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[P]
The changing nature of community

By spiralx in Internet
Fri Nov 24, 2000 at 01:07:43 PM EST
Tags: Culture (all tags)
Culture

We're all agreed that kuro5hin is a community, allowing people with similar interests to participate in a shared framework. It's just one of any number of online communities which the advance of computer communications have made possible, from the early BBSes through USENET to IRC and weblogs. But unlike communities until now, the only barrier to entry is possessing a net connection - location, age, sex, race and wealth are irrelevent unless explicitly announced. My question is this: how has this, and perhaps more importantly, how will this change the nature of communities?


You can divide the environments we spend our time in into three catagories - where we work, where we live and where we socialise. It is usually in the latter environment that we find a sense of membership in a community, through interacting with friends. Years ago, places like local pubs, barber shops and cafes provided places where people could meet and socialise, but in today's modern world these places are becoming increasingly rare, and it is becoming harder and harder for people to find and participate in any such community.

So is it any suprise that so many people have turned to the internet to provide a sense of community, when the real world is becoming more and more ephemeral? It's far easier to find people with common interests online than it is in the real world, and even those with minority interests are likely to be able to find like-minded people spread across the globe.

In addition there is little risk of rejection online compared to in the real world - joining an online community is often relatively painless. When meeting people in real life it is the first fifteen seconds or so that count the most towards their opinion of you - online, the only information about yourself that is available is that which you choose to give out, leaving what you say as the only real means of judging you.

Early versions of online communities began to appear in the 70s and 80s. The first was the Community Memory project in Berkeley, founded in the early 70s. It relied on the use of coin-operated public terminals, and provided anonymous posting and the creation of forums to anybody who wanted to use the system. However this system wasn't connected to any outside networks, and as such served mainly as an extension to an already existing community.

In the 80s the idea of online communities grew, with places like The WELL and Cleveland Free-Net, but again in these cases, the core of the community was locally based. There are several other such local online communities around the world.

However it is really with the huge growth of people who have access to the internet over the last two decades or so that truly online communities have arisen. The first place this occured was on USENET, in which people could find a newsgroup for a vast array of subjects and engage in conversations with people across the world. Communities based on shared interests formed around particular newsgroups, and people would establish online identities and get to know the other people who participated. Despite the faceless nature of the net, bonds were formed as strong as those that can be found in the real world, with many people meeting in real life with people they had got to know online.

In more recent years new mediums have arisen on the internet, allowing new communities to form. The somewhat chaotic IRC network allows real-time chat between people online, making it closer to real life in some ways. The explosive growth of the web has given rise to the weblog, of which Slashdot is an early example, creating a community where users could discuss issues that interested them. Although somewhat fractured now, nobody can argue that Slashdot had a very well developed community of people with shared interests.

So as more and more people get online, the potential for more and more communities will develop. How do you see these communities developing? Will they become larger as more people discover them or do you think that in the longer-term the trend will be towards smaller, more focused communities? Will they remain as open as possible, or attempt to restrict their "membership" to a chosen demographic, much as Advogato does? And how much will this influence what goes on in the real world? Many people already feel more confortable in online communities than they do offline, and it's quite possible that this lure will grow stronger in coming years.

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The changing nature of community | 18 comments (18 topical, editorial, 0 hidden)
My beliefs (3.12 / 8) (#1)
by boxed on Fri Nov 24, 2000 at 09:16:49 AM EST

I believe that we will se a number of smaller communities. This belief is founded in my observation of the continued diminishing community feeling on usenet (totally gone?), slashdot and somewhat here. The demise of these communities has always been that they cannot cope with the massive onslaught of new users. I believe that a community will only feel like a community if you "know" all the people there, something I can't really say about k5 since we're just too many. There is still a bit of the community feeling left though, since the number of active users is still relatively small. In my experience IRC has fared better in this regard. I am, for example, part of two IRC-based communities with an extremely strong community feeling to them. These two communities have endured for several years mostly unchanged (in terms of members) too.

Your cultural background affects your opinions (3.40 / 5) (#2)
by ozone on Fri Nov 24, 2000 at 09:37:35 AM EST

It'll be interesting to see if, on the whole, people start gravitating towards communities with a similar cultural background.

If you think about it, a person's opinions and viewpoints are strongly influenced by the culture within which they were brought up. Given this fact (and ignoring language issues), would the members of a physically anonymous 'Net community based in Gabon (which is here) have a tendency to vote down submissions from a person from the UK (say), purely because that person's basic assumptions and cultural influences differed greatly? .It has been pointed out many times that US based sites tend to be US-oriented, in that the news is US news and the POV is largely a US one. Now, as the 'Net becomes larger and more diverse, will we see a similar effect for other cultures?

