Establishing a point of view toward virtual communities, by Frank Weinreich
There's No Living in the Nodes
Concerning the term Netizen, DeLoach raised the questions: "What is a Netizen?" and "What is the value of being a Netizen?". I believe that the answer to the first question will automatically lead to the second answer. But there's something in the way which hinders us from gaining a realistic view of the Netizen. I will try to set this right. When Michael Hauben developed his definition of the term Netizen, he described people who "populate" the virtual rooms of the Net. With this, he stands with well-known Netizens, as Hauben would call them, like Howard Rheingold and Nicholas Negroponte, who refer to the Net as, "socializing digital neighborhoods" (Negroponte, 1995, p. 7) or "virtual communities" (Rheingold, 1993). While there is nothing to argue against Hauben's attempt to distinguish the more engaged and concerned users of the Net from all those lurkers and surfers, I believe something is wrong with the terms "population" and "community" alike. In the last three years, I have been doing some research on bulletin board systems in Germany, and I have come to the conclusion that there is no such thing as a "digital community." "Communities," which means groups of people sharing their lives, co-exist in real life or they are not a community!
CMC in the current development of the Web will be transformed to "computer-mediated clicking." If the Net is brought to the people in only this fashion, it will be reduced to giant virtual malls through which customers--instead of participants--will "zap," leaving the browser not more than a remote control device. Moreover, commercial interests support this concept of the virtual mall. But if one wants to steer against this current, one must not create false pictures and give unfulfillable promises of cozy shelters and somewhat communitarian seeming societies that are said to be existing in and through the Net. I don't refer to the all too often rough and intolerant behavior on the Net. (Not so long ago, I read a few emails in which the disputants over some matters of routing and access threaten to blow one another's brains out.)
What I want to ask is this: How far can mediated contacts constitute community? I believe they can not. You may get to know other people through CMC, the Net will provide the means to maintain contact and interconnections between people and organizations. But they won't constitute communities because CMC cannot substitute for the sensual experience of meeting one another face-to-face. Trust, cooperation, friendship and community are based on contacts in the sensual world. You communicate through networks but you don't live in them.