Virtual Community: Seeking the Real Influence

Martin Vystavil <>
Slovak Academy of Sciences


A virtual community of more than 200 citizens, mainly from Slovakia, who are active in their will to express democratic attitudes, has been formed on the Internet. This community, which is one of the few existing citizens' groups in Slovakia, has published various initiatives concerning the human rights and democratic freedoms. This paper analyzes this virtual community (which uses the Internet as its native communication platform), its activities (which have been presented in the form of initiatives or protests), and the responses and reactions of important representatives in Slovak political, social, and cultural life.



Slovakia has undergone a series of important changes since 1989. The old system, favored by no one, was dissolved. Those who were part of the governing communist structure retreated from their leading position. However, they were not made responsible for their past actions. The state's legal system began to reshape itself into a democratic one. The governing representation of Slovakia, along with the Czech political representation, contributed to the breakup of the Czech and Slovak Federal Republic. Unfortunately, the process of separation took place without citizens being markedly involved in it. The Slovak Republic was established and building began on a basis for the new, independent state, which included a new constitution. At the same time, the process of privatizing state property continued. Also, a new district arrangement of local government was defined. Hence, at the time of this writing in early 1997, Slovakia can be characterized as an economically successful country, in which, however, the battle for the state's democratic character continues in all levels of society.

The aforementioned struggle has predominantly been taking place in the minds of citizens. Their priority systems have been challenged. Living through several decades of a totalitarian regime has left its mark on them. They have considerable negligence toward public matters and little awareness of or loyalty toward unjustly treated fellow citizens. Democracy is perceived as a state which is politically declared rather than realized by the control of power. Another consequence of the past is little respect for the law. In contrast with the former "stable" socialism, freedom is now viewed with uncertainty. It is not adopted as a right to choice and responsibility. The lack of will in citizens to control power leaves considerable room for the misuse of freedom.

The civic-oriented part of the population is suppressed in an environment characterized by an aggressive struggle to attain power. The struggle also occupies the communication media. The state-governed electronics media has been rendered plain-colored, and privately-owned media has been struggling with economic problems and manipulation.

It is necessary to promote a free environment that would support democratic discussion. The environment should be rich in information and create space that would help individuals to present and confront their opinions freely. It would play a crucial role in helping the state to follow a democratic orientation. Not only would it provide free opportunity for citizens to discuss ideas; it should also foster free associations. On the one hand, citizens in former communist countries must cope with unresolved problems inherited from the past. For example, questions related to the value and role of national identity have turned out to be a problem. Socialist regimes only managed to suppress such problems. On the other hand, the rapid economic, social, and cultural growth of the world at the turn of the millennium poses another problem with which citizens in former communist states have to cope. It is utterly crucial to define, discuss, and sort out the problems, and there is a growing need for an environment that would help resolve the problems. The Internet with its interactive democratic information space can contribute to creating and developing this.

The Internet in Slovakia

The development of network-based information technologies began in Slovakia prior to 1989. The first network was UUNet. Later, BITNet was established. The first Internet node was formed as late as 1993. Until 1995 this node was mainly employed by SANET (Slovak Academic Network) users from the academic sphere. In 1995 the number of Internet providers in Slovakia increased. At present, 10 Slovak Internet providers have attained international connectivity. When the Internet was first introduced in Slovakia, the interest was predominantly focused on foreign countries. Later, domestic sources began to play a more important role. The present number of Internet users is estimated to be 70,000.

Since its inception, the SANET network has offered space for realizing new projects. It provides access to rich sources of information and almost all electronically published newspapers. The network also supports discussion groups, which are based mainly on listservers or USENET News. Discussions cover a variety of topics. However, only one discussion group promotes the growth of civic society. This discussion club is called SME-L.

The virtual community SME-L

SME-L was established in 1994 along with the first electronic issue of the daily SME. SME-L aims to open space for readers abroad to exchange information. Although Slovak is the main language used in discussions, contributions written in other languages are accepted as well. The development of SME-L confirms citizens' need for a free information exchange environment. The number of SME-L users increased proportionally to the growing intensity of the struggle for the state's political character. However, the composition of the community gradually changed. At first, there were more users from abroad, but most of the present users are from Slovakia. They constitute a pro-democratic group with representing various opinions. The participants feel the need to both discuss their views and apply their ideas in everyday life. SME-L has inspired the organization of various meetings all over the world. Also, a variety of civic activities are being organized within the group. In fact, SME-L has become the only environment promoting free interactive discussion among Slovak citizens. It is accessible 24 hours a day, being independent of geographical, time, social, and cultural barriers. Moreover, SME-L participants communicate with each other outside the network--and more intensively than other Internet discussion groups. I would therefore characterize SME-L as a virtual community.