Subcultural differences (2.50 / 4) (#5)
by Beorn on Fri Nov 24, 2000 at 10:21:47 AM EST

Given this fact (and ignoring language issues), would the members of a physically anonymous 'Net community based in Gabon (which is here) have a tendency to vote down submissions from a person from the UK (say), purely because that person's basic assumptions and cultural influences differed greatly?

I think subcultural differences are more important than cultural differences here. A nerd is a nerd everywhere. But what makes me norwegian? Beats me. I feel more of western netizen anyway, and I have more in common with people here than with my neighbours.

- Beorn

[ Threepwood '01 ]
[ Parent ]

Human nature. (3.37 / 8) (#3)
by Merekat on Fri Nov 24, 2000 at 10:07:01 AM EST

One sentence in particular in this article caught my eye.

In addition there is little risk of rejection online compared to in the real world - joining an online community is often relatively painless.
It doesn't quite ring true to me, and set off a train of thought about people being excluded from online communities. I think people are quite frequently rejected, but their rejection a lot of the time is silent and unnoticed. The people already in the community go about their existences oblivious to the fact that they have alienated someone. I've seen this happen in a mailing-list environment in particular. In a flesh and blood environment it is harder to be unaware of this as even lurkers take up physical space.
---
I've always had the greatest respect for other peoples crack-pot beliefs.
- Sam the Eagle, The Muppet Show
flame=rejection (3.40 / 5) (#7)
by iGrrrl on Fri Nov 24, 2000 at 10:46:23 AM EST

Sorry to "me, too!" rather than just vote this comment up, but I really have to vehemently agree with this. People will say things in a post (bbs, listserve, whatever) that they would rarely say IRL. I have rarely been flamed, but despite the possession of a thick academic skin, it was disturbing.

I can take criticism and can engage in even fairly hostile debate with the best of them, but the personal nature of remarks in a flame -- from a person who knows one only via electronic correspondence -- can be hard to take.

Sure, they can be ignored. Sure, they can be answered with the equivalent of, "Your mama!" Sure, the person who first descends to name-calling has essentially lost the argument. Still, it can be difficult to read such remarks and remain unaffected.

Why? Because the content of even a mild flame usually contains language one rarely hears in real social interactions.

Or so I think. Primate politics rule on line communities just as much as real life ones.

--
You cannot have a reasonable conversation with someone who regards other people as toys to be played with. localroger
remove apostrophe for email.
[ Parent ]

Communities (3.25 / 8) (#4)
by Beorn on Fri Nov 24, 2000 at 10:10:56 AM EST

But unlike communities until now, the only barrier to entry is possessing a net connection - location, age, sex, race and wealth are irrelevent unless explicitly announced.

Actually I think K5 has a fairly high barrier of entry. First, you have to know about it. Then you have to care about the subjects. And if you can't write decently, or have a fundamentally different viewpoint from the majority of users, you might be discouraged by low ratings. The technical barrier is low, but the social barrier isn't, and remains so as long as there is a certain old guard/newbie ratio.

When meeting people in real life it is the first fifteen seconds or so that count the most towards their opinion of you - online, the only information about yourself that is available is that which you choose to give out, leaving what you say as the only real means of judging you.

I think you unintentionally reveal quite a lot also when you're writing online. You're limited to one channel, words, but language is a powerful form of expression, and writing is not really a rational process. I don't choose my style to appear this or that way, it comes naturally, (meaning irrationally.)

And first impressions count online, too.

Will they become larger as more people discover them or do you think that in the longer-term the trend will be towards smaller, more focused communities?

Yes, no, and it depends. :) To misquote Winnie the Pooh: "Both, please!"

Very good article.

- Beorn

[ Threepwood '01 ]

But what about the lurkers? (3.33 / 3) (#6)
by spiralx on Fri Nov 24, 2000 at 10:25:55 AM EST

Actually I think K5 has a fairly high barrier of entry. First, you have to know about it. Then you have to care about the subjects. And if you can't write decently, or have a fundamentally different viewpoint from the majority of users, you might be discouraged by low ratings. The technical barrier is low, but the social barrier isn't, and remains so as long as there is a certain old guard/newbie ratio.

But there's the lurker factor - you are free to lurk until you feel confortable enough to post anything. I'd imagine this is how most people enter an online community - they don't just find it and start posting.

