for online communities, if it ever existed at all (Wellman 1992). He argues that of a large number of social ties a North American has, the vast majority are weak ties more aptly described as a social network than as a community (Wellman and Gulia 1999). Like Castells, he feels social interactions on the Internet are best understood on their own terms, rather than in light of traditional definitions of community. These weak social ties, according to Wellman, are important sources of information, support, companionship and belonging. Indeed, there is evidence that people are likely to tap their social networks for information before going to more formal, institutionalized sources (Kuhlthau 1988; Harris and Dewdney 1994).

    Social network analysis has a long history, extending back to when Stanley Milgram tracked letters from Kansas and Nebraska to Boston, coining the term “six degrees of separation. A detailed work on the importance of social networks is available from Duncan Watts of the Santa Fe Institute (Watts 1999).

    Researching virtual communities

    The majority of research done on virtual communities is ethnographic in nature (Paccagnella 1997; Haythornthwaite, Kazmer et al. 2000), though methods like surveys are also often used. Social network analysis also offers important techniques for observing how virtual communities form and express themselves (Garton, Haythornthwaite et al. 1997). Since research on virtual communities comes from many different fields, including organizational research, CSCW (Olson and Moran 1996), sociology and computer science, the methods of each of those disciplines can be, and are, applied to the study of online communities. One of the major research agendas to be accomplished in virtual communities is arguably a comprehensive set of tools and vocabulary for different researchers interested in studying online communities, much like Kling attempts to do for people studying the confluence of society and information technology (Kling 1999).


    Research in virtual communities may never congeal into a regimented discipline, but rather may benefit from the techniques of a variety of disciplines, as does research on complexity science and social informatics. The importance of the concept of community is shown to supercede buzzwords and e-commerce both through the amount of attention it receives in the literature, and the pre-“dotcom” history it enjoys. An examination of virtual communities is an especially appropriate task for the School of Information, since it crosses so many areas of our interest.

    The rhetoric of virtual communities has suffered from the monolithic treatment of the concept of “community.” Authors like Castells, Preece, and Resnick are all making strides in breaking down old metaphors of community to show the distinctive quality of that concept which can be enabled through information and communication technologies. Further research is urgently require to unpack the meaning of community, to distill from it what we find so persistent and valuable. Just like the car became much more than a horseless carriage, the possibility exists that virtual communities will have an entirely different set of affordances than traditional communities, with as many cascading effects on society.

    Besides research on the nature of community itself, more work needs to be done on research techniques to examine virtual communities. Tying together the techniques of sociology, CSCW and social network analysis has been fruitful, but may be further enabled by creating a common set of techniques for people researching this area. In other words, a community of practice for people studying communities needs to be created.

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