Real Virtual Community (and a talk next week)

First thing: I’ll be giving a talk about digital media and pilgrimage in St John’s College next week, for the CODEC series of lunchtime seminars. The talk’s on Thursday (January 22nd), and it’s free. You can find out more on CODEC’s website here, and sign up on Eventbrite here. If you’re in Durham next week, come along!

But the main thing I want to discuss in this post is something else. I’ve been asked to write a short article for a Christian journal on the question “Is Virtual Community Real?”, and I’d like to hear what you think.

When people talk about “online community”, often what they really mean is a kind of emotional intensity to their relationships. The most famous definition is Howard Rheingold’s, from 1993, and it goes like this:

Virtual communities are social aggregations that emerge from the Net when enough people carry on those public discussions long enough, with sufficient human feeling, to form webs of personal relationships in cyberspace.”

So “community” isn’t about living in the same place or meeting face-to-face – it’s the network of people you’re emotionally close to, wherever they may be.

You can see how this works in a moving blog that CODEC’s Bex Lewis (@drbexl) wrote a few years ago, about the support she’s received from her online and offline community. The community Bex is talking about is not gathered in one place, online or offline – it’s the network of people who offer her support, wherever they are.

The same idea pops up in Meredith Gould’s introduction to digital ministry, The Social Media GospelVirtual community is true community, she promises: invest enough time and energy in online conversations and you will discover “a universe of support”, and that’s what community is. “Virtual communities of faith are real to members who have come to rely on them for inspiration and support.”

This is what sociologists call a “personal community”. Instead of being connected to a fixed group of people, united by a common location or workplace or activity, sharing a common identity and a sense of belonging and commitment, we increasingly rely on building up our own network of people who care about us. A “personal community” is real if the people we’ve connected to really care. 

As far as I’m concerned, it doesn’t make sense to argue about whether or not this kind of network is “real community”. What we mean by “community” has changed, and the same word can mean completely different things. Talking to my friends on Facebook and Twitter might help me to maintain my personal community and gain some emotional support, sure, but that’s just not the same kind of thing as the place-based community you might connect with by going to a church.

I don’t think the “personal community” that Bex and Meredith Gould are talking about is the same kind of thing that Howard Rheingold was discussing back in 1993, either, even though the words they are using are almost the same. The internet has changed, and the way we connect has changed too.

Rheingold is thinking about online discussions that happen in particular online spaces, like newsgroups or MUDs or forums. When an online group has a space to meet, you can start thinking about membership, boundaries, group activities and a sense of belonging, and those are all characteristics of community. In that sense, place-based communities are pretty similar, whether they meet online or offline. 

A personal community is something else: you might feel you belong to your local church, but you don’t (I suspect) belong to Twitter. The kind of conversation that happens around a long-running Twitter hashtag might be an exception here, although even this is not quite the kind of separate space you would find in a private chatroom.

So, here’s my thought: there are different kinds of community. A community can be your personal network of friendship and emotional support. A community can also be a group of people meeting in a shared space, building a shared identity and sense of belonging. You can find both kinds of community online and offline, but it doesn’t make sense to argue about “real community” until you’ve decided which type you’re talking about.

Does that sound about right?

About Tim Hutchings

Tim works at CODEC, a research initiative for the study of Christian communication in the digital age at St John's College, Durham. He studies online churches, online evangelism and other online things, and can usually be found somewhere near the coffee machine. He likes cake, old science fiction book covers and kitschy religious knick-knacks.