Marianne van den Boomen on Sat, 1 Aug 1998 02:11:20 +0200 (MET DST)

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<nettime> Virtual communities and social reality 2/2

The roots of communities lie elsewhere. They lie in human imagination. Not only
private imagination but also public imagination. Public imagination is
conducted by media. Anderson relates the rise of nations to the rise of the
printing press. He points out that the older empires were imagined by a
medium too: in this case scripture, hand-written script in a holy language of
truth - be it Latin, Arabic or Chinese. This written language created big
empires, large communities of signs which covered the local communities of

The rise of printed text in national languages and the expansion of trade
dethroned the old sacral language. Anderson writes: (quote)'The logic of
capitalism dictated that when the Latin reading market was saturated, the
potentially huge markets of the unilingual masses beckoned. It's this print
capitalism that created the different nationalisms in which the old religious
empires fell apart.'(unquote)

This was not the result of printed nationalist propaganda; plain print
capitalism was enough: just the proliferation of books in national languages 
- and new kinds of books: bibles for ordinary people, novels, newspapers,
 schoolbooks - was enough to establish imagined communities as nations. The
reformation too was produced by print capitalism. After Luther had nailed his
written theses on the church door in Wittenberg in 1517, they were printed in
German - two weeks later they were available in all parts of the country.
Others followed and this was the beginning of religious propaganda wars. The
reformation was certainly more than just a spiritual revolution, it was also a
material revolution: direct personal access to God's word meant a bible for
everybody, and that meant bibles in spoken language, and that, in turn, meant
schooling and literacy for ordinary people. In short: it meant national

Secularisation was the next step. Two new graphic products, the novel and the
newspaper, expressed a secular national imagined community. Especially the
newspaper, with its roots in local daily life combined with the remarkable
'sense of community in anonymity', provided more than a metaphor for modern

Benedict Anderson made a very inspiring analysis. I think his concept of
imagined communities is also useful for other eras and modes of reproduction.
In the oral era, when spoken language was the only medium, the imagined
communities were communities of sound: local tribes whose members spoke the
same language. It's no coincidence that this also meant several gods, which you
had to propitiate in direct actions.

The era of scripture produced big empires, held together by a holy language in
the name of one God or holy emperor. It also produced its own Utopias (like
Plato's The State), but the predominant escape to a better world was
Redemption, by one Saviour. By the way, the imagined script communities did not
wipe out the local communities of sound; modes of reproduction don't replace
each other; they form new layers on remaining sediments of older dominant modes
of reproduction.The same applies for the print mode of reproduction: the old
imagined communities of sound (like neighbourhoods) and of scripts (like
religions) remained, but print communities became predominant.

Then came the era of broadcasting mass media, radio and television. Which
brought us the beginning of globalisation beyond nations and, at the same time,
a movement towards individualisation and the erosion of older local

And now we have the era of computernetworks in which the processes of
globalisation, individualisation and fragmentation are still going on, moving
to the utmost. This is postmodernism: society seems to be the mirror of
distributed computernetworks, with no central control. Everything is
disseminated, dissipated - especially small scale communities like families,
neighbourhoods and workcommunities. These communities are still there, but
they have lost their continuity and are no longer self-evident. You easily move
in and out, everything seems to be fluid - even nations. There are less and
less personal dependencies, and this creates a strong 'sense of anonymity in
community'. Social cohesion seems to be in deep crisis.     But, some say,
there is a new social cohesion coming up. In virtual communities. 

Well, let's take a closer look at these virtual communities. First, the
adjective 'virtual'. In dictionaries this word means: non-manifest, only
potentially there. That sounds like 'not real'. But in computerlingo the word
means: manifest on the computer screen, not potentially but in reality. For you
can work with the virtual hard disk and the virtual memory on your computer,
and you can communicate with your virtual friends on the Internet.

Okay, this reality is not physical, it's computer mediated and it depends on
this medium. But, as we have seen in Anderson's analysis, all media create
their own reality. Some people with a busy social life on the Internet really
get angry when you refer to 'in real life' as something different from virtual
life on the net. They'll say: 'My virtual life is as real as a real life, it's
part of my real life!' And I think they're right.

So, does 'virtual' mean the same as Anderson's concept of 'imagined'? Well, yes
and no. Anderson's 'imagined' means: represented by media and constructed by
institutionalisation. 'Virtual' means: represented by media and constructed by
media. Institutionalisation of virtual social rules stays within the domain of
the medium, it doesn't materialise outside. For instance, in newsgroups
frequented by regular contributors there are implicit and explicit rules about
how to behave, what's done and what's not done. During discussions in the group
these things are said (well, written, or better, typed) to newbies or
offenders, and sometimes the rules are available in a so called FAQ (a file
with the Frequently Asked Questions) but they are not institutionalised outside
the medium. If there are sanctions, these are also performed within the medium:
ignoring, flaming (writing insulting, nasty language), e-mailbombing (sending
huge files of rubbish in the mailbox of the offender), being thrown out (of an
IRC-channel) and denied access (possible on mailinglists, in moderated
conference and MOO's). 

