Virtual Community Essay

Forming Communities in Cyberspace

Author's note: This is an essay written by Eric Nehrlich and is on his web site at I've added this note since this page has been linked to by several other sites without attribution.

The world of computers is one which is quite familiar to those of us who have grown up in this ``Information Age.'' We are the children who have grown up in a world where there has always been a cyberspace: computers which are linked across the world for all sorts of purposes. Over the next few years cyberspace will grow extensively, both in terms of number of the physical computers and capabilities, but also in the number of people connected to it. This growth facilitates the creation of virtual communities which exist independent of physical limitations.

The use of computer connectivity to overcome physical distance is one of the reasons the Arpanet was originally developed, but this ability to hook into cyberspace anywhere is one which is altering the world. It is now just as simple to talk to somebody across the nation or around the world as it is to the person down the block. It is now possible to log onto a MUG, a Multi-User Game, and communicate with people from all over the United States as well as Europe and Australia. In fact, I have met some people through MUGs from such places that I would never have met any other way. When you are talking to them, you can be completely unaware of their physical location, since it is virtually undetectable, until they actually tell you. This freedom from physical locale, and ability to meet people from elsewhere is one of the main attractions to such games. This sort of dialogue is actually possible in many forms on the net. The other examples which are immediately obvious are IRC, Internet Relay Chat, and Usenet, sometimes known as netnews. IRC is much like a party line, in that one chooses a handle, and a ``channel'' to hang out in, and talk with whoever wanders through. I have known several people who spent most of their social life on IRC, and met people through it with whom they would then go on on to have long friendships with. Netnews, on the other hand, is a bulletin board system. One posts a note, and then everybody reading that particular board will read it, and respond if they feel the desire. One can form relationships and connections via these boards which can affect one's personal or business life. The main theme which all of these different virtual worlds have in common is their freedom from physical constraints. You can communicate with people from around the world, and meet completely different points of view, or even more likely, find out that people elsewhere are much like you.

The main mode of communication in cyberspace would have to be electronic mail, or e-mail. Virtually everybody who is connected to cyberspace in any way uses e-mail to communicate with others. It has become far simpler for one to pop up a window, and quickly type up an email message to a friend, than it is to actually go through the trouble of mailing it through the postal service. Furthermore, e-mail will arrive within minutes with very little chance of getting lost, two aspects in which the U.S. Postal Service lags far behind. Through e-mail and e-mail mailing lists, I keep track of high school friends who go to college more than 1000 miles away, as well as stay informed of many of the events which groups I am involved with run. I have had people I know give progress reports on their trips by using a friend's account in South Africa. I am currently working on a project within the Superconducting Super Collider which involves instituations around the world, and the main method of communication between the scientists involved has become e-mail, since it is far more convenient than phone calls, which require the other person to be there, or fax machines, papers of which can easily get lost. E-mail has made it feasible for projects and friendships to be maintained at long distances far easier than it ever was before. This ease of communication is one thing which has allowed virtual communities to spring up so rapidly.

This defeat of physical distance is one which has been worked on through the ages, through faster modes of transportation, through the telegraph and telephone, to the computer networks of today. But the differentiating characteristic of today's networks is that they bring together more people with lower delay times than ever before. On a typical MUG, you can find 30 people logged on at any one time, and there are hundreds of MUGs out there. You could check IRC and find more than a hundred people logged in there. Until recently, there was no possible way to allow this many people to have real-time interaction in a meaningful way other than to bring them together in one physical place. Now such virtual meetings are commonplace. The reason that this real-time interaction is so important is that such interaction convinces us of the reality of others. It is far more convincing to see somebody respond to one's conversational gambits in a matter of seconds than a matter of days, and it allows one to build up a picture of somebody else's personality much more quickly. This enhances the development of social interactions and therefore communities, since one can understand the other's personality just by how they react to situations. You must feel like you can relate to/understand others in a place before a community can be formed. However, this difficulty has been overcome through this real-time interaction, allowing virtual communities to spring up around the world, through different sources.

Life in cyberspace is completely removed from the physical world. One of the better aspects of this feature is how it can contribute to the end of discrimination based on physical attributes. When you are talking with somebody over the net, you have absolutely no idea what they look like, what race they are, where they are logged in from, and sometimes even what gender they are. The only information you have about them is the words that they use to express themselves. You may develop ideas about their personality in your head but that is the only aspect of them you can draw conclusions about. This implies that life in cyberspace lets us take a long step down the road away from physical stereotyping, since in cyberspace, there can be no such thing. A teenager punk can be treated with exactly the same respect as a 50-year-old businessman, if he acts in a manner befitting such respect. Within the community of cyberspace, everybody starts off with an equal footing, and what they do with that, depends completely on their personality, not on any physical attributes. This freedom from stereotypes is one of the more noble aspects which communities in cyberspace can develop.

One of the other key features in the development of these virtual communities is the ease with which they are accessible. It is a proven axiom that what is difficult to use will not be used. The fact that such virtual meeting places gets such a great amount of use indicates that they are easy to use by most anyone. For example, on the MUG I play, although most people playing are technologically oriented, I know several who are arts majors and know very little of a computer beyond what it takes to access MUGs, send email, and other basics of electronic life. Such basic skills are learnable by anybody even today. As time goes on, we shall see the ease of use continue to increase, as programs which utilize the mouse and user-friendly graphics become more prevalent. Eventually, anybody should be able to sit down in front of a computer and be able to send and read email, access netnews, or find information that they need without having ever used a computer before. I believe this is where cyberspace is heading: towards the day when anybody can become a ``cybernaut.''

