Thursday, 8 March 2007

Sociological and ethical impact of Cyber Communities

Introduction 

It is frequently claimed that ‘cyber’ community participation leads to a decline in ‘real’ community participation and that the growth of the Internet as a communications medium has directly resulted in a deterioration of traditional social cohesion within geographically bonded groups of people.

Before evaluation of the statement can begin, it is necessary to define what exactly is meant by the terms “cyber”, “real” and “community”. The Cambridge guide to English Usage describes the term “cyber” as a “1990s prefix / combining form for anything associated with computers and digital communications.... Cyber has proved extremely popular as a means of verbalizing the various responses to the computer age” (Peters, P., 2004, pp136). The term is derived from “cybernetics”, the science of communications and automated control systems in machines and living things.

“Real” is nebulous concept, as it is dependant on the context of its use. In this case it is used in juxtaposition to “cyber”, indicating that it means an absence of electronic or computer aided communication.

“Community” is an encompassing term for a grouping of people with common values, interests or geographic location. There are many commentators who define and illustrate the distinctions between online and offline communities and their attributes (see Holmes, 1997; Jones, 1997; Kollock and Smith, 1999; Wellman & Gulia, 1999; Preece, 2000; Jones & Kucker, 2001). Hamman defines the traditional notion of a “real” community as “A group of people who share social interaction and some common ties between themselves and the other members of the group.... who share an area [of physical space] for at least some of the time” (Hamman, 2001: 75). Preece defines a “cyber” community as “People who interact socially [with] a shared purpose such as interest, need, information exchange or service that provides a reason for the community.... [who utilise] computer systems to support and mediate social interaction and facilitate a sense of togetherness” (Preece, 2000: 10).

On further refinement, it can be seen that the fundamental difference between “cyber” and “real” community is the space, either physical or electronic, where the primary methods of communication and social interaction take place.

Online communities exhibit many of the social constraints of their real world counterparts. As Powazek states “Like it or not, every community site comes with a set of rules. There is behaviour that is welcome, and behaviour that is not” (Powazek, 2003: 91). Some may consider community sociability rules as censorship, but as with any social situation, there needs to be compliance with certain communal protocols (Rhiengold, 1993). An online community is not ‘constructed’ in a traditional sense, due to the complex and often unpredictable interaction between stakeholders. A convergence must be nurtured between community members. Preece likens participation in an online community to “an evolutionary process....which will continue over a long period of time.” (Preece, 2000: 205). To provide the requirements for an online community to flourish requires members to have an appreciation of “the world of technology and the world of people, and try to bring the two together” (Kapor, 1996: 4).

Assessing the sociological aspects of online community is often attempted using ethnographic techniques (Denzin & Lincoln, 1994; Robson, 1993, 1994) but there there are problems when applying traditional methods to Internet interaction (Sudaweeks & Simoff,1999). These methods must be adapted and new techniques developed (Jones, 1999) requiring an interdisciplinary approach, bringing together a variety of techniques from different paradigms.

Case for 

Since the emergence of the Internet as a communications tool, there has been a great deal of interest in the negative aspects of the social interaction through technology (Kiesler, 1998). In the early days of online communities, criticism was often levelled that they were in essence ‘pseudo-communities’ lacking in sincerity and cohesion (Jones, 1995) which, although appearing to offer genuine interactive social spaces, were ultimately impersonal and lacked real depth (Beniger, 1987).

Although often hailed as a triumph of communications, much research suggests that most people do not engage in increased social activity via the opportunities afforded to them by the Internet. It is noted that simply because online communication technologies exist, does not mean that people will use them to sustain or engender social relationships (Gourna & Smoreda, 2003). Many people who use online communities make no positive contributions and instead ‘lurk’, or passively observe, the interactions of others, in a manner similar to watching television. This lack of proactive participation can lead to a marked withdrawal from real world interactions as people transfer their online experiences to their physical existences (Nie, 2001; Nie & Hillygus, 2002). If members of a physical community which suffers from already poor social cohesion choose to socialise primarily online, this will further compound the situation: a catch 22 situation.