About 260 people participate in SME-L from all over the world. Most of them--180--come from Slovakia. The United States and Canada are represented by 35 participants, and the Czech Republic by 12. The active core of the group consists of about 70 people who took part in an opinion poll in September 1996. There were 7 users in the 10-20 age bracket, 26 users at the age of 21-30, 15 users at the ages 31-40, and 19 users over the age of 40. So, these participants are predominantly mature adults. As regards education, 52 users had finished university studies and 16 users had completed secondary school education. With respect to professional orientation, 38 worked in the field of science and education, 20 in the commercial sphere, and 3 in the state administration sector. As to how they had found out about the discussion club, 40 participants had learned about it themselves, and 19 had been informed about the club by friends. Results of the poll are interesting and confirm there is a serious interest in a free communication space.

Among the participants in SME-L are well-known personalities in the political, social, and cultural life of the country. Within the group's informal environment, they help to create an enriched image of reality. Also, representatives of political parties (Christian Democratic Movement, Democratic Union, Democratic Party, Egyutteles) contribute to SME-L and take part in SME-L meetings. Informal gatherings also lead to activities that involve political parties, especially after they have been linked to the Internet.

Life of the community

The communication by means of a listserver is relatively intensive. From 100 to 150 various contributions covering a variety of topics arrive at SME-L every day. Prevalent, however, are political topics, reflecting the confused reality of Slovak political life. Similarly to any discussion group, SMEL has been following a certain development. As mentioned before, there exists the strong need for a free, unmoderated discussion, which would also contain emotional aspects. However, this type of discussion is criticized by others who call for a more serious approach. Therefore, another group called STUDIE was established in January 1997. Discussions within this group are usually overseen by approved moderators.

Both groups reflect real needs of their participants. SME-L, with its wide spectrum, provides space for discussion on a variety of topics: politics, culture, and everyday life. The emotional aspect of the discussions creates an atmosphere of friendship and helps to put down social barriers. Well-known and prominent personalities not only enrich the discussion but also help to "advertise" the Internet democracy within new, less accessible social groups. It seems that computer conferences can become a new way of fulfilling the human need for a free forum--a task hardly realizable in real life. STUDIE provides space for deeper discussions related to actual topics, which would be technically problematic in the lively atmosphere of SME-L. Because participants of STUDIE used to take part in SME-L, I will continue to call this group SME-L.

The actual social situation in the country is spontaneously discussed in the groups. It covers such topics privatization, law infringement, relationship to the Hungarian minority, relationship to the state, membership in the European Union and NATO, and municipal policy. A number of opinions that are favored in the mass media will not stand up to criticism in direct SME-L discussions. Although the communication is anonymous to a large extent, it is intriguing that a common platform is found during discussions and views are confronted objectively. The community can be characterized as being critical while, at the same time, attempting to respect the freedom of the individual.

However, any listserver discussion group has certain limitations. The disadvantages mainly lie in the written form of communication and its anonymity.

The written form which lacks the nonverbal component is often a source of misunderstanding. Debaters make an effort to overcome the disadvantage and try to understand each other. It may be assumed that increasing political pressure motivates participants to understand each other better.

Anonymity can unfortunately open space for demagoguery and manipulation. It is crucial to prevent these phenomena. Although debaters in SME-L many times present their activities in the media as participants of the SME-L forum, it is important to see the value of this community in its influence on the individual. Personal judgment, personal decisions, and personal responsibility are apparently the best qualities valued by the anonymous community of SME-L participants. The confrontation of opinions, unmasking of demagogy, information exchange, and personal meetings help to prevent misuse of the forum. Also, various activities of the forum have gained a good reputation in the public eye.

Activities of SME-L

This free discussion of mature people has naturally grown into action. Events in real life often require civic response. The social activity of citizens also proves that they are willing to take responsibility for the society. Hence, the remaining question is related to the real influence of the SME-L community on the society. The most apparent activities of the community are common protests or challenges, which are spread by radio or newspapers.

