Online Communities v.s. Classical Communities
By Aaron Davidson

“There is nothing more fraught with risk than an idea before its time,
nor is there anything more powerful than an idea whose time has come.”
- Anonymous

     A common theme which neo-luddites and other technological naysayers often recite is that personal computers and more specifically the internet, are destroying communities. This is a loaded statement, so much of this paper will be spent dissecting it and determining its meaning and value, if any.

There are many questions that should be raised in response to the claim that the internet is destroying communities:

  1. What kind of communities are being damaged?
  2. Is computer and internet technology to blame?
  3. What value do communities have?
  4. What kinds of communities exist online?
  5. What value do online communities have?

Definition of Community :
      I want to draw attention to the essence of what a community is. When internet critics speak of community, they refer to the definition of community as a group of people who live together in close physical proximity. I will refer to this type of community as a Classic Community. The more general essence of community is a group of people which share a common interest. This more flexible definition encompasses both physical communities as well as more intangible communities such as special interest clubs and online communities.

     To paraphrase U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's famous comment about defining obscenity, online communities are difficult to describe, but you know them when you see them. Before TidBITS Talk, we felt a sense of community around TidBITS, but we weren't sure to what extent our readers felt they were participating. Since its creation, TidBITS Talk has coalesced into a true online community that keeps members coming back both for the information and the sense of belonging.
                                   — Adam C. Engst, TidBITS #477
      A new kind of community, not a culture, is coming. The difference between a culture and a community is that a culture is one-way — you can absorb it by reading it, by watching it — but you have to invest back in a community. Absent this return investment, it’s not really a community. People will be investing in sharing content and sending messages to each other, in spending time together, and, in part, that’s what builds these communities.
                                   — Esther Dyson in Digerati (Brockman)

The Decline of the Classic Community:
      The ideals of the Classic Community are rarely seen these days. We no longer know our neighbors, and we lock our doors at all times. We no longer know our neighbors because our busy stress filled lifestyles do not give us the time. We lock our doors and have little trust in our communities because crime is epidemic.
      We don’t need our neighbors because we can network with the world at large. We now have a much larger sample of individuals to choose our friends from than we could years before. Why become friends with members of our community which is based solely on geographical proximity? The probability of there being an individual living in your community which is interested in exactly the kinds of things you are is much smaller than the probability of that person being elsewhere geographically.
      Imagine you are into astrophysics. In a Classic Community, you have Bob who lives across the street. He likes Star Trek, and that’s about as deep as you can get with him on the topic of astrophysics. Frank, the next door neighbor is a jock, and only talks about sports and fast cars. John two doors down is a doctor and has no time for or interest in either sports, Star Trek, or astrophysics.
      Being able to network with people on a global scale instantly solves your dilemma. Now you can search for people with your interests from all over the world. There are countless web pages, usenet discussion forums, mailing lists, and real-time chat rooms for astrophysics enthusiasts to discuss their theories and ideas.
      But is the ability to network globally the cause of the decline in Classic Community? The Classic Community has been in decline for decades, and is probably more a result of capitalism, and social change. Anti-social behavior is more likely a result of bad parenting and poverty than internet escapism. If anything is to be blamed, television should be mentioned long before the personal computer. Television is completely anti-social and generally anti-intellectual. The Internet is fundamentally a social and interactive medium, often rich in intellectual content.
      The movement away from the traditional 1950’s stereotypical community of suburbs and white picket fences where the families held barbecues in their backyards with their neighbors began long before the personal computer allowed people to escape into computer games and later, the internet. Perhaps the internet is our savior, appearing on the scene at just the moment it was needed most, and rescued us from our decaying communities. The internet provides a safe and convenient way for people to be social.
      Another common criticism of the internet is that of the “Wallmart effect”, where online shopping and entertainment drives local community based businesses out of the market. While this may sound negative, from a consumer’s point of view, this is not a bad thing. The internet empowers consumers to get the best prices and deals possible. If a local business cannot offer an advantage, the forces of competition should put it out of business. Businesses should keep up with the times; if they want to remain competitive they will need to compete globally.

