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Virtual Communities Martin Dodge Lecture 9, Monday 6th December 2004 3011: Geographies of Cyberspace.

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Presentation on theme: "Virtual Communities Martin Dodge Lecture 9, Monday 6th December 2004 3011: Geographies of Cyberspace."— Presentation transcript:

1 Virtual Communities Martin Dodge Lecture 9, Monday 6th December : Geographies of Cyberspace

2 Communications = Community? many would argue that the true power of cyberspace is that it provides new media which fosters new social interaction between groups of people to these commentators, one of the most basic human needs is to communicate and interact with others, and cyberspace - through , newsgroups, mailing- lists, bulletin-boards, chat rooms, MUDS, networked games, avatar virtual worlds, blogs, p2p - is providing new media through which this communication can occur and in many cases flourish do these new means of sociability give rise to new types of community? and what are the implications for other forms of social interaction based on place? A key debate in social science analysis of the Internet

3 Community, is it changing? No real change, CMC just part of existing social networks No real change, CMC is a parallel world with little impact on the rest of peoples lives CMC is damaging, > isolation and sense of alienation CMC is positive means to enhance community and renewal of place

4 What is community? do you live in a community? do you know your neighbours by sight? do you say hello? would you ask them a favour? Would you invite them round for tea? how many people do you know? how many do you speak to face-to-face? are you involved in lots of overlapping communities? Or are they really individual networks of family, friends, contacts? how much time do you send in social activities as opposed to individual /solitary things? do you give time to groups voluntarily,without the expectation of reward? are you involved in civic activities because you think they make a difference to your community?

5 Defining community like many social terms community is hard to define my desk dictionary, Group of people etc living in the same locality or having same religion, race, profession, interests, etc shared ideas and interests give rise to common norms, feelings and goals share space gives rise to communal sense of place social theorists have long argued about nature of community and how it is changing

6 Defining community Tonnies (1887) conception of community into 2 distinct ideals gemeinschaft - natural, organic groups of people bounded by long established family ties, shared customs, language. Civic minded as right thing to do gesellschaft - rationally conceived groups that centred around networks of individual interests. Bonds forged through exchanges and contracts. Civic engagement as beneficial to the individual shift to modernity in European with rapid urbanisation and industralisation was shifting community

7 Defining community CMC is seen as impacting on gemeinschaft type of natural placed-based community in a negative fashion, more towards non-local, technologically- mediated gesellschaft community argued that gemeinschaft view of community is nostalgic longing for a past that (may) never existed Castells notes (p. 124), for urban sociologists this is a very old discussion, which reproduces previous debates between those seeing the process of urbanization as the disappearance of meaningful forms of community life, to be replaced by selective, weaker ties between households scattered in the anonymous metropolis, and those identifying the city with liberation of people from traditional social control.

8 Life in a Virtual World People in virtual communities use words on screens to exchange pleasantries and argue, engage in intellectual discourse, conduct commerce, exchange knowledge, share emotional support, make plans, brainstorm, gossip, feud, fall in love, find friends and lose them, play games, flirt, create a little high art and a lot of idle talk. People in virtual communities do just about everything that people do in real life but we leave our bodies behind. You cant kiss anybody and nobody can punch you on the nose, but a lot can happen within those boundaries. To the millions who have been drawn into it, the richness and vitality of computer-linked cultures is attractive, even addictive. (Rheingold, 1993, p. 3)

9 Communities in cyberspace cyberspace allows the formation of communities that are free of the constraints of place communities in cyberspace are sustained and grounded by communicative practice, not geographic propinquity a sense of community is based upon new modes of interaction and is centred on common interests and affinity within cyberspace individual participants can: circumvent the geographical constraints of the material world take a more pro-active role in shaping their own virtual community and their position within it

10 Communities in cyberspace analysts agree that virtual communities exist all communities are imagined, and as long members share a common imaginative structure, a community can be said to exist. many online communities are self-sustaining and rich in diversity people would not invest so much time and effort if they did not gain some sense of social cohesion or community from their virtual actions Watson (1997, quoted in Fernback, p.213), notes The term virtual means something akin to unreal… My experience has been that people in the offline world tend to see online communities as virtual, but that participants in the online communities see them as quite real.

11 Communities in cyberspace Where there is significant divergence of opinion is over the extent to which (1) these online communities provide an alternative to geographic (offline) communities (2) they are placeless

12 Online communities as alternatives communities in geographic space are fragmenting and losing cohesion due to cultural and economic globalisation society is suffering increasingly from a condition of placelessness communities little more than geographically defined and administered land units which consist of atomised individuals who share little common historical consciousness or beliefs online communities offer an alternative and antidote to social alienation and placelessness experienced in geographic communities new forms of communities based upon our interests and affinity, rather than coincidence of location

13 Online communities as alternatives just like real-world communities there are behavioural norms, differing personalities, shared significance and allegiances the Internet fosters the growth of distinct cultures grounded in communicative practice commonly agreed protocols and laws advent of distinctive referent language (abbreviations, jargon, symbols) the formation of strong social networks

14 Online communities as alternatives Kevin Robins (1995) argues that online communities are at the very best self-selecting, psuedo- communities. he feels it is a serious misnomer to directly equate communication with communion and community he questions the quality of relationships forged and sustained through cyberspace dialogue is specific to few and yet read by a larger unknown set of participants who may or may not be considered community members; conversations are less inhibited, nonconforming and relatively free of personal consequences; correspondence is predominantly between virtual strangers - when the machine is turned off the only things known are those given, those written

