February 1997

Root Page of Article: Establishing a point of view toward virtual communities, by Frank Weinreich

Sensual and Virtual Worlds

In observations on BBS's as well as in discussions, I've noticed that the terms "virtual" and "real" world are frequently used to describe cyberspace ("virtual") on one hand and the physical world ("real") on the other. But since the virtual world of CMC, or cyberspace, is no less real than the physical world in which we live bodily, I propose the use of the terms "sensual" and "virtual" worlds instead. While labeling the physical world as "real" does in comparison point out CMC as somewhat unreal, the use of the terms "sensual" and "virtual" promises some sort equivalence concerning the mere existence of both. There are certain differences between being online and being offline. But the importance of the sensual world lies not in some imaginated higher degree of reality that a wrong interpretation of real and virtual might indicate, but in the following: CMC is intended to bring people together.

As a communication form, CMC should enable people to stay in contact, to work more efficiently together, to organize opinions and actions, and lessen social and economic differences through equalized means of participation. CMC accomplishes all this with more or less efficiency. Part of it could be substituted by telephone, fax, letters to the editor, and meetings. And, there are functions of the net that can be fulfilled solely by computer networks and bulletin board systems. There is no other place with unrestricted public access and no limit of time and space. Rheingold's work on virtual communities consists mostly of examples for these agorae. Where else can you go to and find specialists for almost any problem you may have, organized in thousands of newsgroups? And you don't even have to pay for advice, help and comfort. So it seems to be natural to describe the Net as a community, for it functions similarly. The only real difference seems to be the virtuality of the room in which all this happens. But this room has its certain restrictions, for its contents are just words. This forces the attendants of the virtual world to abstain from many aspects of daily social life in the sensual world.

According to Joseph Walther, "interactive media theories" (1992, p. 54) underline the importance of face-to-face contact in social life when compared to computer-mediated relationships. Social presence theory states, that computer mediated communication is extremely low in social presence when compared to face-to-face communication because of its "paucity of nonverbal and back-channeling cues" (p. 54). Media richness theory also outlines that face-to face contacts are "richest" in bandwidth concerning the means of interaction between people, while computer communication is considered to provide only "leanest" bandwidth "according to its [limited] channel capacities" (pp. 56-57). Although Walther and others describe various strategies which were developed to overcome the specific deficiencies of strictly verbal communication (see Wetzstein, et. al. on emoticons, soundwords, ASCII-drawings; pp. 73-84), the main point of lacking personal contact in CMC-only-relations cannot be circumvented. Or as Karin Spaink puts it: "There is this overwhelming hunger for more than mere text" (1996, p.28).

CMC is necessarily mediated, but the mediation is always something which stands in between each message sender--even though it is meant to put people together in the first place. Stephen Talbott, being concerned about the future of computing mankind, urges us to realize the following:

"The compulsive efforts to 'overcome the barriers between the 'people', the verbal torrents now flooding online channels, and the reconceptualization of these torrents as information streams look very much like symptoms of the rapidly increasing distance between us. [...] Our lives no longer interpenetrate [...]. So we throw more and more words across our new, ever more remote communication channels, hoping we might finally connect. But the distance between us cannot be bridged in this way. [...] Our instruments of communication only increase the distance. Our real need is to rediscover what it means to participate in each other's lives and worlds. This requires attention to precisely those potentials of human exchange our efficient technology is teaching us to ignore." (Talbott, 1995, pp. 278-279)

I don't see that we have already gone so far that we have lost 'real' contact to each others. But the danger is imminent if we go on believing that we might constitute and run communities solely in the virtual world.

Talbott is right in stating that being online does not allow to interpenetrate each others lives. Reality relies on sensuality and sensuality cannot be (multi-)mediated. MUD's and MOO's and Cyberworlds like Compuserve's "World's Away" may be interesting or cunning, but they are also a fake. And I see the danger that people might forget that. And likewise you can't live in and through the Usenet or virtual places like "The Well."

I believe that you can't get to know and trust another person as long as you can't look them in the eye without a mediating screen, hear them speak without being connected by a cable and without shaking hands.

These considerations lead to certain conclusions. If one has to assume that communities rely on personal relations in the sensual world, global communities based on the Net cannot exist. Even if one has the financial means to visit those they communicate with in far-away lands, one cannot afford the time consumed by the frequency of traveling which would be necessary (seeing the others every two years or once, even twice a year will not suffice for communities). In no case will I argue that friendships or personal relations are impossible. I myself have come to develop friendships with people which I came to know firsthand on the Net (but only after I met them personally, that is). And CMC indeed serves as the connection between them and me (while the highlights are nevertheless our personal meetings). But that's another thing than living in a community. --

Contents Archive Sponsors Studies Contact