Handbook of Community and Community Organization




НазваниеHandbook of Community and Community Organization
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Mesch, Gustavo (Forthcoming).

Online Communities

in R. Cnaan and C. Milofsky (eds.). Handbook of Community and Community Organization. New York: Springer Press.


Online Communities

Gustavo S. Mesch

Department of Sociology and Anthropology

University of Haifa, Israel

Access to and use of information and communication technologies have expanded rapidly. This circumstance has focused academic attention and interest in social groups that are not bounded in a specific geographic place and for which well documented evidence exists of social interaction and involvement among individuals who in many cases have never met face to face.

Participation of individuals in geographically dispersed groups through a mediated form of communication is not new. For example, at the beginning of the 20th century wireless radio was used to transmit long distance communication, and amateur radio operators worldwide used this technology to chat and exchange information (Stephens, 1995). Yet the convergence of the Internet and World Wide Web is important because it allows reliable access across any distance in real time. High bandwidth data can be transmitted at low cost anywhere. Unlike radio or other non-face-to-face forms of communication, the medium allows bi- and multi-directional communication and storage of data for use on demand (Plant, 2004; Rafaeli & Larose, 1993). The characteristics of the technology and the human desire for connection, knowledge and information support the existence of a large number of online, non-face-to-face communities. A virtual community is a voluntary group of individuals with shared interests that through computer supported networks socially interact for a relative long period of time, exchanging sociability, social support and resources. Through this social interaction common ties and some social organization develops (Driskell & Lyon, 2002).

This chapter reviews the expanding literature on online communities, with particular focus on their characteristics and functions.

Online Communities as Community without Propinquity

Much of the controversy on whether online groups are communities focuses on the degree to which community can exist without a shared locality (for a review, see Hunter, Chapter 1 this book). In fact, conceptual models in the field of community studies have placed emphasis on shared needs and concerns, even without propinquity, as a basis for community. The idea of ”community without propinquity” elaborated by Melvin Weber (1964) suggested that individuals were enmeshed in an overlapping range of groups, and that increasingly, these social networks were not limited to physical location. In that sense, the approach to community should be one oriented to social process and from them to identify the matching spatial form without an assumption that locality limits social interaction. In other words, rather than propinquity, the emphasis was on accessibility to flows of social interaction and resources as the necessary condition for the formation of community. Confirming this observation, studies have informed us that locally based social ties are a small part of people’s networks that expand all over the city and reach other parts of the country (Wellman & Worthley, 1990).

An additional perspective, The Community of Limited Liability holds that individuals’ orientations and attachments to place are limited by the reduction of their dependence on the local community for their needs due to transportation and communication in modern urban societies (Hunter, 1978). This limited, variable orientation to the community may in a sense be seen as an exchange relationship. An individual’s social and emotional investment in the community depends on the degree to which the community meets his or her needs; when these are not met, the individual will withdraw, if not physically, then socially and emotionally (Hunter, 1978). In a similar vein, the Liberated Community approach suggests that increased geographic mobility has created a community without propinquity. In it, the individual relies on a complex system of social ties composed of kin, friends, co-workers, and neighbors who provide him or her with economic, social, and emotional support (Wellman & Worthley, 1990). In both models communities without propinquity, based on sustained voluntary social interaction and social ties, whose origins are in shared needs, interests, and concerns, are shown to have existed prior to the Internet. Before turning to the main characteristics of the online communities, we present a brief history of social research on sociability and the Internet.

Studies on Internet and Social Interaction

The connection between the use of information and communication technologies and sociability has been extensively studied, yielding what appear to be mixed results. To understand the findings, the different topics investigated should be distinguished.

