Computer-Mediated Communication Magazine / Volume 2, Number 4 / April 1, 1995 / Page 14

Examining Community in Cyberspace

by Chris Silker (

Book review CyberSociety: Computer-Mediated Communication and Community
Edited by Steven G. Jones
Sage Publications, 1995, 241 pages
ISBN 0-8039-5676-2 hardcover or ISBN 0-8039-5677-0 paper

CyberSociety provides a much needed scholarly examination of online communities--a topic that has primarily been discussed anecdotally by the mass media. The collection discusses several different types of online communities, such as Usenet newsgroups and Multi-User Dimensions (MUDs), as well as addressing some of the issues that online communities must deal with. CyberSociety also includes several good overviews of computer-mediated communication (CMC). The authors examine CMC from a variety of perspectives, including feminism, political science, anthropology, speech communication, literature, and media studies. Additionally, I felt it is extremely appropriate that a publication about life online provides most of the author's email addresses in their biographies. Finally, the book contains a fairly in-depth index, which is not always the case in such collections.

Although I felt this was a strong collection, it did have several weaknesses. Only about half of the chapters presented research results, while the other half continued the same sort of anecdotal treatment the subject of online communities is given by the mass media. Additionally, several of the chapters seemed only tangentially related to the concept of community. Although many of the authors mention that further research on these issues needs to be done, it would have been nice if CyberSociety had done more of that.

Overall, I felt the chapters (briefly reviewed below) were fascinating reading, and I highly recommend this collection.

Introduction: From Where to Who Knows?

In the introduction, Steven G. Jones provides a brief rationale for the collection, noting that the collection presents new "concepts and understandings...emphasizes that new social formations may require new forms of inquiry" (p. 7), and attempts "to understand the everyday life of the network and its citizens" (p. 8).

Understanding Community in the Information Age

The first chapter (also by Steven G. Jones) provides some background on CMC and continues to develop the collection's rationale. According to Jones, CyberSociety attempts to examine community that is not place-based (i.e., there is no "where" for us to study per se)--while studies of traditional communities may focus on location, studies of computer-mediated communities tend to focus on interaction. As Jones points out,
"Once we can surmount time and space and 'be' anywhere, we must choose a 'where' at which to be, and the computer's functionality lies in its power to make us organize our decisions about the places we visit and stay in....A critical awareness of the social transformations that have occurred and continue to occur with or without technology will be our best ally as we incorporate CMC into contemporary social life." (pp. 32-33)
Unfortunately, Jones's excellent essay led me to expect more from the remaining chapters than they provided.

A Backstage Critique of Virtual Reality

In this thought-provoking essay, Cheris Kramarae examines virtual reality (VR) through "feminist speculative fiction" and addresses some of the gender issues related to cyberspace. Kramarae begins with an overview of how VR is presently being used and considers how it will develop in the future. VR proponents claim that VR's potential "is limited only by the imagination" of its developers, which is what concerns Kramarae--"the limited imagination of those working on or using the programs" (p. 41). Kramarae also briefly describes Women, Information Technology, and Scholarship (WITS), a "working colloquium" at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne whose participants are interested in making cyberspace a space for women as well as men.

Nintendo® and New World Travel Writing: A Dialogue

This essay provides a fascinating juxtaposition of Nintendo® games and "New World narratives," such as the writings of Columbus and Sir Walter Raleigh. Authors Mary Fuller and Henry Jenkins believe that Nintendo® is similar to "New World narratives" in that both place more emphasis on the journey (or moving through space) than on the arrival (or goal attainment). Presumably to reinforce the feeling of a dialogue, emphasize that the work results from an ongoing conversation, and highlight the "two stories" they are telling, Fuller and Jenkins trade the writing task back and forth. Unfortunately, this alternating style distracted me from the essay itself.

Making Sense of Software: Computer Games and Interactive Textuality

Ted Friedman begins this essay by noting that although new media change some of our basic assumptions about media, they have not been examined in any detail, if at all. Friedman points out that we presently lack a "software theory" to explain the workings of software--I would point out that, after reading these essays, it seemed to me that we presently lack theories to explain a lot of news forms of communication. By examining software, starting with computer games, Friedman believes it is possible "to move beyond familiar paradigms and look at software that has developed truly new forms of reader-text interaction" (p. 75).

Standards of Conduct on Usenet

Margaret L. McLaughlin, Kerry K. Osborne, and Christine B. Smith provide a fascinating discussion of the origins and implications of Usenet conventions. The authors make some particularly interesting points; for example, they note that "the use of the `community' metaphor in characterizing network discussion forums may prove to be only a starting point in analysis" (p. 107) and that, in the future, more appropriate concepts may need to be developed.

Searching for the Leviathan in Usenet

I haven't read Hobbes's Leviathan, so I fear my lack of familiarity with one of this essay's structuring concepts may have limited my understanding of some of Richard C. MacKinnon's points. However, I was certainly able to appreciate MacKinnon's in-depth and engrossing discussion of existence on Usenet. MacKinnon points out that, for one's persona to "exist" on Usenet, the persona must be noticed. Thus, in the case of Usenet, "I think, therefore I am" does not work--"I am perceived, therefore I am"(p. 119) is more appropriate.

The Emergence of Community in Computer-Mediated Communication

Nancy K. Baym provides an insightful overview of the CMC literature, with examples from her research on (r.a.t.s.). Baym also points out that interaction by itself does not lead to the development of community--other factors, such as external contexts and group purposes, contribute as well.

Virtual Worlds: Culture and Imagination

Elizabeth Reid considers VR to be "an experience" rather than "a; set of technologies" (p. 164) and believes that VR "is primarily an imaginative rather than sensory experience" (p. 165). This is certainly true of the "entirely textual" VR environments she discusses--Multi-User Dimensions, or MUDs. Reid's essay clarified for me the ways in which MUDs are similar to, and different from, other forms of CMC described in CyberSociety.

The E-Mail Murders: Reflections on "Dead Letters"

Alan Aycock and Norman Buchignani juxtapose "on-line text and `real' context" (p. 185) in the case of Valery Fabrikant, an untenured professor at Concordia University in Montreal who murdered several people. My one frustration with this article is the length of time it took me to figure out who Fabrikant was; however, I believe that the authors did that deliberately. I will admit that the "Fabricating Fabrikant" I had to do contributed to the ethnographic spy novel feel of this article. ¤

Chris Silker is a double master's student in Scientific and Technical Communication and Forestry at the University of Minnesota.

Copyright © 1995 by Chris Silker. All Rights Reserved.

This Issue / Index / CMC Studies Center / Contact Us