I think you unintentionally reveal quite a lot also when you're writing online. You're limited to one channel, words, but language is a powerful form of expression, and writing is not really a rational process. I don't choose my style to appear this or that way, it comes naturally, (meaning irrationally.)

True, but less so than the way you talk perhaps, because you can exercise more control over what you type, correct mistakes, remove unnecessary pauses and errms etc. etc.

And first impressions count online, too.

But again there's the lurker factor - you make your first impression when you choose to do so, not as soon as you find the community. And because it's not a physical presence, you can choose to present yourself in whatever manner you feel confortable with. Unlike in the real world, looks don't count.

You're doomed, I'm doomed, we're all doomed for ice cream. - Bob Aboey
[ Parent ]

Style (3.66 / 3) (#8)
by Beorn on Fri Nov 24, 2000 at 12:11:13 PM EST

I'd imagine this is how most people enter an online community - they don't just find it and start posting.

Well, I do, always. I only lurk where I'm not interested in writing at all, like some of the bigger usenet groups. So I don't really know what motivates a lurker to become active, but there's still a filtering process involved. You don't read a webboard like k5 if you don't find the discussions interesting.

True, but less so than the way you talk perhaps, because you can exercise more control over what you type, correct mistakes, remove unnecessary pauses and errms etc. etc.

This ability does not remove the traces of your personality. You can write a paragraph over and over again, and it would still not look like Shakespeare. Having the ability to edit brings out other sides of you, but it's still you.

Btw, you actually do have edit capabilities with much of your looks: The clothes you wear, your hair, metal appendages, all this can be carefully planned, just like words. Which begs the question why so many nerds wear scifi t-shirts! :)

But again there's the lurker factor - you make your first impression when you choose to do so, not as soon as you find the community.

Perhaps you're right, I wouldn't know. I'm not at all self-conscious when I write online. I never choose how to present myself. (Yes, this has led to some embarassing situations.)

Unlike in the real world, looks don't count.

If I rewrote this message with poor grammar, wouldn't you see it as less intelligent? And it would still say the same thing. So style matters online too.

- Beorn

[ Threepwood '01 ]
[ Parent ]

Working on change.. (3.00 / 1) (#15)
by Inoshiro on Fri Nov 24, 2000 at 01:24:12 PM EST

"Actually I think K5 has a fairly high barrier of entry. First, you have to know about it. Then you have to care about the subjects. And if you can't write decently, or have a fundamentally different viewpoint from the majority of users, you might be discouraged by low ratings. The technical barrier is low, but the social barrier isn't, and remains so as long as there is a certain old guard/newbie ratio. "

This is a barrier anywhere, even on slashdot or IRC. On slashdot you're more likely to just be ignored, but you can be slapped down. On IRC you may be kicked, banned, etc. We're much less final with inital judgements here :) I'm working on Kuro5hin site documentation when I have time. Hopefully people who are new to the site can read it over, get a feel for our humour and postings styles, etc. Then they can partiticipate. It's not like we'll come to people's homes and taunt them if they fail. And if you're unsure, you can lurk for as long as required ;)



--
[ イノシロ ]
[ Parent ]
Is K5 a community? (3.60 / 5) (#9)
by gcmillwood on Fri Nov 24, 2000 at 12:19:49 PM EST

A few years ago, whilst at university, I was a member of the monochrome community. I loved it.

Mono is entirely text based, accessed via telnet, with single keystroke commands. This meant that once you had learnt how to use mono it was fast and easy. If you couldn't be bothered to learn it was confusing and easy to get wrong. Mono is based in the UK, so it follows that a lot of the users were from the UK, but there were many users from other places as well. What grouped the users together was the fact that we could all use computers competantly (i.e. we were computer geeks).

Within mono there were (and probably still are) many, many topics under discussion. So many that unless you spent most of your life reading it, you couldn't keep track of everything. This led to sub-communities within the whole. You knew the people who contributed to the same topics as you quite well. You could get to know them better by having private conversations with them via private messages (this was in the days before AIM). There was a talker for real time communication.

I found a real community in mono. You could make and lose friends there - people who really cared about you. One of my friends even met his wife there. She lived half way around the world at the time.

K5 on the other hand is not so 'complete' a community for me. The only real interaction between users occurs in public, and consists of discussion about articles. Wandering way off topic is frowned upon, and you can't easily take a conversation onto [instant messaging program of your choice] as you don't necessarily know how to contact other users.

Do I really know any other users of K5? No, I don't. I believe that structured, moderated web-logs don't give an opportunity to form a community, but are rather more like a bunch of strangers talking about set topics.