There are also issues of trust and deception with Internet based communication. In many circumstances, anonymity can be a positive factor, but the fact that participants in primarily electronic communications can never be sure as to whom they are communicating undermines a basic principle of community. This can be highlighted by extreme cases such a paedophiles “grooming” potential victims by pretending to be children themselves. This has lead many parents to have a fundamental distrust of online communities, which can compound their anxieties about perceived dangers to their children in the real world.

Researchers have identified a multitude of potential negative consequences for those who do participate in online communications. There is evidence of children exhibiting undeveloped social skills and people becoming psychologically dependant on online environments, often resulting in decreased contact between real-life family, friends and the wider community. (Turkle, 1995; Wellman & Gulia, 1999; Kraut et al., 2000; Rheingold, 2000). Because Internet use is largely a solitary pursuit (i.e. users surf the web whilst seated on their own in front of a computer), large amounts of time spent online can lead to individuals feeling isolated from society.

Cyber communities exhibit so many of the elements of traditional communities that many commentators consider them to be as ‘real’ as their physical counterparts. A wide ranging report published by the University of Southern California (Cole, 2006) indicates that many US Internet users increasingly deem online communities to be as important to them as the ‘real’ world. The report noted that among members of online communities, 43% say they “feel as strongly” about their virtual communities as they do about their “real world” communities, 57% access their online community at least once a day and 70.4% “sometimes or always” interrelate with other community members while online. These figures indicate a fundamental shift in how many individuals view their sense of belonging to a community, as priorities drift from the ‘real’ to the ‘cyber’.

Online communities are often seen as a poor counterpart to ‘actual’ social participation as the human to human interactions which are vitally important to effective communication, such as tone of voice, facial expressions and body language, are lost in the electronic medium. Traditional social skills and ‘good manners’ are usually learned from human to human contact, but the prevalence of electronic communications has, in many cases, stunted the development of these essential skills, in turn lead to a lack of confidence in physical social circumstances, compounding the problem further (Turkle, 1995). This is exemplified by the emergence of “netiquette”, a set of social protocols based on the traditional principles of social etiquette.

Many fundamental aspects of traditional society, such as the intrinsic desire for humans to interact and feel a sense of belonging, can be found via online interaction, replacing the need to seek these base urges via conventional means. Foth (2004) goes further and suggests that through global communication technology and sociological trends, we may have reached the point where we no longer require traditional forms of community interaction at all.

“The ‘community question’, whether we still need neighbourhoods in times of networked individualism, remains to be answered. Community networks compete with potentially more attractive globally dispersed virtual communities that can provide a more specialised, on-demand, current, dynamic and comprehensive interest-based pool of information and interactivity” (Foth, 2004:1).

Online communities such as ‘Second Life’ (http://www.secondlife.com) are vivid examples of online worlds replicating, and to some extent replacing, many aspects of the real world. Second Life consists of a 3D virtual space where users interact via humanlike avatars of their own design and buy and sell virtual property and other goods with a virtual currency that can be exchanged for ‘real’ dollars. Many users report that this virtual world is, for all intents and purposes, a viable substitution for real world community interaction (Cole, 2006).

Case Against 

However, there is evidence to suggest that online interaction promotes, encourages and instigates offline interaction. A great deal of social interaction on the Internet occurs among those with pre existent social bonds e.g. geographically separated friends and family can utilise the Internet to maintain existing relationships and colleagues can use group emails to organise meetings. Cole describes a “continuing growth of the Internet for connection to family and friends – but with virtually no negative effects on time spent in person with them.” (Cole, 2006; 2). In cases such as these, online interaction is seen as an additional aspect of existing physical interaction rather than a replacement.