15 We are who we are because of the places in which we grow up, the accents and friends we acquire by chance, the burdens we have not chosen but somehow learn to cope with. Real communities are always local - places in which people have to put down some roots and are willing to put up with the burdens of living together. The fantasy of virtual communities is that we can enjoy the benefits of community without its burdens, without the daily effort to keep delicate human connections intact. Real communities can bear those burdens because they are embedded in particular places and evoke enduring loyalties. In cyberspace, however, there is nowhere that a sense of place can grow, and no way in which the solidarities that sustain human beings through difficult times can be forged. Kevin Robins (1995) counters Rheingolds vision of cyberspace as an escape hatch

16 Online communities are not separate Wellman and Gulia (1999) note that online and geographic communities are in fact remarkably similar in some respects. It has long been the case that a persons community does not necessarily live within walking distance. geographic communities have been replaced by social networks that are spread out over a wide terrain, and which are sustained by a variety of media. they contend that the division between geographic and virtual is not helpful -- one is simply an extension of the other

17 It is the relationship between people that is important, not the medium of communication Social networks maintained exclusively in cyberspace are thus not pale imitations of real networks, or substitutions for these networks, they are just another form of network, a subset of an individuals total network Castells (p. 129) argues that The new pattern of sociability in our societies is characterized by networked individualism people are adapting Internet media to fit their networked life, holding strands of connections and making/breaking new ones as needed Online communities are not separate

18 Web portals to encourage civic engagement cyberspace is often used to try and reconnect members of a community and foster a sense of place. many cities now have websites devoted to community relations and development Many communities are using cyberspace to develop cross-community and cross-issue alliances to help fight particular concerns Instead of replacement, geographic communities are being augmented by online interactions see Closer to the state article from The Guardian


20 Cyberspace communities as placeless communities cyberspace is commonly conceived as being aspatial There is no there there thus has no spatiality and thus no sense of place however, online interactions are often structured through a variety of geographic metaphors for example, cyberspace is replete with the vocabulary of place - nouns, such as rooms, lobbies, highway, frontier, cafes; and verbs, such as surf, inhabit, build, enter.

21 Cyberspace communities as placeless communities Couclelis (1998) details that the use of these geographic metaphors - the spatialisation of cyberspace - is an attempt to translate media into domains familiar and comfortable to users. cyberspace is built out of the ideas and language of place employment of these metaphors to create sites of interaction engenders an online spatiality.

22 Cyberspace communities as placeless communities Taylor (1997, p. 190) -- to be within a virtual world is to have an intrinsically geographic experience, as virtual worlds are experienced fundamentally as places. new places, and new spatialities, are being formed online Batty (1997: 339): the many components that comprise cyberspace each have their own sense of place and space, their own geography.


24 Corrells study of a bar study of an online lesbian café describes how patrons constructed an elaborate café setting using textual descriptions and contextualised all their interactions within this setting construction (spatialisation) of this shared setting created a common sense of reality which grounded communication the locale needed for community in geographic space was simulated online spatialisation was the secret to the community being a success





29 30 Days in Alphaworld Sought to chart empirically the process of virtual place-making created a new virtual world that any person could inhabit and build within. monitored in detail the building of urban structures and social interaction users built a diverse range of structures and a strong core community, who met and interacted regularly, developed. AlphaWorld consists of hybrid places - lacking the materiality of geographic space but yet having a powerful mimetic quality contains enough geographical referents and structure to make them tangible


31 30 Days in Alphaworld sense of place is centred around the activities of claiming land, designing and building homesteads space is transformed into meaningful places, and by social interaction between the inhabitants. leads to specific forms of socio-spatial practice: the playing with identity, the creation of community, land disputes, virtual vandalism, policing. space, place and socio-spatial processes are central to online interactions within the Alphaworld

32 Embodied Spaces reason that so many analysts have misunderstood cyberspace as placeless, spaceless media is because they have conceived cyberspace as a separate realm divorced from geographic space this conception falls into the trap of treating cyberspace as locations of the sublime (as powerful, dislocated, deterministic paraspaces) cyberspace rather than being a separate realm to geographic space is merely an extension of it - it is embodied

33 Conclusion Cyberspace does have implications for the idea of community But its impact is neither utopian or dystopic – it does not provide an alternative or counter community in real space Rather cyberspace is another medium through which social networks can be formed and sustained

34 Reading for this lecture Key article Fernback J (1999) "There is a There There: Notes Towards a Definition of Cybercommunity" Castells, Internet Galaxy - Virtual Communities or Network Society, Chapter 4, pages

35 Reading for this lecture Supplemental readings: Rheingold H., (1993), Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier, Addison-Wesley, New York Wellman B. and Gulia M. (1999) "Net Surfers Don't Ride Alone: Virtual Community as Community Robins, K. (1995) Cyberspace and the world we live in. In Featherstone, M. and Burrows, R. (Ed) Cyberspace, Cyberbodies and Cyberpunk: Cultures of technological embodiment. Sage, London, pp Taylor, J. (1997) The emerging geographies of virtual worlds. The Geographical Review 87: [Available thru JSTOR] Correll, S. (1995) The ethnography of an electronic bar: The lesbian cafe. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 24:

36 Next steps Friday: DCA presentations 10 minutes per group demo website, explain mapping strategy all material needs to be online remember website and presentation are worth 40% of the coursework mark

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