The theme of the 1990s -- for the English-speaking middle-classes in consumer societies -- has been the Internet. The decade started with only a handful of people sensing the potential of online communication, but the following years have been characterised by an exponential growth in awareness as the Internet has established itself as the fastest growing medium in history (Arens 513). Ten years on, and fifty million users later, it's hard to remember that things were ever any different. Nonetheless, some aspects of the initial hesitancy about online are retained in everyday speech. 'Virtual community' is an example of such an anachronism; it harks back to a time of uncertainty. By the time a movement reaches double digits in age -- and the population of a medium-sized country -- it deserves to be taken seriously. For the Internet, and especially for social uses of the Internet, that means it's time to put an end to the virtual community.
Completeness demands that I play the game of comparing online and RL once more, however. As the Internet became 'adopted' (welcomed into some households, smuggled into others), those with a disposable income came to worry about more than Telstra and ISP bills. They began to consider the nature and status of their social contact in the online environment and started to interrogate the quality of the community they found there. There tend to be two big stumbling blocks to recognising online as community. Online participants didn't share geographical space, and they didn't 'really' know each other. As Stone (in Benedickt 82-3) documents, some people on the Internet have been taken in by a middle-aged male psychiatrist who pretended to be a woman. This could be a dreadful problem in RL, but do RL notions of space and identity matter online? More positively, what does online have that RL doesn't?
When we turn the focus, and judge RL according to the standards of online -- accepting online at its own value -- we find RL lacking in many desirable features. In RL, for example:
- Participants are constrained by their age, sex, appearance, class etc; There are geographical limitations; Night tends to be a time for sleep (indeed the concept of night, as such, only pertains to RL);
- People make negative judgements if you go off in private with someone as soon as they say something interesting.
Let's face it, RL's got a lot of drawbacks. Especially for baby boomers who want an acceptable venue to act the age they feel (cusp of thirty). In tandem with RL's drawbacks online offers a number of positive benefits, including:
- Participants can act the age they feel without looking silly; Ease of access to other people (given access to the technology); The combination of intensity and variety through simultaneous intimate conversations over an extended period of time; and
- It's a publishing platform for personal opinion (useful if you aren't a Packer or Murdoch).
Looking at features which online and RL have in common, we find that the more an individual invests in a community (or any relationship) the more they are likely to benefit from that community. Deposits of social capital work in both locations (but in RL it's harder to draw upon investments at 3.00 am). In both locations people are attracted to others of like mind and interests, and then find their exchanges centre on the exploration of differences. Both settings let us learn about ourselves, but online allows us far more freedom to explore the 'real' person behind the a/s/l (age, sex, location) bounded persona. Online, like RL, has developed its own slang (did that originally mean 'short language'?). On my computer, for example, it's hard to type :), it automatically becomes ;).
For the past four months I have been working on a collaborative participant-research project with a group of students whose ages range from 18-43. We have been developing a theory of involvement in online community. The engagement patterns identified now require more investigation with a wider cross-section of Net users and neophytes. It is to be expected that online participation -- as with audience membership -- may reflect 'age and stage' in terms of the nature and intensity of online involvement (notwithstanding the fluidity of a/s/l in cyberspace).
Initial impressions from this research with Net users indicates that we judge 'community' according to our level of emotional investment; that online can involve huge emotional investment; and that vulnerability is as relevant to social behaviour online as it is in RL. Keen Netizens also reckon that only academics and people who have never 'lived' online are worried about whether online community 'really exists'. They take it as self-evident that online communities are ... online communities. And as for the concern of many that online seduces teenagers and young adults away from family life (echoes of all those early 'displacement studies' of television viewing in the 1950s), the experience of these participants is that much of family life centres around online. There's full and frank discussion of time spent online -- versus time spent in study -- not to mention phone bills, calls not getting through etc. Nonetheless, it's a pretty tame way to make one's transitional-adult presence felt, compared with a hard drug addiction or a full-face tattoo.
And what about the 'dark side' of online -- the porn, the (consensual but wacky) cybersex groups, the MA-rated games, hate sites, gambling and genocide showcases? What about the fifty-something men pretending to be pre-teen girls on the my.chickclick.com chat lines? I rest my case. These are all features of community -- the good, the bad, the ugly and the exploited. Like any self-respecting social system, both RL and online are never manifest in just 'one' community but have members who interact in a number of contexts across a range of interests. Perhaps the fear that RL feels about online (which makes RL keen to label 'online' as 'virtual') centres on the fact that the 'dark side' in online is an illumination of the hidden and the marginalised in RL. We all know what happens with the return of the repressed. (It's larger than life!)
The history of media studies shows displacement research, followed by effects research, content and semiotic analysis, the uses and gratifications perspective, and audience and consumption studies ethnography. Episodes of moral panic liberally laced these approaches, driving the research programme and making some funding applications more attractive than others. Online has an open research agenda and huge potential to inform us about ourselves, as well as about the medium and its characteristics. It has already attracted displacement research, and triggered a number of moral panics. Interactivity makes online a far more exciting and challenging venue for research than straightforward consumption studies of mass media. Online communities offer sites of maximum interactivity and social creativeness. They are the natural starting point for the post-Y2K research era.
Growing up is learning to judge yourself by your own standards -- and not having to conform to other people's. It tends to start in our second decade and, for the more interesting among us, it never ends. The phrase 'online community' accepts the community within the context of its environment and its communications ecology. Virtual is the name given by others; online is what the community members choose to call themselves. Let's mark the end of the Internet's first decade by paying it the respect it deserves. The virtual is dead! Long live online!
The author acknowledges the particular contributions of Russell Carman, Marian Palandri and an anonymous reviewer to this paper.