Online communities often engender and support social relationships between individuals who first meet online but go on to meet in person (Baym, 1999; Cummings, Sproull and Kiesler, 2001). Cole reported Internet users meeting an average of 4.65 friends online whom they have never met offline and 1.6 friends whom they have met offline (Cole, 2006). This evidence shows that there is, in many cases, synergetic cross pollination between the ‘cyber’ and the ‘real’ in terms of meeting new acquaintances.

Electronic communications often pre-emptively facilitate ‘real’ human contact in indirect ways such as booking flights to visit friends, organising meetings via dating websites, applying for jobs online, buying tickets to concerts etc. (Kraut et al., 2000; Wellman et al., 2001). These forms of communication greatly increase the potential for individuals to extend their interactions beyond their spatial environment. There are many examples of these phenomena such as couples who meet online going on to  marry, fans collaborating to promote bands and communities based around a common interest organising conferences.

The Internet enables people with similar interest to organise physical meetings in a ways which are impossible through ‘normal’ social interaction. It is arguable as to whether this actually degrades traditional principles of community which are largely based on common geographic location, but it is evident that the Internet can engender aspects of common interest with no consideration of locality. It is common for people to discover others in their in their immediate vicinity via the Internet who share common interests and goals: clear evidence of the online supporting the offline.

There is also a body of evidence which shows that online community participation leads to “social activism”. Cole reports that 64.9% of online community participants take part in “social causes” that they had first learned about online, and 43.7% described an increase in their overall activism since they began their participation in online communities. 20.3% of respondents claim to “take actions offline” at least annually as a direct result in online participation (Cole, 2006).

There are a multitude of online communities which are extensions of existing ‘real world’ communities and online groups which focus on specific geographic areas are more likely to engender real communication. These types of communities often feature discussions of local topics, listings of local events and classified advertisement sections, all of which promote, and often initiate, social cohesion within the traditional community. There is little evidence to suggest that such localised online communities are detrimental to their physical equivalents.

The Shetlink website (http://www.shetlink.com) is an example of an online community having a direct and positive effect on a ‘real’ community. Shetlink serves the Shetland community, an isolated collection of sparsely populated islands in the North Sea with a geographic spread which makes public debate and social interaction difficult.

The website was recently the hub of a community campaign to prevent the Home Office deporting of one of the islands residents. The local community organised the  campaign via the website (latest news, online petitions, fundraising events, political lobbying information, publishing messages of support etc). The campaign was a success and won the prestigious 2006 Scottish Politician of the Year “Community Campaign” award, and led the Shetland MP Alisdair Carmichael to post the following message on the community forum:

“The use of the internet in [the] campaign has also been an eye opener for me. I have always been a bit dubious about the worth of online notice boards, but I am a convert. The Shetlink website has been an invaluable tool for the campaign. It will be staying on my favourites list from here on in.” 

Arguments on balance 

Historically, there has been a scarcity of research on how online communities affect people's offline lives (Baym, 1998; Jones, 1999; Dodge & Kitchin, 2001; Jones & Kucker, 2001). Online communities were largely treated as separate entities, independent of ‘real’ communities (Jones & Kucker, 2001), although traditional sociological research methods were used in attempts to quantify online interaction. However, the arguments of online versus offline interaction must be assessed against the shifting framework of fundamental social changes which have occurred over the previous decades.

It is common in both sociological theory and popular commentary to conclude that the majority of people in Western societies live in a fast-moving, multifactorial and differentiated world compared to their ancestors and, as a result, there has been a marked change in social cohesion. Theories on the development of industrial and post-industrial society are split on whether the increasing ‘scale’ of society, mediated by increasingly diverse forms of interaction, is simply reflected by a shift in the bases of social cohesion, or whether the impact of modernisation has been to weaken the forces of cohesion (e.g. Sennett, 1978).