Each of the 18 protests, which have so far been written by the group, were signed by between 30 and 140 people. I will present some of them for illustration.

In September 1995 the President's son, Michal Kovac Jr., was abducted to the territory of a foreign country. Austrian legal authorities hinted that Slovak state authorities were suspected of having been involved in this criminal action. The case investigators who had referred to the involvement of the state intelligence service in the abduction were withdrawn from the case, and an important witness in the case was murdered. Finally, the new investigator suspended both cases for the lack of evidence.

The way state authorities dealt with the case roused a lot of protest. Building confidence of citizens in state authorities is crucially important for a democratic society. Mistrust and tension in the society result in viewing security components of the state as a political instrument to gain power. Therefore, SME-L participants initiated a petition calling for restarting the investigation of both cases. The responsible authorities did not respond. However, the public was aware of this protest.

In 1996 Parliament amended the criminal code. The amended law contains ambiguous formulations about "intent" to disrupt the republic and about punishment for "disseminating untrue information about Slovakia abroad." This formulation can also be applied to communication via the Internet. This amendment evoked a lot of protest. SME-L participants joined the protests and their opinion was published several times. More than 130 people blackened their WWW pages in protest against the law. Although historically there is a considerable ignorance of legislation in this society--which can be explained by the influence of communism--it is important to comprehend the meaning of new legal amendments.

In 1996 the minister of culture ungroundedly recalled the director of the drama department of the Slovak National Theater. This action resulted in a wave of protests, which issued into establishing a forum called "Let us save the culture." The well-known opera singer Peter Dvorsky, in protest, stopped working at the opera department of the Slovak National Theater. SME-L joined the protests and supported both the forum "Let us save the culture" and Peter Dvorsky. Gratitude was expressed to SME-L at a public meeting of the forum.

The director of the Saris Gallery in Presov and the director of the Orava Gallery in Dolny Kubin were recalled from office in September 1996. Participants in SME-L voiced their disapproval in relation to their replacement, expressing support and loyalty to both directors. The minister of culture did not respond.

In October 1996, Bishop Balaz, a representative of the Conference of Slovak Bishops, expressed his positive attitude toward the opening of the memorial room of Dr. Jozef Tiso--the president of the fascist Slovak state. Participants in SME-L sent Bishop Balaz an open letter. He did not answer and refused to talk about the matter.

In December SME-L participants joined protests against the blockade of electronic media by the government in Belgrade. The protest was handed over to the Embassy of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. The participants thus expressed their loyalty to protesting citizens in Yugoslavia.

In June 1996 SME-L initiated the wearing of blue ribbons by those who wanted to express their disapproval of the undemocratic proceedings of the state powers. The personal decision to wear a blue ribbon means stepping out of anonymity and presenting publicly one's pro-democratic attitudes. Initiators of this action were inspired by the blue ribbon campaign organized via the Internet.

However, a question arises as regards the impact of such activities. It is possible to talk about four groups that the protests address.

According to the aforementioned poll, SME-L participants are relatively reserved with respect to evaluating the influence of the group on the society. At the same time, they clearly expressed a need to communicate and further declare their opinions in public. They reserved time for SME-L and value it as an interesting and valuable communication space.

SME-L in the eyes of personalities

Several prominent representatives of political, cultural, and media life have expressed their opinions on SME-L, the Internet, and the Internet's role for awareness work in current Slovak society. I have chosen the following excerpts from their statements:

Ivan Simko, vice chairman, Christian Democratic Movement:

Recently, someone suggested using enlightenment to fight populism. Knowledge and education are the strongest values in the long run. The Internet is a valuable source of information and knowledge of today. The will to expand knowledge leads to ever greater expectations and demands. That is the heart of individual freedom. I deeply respect the thousand of our people traveling every day throughout the world via the Internet. I respect the hundreds of them joining the discussion clubs organized on the Internet. In contrast to the tens of thousands on the streets, where quality of expression is measured by numbers, the invaluable nature of the Internauts lies in their not being anonymous, but very concrete, especially by giving their names and addresses. They openly communicate their ideas, overcoming their fear. It is the inner fear, indeed, that is to be feared most and leads to resignation and, hence, potential abuse by those in power. Thus, fear and passivity lead to self-destruction of the intellectual group that once preferred resignation to realism.