Could we make K5 more like a community? Probably. The diaries are a good start - they let you learn about the user, or reveal stuff about yourself. Advertising the IRC channel some more would be good (unfortunately I can't use it from work though). Other people no doubt have other ideas.



Not true. (4.00 / 1) (#14)
by Inoshiro on Fri Nov 24, 2000 at 01:21:24 PM EST

Off topic discussion is heavily NOT frowned upon here. Yes, you might get slapped down on some other sites with "-1, Offtopic" .. but we don't care here. If you're having a discussion, you're using the system for the purpose it was intended!

"K5 on the other hand is not so 'complete' a community for me. The only real interaction between users occurs in public, and consists of discussion about articles. Wandering way off topic is frowned upon, and you can't easily take a conversation onto [instant messaging program of your choice] as you don't necessarily know how to contact other users." ... sure you can. #kuro5hin IRC is always there on irc.kuro5hin.org. You can chat with me, rusty, and hundreds of other people (such as hurstdog, dolgan, Maarken, Trracer, Signal_11, cyndrekit, etc.. sorry to all I left out ;)) in real time! Our conversations go all over the place, and we have a fun time.

With the development of Scoop come other ways of interacting, too. You can still post on old stories, so you could potentially "take over" a very old sid for the purposes of conversation with a cadre (cabal?) of friends. We may have a "constant small announcements with attached discussion thread" added to Scoop to keep the background conversation growing. And, of course, there are the propsed XML read/write and NNTP frontends to the Scoop API/database.

I think you're just not used to thinking about possibilities. We are a community. If we put our minds to it, we can do anything we want. I very much feel a part of this community, and work to maintain it every day. :) Btw: if you're unsure of how to get to know people here, go read a few diaries! Our "structured weblog" is structured to encourage partitipation.



--
[ イノシロ ]
[ Parent ]
That clears a few things up (none / 0) (#17)
by gcmillwood on Mon Nov 27, 2000 at 04:56:47 AM EST

Off topic discussion is heavily NOT frowned upon here. Yes, you might get slapped down on some other sites with "-1, Offtopic" .. but we don't care here. If you're having a discussion, you're using the system for the purpose it was intended!
That puts my mind at ease a little. I know that comments here are not going to get 'censored' as they can be on the other site. Even so, I got the impression that one of the unwritten rules here was that wandering too far off topic was simply not 'done'.

#kuro5hin IRC is always there on irc.kuro5hin.org. You can chat with me, rusty, and hundreds of other people
That's nice, but no use for me. I will happily acknowledge that irc is a great way to meet/get to know people. It has certain failings though:
  • Firstly, I can't use it (firewalled at work, and I rarely use the net from home - paying per minute sucks).
  • Secondly, not everyone who I might want to talk to would use it.
  • Thirdly, even if they did use it they might well not be on-line at the time. (That is what email is for I know, but not everyone reveals their email address)
Diaries are a superb addition, and a great way to build and strengthen the community. If I get enough time I might start keeping one myself. Community spirit is based around each community member knowing and caring about other members and the diaries are a superb way of allowing this to happen.

[ Parent ]
Interesting article ... (4.00 / 3) (#10)
by StrontiumDog on Fri Nov 24, 2000 at 12:50:01 PM EST

. But unlike communities until now, the only barrier to entry is possessing a net connection - location, age, sex, race and wealth are irrelevent unless explicitly announced.

I wonder ... anyone surfing the 'net will have noticed quite a few things. Common on the 'net: techie types, libertarians, college students, Western or Western oriented ... the Net is less differentiated than my neighbourhood, and specific subcultures within the 'net even less. There is a definite demographic skew to the 'net.

Years ago, places like local pubs, barber shops and cafes provided places where people could meet and socialise, but in today's modern world these places are becoming increasingly rare, and it is becoming harder and harder for people to find and participate in any such community.

So is it any suprise that so many people have turned to the internet to provide a sense of community, when the real world is becoming more and more ephemeral

Ah. I disagree strongly with the first paragraph; people have more free time nowadays than ever, and cafes, pubs, clubs etc. are now more common than ever before. I would agree wholeheartedly with the second paragraph, if the word people is substituted with a phrase like shy techies. The Internet has been a godsend for people who have difficulty socializing in the good old fashioned way. Evn the most stiff and hidebound net nerd can be effortlessly active in several net communities in a way your regular busy, extravert socialite would be hard-pressed to match off-line.

