The nature of virtual communities by D.Memmi (2006)January 14, 2007
The nature of virtual communities AI and Soc (2006) 20: 288–300
Memmi asks are virtual communities ordinary social groups in electronic form, or are they fundamentally different?
To clarify this debate, they resort to the classical sociological distinction between small traditional communities (based on personal relations) and modern social groups (bound by looser, more impersonal links).
Virtual communities are often bound by reference to common objects or goals, and not by personal relations.
Because communication is one of the foundations of social groups (social cohesion requires communication of some sort between group members), the development of new communication techniques is apt to cause social changes. These new electronic techniques have thus given rise to new social groups, which now usually go by the name of virtual communities.
Those communities are presumably called virtual because they function without actual physical contact, in ‘‘cyberspace’’ (Kollock and Smith 1999).
In the literature on virtual communities one can notice a marked tendency to equate them with communities of the most traditional kind, imbued with positive moral values. However, when the actual functioning of virtual communities is examined more closely, it is far from evident that they really conform to the traditional kind of social groups based on close personal relations between group members.
It is generally a mistake to equate virtual communities with traditional communities, because computer-mediated groups actually show novel characteristics and tend toward looser, more impersonal forms of interaction.
Memmi describes first the traditional communities and assumes “Yet it does not take much thought to realize that this is all largely a myth”:
Though usage varies somewhat, it appears that in the most usual sense, a community refers to a particular kind of social group, defined by strong personal links. Such a group will be fairly small, so that it is possible for each member to know personally everybody else in the group. Relations are supposed to be direct, face-to-face, frequent and stable. Relations are strongly tinged with affectivity.
In a rosy version of the picture, relations are warm, cordial, well-meaning and kind. Everybody can count on the sympathy and solidarity of other group members in case of need or mishap.
Everybody knows their place in a global relational network, and everybody is recognized personally by everybody else.
German sociologists such as Tönnies, Simmel, and Weber have proposed a fundamental distinction between traditional community (is based on strong personal links
within small, fairly stable social groups e.g. a tribe or a small village) and modern society (links are much more impersonal, temporary and functional as is typical in city life).
In the next paragraph an interesting aspect comes out – flexible group membership pattern in virtual communities.
One other aspect is the distrust in hierarchy.
Flexible group membership is becoming more and more common. A typical modern behavior has emerged, where group membership is constantly re-evaluated and renegotiated. The modern individual belongs to several groups (professional, cultural, political…) at the same time but doesn’t identify too closely with any of them. He or she views the association with any given group as potentially temporary. This type of person switches with ease between different social circles as his interests evolve or new opportunities arise, and doesn’t burden himself with an obsolete identity.Such an individual is actually self-centered and calculating, ready to ditch obsolete causes in favor of newer, more profitable interests. His social engagements are usually loose, temporary and
There is now a marked distrust of rigid hierarchical structures, and various groups and subgroups within the global movement are deliberately organized as flexible networks, bound together by modern communication techniques.
Memmi suggests that “There is obviously an element of idealism or nostalgia in hoping” that virtual communities are like those ideal communities described earlier.
This communal approach has also been the inspiration for a more formal and systematic research domain: collaborative software systems known as groupware (Favela and Decouchant 2003). Such systems aim at facilitating communication between members by raising the awareness level about common goals and data and about other network members. In this way, group cohesion and efficiency can be increased markedly on the network.
Memmi does not believe this conception of small, tight communities fits all electronic groups. He refers the characteristic features of computer-mediated communities (Gensollen 2004):
Here are some of the most salient features of virtual communities:
– participation is often occasional, or a one-off occurrence,
– participants are frequently anonymous or use pseudonyms,
– groups may be quite large, with hundreds or thousands of participants,
– there are active participants, but also many passive readers,
– group membership is often temporary,
– there seems to be little group awareness,
– group structure is highly flexible,
– contributions to the discussion are often addressed to no one in particular,
– many contributions are apparently ignored,
– there are few personal relationships, and they are unstable,
– the discussion style is usually cold and unemotional, (except for some aggressiveness which serves social control purposes),
– interactions are not between persons, but revolve about a common object, goal or task,
– interactions contribute to the construction of a common workspace,
– contributions are mostly goal-oriented.
Memmi emphasises that in spite of few interactions, groups can work on shared outcome, and “many virtual communities do not require any group awareness to
function correctly and do not usually lead to personal relationships”. He also suggests that: “Virtual groups are efficient when there is already a common cultural context and a clear awareness of the common goals.”
He brings out interesting conclusion “Features of ordinary face-to-face communication would in fact prove harmful for typical virtual groups. The attention given to personal interactions is irrelevant for many technical tasks, and the expression of emotions would only complicate the task resolution process.”
This claim about groups with flexible membership indicates that there may be no need to such parts of identity propagations as in other types of groups.