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July/August 1998
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When a Village Ceases to Be a Community
By Prof. Wayne Spivak
Wspivak@sbanetweb.com

Has the Internet truly created the much-talked-about and much-maligned global community? Is this the medium that will provide the ties to bind us all together? Will we be able to see truly classless interaction between the oppressed and the free and between the wealthy and the poor?

Is the Internet Utopia? Is this what Sir Thomas More envisioned when he wrote about Utopia in the 1500s? Or is this new community wholly represented by The Principality Of New Utopia ( http://www.new-utopia.org/ )? Has our Internet become oppressive, or has it never been a community to start with? Do we require other ties outside this electronic framework of bits and bytes to create a global community?

Why look at the Internet as a community? Because in the United States, the traditional media such as newspapers, radio, and television are with increasing sensationalism reporting each criminal act committed by Internet users. One such example was featured prominently on the front page of the April 30, 1998, edition of the New York Times. In that case, a member of a mailing list confessed to another list member that he had committed murder. A less prominent story reporting his arrest appeared a day or two later in the same newspaper.

Those types of reports foster the concept that the Internet is in fact a community--or at least a place where communities evolve. And if our Internet is a community, it must conform to some type of defined structure.

Many of these and other issues that are raised herein are for you, the reader, to decide. Cultural differences and life experiences all will play a part in your decision on what makes a community. Political and economic, geographic and social attitudes will influence your reaction. I can only provide my viewpoint, which is deeply influenced by my Western upbringing.

My viewpoint is greatly influenced by the work of noted anthropologist Ruth Benedict. In her discipline-setting book Patterns of Culture, Benedict states, "What really binds men together is their culture--the ideas and the standards they have in common." The term culture has acquired a symbiotic relationship with the term community. Franz Boas, one of the founding fathers of social anthropology, put it this way. "The intensive analysis of cultures gave us information on social life, such as economic life, technology, art, social organization."

Benedict also talks about rites de passage as major aspects of culture. This Western interpretation of culture can then be carried forward from 1934 to 1998. We now use the term culture quite easily, and it has come to mean many things. The term corporate culture is used readily in lieu of the term corporate community and vice versa. This is what I believe has driven our generation in its view of the Internet.

If we were to expand upon Boas and Benedict, we would say that political and organizational structure is what gives a community its cohesiveness. And if those types of structures serve as our benchmark, when does--or where does--the Internet provide this structure? Or does an Internet community function under a different mechanism?

Let's look at several communities in light of our working hypothesis and examine the interaction between the members of those communities. What makes for an Internet community? Typically, it is a shared interest, whether it exists within USENET or on a mailing list.

A mailing list can be a vehicle for communication, a lifeline, or a commune or Utopian community of sorts. All mailing lists suffer from high turnover and the potential for burnout. Even modern-day Utopian communes perceive excessive turnovers of their memberships as threats. This is "often demoralizing for a group--even the most hang-loose, do-your-own-thing group--to face a continual turnover by losing members or to contemplate dissolution," says Rosabeth Moss Kanter, Harvard Business School professor.

The mailing list examples include five different Internet communities to which I have belonged or currently belong. Some have Web sites and newsgroups that are either private or public, and they may offer other Internet services such as chat or FTP sites.

Two of the lists provide just one of the many different communication outlets of established organizations, adhering to the definition postulated by Benedict. The other three lists represent the sole source of communication and interpersonal interaction for the group. Of the established organizations, one list was created years after the organization's formation; the second list of this group is an integral part of the organization. Each list is dedicated to a particular purpose or community, and each serves the aim well.

The first example is the mailing list of a national boating organization located in the United States, with members as far away from the source as Tokyo. The organization--United States Power Squadrons (USPS)--was formed for both educational and social reasons. Its focus is to foster safe boating on the waterways.

Founded in 1914, USPS has long been a bulwark of the boating scene, with many nautical traditions over the years. After more than 75 years, it has created its own community, and it is not uncommon for members to give more than 25 years of service to the boating organization. USPS adheres to many aspects of our definition of a community, having subdivided its political structure for manageability and providing its citizens with a host of services.

The second example is the Internet Society (ISOC), whose goals include increasing growth of the Internet by finding reasonable solutions to the problems of the Internet. The Internet Society maintains several informational and/or discussion-based mailing lists, along with a myriad of mailing lists maintained by its many chapters.

Founded in 1992, the Internet Society was formed to work within the Internet. It is in many ways a creation of the Internet itself. As a relatively young organization, it faces the matter of how to develop a global Internet community.

The three other mailing lists tie individuals together based on either a shared recreational/professional interest or use of a product. Web sites and/or other Internet services are maintained by the manufacturer of the product or as an archiving resource. Such lists are very active, with much information being shared both publicly and privately.

The first is the Navigation E-mail list. This list is dedicated to nonelectronic nautical navigation. Its members share a common interest in this art, finding great joy in using dead reckoning, compasses, parallel rules, and sextants to plot exact positions on the ocean. Members come from all walks of life; some own boats and some have never owned boats and some live near water and others live as far from a large body of water as is possible.

The second example is the BSDI users list. This list discusses anything associated with the BSDI UNIX operating system. Members on this list include owners of the BSDI operating system, both expert and novice. Discussion spans the gamut, from how to install an update to how to configure a mailing list.

The last list is Navision Users Group. Navision is a high-end, PC-based accounting system, with installations throughout Europe and the United States. Questions here range from how to program the system to how to correctly set up the inventory system for a particular company.

These lists represent a wide range of interests and hobbies. Membership put me into several different communities all at the same time. However, is the membership in these lists a valid example of a community--more specifically, an Internet community? Alternatively, is the Internet being used as a means to an end, an adjunctive device, and a tool to deliver information?

There are other examples of mailing lists' becoming more formalized by moving from a collection of individuals without a formal organization to becoming structured associations. Examples of these type of groups are the HTML Writers Guild and the Association of Internet Professionals. As those associations develop, they move on to become more formalized both in political and social structure and in legality. They seek government recognition by requesting corporation status. They charge dues for membership and hire full-time staffs to work on behalf of their membership. They rent office space, and they print stationery and business cards.

Once a group has gone this far, is it truly an Internet community, or has it transcended the Internet to become a mainstream organization? More important, should we as members of the global Internet users group strive for a definition of our group? Do we need to confirm and or establish or reestablish our justification for joining this boundaryless communication vehicle? These are the questions we need to ask, answer, and share with our fellow Netizens and fellow citizens, for without an identity--for good or for bad--we Netizens will cease to be a community.

Notes

  1. Ruth Benedict. Patterns of Culture, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston 1934 p. 16.
  2. Paul Goodman (1911-72). U.S. author, poet, critic. Five Years, "Winter and Spring 1956-1957," sct. 8 (1966).
  3. Rosabeth Moss Kanter. Commitment and Community Communes and Utopias in Sociological Perspective, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1972, p. 216.
  4. New York Times, "An On-Line Trail Leads to an Off-Line Killing," vol. CXLVII, no. 51, p. 143 April 30, 1998.



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