In addition there is a discrepancy between online communities and offline: the interactivity. Forums like k5 and /. are not really interactive in the sense that discussions in pubs or cafes are. There is little dialog; threads seldom go deeper than three levels; responses are often isolated monologues or diatribes. Everyone has an opinion, already formed, and little amenable to change. Usenet and mail lists resemble offline interaction more than web forums, IRC even more so (though at the cost of immense frivolity) but are still light years removed from the kind of interaction you get in the Real World.

Online interaction attracts certain kinds of personalities and is less interesting for other kinds. I read and am active in a number of fora and lists. My girlfriend on the other hand is easily bored by online interaction and feels little emotional attachment: it is almost impossible to annoy or pique her with flaming, trolling and the like. I, OTOH need very little to get my button pressed online. In Real Life, however, it is she who is liable to get inflamed or excited; I am a lot more equanimous.

I think net interaction is going to draw a bigger and bigger pool of people who prefer net based interaction forms; of course the exclusivity will diminish as the crowd swells, and fragmentation into subcultures is inevitable. But they are going to be much the same types as are on it now.

'Net Demographics (3.66 / 3) (#12)
by whatnotever on Fri Nov 24, 2000 at 12:58:38 PM EST

Common on the 'net: techie types, libertarians, college students, Western or Western oriented ...

but then:

I would agree wholeheartedly with the second paragraph, if the word people is substituted with a phrase like shy techies.

Similarly, take the first quote, substitute "K5, /., and similar sites" for "the 'net," and you're right. But have you ever hung out in Yahoo chat for any period of time? There are so many parts of the 'net that you don't visit that are full of all sorts of different types of people. If all you see is /., K5, and the sites they link to, then you'll see mostly the demographic you've mentioned, but there is so much more...

Oh, and I highly recommend that you *not* hang out in Yahoo chat for any period of time...



[ Parent ]
Guilty as charged :-) (3.50 / 4) (#16)
by StrontiumDog on Fri Nov 24, 2000 at 01:31:04 PM EST

... but I do frequent non-tech lists (as diverse as powerlifting fora, athletics fora and a pet-rabbit group), and there are a disproportionate number of students and people with a technical background active in all these fora, although the % is clearly lower than in \. or k5.

[ Parent ]
yahoo chat - YUCK! (5.00 / 1) (#18)
by radar bunny on Tue Nov 28, 2000 at 12:21:53 AM EST

But have you ever hung out in Yahoo chat for any period of time?

i have, and i've had nitemares ever since. I stil frequent one room from time to time when i get bored just to see whos stabbing who in the back. I will admit though -- its got everyone there---

kids, grandparents, and middle age perverts galor. And dont get me started on al the evil hackers running around there "uploading viruses and crashing peoples hard drives" like all hackers do.



[ Parent ]
Small town blues (3.66 / 3) (#13)
by aphrael on Fri Nov 24, 2000 at 01:04:07 PM EST

There is a definite demographic skew to the 'net.

This is less true than it was four or five years ago, from what I see --- although the types of people who were on the net then tend to congregate in specific areas of the net now, so they're still easy to find; but they are by no means dominant.

I disagree strongly with the first paragraph; people have more free time nowadays than ever, and cafes, pubs, clubs etc. are now more common than ever before.

I took his paragraph as referring to small-town pubs where everyone in the town hangs out in the pub together; it makes me wonder if what he was really lamenting was the death of the small town, which is an important topic in its own right. Small towns, for all that they suck for people whose tendencies fall outside the norm, have a great bonding effect as well; everyone knows everyone; everyone is part of a tribe that is well-defined. Big urban areas don't have that ---- but they provide lots of people that allow tribes to be self-defining. Suburban areas don't provide either.

There is little dialog; threads seldom go deeper than three levels; responses are often isolated monologues or diatribes.

Are you reading the same K5 I am? :) I grant, there's something to what you say --- but it's not entirely an accurate picture.



[ Parent ]
Minitel in France (3.00 / 2) (#11)
by sugarman on Fri Nov 24, 2000 at 12:54:23 PM EST

I like the article, but I feel that some mention should be made to the Minitel essaging systenm that was available in France. If memeroy serves, this was something like a large, public voice-messaging system availble from public phone booths, and it was co-ordinated use of this that allowed for some rather large student protests.

However, this is just going from memory, a quick search (or a French k5 reader?) might be able to provide some more insight.

However, as far as a "vritual community", this would be a good study. William Gibson defined Cyberspace as "the point where a telephone conversation takes place" (roughly paraphrased, I know). So who says a computer is a requirement for a virtual community?
--sugarman--

The changing nature of community | 18 comments (18 topical, 0 editorial, 0 hidden)
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