Virtual Communities


Virtual Communities

1. Introduction

As people spend more time in cyberspace, many will desire social experiences richer than what is currently available through the Internet. People have already sought out others with shared interests for conversation using email, or visits to newsgroups, or IRC. These people may form “virtual communities” in which they seek to hang out with others, meet new people, and satisfy social or recreational needs using cyberspace – as these problems begin to be solved, it is reasonable to expect a migration of many real communities to the virtual world. The technologies being deployed in public spaces may provide compelling immersive experiences of virtual reality. In considering the significance of these changes, the social scientist or community activist must attend systematically to the variety of virtual communities and discern how they are similar to, or different from, familiar forms of community. This paper will lay the groundwork for understanding the latter.

Because of the growing attention to cyberspace as a new channel for communications and its potential to enable new forms of association among people, the social organization of virtual communities is a topic that is imperative to understand and can guide the future of cyberspace. To “travel” to a site on the World Wide Web, one may need no more than the click of a mouse, and perhaps some typing of a Uniform Resource Locator (URL). Once there, however, it becomes evident that the journey to a destination and the destination itself are inseparable in considering “cyberplace.” Different sites may involve completely different social experiences, investment of time and self, and other resources. Yet no more than a few electrons may physically distinguish one from another.

2. Benefits of Virtual Communities

a. Personal Benefits: These are the benefits which individuals get while being part of a virtual community. The individual could be called a beneficiary of the community. Virtual communities provide individuals with varied freeing experiences which are difficult to have in everyday life. This may include gender-free opportunities. Like in real life, males and females are treated differently. By means of prejudices, and at times these may result in unequal opportunities. In virtual communities, such discrimination doesn’t take place. People take you for what you are and provide opportunities based on your skills. Like in, you will find people who are interested in your talents and opportunities are open for everyone. You may get pulled down because of your age, sex, and race in real life, but here it’s talent that matters. This is not only freeing but also boosting because people are being recognized for what they are. People from minority races, women, and older people may find it particularly empowering to play with an identity that does not result in discrimination. In fact, empowerment is one of the main benefits individuals can get from virtual communities. Imagine that there is one person who has never had the opportunity to lead anything in life due to various reasons or people who wish to ask questions or argue with lecturers in university but are too shy because of some authority stigma. These people can become leaders in virtual communities and gain experiences that they never had. This may change their entire real-life personality. Virtual communities may also heal lonely people and provide them support and friendship. These are people who have social disabilities in real life and found it difficult to mix with people because of that. They can take things at their own pace and find people with similar disabilities. For example, people who suffer from stammer had formed a group in Yahoo!. They held chats among themselves and gave moral support to each other. Step-by-step, the confidence that they have lost in real life will return. Such empowering experiences cannot be found elsewhere.

This section is divided into different types of benefits which are: a. Personal Benefits b. Social Benefits and c. Aggregate Benefits.

3. Challenges of Virtual Communities

A paper by Robbins describes the different ways in which individuals in virtual communities work to offset the loss of social context cues, often employing strategies that wouldn’t be necessary in a traditional community. For instance, in text-based virtual environments, it is common to see members preface humorous comments with “smileys” to ensure that their intentions aren’t misinterpreted. Others might be inclined to go out of their way to vocalize internal thoughts that would normally be expressed nonverbally. While virtual communities that utilize avatars and real-time voice communication can be rich in social context cues, they still lack the physical presence of another person and often leave people feeling like they are merely talking to another user’s disembodied identity. Social context cues are crucial to the development of social presence, and without them, forging relationships and a sense of community becomes an uphill battle.

The success of a virtual community depends a great deal on overcoming the hurdles that this peculiar medium presents. One of the biggest issues that plagues virtual community developers is creating an environment that fosters a strong sense of social presence, or the awareness of others in the community and the ability to form close relationships. The lack of social context cues means that individuals in virtual communities have to work much harder to interpret information, thus increasing the cognitive load of interpersonal interaction.

4. Strategies for Building and Managing Virtual Communities

Strategies for managing virtual communities can be divided into macro strategies, which are executed at the community level, and micro strategies, which target specific organizational elements helpful in administration. Macro strategies are those directly related to strengthening the community as a whole – its identity, purpose, and relationship with its members. Feenberg argues that the first step to building a successful virtual learning community is a top-down approach. This requires a formal statement of commitment from the organization and strong leadership. This is exemplified in the British Open University’s creation of a Virtual Learning Environment, which mandated all course content be put onto online forums, introducing students to the idea of learning within a communal online space. A very different approach to leadership and community building can be seen in Knapper and Kelly’s study of the use of online course support centers. They found that leadership developed informally, with community members providing support and advice to one another, indicating that strong leadership may emerge over time through modeling and facilitation. Feenberg also emphasizes the importance of creating a shared purpose and identity within the community. He explains that members’ initial interest in a community may derive from a diverse range of motives, but strong identification and commitment will enhance regular participation and affect persistence. This will have a large influence on the institutions involved in the community. Micro strategies are those which target specific parts of the community and its surrounding elements. This includes recruitment of students or participants to the community, creating a supporting web structure, and managing a clear communication system. Horton, Wohl, and Ertzberger’s study of virtual andragogy identifies course management and clear communication as the first priorities in effectively facilitating adult learning. They argue that consistency and effectiveness in these areas will have a lasting impact on the success and future development of virtual learning communities. This is supported by a study of the online teacher community Teachers Network, which identifies ineffective communication systems as a contributing factor to its breakup. The recruitment of participants is another key to the success of the later stages of an online community project. Yousef and Chatti cite research from Facebook as evidence that certain demographic groups may be more prone to virtual learning communities, and in most cases, participants are required to fulfill some form of identity. This suggests that the informal and isolated identity of a virtual learning community does not negate the need to appeal to specific target groups. This may prove to be a difficult task, but understanding the importance of recruitment is the first step.

5. Future Trends in Virtual Communities

The current movement of virtual communities is in the same stage as the World Wide Web was in 1993 when there were 130 websites. Internet users were the community, and it was used to contain content. The future trends were interactive websites, and we see the trend of today, which is to have the websites be communities of humans that contain content and context. This is the ultimate key when the websites themselves are the communities of interest, and we are seeing real communities plug into online communities that are derivatives or substitutes of the real physical community. With the website being an online community, we can then use communityware to support online and group collaborations of all forms. Today we see communityware as web forums and instant messaging, but in the future, communityware will take on much more advanced forms and cater for many types of online communities. Corporate and educational institutions will also have intranets that provide online communities. This will be a sharp contrast to pre-internet days where most corporate learning and sessions work took place in a temporal setting. At the entertainment and cultural level, we will see internet gaming take a new level where games are played and the community grows and morphs like a simulated reality. From The Palace and Chatspace, which are 2D textual chat environments, we are also seeing more advanced 3D and VR environments, and these will be the ultimate form of virtual communities as they will simulate reality places and interactions in cyberspace.

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