1. The first generation of studies (1986-1998) focused on the effect of Internet communication on existing social relationships, involvements and community participation. One topic that created concern among social scholars was the amount of time that must be invested in the use of the Internet as a medium for information and communication. It undoubtedly depends on computer literacy, skills and experience: the less the skill and experience, the more the time that is invested in Internet-related activities. Early studies on this issue inquired how Internet time is associated with participation in existing relationships and involvement in the local community. Preliminary findings showed that Internet-related activities appeared to be associated with lower participation in familiar activities, less participation in the community, and an increase in perceptions of loneliness (Kraut et al., 1998; Nie, Hillygus & Erbring, 2002). A weakness of these studies was the implicit assumption that Internet-related activities are non-social or even anti-social. Still, the apparently negative association between time devoted to the Internet and sociability set the research agenda for the years to come. More recent studies have shown that Internet use is not negatively associated with time spent on the family and on social and community activities (Haythornwaite & Wellman, 2002 for a review). Furthermore, evidence exists that instead of replacing family, social, and community activities, the Internet supplements them; this new channel of communication is used to increase involvement in offline as well as online social groups (Katz & Rice, 2002 ). Rather than decreasing participation and social involvement, the Internet is being used to communicate in local and non-local relationships, increasing the number of neighbors known and awareness of local community-based activities (Hampton &Wellman, 2003 Mesch & Levanon, 2003). Furthermore, studies found that the Internet helps in maintaining social ties across geographic space. People who have moved away use the technology to keep in touch with long-distance friends and relatives (Hampton & Wellman, 2003).

2. The second generation of studies (since 1998) focused on Internet use to supplement and expand existing social ties. Community networking concerns the use of information and communication technologies as a supplementary tool for geographically local community development. It is the name given to the process by which computer-supported communication serves the local community’s needs (Loader & Keeble, 2001). With the proliferation of computer use and Internet connections, interest has grown in the potential role of computer-mediated communication in the development of social ties among members of geographically based communities and perhaps in solving problems arising from decreased community participation (Hampton & Wellman, 2003).

Community networks appear to provide new opportunities for political participation. At the very least, individuals might use geographically based computer-supported communication to express their opinions on local issues as well as to organize collectively (Tonn, Zambarano, & Moore, 2001). Moreover, community networking can be a source for information on social, cultural, and political activities. The dissemination of information provides an opportunity for residents to become involved in local activities (Tonn et al., 2001). Thirdly, community networking provides opportunities for the formation of local social ties. Studies have shown that computer-mediated communication, as a tool for community development is appealing. Internet users report knowing more neighbors than non-users (Hampton & Wellman, 2002; Mesch & Levanon, 2003), increasing their awareness of and social interaction in the local community (Etzioni & Etzioni, 1999)

3. Research on online communities is a continuing topic of research since the early days in which Rheingold (1993) described the WELL. This concept is widely used to refer to geographically dispersed people in diverse locations who through electronic space and computer-mediated communication are members of electronic groups. They gather voluntarily in an electronic space and share and exchange information, social support, and sociability (Blanchard & Horan, 1998). Virtual communities have enjoyed a substantial amount of public and academic interest, because despite the nature of the communication members of virtual communities seem able to develop intimate and personal relationships on the basis of common interests, not place (Blanchard & Horan, 1998; Wellman & Giulia, 1999).

Virtual communities take the form of groups of geographically dispersed participants discussing a shared topic of interest. Although technology now allows interaction including voice (Internet phone) and picture or motion (webcam), most communities rely on textual communication. This consists of messages posted and stored on a bulletin board; the member can choose to receive the posting directly in his/her mailbox or to read it at his/her convenience. Virtual communities function as social spaces, providing two different broad types of resources: socio-emotional support and exchange of information and resources (Burnett, 2000). These two functions are not mutually exclusive, and in many communities both are performed. Participation in online communities can be extensive, and some studies report that participants spend varying amounts of their daily lives involved in such activities. The lower and upper limits noted are respectively about 30 minutes and eight hours a day. In various communities, members report that their interactions are of real social significance as friendships are created, and information and social support are exchanged (Cooper & Harrison, 2001).

Online Communities as Communities without Propinquity

The concept of community has been traditionally associated with a shared place in which social interaction takes place and shared bonds developed (See Hunter, Chapter 1). The electronic space can be conceived as a shared space. Among early sociological studies on social association, Feld (1981) used the concept of foci of activity, defining it as “social, psychological, legal or physical objects around which joint activities are organized”. Foci can be formal (school) or informal (regular hangouts), large (neighborhood) or small (household), and they systematically constrain choices of social relationships. The concept is useful for understanding the association of individuals in virtual social groups and communities. Foci of activity place individuals in proximity and provide opportunities for frequent meetings, in which individuals reveal themselves to each other. Nowadays the Internet can be considered a new focus of activity, an electronic space in which people with access to the technology gather for sociability, information search, entertainment, and commercial activities. They are drawn to such spaces in search of specific formal (information search) or informal (social support, entertainment) activities according to their particular interests and in this search tend to associate with others. The voluntary and intentional nature of online communities makes them similar to intentional communities (see Cnaan and Breyman, chapter 31 this book).

