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Virtual community

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

(Redirected from Virtual Community)

A virtual community or online community is a group of people that may or may not primarily or initially communicate or interact via the Internet. Online communities have also become a supplemental form of communication between people who know each other in real life. The dawn of the "information age" found groups communicating electronically rather than face to face. A "Computer-mediated community" (CMC) uses social software to regulate the activities of participants. An online community such as one responsible for collaboratively producing open source software is sometimes called a development community. Significant socio-technical change has resulted from the proliferation of Internet-based social networks.[1]


Today, virtual community or online community can be used loosely for a variety of social groups interacting via the Internet. It does not necessarily mean that there is a strong bond among the members, although Rheingold mentions that virtual communities form "when people carry on public discussions long enough, with sufficient human feeling, to form webs of personal relationships" [1]. An email distribution list may have hundreds of members and the communication which takes place may be merely informational (questions and answers are posted), but members may remain relative strangers and the membership turnover rate could be high. This is in line with the liberal use of the term community.

The term virtual community is attributed to the book of the same title by Howard Rheingold, published in 1993. The book discussed his adventures on The WELL and onward into a range of computer-mediated communication and social groups. The technologies included Usenet, MUDs (Multi-User Dungeon) and their derivatives MUSHes and MOOs, IRC (Internet Relay Chat), chat rooms and electronic mailing lists; the World Wide Web as we know it today was not yet used by many people. Rheingold pointed out the potential benefits for personal psychological well-being, as well as for society at large, of belonging to such a group.

Virtual communities may synthesize Web 2.0 technologies with the community, and therefore have been described as Community 2.0, although strong community bonds have been forged online since the early days of USENET. Virtual communities depend upon social interaction and exchange between users online. This emphasizes the reciprocity element of the unwritten social contract between community members. Web 2.0 is essentially characterized by virtual communities such as Flickr, Facebook, and

Different virtual communities have different levels of interaction and participation among their members. This ranges from adding comments or tags to a blog or message board post to competing against other people in online video games such as MMORPGs. Not unlike traditional social groups or clubs, virtual communities often divide themselves into cliques or even separate to form new communities. Author Amy Jo Kim points out a potential difference between traditional structured online communities (message boards, chat rooms, etc), and more individual-centric, bottom-up social tools (blogs, instant messaging buddy lists), and suggests the latter are gaining in popularity.

The ability to interact with likeminded individuals instantaneously from anywhere on the globe has considerable benefits, but virtual communities have bred some fear and criticism. Virtual communities can serve as dangerous hunting grounds for online criminals, such as identity thieves and stalkers, with children particularly at risk. Others fear that spending too much time in virtual communities may have negative repercussions on real-world interaction (see Internet addiction disorder).

The idea that media could generate a community is quite old. Progressive thinkers such as Charles Cooley, early in the 20th century in the United States, envisioned a nation whose members were united strongly because of the increased use of mass media. Also well-known is the term community without propinquity, coined by sociologist Melvin Webber in 1963. As well, Benedict Anderson's Imagined Communities describes how different technologies contributed to the development of a national consciousness among early nation-states. Particularly relevant is his description of how national newspapers, which collected and presented news from a certain geographical area, soon made it natural to think of that geographical area as comprising a single entity. In other words, national newspapers contributed to the idea of a nation, and from thence to the construction of a nation-state.

The explosive diffusion of the Internet into some countries such as the United States was also accompanied by the proliferation of virtual communities. The nature of those communities and communications is rather diverse, and the benefits that Rheingold envisioned are not necessarily realized, or pursued, by many. At the same time, it is rather commonplace to see anecdotes of someone in need of special help or in search of a community benefiting from the use of the Internet.

The term "community", when used about virtual communities, is contentious among some circles. The traditional definition of a community is of a geographically circumbscribed entity (neighbourhoods, villages, etc). Virtual communities, of course, are inherently dispersed geographically, and therefore are not communities under the original definition. However, if one considers communities to simply possess boundaries of some sort between their members and non-members, then a virtual community is certainly a community. The idea of neatly bounded communities is also being critiqued, since communities are fluid just as much as they are static, with members joining and leaving and even being part of different communities simultaneously.

