Going back to the mid 1980ís, Iíve been a part of some very memorable online communities that were the kind of intriguing cross-cultural societies described by Howard Rheingold in his landmark book, Virtual Communities. Unfortunately, ever since a few years after that book was published, Iíve seen fewer and fewer online communities that have any element of community at all. Many are anything but communities. After all, in the physical world, would you describe an overcrowded apartment complex where anonymous residents constantly shuffle in and out as a community?
What happened? Online communities were once looked upon as an emerging social phenomenon that was so powerful that it would lead to the development of new socioeconomic groups, but it seems like most of the ones around today are either dead quiet or so noisy that everyone seems to be shouting out to nobody in particular. Are we just going through an extended learning curve caused by the worldwide explosion of Internet users at the turn of the century? Do we just need better applications that are more user-friendly? I believe the answers are yes and yes, but I also believe that the most popular model of online community, the community of interest, has fatal flaws in it that limit its ability to function as a reliable social community.
The problem with communities of interest is that they have a tendency to become unmanageable and impersonal. The topics discussed in these communities fall within a narrow scope of content matter, members come and go constantly, and individual identities are practically impossible to develop. Organizing communities according to interest may appear to be the most logical approach since people naturally want to affiliate with others who are similar to them, but in the physical world, affiliation is a scarce quality. Online, itís not as hard to find others with similarities and partially because of this, virtual communities based on interests have come to resemble social mobs rather than online communities. (Ironically, Rheingoldís second book about connected culture is ďSmart Mobs.Ē)
These mob communities are formed by large masses of transient individuals with similar interests congregating to exchange information or to fulfill a purpose. Theyíre highly unstable social constructs that lack the continuity to develop social cohesion. Search engines and the culture of instant gratification help drive the formation of these mob communities because they allow users to go from community to community looking for immediate answers. Developing more complex social relationships with other members of an online community is not only no longer necessary to find information, but itís also prohibitively difficult to do in environments lacking a shared culture. Before search engines, finding information online was often a social process requiring users to interact with other people and data interfaces alike. Being in an online tribe full of diverse minds had a functional purpose because it was the best way to get answers faster.
Cyberspace is said to be such a great medium for bringing people together because it renders the constraint of space irrelevant; however, space plays an important role in modulating human interactions. The online communities of the 1980ís and 1990ís were either stand-alone services that you had to dial into with a modem or they were on much more primitive networks that became less reliable the farther information had to travel. Even the far-reaching online communities were in practice limited to regional clusters by the immature Internet, which was then a slower patchwork lattice. The constraints of space were not irrelevant then, but merely relaxed.
If physical constraints helped the online communities of the past behave in a more human manner then it might be natural to assume that physical proximity has an enabling role in the development of social online communities. Iíd argue that itís not the physical proximity itself that makes a difference, but some common qualities that are commonly observed with it. When the members of an online community are physically near each other, the likelihood that they interact regularly increases. Theyíre more likely to see each other, engage in activities together, or perhaps they were already friends who expanded their friendship into Cyberspace.
Of course people can also have regular interaction without living near each other. Virtual project teams, online gaming clans, and online support groups all have all been known to develop strong community ties from regular interaction without seeing each other face to face. These examples are important to take note of, but for the purpose of bringing online communities into mainstream usage, theyíre not likely to have a significant impact in the foreseeable future.
To replicate their niche success of online communities on a widespread level, they need to become integrated with the regular everyday communities that people are used to being a part of and will likewise be subject to some of the same physical and social constraints. They need to be more than mere online communities, but ďSocial Community SystemsĒ that would essentially be to the local community what Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) or Customer Relationship Management (CRM) systems are to large corporations. Social Community Systems would pull together various types of social and information applications into an integrated whole that will support and coordinate the interests of the local government, residents, and merchants. Like ERP and CRM systems, online communities must weave themselves into the very fabric of how physical communities operate to achieve success. There are plenty of ignored community portal sites around to remind us all that itís useless to merely design something elaborate.
What would such a Social Community System look like? Well, Iím currently building one. My prototype Social System is currently in the last phases of development and Iíll be launching it as a pilot in my hometown of Campbell, CA in about a month. If youíre interested in finding out more, I will have an entire Web site built to promote my Social Wave Communities Project soon. Drop me an email and Iíll add you to my announcements mailing list. For now, if you want more information I have an FAQ and some promotional flyers that you can download. You can also take a look at my prototype site at http://campbell.socialwave.net. The final version will be available at the end of this month.