Certain features of the new electronic communication have made participation in virtual communities attractive. Unlike other communication technologies such as the phone, the Internet is intended to support communication in real time as well as delayed communication, person-to-person or people-to- people. As Internet accessibility and use are increasing, there is always the chance that someone is there all the time. The implication is that access to information, entertainment, and social support is personalized, this is, provided round the clock, whenever needed by the individual and not at certain restricted hours. As such, access to data or resources is no longer a matter of six degrees of separation but a matter of finding the relevant online community.

The nature of the Internet as a channel that supports global communication means that the likelihood of finding others sharing the same cultural tastes, hobbies, interests, or tensions in cyberspace is higher than in face-to-face communities. Furthermore, communication of many with many in real time supports the kind of interaction required for the formation of a repetitive pattern of social interaction. It promotes the development of a common identity based on a shared interest, of norms of behavior, and of a social structure characteristic of the concept of community

Internet Characteristics that Facilitate Online Communities

An innovative aspect of the Internet is the proliferation of a wide variety of special interest groups devoted to almost any imaginable topic: music genres, sports and gardening, dating, parenting and pregnancy, chronic and life-threatening diseases, socially stigmatized identities, and so ad infinitum. Online communities have become spaces for social interaction in which friendships and even close relationships are created (Parks & Floyd, 1996; Mesch & Talmud, 2004; Hampton & Wellman, 2002; McKenna, Green, & Gleason, 2002). Individuals sharing same interest, beliefs, concerns, and values create online communities. Perceptions of similarity are probably the most robust variables that the sociological literature has identified as conducive to the formation, development, and stability of interpersonal relationships (see McPherson, Smith-Lovin & Cook, 2002). In fact, the chance of finding people who share own’s needs or passion in one’s geographic community may at times be slim while on the Internet one is looking worldwide and the chances of forming a community of like-minded people is way higher. For example, to find a penguin caring group in rural Iowa is quite unlikely, but for a rural Iwoan who cares for the penguins it will be easy to find an on-line community.

But why does online community formation appeal to some individuals? One important feature of computer-mediated communication is that it is based on relative anonymity. Intimate and close relationships require self-disclosure, which increases the experience of intimacy in interactions. But revealing intimate and personal concerns carries certain risks, such as embarrassment and diffusion of information to all the members of the social circle. It has been argued that the relatively anonymity of Internet interactions greatly reduces the risks involved in such disclosure, especially about intimate aspects, because one can share inner beliefs and emotional reactions with much less fear of disapproval and sanction (McKenna & Bargh, 1998). A good reason for allowing greater self-disclosure with strangers seems to be that a stranger has no access to one’s social circle so the dyadic boundary cannot be violated. In other words, information disclosed to a stranger is not diffused to members of the face-to-face social circle, thus anonymity lowers the risk of embarrassment.

In addition, the rules of relationship formation online apparently differ from those of face-to-face relationship formation (McKenna & Bargh, 1998). Online communication overcomes barriers to relationship formation based on demographic characteristics (age, gender) and physical appearance. Because much of the communication is based on text, it lacks the usual features that gate the establishment of any close relationship. Easily discernable features such as physical appearance (attractiveness), shyness or social anxiety are not highly visible in computer-mediated communication; often these constitute barriers that prevent individuals who are less physically attractive, suffer from a physical disability, or belong to a cultural or ethnic minority from developing relationships to the stage at which disclosure of intimate information can begin. On the Internet such features are not initially evident so they do not stop the formation of potential relationships (Joinson, 2001; McKenna & Bargh, 1998).

Anonymity, the absence of gates restricting social interaction, and the sharing of interests, beliefs, and values are conducive to interactivity, this being the extent to which messages in a sequence relate to each other and any later communication refers to previous exchanges (Rafaeli & Larose, 1993). Interactivity is an important characteristic of online communities, indeed a necessary condition to demonstrate the existence of a community as in their messages members refer to other members who have expressed interest or concern previously (Jones, 1997). Without interactivity the very existence of a group sharing beliefs, norms, and a collective identity is difficult to demonstrate.

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