Membership Lifecycle for Virtual Communities

A Membership Lifecycle for Online Communities was proposed by Amy Jo Kim (2000), which states that members of virtual communities begin their life in a community as visitors, or Lurkers. After breaking through a barrier become a novice, and participate in community life. After contributing for a sustained period of time they become a regular. If they break through another barrier they become a leader, and once they have contributed the community for some time they become an elder. This lifecycle can be applied to many virtual communities, most obviously bulletin boards, but also blogs and wiki-based communities like Wikipedia.

Motivations for contributing to virtual communities

There are several motivations that lead people to contribute to virtual communities. Various online media (i.e. Wikis, Blogs, Chat rooms, Internet forums, Electronic mailing lists) are becoming ever greater knowledge-sharing resources. Many of these communities are highly cooperative and establish their own unique culture. They also involve significant time from contributors with no monetary gain. Some key examples of online knowledge sharing infrastructures include the following:

  • Usenet: Established in 1980, as a "distributed Internet discussion system," it became the initial Internet community. Volunteer moderators and votetakers contribute to the community.
  • The WELL: A pioneering online community established in 1985. The WELL's culture has been the subject of several books and articles. Many users voluntarily contribute to community building and maintenance (e.g., as conference hosts).
  • AOL: The largest of the online service providers, with chat rooms which for years were voluntarily moderated by community leaders. It should be noted that rooms and most message boards are no longer moderated, however.
  • Slashdot: A popular technology-related forum, with articles and readers comments. Slashdot subculture has become well-known in Internet circles. Users accumulate a "karma score" and volunteer moderators are selected from those with high scores.
  • Wikipedia: Wikipedia is now the largest encyclopedia in the world. Its editors, who voluntarily publish and revise articles, have formed an intricate and multi-faceted community.

Research into motivations for contribution

There have been a number of researchers investigating motivation and desire in virtual communities. Studies show that over the long term users gain a greater insight into the material that is being discussed and a sense of connection to the world at large.

Kollock's Framework

Peter Kollock (1999) researched motivations for contributing to online communities. In "The Economies of Online Cooperation: Gifts and Public Goods in Cyberspace", he outlines three motivations (Kollock:227) that do not rely on altruistic behavior on the part of the contributor:

  • Anticipated Reciprocity
  • Increased Recognition
  • Sense of efficacy

There is another motivation, implicit in the above, which Mark Smith mentions in his 1992 thesis: Voices from the WELL: The Logic of the Virtual Commons:

  • Communion, as Smith terms it, or "sense of community" as it is referred to in social psychology.

Anticipated Reciprocity

A person is motivated to contribute valuable information to the group in the expectation that one will receive useful help and information in return. Indeed, there is evidence that active participants in online communities get more responses faster to questions than unknown participants (Kollock 178).

Increased Recognition

Recognition is important to online contributors such that, in general, individuals want recognition for their contributions, some have called this Egoboo. Kollock outlines the importance of reputation online: “Rheingold (1993) in his discussion of the WELL (an early online community) lists the desire for prestige as one of the key motivations of individuals’ contributions to the group. To the extent this is the concern of an individual, contributions will likely be increased to the degree that the contribution is visible to the community as a whole and to the extent there is some recognition of the person’s contributions. … the powerful effects of seemingly trivial markers of recognition (e.g. being designated as an “official helper”) has been commented on in a number of online communities…”

One of the key ingredients of encouraging a reputation is to allow contributors to be known or not to be anonymous. The following example, from Meyers (1989) study of the computer underground illustrates the power of reputation. When involved in illegal activities, computer hackers must protect their personal identities with pseudonyms. If hackers use the same nicknames repeatedly, this can help the authorities to trace them. Nevertheless, hackers are reluctant to change their pseudonyms regularly because the status associated with a particular nickname would be lost.

Profiles and reputation are clearly evident in online communities today. is a case in point, as all contributors are allowed to create profiles about themselves and as their contributions are measured by the community, their reputation increases. encourages elaborate profiles for members where they can share all kinds of information about themselves including what music they like, their heroes, etc. In addition to this, many communities give incentives for contributing. For example, many forums award you points for posting. Members can spend these points in a virtual store. eBay is an example of an online community where reputation is very important because it is used to measure the trustworthiness of someone you potentially will do business with. With eBay, you have the opportunity to rate your experience with someone and they, likewise, can rate you. This has an effect on the reputation score.

