communities--virtual and otherwise

Sat, 11 Dec 1993 09:30:25 CST

I agree with Doug St. Christian's comment on Virtual Communities, although I
may not be the most knowledgeable person to speak on this topic--Eve Pinsker
has lately worked on the idea of community in the context of evaluating a
variety of health care projects for the Kellogg Foundation, and her formulation
is far more sophisticated than mine. With this caveat, I'll just offer my own
experience grappling with the topic.

Some years ago, I edited a symposium volume on resettled communities in Oceania
_Exiles and Migrants in Oceania-, and as I was writing the conclusion section,
I found that our data was so variable as to put the notion of community up for
grabs. Some of our communities were relocated by colonial governments, some by
disaster, while others were migrant communities, growing by increments around
one or two migrant families. Some resettled people lived in a single bloc,
others in several scattered enclaves, some in no association at all with their
congeners. In some of these resettlements, the nature of their community was
an issue (Banabans, Tikopians, Kapingamarangi, S. Ambymese) and in others not.
I had the gut feeling as I reread the symposium papers that there was a
continuum of something that carries the label community, but the continuum
disappeared every time I started to play with the nature of a boundary for each
ethnographic case.

To make a long story short, what I came up with was a rather literal reading
of community as a derivative the verb commune and the noun communitas in the
following definition.
A community is that set of persons whose relations constrain, give shape
to, and confer social relevance on the development and the maintainenance of
personal careers.

This seemed to cover all the ethnographic cases in our volume as well as
such things as "community of scholars" and "comunity of interest"
and the like. Satisfied with this, I lost interest in the topic and decided
not to write it into the conclusion section of the volume. I'm not sure why
I made that decision. Maybe because I had so many other things I had to
worry about with a chapter that was so difficult to write.

Before there was e-mail, people who were part of some community could
communicate face-to-face, by sending a message with someone else, through the
mails, over the telephone, etc.. I see no qualitative difference between
writing a note or memo with cc's at the bottom and sending an e-mail note to
a NET. The difference is quantitative, although it is a big jump in numbers
of communicators and the time it takes to get a message out to a lot of people.
That quantitative difference, however, may have ramifications for co-resident
communities, such as campuses, that would not have been as probable before.
For example, on my own campus, we have a faculty net, and we have been getting
information from colleagues about some of our administration's dirty tricks.
The response has been a growing number of faculty getting very angry and the
beginnings of organized response to a top-down control system. That could
happen without e-mail, of course, but it would have taken a particularly
egregious boo-boo and a hastily called meeting to get us together. With e-mail
we can assess the extent of variability of faculty opinion, talk about the
sort of response that is most effective, etc..

Thus, I have to agree that Virtual Community is a term that gives a generative
role to technology that it does not deserve. Americans do tend to worship
the tools that solve problems, and to use the VC term implies that facilitation
equals generation and that those communicating electronically are somehow a
more artificial set than those who do not so communicate. I reject both
implications as false.
Mike Lieber
Univ. of Illinois at Chicago