The Utility of the Classic Community
      The Classic Community exists and existed in the past for some very good reasons. Humans must bond together physically for safety and for social fulfillment. Being close to your neighbors is a great help in emergencies — the ice storms in Eastern Canada and the USA in 1998 reminded many communities of how useful they could be in trying times. Thousands of homes were left without power for weeks. Families moved in together and shared their supplies and electric generators with one another, and entire communities bonded closer together. Certainly emergencies like this prove the utility of the Classic Community. However, these are exceptional circumstances. What is the utility of the Classic Community in everyday life? The obvious uses are those which require physical proximity. Infrastructure for services and commodities is difficult to obtain without the density of urban cities and towns. This continues to be the primary reason for Classic Community. These obvious functions are not what critics are worried about. It is the social aspect with which they are concerned. The only social things I can name that cannot be done online are sexual reproduction and physical sports.

The Rise of the Online Community
      An Online Community can be though of as a Mental Community, which places it neatly in opposition to the Classical or Physical Community. Due to the nature of the media, there are many different types of Online Communities. I will try to briefly outline and compare each of the major mediums.

Chat Programs:

MOO’s, MUD’s, and Talkers:
Perhaps one of the earliest forms of community, these virtual text-based worlds resemble Classic Communities more than any other type of Online Community. Members can build their own virtual homes, and participate in real-time conversations. [footnote]
IRC, AOL Chat Rooms, etc..:
similar to MOO’s, but specifically for special interest topics and real-time chatting only. The entire aspect of building a virtual reality are dropped in favor of pure social interaction. From my escapades into IRC and AOL Chat Rooms, it appears that the given topics for chat rooms and IRC channels are rarely discussed. Despite the topics, these outlets are usually used simply for pure socialization.

     Chat programs draw the most flak from critics because of their addictive nature and limited social value. Many people who are drawn addictively to such communities do so because they have difficulty with real social interaction, and chat rooms make it easy. Like any type of crutch, people can develop a serious dependence on it. Critics have a valid point that chat-rooms offer too shallow an experience to warrant replacing real social interaction in the long run. This is not to say that such chat-based communities are valueless — they are not. The provide a wonderful substrate for exploring one’s identities and realities (Turkle).

The World Wide Web:

      The web provides the minimal substrate for a community. In this medium, it provides a community based on publishing, similar to a scientific community based on the published papers of a specific field. The level of interactivity and the potential for community development is much less than in other internet mediums. Some of the more successful web-based communities involve message boards ( for example). Other ways of obtaining a sort of community through the web is to link pages into web-rings which bring sites of the same topics together. CritSuite provides a way for internet users to make formerly static web pages more interactive. One can view web pages through the CritSuite web site. The software allows readers to insert comments and footnotes as well as a discussion board, to critique a page. Such interactivity is required for a community to transcend culture.

Mailing Lists and News Groups:

     Mailing lists and news groups tend to strike a unique balance between the pure social interaction of chat programs and the static information of web pages. Since posters must take time and effort in the reading and writing of the messages, content and quality is much higher than in chat rooms. A real sense of community develops. Rules and regulations are devised, veterans assist newcomers (usually with a stern note to read the FAQ), and discussions stay on topic. An active mailing list full of intelligent and enthusiastic participants can be one of the most useful resources on the internet.
      An interesting social phenomenon which is unique to mailing lists is that of what is known as “lurking”. A Lurker is someone who reads a news group or mailing list but never or rarely participates in it. Most participants never even know these lurkers exist. Being socially active on a list is a choice that all members have.

Virtual Reality and Video Conferencing:

      As bandwidth and power increases we will start to see the online world become more and more real.Information density will begin to approach the levels seen in reality, and eventually our ability to even distinguish between the Virtual and the Real will falter.

Internet Projects

     Distributed Computing projects such as, Cosm, GIMPS, and SETI@Home are huge internet communities, consisting of thousands of people using spare computer time to help work towards a common goal of solving astronomically large computer problems.
      Open Source software is worked on by hundreds of programmers online. Entire operating systems have been made by the collaborative work of hundreds of geographically remote people.
      These Online Communities are real — members invest time, effort and money, and they strive towards a common goal.

      I could keep extending this list with new types of internet communities, because they are springing up amongst the 43 million connected computers on the internet as fast as I can write about them.