Of course it is possible to institutionalise the community outside the digital
medium. For instance, the Dutch Webgrrls have institutionalised themselves as
an association, and are registrated as such at the Chamber of Commerce, with
all the paperwork and board elections which come with it. But I would say that
on that moment they transgressed the domain of virtuality.  They then became
an imagined community, with material ties to institutionalised social reality
(which is still print dominated). In this sense, the Dutch Webgrrls are a
virtual as well a an imagined community. And there are a lot of these mixed
communities on the net.

In short: in imagined communities social and political interaction are mediated
and facilitated by a medium; in virtual communities social and political
interaction is performed within the medium.

This interaction within the medium is exactly the difference between broadcast
mass media and network media, like the Internet (but also the telephone
network). You are indeed forced to interact, you can't just put it on and let
it come over you, like you can with books, radio, movies and television. At the
lowest level of interaction you click your own way through the hyperlinks on
the World Wide Web, the maximum level of interaction is you write with your
keyboard. You need that keyboard interaction to form a virtual community. What
are the characteristics of these so called virtual communities, compared to
organical or imagined communities?

It is often said that their most striking characteristic is their total
independence of time and place. It is true that people can log in on the
Internet at any time and from any place in the world to communicate with
others. And it's also true that these communities are not kept together by a
shared material space, as in organical communities.

But we have seen that some other known communities, like the gay community or
the bikers community, are also independent of a fixed place. Sometimes they
organise meetings at a certain place to sustain the community. The same is true
for virtual communities: they sometimes arrange face-to-face meetings at a
physical location - the Webgrrls, the Metro, the Well, they all do this. And
what's more: virtual communities often deliberately create a specific 'sense of
place' on the net, like the Digital City with its squares, and the 3D Active
Worlds with its bars and gardens. So the concept of space is certainly not
superfluous in virtual communities.

What about the concept of time? When people say: 'Time doesn't matter on the
Internet' they mostly mean: 'Traffic on the Net is so fast, it doesn't cost
time to travel to computers hundreds of miles away.' In a sense this is true,
but sometimes it damned well costs time to travel on the net, because the net
can be extremely slow. Especially when America wakes up and checks e-mail in
the morning. So who said time and place don't matter on the Internet? And no
matter if the net is fast or slow, things on the net are fleeting, transient
and temporary. And in this respect the net is very much dependent on time. You
can see this in virtual communities: discussions, affairs and quarrels come and
go very quickly, and people come and go very quickly. Most people in virtual
communities have periods of activity and periods of absence. When you return
after a period of absence, you are often welcomed by the members who still know
you. But if you don't show up for a long time, the population of the virtual
community may have changed completely. They have new discussions, and they
problably repeat old ones. At the Webgrrls mailinglist for instance, every
three monthes the discussion 'is feminism about manhating' pops up. 

So far for the concept of time. 

What do people do in virtual communities? Do they just communicate? Well, yes
and no. Actually people do the same things here they do in other communities.
They work (like in newsgroups for computerprogrammers or MOO's for biologists)
- indeed, a lot of work nowadays consists of networking and gathering
 information. They learn - sometimes deliberately but mostly just by the way,
in interaction with others. They play, as avatars in Active Worlds, as
characters in fantasy-MOO's, as warriors in games like Quake and Air Warrior.
But they play also more casually, when people experiment with different styles
of writing, different login-names or gender bending (that is: represent
themselves with another gender than they have in daily life). And yes, people
also love in virtual communities. I'm not talking about the pornografic
Web-sites now, or the so called 'hot tub' IRC-channels (but indeed, that's
love too!). The point is: people fall in love wherever they meet. It happens in
newsgroups, on mailinglists, on IRC and in MOO's. In fact one of the most
frequent activities of fantasy characters in MOO's is marriage, with all kinds
of rituals, presents, quests and so on. 

And yes, people also die. Well, in fact that's the only thing you can not
really do in a virtual world, but the representation of death in a virtual
community can be very strong. Some virtual communities create their own
mourning rituals. For instance, when a regular Internet-player of Air Warrior
died - in reality, not in the game - the other players decided to fly a couple
of minutes in formation with their warrior air planes, as a tribute to their
deceased friend. After that, they continued their fighting as usual. 

