Virtual Community – What is it we’re talking about here anyway?

Definition of a Virtual Community

I could simply post a link to wikipedia’s definition of virtual community and leave it at that. The free encyclopedia says:

“A virtual community is a group whose members are connected by means of information technologies, typically the Internet.”

However, I think it important to carefully consider the scope of this definition. In 1910, an information technology called ham radio began to connect groups of people. Ham radio communities are different from our modern view of Internet based virtual communities; however the idea is the same and still fits our definition. Thus, ham radio users formed their own “virtual communities”.

But, the idea could be even older than ham radio! Hundreds of years ago, American Indians used an information technology known as smoke signals. (this connection was mentioned at sxsw) Perhaps native Americans used these smoke signals to form virtual communities of their own.

I suspect one could reach further into history and find an endless slew of arcane virtual community examples. However, in our world and our time, Internet based virtual communities have come and gone in numbers far beyond my desire to estimate. I think its safe to assume that the Internet is by far the most popular virtual community platform in history.

Examples of Internet based Virtual Communities

Here is a brief and random list of technologies that support various types of virtual community on the Internet:

Usenet: Perhaps the oldest (1979) and definitely the most established message posting system on the Internet. While usenet has grown easier to use, it still suffers from greatly from spam.

Forums: Forum software has grown to be the de facto solution for building an instant community. Generally speaking, forums work much like mini versions of Usenet. The advantage of using a forum solution is the ability to quickly provide a standard yet powerful communication platform. The disadvantage is inheriting a batch of common social problems that seemingly result from the design of the technology. Generally, the only way to overcome many of these social problems is via constant moderation of the system. This can often times turn what seems like a cost effective solution into an extra expense.

IRC: Internet Relay Chat is the oldest underworld on the Internet. Servers and networks are generally provided by enthusiast instead of corporations. Chat networks of all kinds have come and gone, meanwhile the world of IRC always persists. It is not uncommon for IRC communities to grow significantly large. While the technology has slowly evolved, the core of it remains mostly the same.

Blogs: Perhaps mostly successful because of their self-promotional nature; Weblogs have grown into this creepy Death Star esque concept called the Blogosphere. With Blogs, the supporting technology seemed to have slowly converged instead of suddenly being invented. While the pointless ramblings of the Blogosphere may be filling the Internet with seemingly trivial and pointless data, all the fuss brought us innovations in technology such as the wonders of the RSS feed.

Social Networks: Somewhere along the way, someone decided to start looking at ways we can map our relationships within virtual communities. The weblogish site known as Live Journal does this by allowing users to maintain friends lists. This feature allows a user to explore posts made by friends, friends of friends, and so on. The concept goes a step further on MySpace: a conglomerate of far too many trendy communication technologies that encourage the exploration of the social network via photos. These sites have often become brave new networking grounds for various industries. MySpace, for example, seems to appeal to performers – ranging from bands to porn stars – who are looking to promote their talent.

MMORPG: Multiplayer computer (and video) games are popular foundations for virtual communities, but none more than the massively multiplayer online role playing games. This technology provides a very natural aspect to community development – the aspect of space and time. Where many communities allow users one-click instant access to another section of the community, an MMORPG provides a conceptual world where a user must spend time moving from one location to another. This concept of space is the key factor in how human communities began forming in real life. Remember, without information technologies, communities could only form among groups of people living close together. This suggests that the aspect of space and time should greatly influence the social development of a virtual community.

ARG: Alternate Reality Games probably aren’t as new as they seem. In fact, being more of a game than a technology, ARGs might not be appropriate for this list. However, the realm of ARGs seems to be a popular foundation for many recent virtual communities. Perhaps one of the most recent and popular ARG related communities is Our Colony. In my experience, these games/communities are generally marketing driven campaigns. I would love to see examples of ARG communities that are not related to a corporate agenda.

Wrapping It Up

The information above is not comprehensive nor particularly uncommon knowledge; however, many of the ideas I’ve pointed out are good foundations for future discussions. There’s so much more I’d like to talk about and I think it might be fun to see how long the above list could be; so I invite comments about stuff I missed.

In the future, I’ll offer extended dialog on the social and technical aspects of various virtual community types and try to note some things that can be learned from each.

One thought on “Virtual Community – What is it we’re talking about here anyway?

  1. David Gibbens

    The biggest omission is surely list servers (email groups). Yahoo!Groups is probably the most widely used I think, having swallowed a fair few of the competition.

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