Robert Kotian, journalist, SME daily newspaper:

[Need for discussion forums:] I am convinced that they are necessary. The Slovak society (proceeding toward a renewed single-party regime, and one and only true pro-Slovak view and world-view) most needs dialogue, opinion exchange, and respect for views of others--although respecting an opinion does not necessarily mean endorsing it.

SME-L is a group of people with intellectual abilities higher than the average in Slovakia. It is also a community with higher interest in public matters than the average. This is reflected in the group's discussions. A lot of views discussed within the group have been inspirational for me. Moreover, the response is extraordinarily quick, which gives additional quality to the communication between journalists and readers. It is precious that it provides the opportunity to communicate flexibly with people practically all over the world and to confront one's own experience with their markedly different experiences.

[Influence of SME-L activities, such as petitions:] Yes, it is probable, although some participants do not think so. It is especially when their opinion, voiced by some form of protest, is not reflected in the society's real life. The minimum impact of protests by SME-L participants is not due to the group's little communication with the remaining part of the society. The problem is that such protests do not at all influence the present government coalition.

[SME-L's pros and cons:] The negative thing is a lot of discussion over pseudo-problems, overloading the network and consuming time that could be used otherwise. The positive aspect of the group is that it is a forum of people with similar opinions. They form a PC-based island with a positive orientation and specific atmosphere. This should not be taken for granted at the onset of an authoritative regime. The assurance that an individual is not left alone with their opinion helps them to stand up to difficulties and endure.

Boris Koren, journalist, Radio Free Europe:

[SME-L] is an opportunity to compare my opinions with those of other people. (All the published contributions were related to actual topics.) So, those who actively take part in the club are interested in discussions, and those who read contributions are informed about opinions and attitudes of other people (also from abroad)--so it is an interesting read. Apart from that, it provides moral support.

Real addressees of the activities are those who read contributions on the Internet or in the daily SME. For example, deputy R. Hofbauer, who had reacted angrily to some activities of the discussion club, needed to communicate with the club via articles published in the daily Slovenska Republika.

Tatiana Repkova, journalist; former editor-in-chief of Narodna Obroda, a Slovak daily on economics and society; and former publisher and editor of Trend, a Slovak national weekly on economics and business:

The information technology boom in former communist countries represents the "hardware" side of a new society. Living in a modern democratic society also requires "software," which should be represented by a free and effective information exchange, thus providing governments and the electorate with appropriate background for unbiased and independent thinking, which may result in political and economic decisions taken consensually in favor of pursuing the happiness of individuals. I cannot imagine a better software tool than the Internet. Why not call it a Power Tool of the Powerless?

Grigorij Meseznikov, political scientist, Department of Political Science of the Slovak Academy of Sciences:

The Internet contains another dimension that is important for the development of democracy. Contrary to TV, radio, and the press, which can become instruments of greedy demagogues for manipulating public opinion, the Internet is a medium that excludes primitive demagoguery and manipulation. The concept that a dictator should try to use the Internet to support himself by mobilizing proponents of totality is a bizarre one. Should there be an attempt to use the Internet for this purpose, there is little chance of success in the end, as the level of criticism of Internet participants is much higher than that of other media recipients. Dictatorship and the Internet cannot be united. Hence, the Internetization of any country can be seen as a natural part of the country's overall process of social democratization. This conviction of mine is confirmed by several years of experience.

Jaroslav Filip, actor and musician:

The SME-L discussion club includes about 250 people. It should be said that the group is colorful in its age composition and many professions, opinions, and--thank God--in its temperament and mentality. The existence and daily life of the group are a great school of democracy for all its participants. It requires the ability to listen to the other person, so it is something they would never reach in the real world, as they would have been deterred by the distance and inaccessibility which are characteristic of real life.

With the takeoff and development of the Internet, the creation of electronic discussion groups, or the lively communication through "chat," is absolutely natural, and necessary as well. The more participants in the network, the higher the need for communication. It is promising that people do not tend to withdraw, and the old desire to meet people, exchange views, and know each other takes over.


The SME-L virtual community is a certain phenomenon. It provides people with a free communication space that otherwise cannot be reached in the fierce power struggle for the media. The space's most important feature is that it brings friends together, confronts their opinions, and leads to personal decisions. It is a place where respectable people can get together--an opportunity which would not exist without the Internet. It is also one of the battlefields in our country where the struggle for a more decent future has been going on.