So people can work, learn, play, love and die in virtual communities.

Some people would say: 'Okay, but why call such a proliferation of interests
communities? It's all so individual, partial and non-commital. There is no
fundamental collective bond in these groups.' 

It's true, there is no tight commitment. There is no social cohesion based on
personal material dependencies, you can easily slip in and out. Those 'open
exits' are indeed what makes virtual communities different from organical
communities, as Jan van Dijk, a Dutch communications-researcher, points out.
But I wouldn't say that's the reason virtual gatherings don't deserve the name
community (as Van Dijk does). For almost any community nowadays has such 'open
exits'. This is the condition of postmodern communities, be it workcommunities,
families or neighbourhoods. They all haven open exits. There are just not many
tight communities left. But that doesn't mean that in our postmodern mode of
reproduction collectivity is completely absent . In virtual communities there
is an ongoing collective process as long as there is interaction and debate
between frequently returning individuals. This creates a continuity on the
virtual group level. And this may result in collective moments. This can be
collective action, directed outward (for instance when the webgrrls wrote a
letter to a magazine that had printed complete nonsens about women on the
Internet) - and this can be directed inward, like collective meetings or
collective agreements about the rules in the community.

In my opinion, a group on the net deserves the name community when it has some
continuity and collective moments. And again: these collective moments don't
emerge totally spontanious; they are the result of a mix of emergent and
organised processes. Virtual communities also have to be sustained. 

Though commitment on the individual level is rather fluid, what happens here is
crucial. Communities produce identities and social positions, and this also
happens in virtual communities. Such identity can consist of a feeling of
membership, or a certain a social role, like the joker or the go-between, or
the grouser. Identities can also be more playfull, like created characters in a
MOO or Avatars in a 3D world. 

These virtual identities have a certain pseudo-anonymity. You are not really
anonymous, because when you're active you anyhow have a name, a login-name (and
your real name can mostly be traced by system operators). But the other commun
physical personal indicators (appearence, voice, skincolor, figure) are absent
on the net. This constitutes a kind of invisibility and pseudo-anonymity, and a
sense of social freedom: you are only what you type on the screen, and you have
almost total control on that. 

Partial, plural, temporary, pseudo-anonymous or even experimental as these
identities may be, they stick to you. You bring them with you in other
communities or settings. For instance, some Webgrrls present themselves in
newsgroups as Webgrrl; some members of The Metro are as such recognizable in
online conferences. Virtual identities are partial, but this doesn't mean they
are acted out only in the specific virtual community where they originated.
And virtual identities need not stay in the domain of virtualty, you can also
bring them with you in physical settings. There are examples of interesting
crossovers between virtual and much older imagined communities, like young
moslems in Egypt who date on IRC. They do this to become acquainted with their
future bride or groom without compromising situations between men and women. 

This is the postmodern reality of 'multiple tribe membership', as the dutch
Internet-professor Jaap van Till calls it. For a while he signed his e-mail
with the signature message: 'Multiple Tribe Membership with the help of the Net
is the best antidote to ethnical/national fragmentation. I wish you good,
tolerant and binding connections across many borders taking part in many

Well, I think that's a beautiful message, but it might be a bit too optimistic.
I do think indeed the mechanism of MTM nowadays works in organical, imagined
and virtual communities - that's what the gobal village is all about. But the
older imagined communities based on etnic or national grounds are still alive,
parallel to virtual or other social tribes. 

Nationalist sentiments are still easy to arouse - perhaps just because people
want more social cohesion.

Social cohesion nowadays certainly is in big trouble. Personal dependencies in
communities erode, globalisation means: every community, every tribe, depends
on other communities. This kind of social cohesion is profoundly abstract,
complex and difficult to imagine as a community, or even as a set of
communities. Only from a satelite view you can see this social cohesion, but in
our daily lives this view doesn't easily emerge. 

Perhaps we have to organise it.

I think we need a new kind of cartography to map our multipe tribe membership
in organical, imagined and virtual communities.

I don't think this will be a new map of Utopia. Utopias are totally designed,
in detail, and if something is crucial for virtual communities - well, perhaps
for all living communities - it's their fuzziness, their uprisings with the
unexpected and the trivial, their being out of control.

It will neither be a map of Dystopia, the inverse of utopia: the no-good-place
where things are so competely under control that all freedom dies. And it will
neither be a map of Atopia, a no-place, because we can not do without a sense
of place. 

Let's say it will be a map of Autopia. An autoplace, a place for the self, a
place for emergent qualities, a place where we can build multiple communities
in pseudo-anonymity.

Can you imagine it?

Marianne van den Boomen      
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