The distinction was highlighted by Ferdinand Tönnies (1957) near the end of the nineteenth centaury (the gestation of electronic communications) between ‘Gemeinschaft’ and ‘Gesellschaft’. In the former, social cohesion is based on long- established social hierarchies reinforced by common language, consensus of opinion and cultural homogeneity, most often contained within local areas. In the latter, social unity is replaced by complex combinations of individualistic, impersonal and contractual relations based on ideas of calculated self-interest as opposed to a common good. Tönnies reasoned that industrialisation, urbanisation and mass communication would effect the end of ‘Gemeinschaft’ and dominance of ‘Gesellschaft’, resulting in the demise of localised community cohesion, and an increase in the scale, scope and complexity of social relations.

Metropolitan settlement trends together with advances in communication and transport technologies, chiefly the ubiquitous car, television, telephone and now the Internet, have impacted on the characteristics of communal relations. Commentators contend that these changes have crucially eroded ‘traditional’ senses of kinship and social capital (Sennett, 1978; Foster, 1997) resulting in a comprehensive “loss of community” (Mitchell, 1968:32). However, the loss of community which Mitchell described in 1968 didn’t foresee the potential for the globalised community which developed in the last quarter of the 20th century.

The emergence of Internet communities can be considered an inevitable outcome of technological advances, with humans utilising all possible forms of communication to fulfil their base needs to be part of a community. Stone argued that virtual communities are “incontrovertibly social spaces in which people still meet face-to- face, but under new definitions of both ‘meet’ and ‘face-to-face’ ” (Stone, 1991: 85).

The Internet may simply be another tool in the community arsenal, which is neither positive nor negative. As Uslaner (2000: 60) asserts, “the Internet neither destroys nor creates social capital”, suggesting that it is a neutral medium whose value is dependant on how humans choose to utilise it. If the appeal of online community participation is stronger than that of offline participation, it is natural for humans to choose the former.

However, Putnam (2000: 180) states “that the Internet will not automatically offset the decline in more conventional forms of social capital, but that it has that potential”, an assertion that while the Internet is only a tool, it may be a tool which could be used to undermine the traditional values of human to human interaction.

Summary/Conclusion 

There is little evidence to suggest that online community participation is inversely proportional to offline community participation; both are aspects of a shift in modern concepts of community as a whole. The notion of ‘community’ is intrinsically linked to ‘communication’ and as communications technology continues to evolve, it is natural for the constructs of ‘community’ to evolve in tandem. Both ‘real’ and ‘cyber’ sociological values are in constant flux. The perceived decline of traditional community values is a multifaceted symptom of modern living which cannot be attributed to the growth of online communities. It may be that the perceived decline is erroneous and these values still exist, but have been re-applied to other forms of communication and community.

Although there are many negative aspects of online interaction when applied to traditional values of community, there are also many real benefits and synergies. Online interaction can indeed bolster offline community and there is no clear definition of where a community which is primarily online stops and offline begins (and vice versa). Lines are blurred between the two, and this trend seems set to continue. Younger generations who have grown up as members of online communities are bound to question assertions that their online and offline lives are separated in any meaningful way.

Fundamental changes in society have eroded the traditional common bonds which provided people with their sense of place in their community, and increasingly people don't feel compelled to communicate with neighbours, unless they share something in common beyond living in the same locale. The ways in which modern Western citizens spend their free time has become so fragmented and diverse that it is often impossible for people to find other with similar interests in their local area, so it is natural for them to seek out friends and communities in the wider world. Online communities could be considered to be the neutral social spaces where geographically displaced community bonding activities occur, and the Cyber Café may be considered the modern equivalent of the local pub.

If feelings of traditional social values are already strong in a geographic area, there is little evidence that they will be usurped by members of this society participating in an online community. However, if an individual feels isolated from, or weak ties to, a traditional community, it is evident that they are likely to seek out and participate in an online equivalent.

To conclude as to whether participation in cyber community discourages people from being involved in ‘real’ communities is an oversimplification. Rather, the question should be; under which conditions do cyber communities promote involvement in ‘real’ communities and under which conditions does they not?

Bryan Peterson (2007)



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