February 1997



The Intertwined Fortunes of Netizens and Online Communities

by Amelia DeLoach

What do you mean when you use the word, Netizen? Or, have you really thought about it? Most likely, you'd say "Anyone who uses the Internet." After all, that's how the mainstream media uses the term. But how it's now used differs a great deal from its original meaning. In [] "The Netizens and Community Networks," Michael Hauben, the originator of the term Netizen, explores how he came up with the word and how the term's meaning has changed. Hauben writes:

"Two general uses of the term Netizen have developed. The first is a broad usage to refer to anyone who uses the Net, for whatever purpose. Thus, the term Netizen has been prefixed in some uses with the adjectives good or bad. The second usage is closer to my understanding. This definition is used to describe people who care about Usenet and the bigger Net and work towards building the cooperative and collective nature which benefits the larger world."

But, just as in good Usenet discussions, a counterpoint always arises that prompts us to consider other view points. In [] "Establishing a Point of View Toward Virtual Communities," Frank Weinreich contends that:

"Netizens don't live in the Net. But they do gather around the global hearth fires, they call subnets or bulletin board systems. The Internet is the background on which you can see the shine of those fires. This is the picture that I wanted to contrast the picture of the 'global village' or the 'global community.'"

Alas, the concept of what constitutes a community appears to go hand-in-hand with what a Netizen is. Sabine Helmers, Ute Hoffmann, and Jillian Stamos-Kaschke extend these boundaries to include the Internet as a space where software agents and bots reside and where communication between humans and non-humans occurs in their article [] (How) Can Software Agents Become Good Net Citizens?." They raise an intriguing point that:

"In virtual worlds, human-generated information transactions are not unique. Also residing in these worlds are actors known as 'software agents,' 'bots,' or 'spiders' that can communicate with both humans and machines even though they are not made of flesh and bone. These programs-turned-actors carry out certain jobs, such as searching the WWW, arranging meetings or compiling music recommendations, more or less anonymously and act on behalf of a single user or an organization. Because of their communicative role, and because they reside on the Internet, they too can be considered 'Netizens.'..."

Thus the concept of the Netizen has diverged from its human-oriented meaning to include those actors that actually "live" on the Internet. This consequently extends the concept of the online community to include these actors. Just as Helmers et. al. prompt us to consider the limits of what constitutes Netizens and an online community, Leslie Regan Shade brings us closer to home in the "real" world with her review of Stephen Doheny-Farina's The Wired Neighborhood in [] "Balancing the Global Through the Local." Doheny-Farina points out that:

"A community is bound by place...You can't subscribe to a community as you subscribe to a discussion group on the net. It must be lived.... The net seduces us and further removes us from our localities--unless we take charge of it with specific, community-based, local agendas."

An irony arises. As people go to build the online community, the one that physically surrounds us may erode because of it. Another irony appears in this issue as well. At least one hacker has surfaced to mentor younger hackers--and explain the hacking community to businesses and agencies for a price--all of which couldn't be fully accomplished online. Richard Thieme profiles the hacker, Se7en, in the article [] Notes from the Underground.

What can we learn from this issue of CMC Magazine? Many things. Not the least of which is what constitutes a "community" and what constitutes a "Netizen" are ultimately intertwined. Both are completely subjective and will be debated for years to come.

Amelia DeLoach ( is a Contributing Editor to CMC Magazine. During the day she writes and designs Web-based documentation for a major telecommunications company in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina. At night, she spends entirely too much time on the Net.

Copyright © 1997 by Amelia DeLoach. All Rights Reserved.

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