Communities Online

  • “Communities in Cyberspace”
  • The Hong Kongs, New Yorks and Tokyos of the Internet (NYT, 30 October 2007)

The “Communities in Cyberspace” reading reinforces my view that in general the human reactions are similar no matter what technology we are looking. Yes, there are nuances with each one of the applications, but in general we’re still dealing with the same issues of identity, honesty, regulation, quality of communication, etc. One possible explanation is that the technology hasn’t really changed that much (just looks better). For example, Kollock and Smith talk about “usenets” and “newsgroups”, which are not that different than blogs today. But by improving the speed, the range, and controls of online collaborations tools we are seeing a more robust development of these online communities. Though we should not forget, that “online” communities were present in the time of the Telegraph!

However, technology is allowing us to do more complex collaborations online, for which technology is mimicking more and more “real” life. In this process we will increasingly face the same issues online and offline. For example, the complexities and issues of establishing identity online may not be much different than offline. It is a bit of a misnomer that online worlds guard us from our racial, class and religious biases because we don’t see the person. There’s always a way for people to be prejudicial — if that’s their belief.

Online communities work best when there is a offline relationship to support it. Being online should not be used as a shield against who we are (other than for common sense security protection). Having a offline relationship makes online relationships (and collaboration) much more rich and just work better. Messages are much more significant when there’s a offline tie. For example, think of Twitter, how is a one line significant? Well if you have a real-life relationship a one line has a lot more context.

Finally, I agree with the reading on the sense that these technology are double-edged. My own experience with online communities ranges from great to very bad. On the bad end, I had a health scare and sought online communities for support and knowledge. I not only got freaked out from the amount of crazy advice from non-medical people, but I actually ended up putting my life at risk for believing some of it. On the other had, when my dad had cancer three doctors worked on his case from three different countries. That was amazing.

I cannot stop but wonder, what will happen once “virtual reality” is not that different from “reality”. I guess some french Philosophers have already mused about this quite a bit.

Questions to ponder upon:

1. How are online communities of the past (a.k.a. telegraph) different from today’s communities (i.e. Second Life, Blogs, etc.)?
2. What are the factors that make an online community work well?
3. How do you establish your identity online and how does it vary from technology to technology?

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