Sense of Efficacy

Individuals may contribute valuable information because the act results in a sense of efficacy, that is, a sense that they have had some effect on this environment. There is well-developed research literature that has shown how important a sense of efficacy is (e.g. Bandura 1995), and making regular and high quality contributions to the group can help individuals believe that they have an impact on the group and support their own self-image as an efficacious person.

Wikipedia is a prime example of an online community that gives contributors a sense of efficacy. Wikipedia is an online encyclopedia which uses online software to enable anyone to create new articles and change any article in the encyclopedia. The changes you make are immediate, obvious, and available to the world.

Sense of Community

People, in general, are fairly social beings and it is motivating to many people to be responded to directly for their contributions. Most online communities enable this by allowing people to reply back to contributions (i.e. many Blogs allow comments from readers, you can reply back to forum posts, etc). Again, using, other users can rate whether your product review was helpful or not. Granted, there is some overlap between increasing reputation and gaining a sense of community, however, it seems safe to say that there is some overlapping areas between all four motivators.

Online Community Design

Given these findings as a base, below are some guidelines that can be of use when trying to design an online community or foster a better knowledge sharing environment in your organization:

Online Community Virtuous Cycle

See also: Metcalfe's law
See also: Bass diffusion model

Most online communities grow slowly at first, due in part to the fact that the strength of motivation for contributing is usually proportional to the size of the community. As the size of the potential audience increases, so does the attraction of writing and contributing. This, coupled with the fact that organizational culture does not change overnight, means creators can expect slow progress at first with a new virtual community. As more people begin to participate however, the aforementioned motivations will increase creating a virtuous cycle where the more participation begets more participation. It can be likened to a network, whereby the network's value is directly proportional to the square of the amount of users it has. Many online community members describe their participation as "addictive".

The growth in community adoption is often forecasted (that is, estimating the number of users in the community) by use of the Bass diffusion model, a mathematical formula originally conceived by Frank Bass to describe the process how new products get adopted as an interaction between users and potential users.

Benchmark virtual communities

  • BBS or Internet Forum: The WELL, GEnie, Dead Runners Society
  • Blog: LiveJournal, Xanga, MySpace, Facebook, Blogger
  • Webcomic: UserFriendly, Penny Arcade, Sluggy Freelance, Ctrl+Alt+Del
  • Virtual world/city: LucasFilm's Habitat, Secondlife, Millsberry, Red Light Center
  • IM: ICQ, Yahoo! Messenger, Windows Live Messenger, AIM
  • IRC/EFNet
  • MMORPG: Everquest, Ultima Online, RuneScape, World of Warcraft, Silk Road Online
  • MOO: LambdaMOO
  • P2P: Kazaa, Morpheus, Napster, Limewire
  • Wiki: Wikipedia, WikiWikiWeb, Wetpaint, PBWiki
  • WWW: eBay, GeoCities, Slashdot, Digg

Additional virtual community listings

Discussion boards

  • Dead Runners Society
  • GameFAQs
  • Something Awful
  • 2channel
  • The Talk
  • Zombie Squad
  • IGN
  • Americhindia

Social networking

See article: List of social networking websites

Art communities

  • Albino Blacksheep
  • DeviantART
  • Elfwood
  • Newgrounds
  • Sheezyart
  • Vexels.Net
  • ArtGrounds


  • GemStone
  • ifMUD
  • Category:MU* servers
  • Category:MU* games

Ethnical communities

  • Fillos de Galicia

Other types

  • 4chan (imageboards)
  • bianca
  • (social bookmarking)
  • eHarmony (online dating service)
  • vMix (online video sharing community)
  • (an online game, music, movie, and book trading community)
  • CouchSurfing (free accommodation world wide through hospitality exchange)
  • Hospitality Club (free accommodation world wide through hospitality exchange)
  • (a video-enabled, non-commercial interest-centered community)
  • Meetup (an online service designed to facilitate real-world meetings of people involved in various virtual communities)
  • Stumbleupon (web surfing)
  • YTMND (Picture, Sound, Text)
  • (mac music sharing/community)
  • Smootsy (Online dating community)
  • Group blogs

Virtual community pioneers and experts

  • Ted Nelson
  • Vanessa DiMauro
  • Jonathan Bishop
  • Bart Cilfone
  • Peter Kollock
  • Jenny Preece
  • Sheizaf Rafaeli
  • Howard Rheingold
  • Fay Sudweeks
  • Sherry Turkle
  • Barry Wellman
  • Daniel Casal
  • Derek Liu
  • Long Vo
  • Philip Rosedale

