Friday, April 01, 2005

Social Communities

This subject – Virtual Communities (VC) is a fascinating one. I can’t stop thinking about it. In the process of studying the subject of VCs, I came to the view that the main expositors and thinkers of communities and VCs in particular were almost exclusively philosophers, social scientists, psychologist, psychoanalysts and communitarian activists. This situation has persisted in my view for far too long. The later group in particular propagated some Utopian; almost worship-like embrace of the Internet as the panacea from many if not all social ills. For example, the often quoted Dr. Scott Peck a psychotherapist wrote: "After many years of vague identification with Buddhist and Islamic mysticism, I ultimately made a firm Christian commitment - signified by my non-denominational baptism on the ninth of March 1980..." (People of the Lie, 1983) later elevated the notion of community to the level of a messiah in his book The Different Drum (1987) “In and through community lies the salvation of the world." The information professionals in the meantime were left behind to deal with the consequences of such myopic views, often embraced by many Internet enthusiasts and business leaders who bought into the obscure often ecliptical promises of a grand symbiosis between the business aims and the social “good” but with no or little regard for the pragmatic realities of the real world. Once I'm through with this course I will be more qualified as Information Professional (IP) rather than even a quasi sociologist. Thus I came to the realization that without an active engagement of IPs in the process of studying traditional and virtual communities the void between the network technocrats and the communities could not be bridged effectively. Until recently that interface bridge was predominantly the community of social scientists and online activists. However, IPs are gaining greater prominence in shaping the social interface of online communities.

The significance of the Information Professionals’ role in the formation and exposition of VCs was not articulated clearly until relatively recently. One of the reasons perhaps was the lack of “critical mass of participation”. The VIC Government’s Global Victoria paper suggests regarding the critical mass “participation goes beyond simply creating awareness. It involves giving people and business compelling reasons to participate”. The critical mass participation I believe has been achieved and is largely attributable to 3 reasons:
  1. Technological advancement: (affordable hardware, ease of use of web browsers, rich and easily accessible WWW content).
  2. Commercialization of the Internet, albeit many die hard cyber activists and punks keep decrying that the commercialization which is destroying communities.
  3. Engagement of IPs in the process of building Information Enterprises and Information Communities

Many still lament about the loss of community “spirit” or disintegration of communities (Robert Putman, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community). I beg to differ. If anything, communities have expanded both in numbers, sizes and variety. The dominance of VCs, however, had not spelt out the end of traditional communities. The slight dents on the traditional communities made by VCs are far outweighed by the benefits VCs brought to the traditional communities. VCs brought to communities aspects, which in the past would either shackle the community or would spell the end of them; such as distance, no space to “hide” unless one leaves the community, no possibility of living out multiple personalities & role plays, ephemeral relationships without uprooting the long established relationships and very importantly both polemics as well as apologetics can coexist concurrently without undermining community structures. Communities in this wired (actually wireless is gaining ground as well) online milieu are created, thrive, evolve, mutate, transform, die and re-born constantly and fast and the best thing about all this is that VCs add value to the traditional communities. Castless points out that even Sherry Turkle, one of the pioneers of the social technology in her classic study on identity-building declared that: “the notion of the real fights back. People who live parallel lives on the screen are nevertheless bound by the desires, pain, and mortality of their physical selves. Virtual communities offer a dramatic new context in which to think about human identity in the age of the Internet” (Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet, 1995). I believe that by now the fight is over. Today I believe there’s a natural balance between online communities and “real” communities. VCs provide what non-VCs can't provide and vice versa. So people join or form communities according to their likings, circumstances and context. It is interesting to observe that another early pioneer of the online communities Barlow still lives in the past.

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