Establishing a point of view toward virtual communities, by Frank Weinreich
Global Hearth Fires
My assumption is that users want to overcome the barriers of CMC, and this is backed up by empirical findings.
In 1993, Wetzstein, et. al. did a survey of bulletin board systems in the German-speaking parts of Europe. They questioned 469 users on a vast variety of topics concerning the use of BBS's and additionally interviewed 91 people personally or by telephone on the same topics. The results concerning the question about the importance of face-to-face-contacts have shown that 62% had come to meet other users (p. 64). The interviews also revealed users' needs for personal contact. Many of these interview have shown that CMC is mostly some kind of beginning which is followed by normal contacts in the sensual world as for example described by this user: "... and then we found sympathy in each other, but only after we really met one another" (see Wetzstein, et. al., p. 65). On the other hand, only a small minority of the surveyed users, in accordance to their online engagement, noticed disturbances in the relations they maintained in the sensual world (p. 66).
Also in 1993, Volker Kneer posted a questionnaire on the Usenet. His purpose was to explore the uses of the Net in order to discover its potentials (p. 4). The questionnaire was answered by 518 users. Although the communicants on the Usenet are by far more dispersed than the user of BBS's, which normally live in a close area around the location of "their" box, the surveyed users expressed their eagerness to get to know each other. Eighty percent of the respondents said they formally met people they first contacted on the Net sooner or later(p. 112) while 40% of the respondents met more than ten people of whom they corresponded with via email. Moreover, 23% of respondents said they regularly met with those they corresponded with (p. 113). In addition Kneer inquired about the reading preferences of the users. Results showed that newsgroups with contents concerning local themes and events held the highest interest (p. 88).
In 1994, I did a small study on trial basis by questioning 62 users of German BBS's. The results showed that 88% of those users met people they conversed with online. This study was followed by my M.A.-dissertation in 1996. Part of this study included interviews with experts from the BBS-scene. All of them emphasized the importance of face-to-face contacts for the constitution of anything resembling something like a community. BBS's and networks hold different statuses among the interviewed. Stefan Schmitt, operator of "Viking-BBS," describes his box as a linkage of friends sharing similar interests. Sabine Stampfel from WOMAN-Net understands networks and BBS's as gathering-points and alternative media. Dirk Ulrich, coordinator of the LIFE-Net, sees his BBS as a kernel of a great family. The artist padeluun from /CL-Net (a member of APC-Networks) sees the value of CMC as a means of organizing and coordinating social and political organizations, especially where regional interests are pursued. In addition they view BBS's as a place that can teach people the value and duties of citizenship. None of these goals can be reached without personal contact. The personal attendance of people in peer-groups and organizations is mandatory because these values cannot exist without personal relationships and trust.
The picture of the Internet as one global village is wrong. There are thousands of them scattered throughout the world. 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. Only, that what I metaphorized as "shine," is all the content of the Net. Of course that is only a picture that I wanted to contrast against the picture of the "global village" or the "global community." The local BBS or the organization you are in, is your connection to the Net. It is your starting point and the place you usually go to first when you want to discuss or merely understand matters of CMC. This is where the Netizen meets the citizen and sees that they are one and the same.