See also

  • Bulletin board system
  • Chat room
  • Computer-mediated communication
  • Discourse community
  • Internet activism
  • Internet forum
  • Internet social network
  • Massively distributed collaboration
  • Massively Multiplayer Online Role-playing Games
  • Network of practice
  • Online deliberation
  • Online wedding
  • Social network
  • Social software
  • Social evolutionary computation
  • The Virtual Community
  • Virtual Community of Practice
  • Virtual ethnography
  • Virtual reality
  • Web community
  • Web of trust
  • Yahoo! Groups
  • GeoCities
  • Category:Virtual reality communities


  1. ^ Tuomi, Ilkka Internet, Innovation and Open Source:Actors in the Network 2000 First Monday

Further reading

  • Virtual communities and domestic violence crimes committed by their users - A detailed discussion about whether popular virtual communities should be held legally responsible for online domestic violence crimes committed by their users.

References and external links

  • Anderson, B. (1983). Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso.
  • Farmer, F. R. (1993). "Social Dimensions of Habitat's Citizenry." Virtual Realities: An Anthology of Industry and Culture, C. Loeffler, ed., Gijutsu Hyoron Sha, Tokyo, Japan
  • Hafner, K. 2001. The WELL: A Story of Love, Death and Real Life in the Seminal Online Community Carroll & Graf Publishers ISBN
  • Hagel, J. (1997). Net Gain: Expanding Markets through Virtual Communities. Boston: Harvard Business School Press (ISBN)
  • Jones, G. Ravid, G. and Rafaeli S. (2004) Information Overload and the Message Dynamics of Online Interaction Spaces: A Theoretical Model and Empirical Exploration, Information Systems Research Vol. 15 Issue 2, pp. 194-210.
  • Kim, A.J. (2000). Community Building on the Web: Secret Strategies for Successful Online Communities. London: Addison Wesley (ISBN)
  • Kim, A.J. (2004). “Emergent Purpose.” Musings of a Social Architect. January 24, 2004. Retrieved April 4, 2006 [2].
  • Kollock, P. 1999. "The Economies of Online Cooperation: Gifts and Public Goods in Cyberspace," in Communities in Cyberspace. Marc Smith and Peter Kollock (editors). London: Routledge.
    • The author has made available an online working draft
  • Kosorukoff, A. & Goldberg, D. E. (2002) Genetic algorithm as a form of organization, Proceedings of Genetic and Evolutionary Computation Conference, GECCO-2002, pp 965-972
  • Morningstar, C. and F. R. Farmer (1990) "The Lessons of Lucasfilm's Habitat", The First International Conference on Cyberspace, Austin, TX, USA
  • Neus, A. (2001). Managing Information Quality in Virtual Communities of Practice; Lessons learned from a decade's experience with exploding internet communication [3] IQ 2001: The 6th International Conference on Information Quality at MIT.Mchughjc 22:01, 8 February 2007 (UTC)
  • Preece, J. (2000). Online Communities: Supporting Sociability, Designing Usability. Chichester: John Wiley & Sons Ltd. (ISBN)
  • Rheingold, H. (2000). The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier. London: MIT Press. (ISBN)
    • The author has made available an online copy
  • Sahat online
  • Smith, M. "Voices from the WELL: The Logic of the Virtual Commons" UCLA Department of Sociology.
  • Seabrook, J. 1997. Deeper: My Two-Year Odyssey in Cyberspace Simon & Schuster ISBN (Hardcover) - ISBN (Paperback)
  • Sudweeks, F., McLaughlin, M.L. & Rafaeli,S. (1998) Network and Netplay Virtual Groups on the Internet, MIT Press. Portions available online as: JCMC, VOLUME 2 ISSUE 4: NETWORK AND NETPLAY.
  • Building Electronic Communities and Networks - free e-learning module on designing, developing and facilitating virtual communities.
  • The International Journal of Web-Based Communities
  • News Consumption in Online Communities
  • Online Community Report - news and trends in online collaboration.
  • Wildbit (2005) Social Networks Research Report 35 page report on preparing, maintaining, and supporting a social network.
  • Guide to Building an Online Community
  • Virtual Community Network
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