Another feature which is necessary to the nurturing of such virtual communities is a uniting factor, or experience. In the case of MUGs, it is the love of the MUG which all characters are logged into. In the case of netnews, it is interest in the topic under discussion. However, in most communities, it can not be so easily defined. The example which comes to mind is that of the computer underground, or hackers in general. The unifying attribute among hackers is the desire to explore and extend the capabilities of the system at hand, whether it be computers, phones, locks or whatever. Hackers want to explore the system at hand, and having done so, push its limits, finding out more about its nooks and crannies, or go on to a new system. These systems do not have to be computers. although generally they are, since computers provide the most area to explore. It is this experience, this desire to push systems to the limit that draws them together, providing the basis for a community. Many such communities have been formed; some of them include the Legion of Doom and the Lords of Chaos. This uniting factor is one which is needed to form a community anywhere; however, it is even more important within cyberspace, since there are no other attributes such as physical proximity to hold a group together. Fortunately, most people who currently venture into cyberspace have many experiences in common, and can relate to each other through them, whether the experience of first finding out about netnews, or whatever. This common experience is another factor contributing to the rapid development of virtual communities.

One final feature which is required to create such a community is the ability to communicate to the entire community. Without such an ability, the community loses coherence, and the fringes may not be able to find out what the issues under consideration are. One of the greatest boosts to the formation of virtual communities is the ease with which people can communicate electronically. To send out information to several people, one can send it via email in a bulk mailing, or post it to a bulletin board, or communicate in real time via the talk command or the zephyr system (to be discussed below). This ease of communication greatly facilitates the development of communities since the members of such a community can have their opinions heard by all other members, and this open discussion allows the development of stronger bonding within and to the community. After all, what kind of community could survive without ever discussing its problems or goals? It takes a continual re-examination of the community for it to thrive and succeed. Another example of this communication are the numbers of e-zines (email magazines) which spread information throughout the hacker community. They have all sorts of colorful names such as Phrack, Informatik, and the Computer Underground Digest, but the basic idea of all of the is the same: to disseminate information which is of interest to the community which they service. These 'zines cover areas ranging from how voice mail works, to the civil liberties at risk in the latest hacker bust. It is through such 'zines that a hacker can keep up to date with the events which affect the entire community, and find out the information which keeps him in sync with it. The 'zines provide yet another unifying factor to this community, such that when two hackers meet each other at a conference, they can refer to the last issue of Phrack with a fair degree of confidence that the other will know about it.

Let us examine one virtual community which has grown and which incorporates most of these attributes. This community is the virtual community which has grown up at MIT around the use of two major communication systems: zephyr and discuss. Zephyr is a realtime system which allows you to send short messages to either individual people, or to instances where all people subscribed to the instance receive the message. Discuss, on the other hand, is a bulletin board system whereby messages can be posted in many different meetings which one can subscribe to based on interest. It has been quite interesting to get involved in the communities which are based on these communication forms. In particular, the zephyr instance white-magic is the instance in which all sorts of discussions end up, whether they be political, technical, literary, or just plain silly. Anybody who has an account at MIT can subscribe to white-magic and contribute to it, and it is generally a free-for-all discussion, with many frequent users. I have met many people via white-magic, many of whom I still have not met in person, but others of whom I have gone out to dinner with or other similar activities. People who have nothing else in common besides the desire to talk on white-magic get together via it, and it has grown to be a community with people saying hello when they log on, etc. A more permanent version of such discussions is kept on discuss, where each transaction in a meeting is recorded to disk, so that they can be read later by anybody. The meetings range from general interest to happy thoughts to athena addicts (athena is the computer system here). In fact, I found out about this essay competition via one of these meetings when somebody posted a note to the general interest meeting about it. Many of the people who participate in white-magic participate in these meetings as well, so the virtual community incorporates both of these forms of communication. Many people who are now friends met first electronically via this community, which indicates the power which such a community holds. These virtual communities give people who would not otherwise meet each other physically, the chance to meet each other electronically. They defeat physical and even temporal restrictions. The physical restrictions are obvious, in that distance does not matter, nor does physical appearance. They overcome temporal restrictions in that if one posts a note to a board, it can be read and responded to later at any time by somebody. This restriction was defeatable before, through letters etc., but the ease with which communication can occur now despite such temporal pauses is something which only appeared comparatively recently.

The direction which the computer world and cyberspace is taking is one which has its roots in the formations of today, as these things must. It is the development of such virtual communities worldwide, linking people everywhere together. It will not matter where a participant is from, or what they look like, since all that can be determined electronically is their personality. The development of these communities will be the spur and the attraction to get many people involved with computers and cyberspace, which is the first step which must be take before computers can really become an integral part of their lives. However, once they get involved with talking with people via the net, and become a part of a virtual community that suits them, their interest in computers will rise, facilitating their adaption to the use of computers in other aspects of their life. Nevertheless, it is this bond to a community which will be the drawing point, and the anchor which holds them to cyberspace.

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