Case Study: The Extropy Mailing List:
      I chose to examine the Extropian online community for two reasons. The first is that I am involved in the community and so I am equipped to discuss it properly. The second is that the content of the list is diametrically opposed to technophobia.
      Extropianism is a branch of Transhumanist Philosophy. The name comes from the desire to maximize extropy and minimize entropy in the universe. Extropians believe in dynamic optimism, lean politically towards libertarianism, and are fans of ultra technology (nanotechnology, advanced computer technology and AI, life extension and cryonics, genetic engineering, human-machine transcendence, and so on).
     The list is high traffic — typically around 10-20 messages a day. The list is home to some of the most diverse and intelligent people I know — philosophers, neuroscientists, computer scientists, modern artists and engineers, to name a few. Discussions range from the relatively mundane topics of gun-control, computability of consciousness, and colonizing mars to the wildly speculative consequences of medical immortality and apocalyptic nanotechnology.
      This is such a valuable community, and it would be impossible without the internet. Such a diverse and knowledgeable group of people could never hope to find each other in the same geographical community. Members are distributed globally from at least 3 continents.
      Some of the topics on the list are pretty shocking and controversial by the standards of general society. Extropians discuss these ideas freely and openly, without batting an eye. The anonymity of the internet mailing list is what makes this possible. Below is an example of a typical posting to the list:

Date: Fri, 26 Mar 1999 18:13:55 -0800
From: Spike Jones <>
Subject: why do we need 30 women?

> Lee Daniel Crocker wrote: ... -you can create [a Mars colony]
> from scratch in a century or two starting with, say, 30
> or 40 young, healthy, genetically diverse women and
> a big dewar of sperm....

Altho it presents some extreme difficulties, could we not start a Mars society with a single woman and a bunch of ethnically diverse frozen embryos? Could not the single crosser of interplanetary space have her birth canal surgically enlarged before launch in order to facilitate giving birth by herself after self implanting an embryo some time after it starts looking like she will survive on the surface? It appears to me that all the mission requirements scale to the size of the astronaut. Our best bet might be a single very small woman, perhaps one with no legs, whose weight might be 30 kilos or less. spike

      Note the casual tone of the discussion. Without this forum, participants would have nowhere to discuss such shocking ideas. The general public would pale and anger at such suggestions as a matter of principle, but on the list these ideas can be discussed without fear from such a reaction. More examples of interesting discussions from the list are listed in the appendix.

      The Extropian Mailing List is a vibrant piece of the larger Extropian Community. The Extropian Community is a large part of the internet Transhumanist Community. While Online Communities are excellent resources for people, they cannot fully supplement real social interaction (at least until the technology improves to make virtual reality and video conferencing practical). Even with all of these communities, the need for face-to-face contact is important. All tight online communities, be they based on news groups, mailing lists, or irc channels, tend to hold annual conferences where members may meet one another in person. EXTRO4 is a conference in august taking place in Berkeley California. While it is directed at the larger Extropian Community and not just the list members, many list members will attend to meet each other in person and to network with one another at a more personal level.

A New Medium Emerges
      The emergence of the internet has been compared to the invention of the printing press. It has revolutionized our abilities to deal with information, to network with each other, and to socialize. The changes which it will force upon society will be astronomical. Society has an inertia, a resistance to change but the power of the digital realm will win this fight. The internet has given us a new medium for social activities, opening up entirely new dimensions of social reality. Online Communities all can provide new social experiences to explore which were once impossible. That being said, Online Communities provide new dimensions and enhance existing ones, but they do lack many dimensions of face-to-face social interaction. A healthy individual will still interact with people on a person to person basis, but will be able to expand their social horizons into cyberspace. And, as technology continues to improve at an exponential rate, the virtual will take on more and more of the missing dimensions of social interaction. Perhaps one day, we will not even be able to distinguish between the real and the virtual.

      I am not a stranger to the online world of Chat Programs. My first experiences of online chat were in 1994 on America OnLine. Later, I delved into MOOs and MUD’s for a few years. I spent most of the ninth and tenth grade down in my basement with my corporeal online friends. My high school years were fraught with social dysfunction, and provided me an outlet which I had difficulty realizing in the real world. Luckily, I eventually matured and developed social skills by the time I graduated and embarked on my voyage into the real world. I still occasion IRC channels, but I am by no means addicted. I use it primarily to keep in touch with old friends back home, and not to replace any kind of social gap in my life.

Appendix - selected postings from the Extropian Mailing List


Baase, Sara. A Gift of Fire: Social, Legal, and Ethical Issues in Computing. 1997. Prentice-Hall, New Jersey.

Brockman, John. Digerati: Encounters With the Cyber Elite.1996. HardWired, San Francisco.

Dery, Mark. Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture. 1994. Duke University Press.

Turkle, Sherry. Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet. 1995. Simon & Shuster, New York.