Community and Context: How Physical and Virtual Communities Influence Individual Identity

Assignment No. 2 by

Senthil Sukumar
Group No. G17 Academic Writing CORE 006, T2 AY 09-10

I declare that this Assignment is my original work and all information obtained from other sources has been cited accordingly. _______________________ Signature and Date Course Instructor: Elizabeth Rankin

1 A physical community refers to the real world interaction of various individuals who share a common history and a common location. The virtual communities of the Internet turn this concept on its head by removing both shared history and location, yet in a metaphysical manner, keep the element of interaction intact. Interestingly, even without some of the defining aspects of physical community, both the rate at which new virtual communities are being created and the number of individuals who engage in them continue to increase exponentially. In his article The Heart of the WELL, Howard Rheingold (1993) discusses how virtual communities such as the Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link (WELL) can provide fellowship, comfort and the means through which online intention is transformed into real-world action. However, John Perry Barlow (1995), a formerly active member of the WELL community, makes a fair case for the inadequacy of virtual communities in his article Is There a There in Cyberspace? Although both articles illustrate the ability of virtual communities to provide a positive atmosphere of communal support and comfort through stirring examples of personal crises, Barlow (1995) argues that virtual communities lack many aspects of communal living that are an intrinsic part of physical communities. The virtual community, while a legitimate source for support and solace, will never be able to supplant the physical community in shaping an individual’s identity due to the convenient mobility and disembodied nature of cyberspace. Identity can be defined as the set of behavioural and personal characteristics by which an individual is most closely recognized as a member of a particular group whose members share those same characteristics. However, there is a clear distinction between offline and online identity. Some elements of who a person is are certainly more important than others, and the ability to selectively promote or obfuscate some of these elements online means that when translated to the virtual communities of the Internet, identity becomes a pliable and inaccurate representation of actual personality; an imitation that is best described as a “virtual identity’.

2 Barlow (1995) provides a personal example of this obfuscation when he was unable to interact with the Deadheads, the nomadic community that reveres the Grateful Dead, on equal footing due to his minor celebrity status as a songwriter for the rock band, and to circumvent this he resorts to logging onto the WELL incognito (p. 165). Not many individuals willingly choose or are (respectably) able to create songs that appeal to a large group of people, and the affinity for song writing and music is a defining aspect of one’s identity. However, the digital veil of the WELL gave Barlow the ability to conceal this aspect of his identity to integrate himself into the larger, virtual Deadhead community on his chosen terms. Barlow was able to do this successfully because in cyberspace, the innate tools with which people intuitively evaluate tone and character in the real world cannot be used on disembodied interactions. Thus on the Internet, individuals become incapable of assessing the veracity of virtual identities. In addition to the selective concealment of certain characteristics, individuals in virtual communities often communicate with others in a manner that is wholly different than if that communication had been face-to-face. The physically detached nature of cyberspace removes the need for immediacy, and allows for more calculated and mature interactions. This is often a good thing since many people don’t do well in spontaneous spoken interactions, but given the time for deliberation that an online environment affords, they can make valuable contributions in a conversation (Rheingold, 1993, p. 156). However, while virtual communities allow for carefully constructed criticisms and conversation, it still fails in communicating the true identity of individuals as defined by their personality. In the real world and within physical communities, individuals accept or reject relationships based on the compatibility of interest and personality. The former can be communicated adequately through the virtual communities that one chooses to participate in. Personality however, is something that cannot be properly communicated through words alone, and it is entirely possible for individuals to socialize and form positive

3 virtual relationships, only to realize the incompatibilities of their identities when face-to-face. The opposite can also be true. Rheingold (1993) cites a suitable instance of this type of failure to communicate personality when he met fellow WELL resident Albert Mitchell in real life for the first time. Although their online exchanges had been verbally brutal, and the chances of physical fistfights negated only because of the geographical distance between the two men, in real life they got along amiably; their online tussles were merely a product of the impersonal medium that is the Internet. Were the situation reversed, with the two men meeting in real life first and exchanging verbal blows over differences of opinion, no one would ever expect them to later log onto the WELL and become fast friends. The difference between Rheingold’s online and offline interactions with Albert, although told as a healthy anecdote, is a fitting example of just how misleading cyberspace can be in communicating actual personality. Like a pendulum that swings on a fixed axis, an individual’s actual identity is compatible only with personalities that fall within its ambit. Virtual communities rarely influence an individual’s actual identity sufficiently for it to swing beyond its fixed axis to accommodate an incongruous personality. To further understand why virtual communities have little effect in shaping actual identity, we need to know why individuals seek out virtual communities. Like the Deadheads, people search for an online community in a bid for the companionship and acceptance that comes with an atmosphere of commonality. Individuals do not seek out virtual communities hoping to alter their identities, but rather to find acceptance among peers; and to achieve this they select the virtual community that best fits their existing worldview. In this respect, virtual communities are altogether different constructs from physical communities. People don’t normally have the luxury of moving between physical communities as efficaciously as the metaphysical residents of virtual communities are able to, and so the character of a physical community is determined by the diversity of its residents; the individuals who involuntarily invest spiritual, material and

4 temporal resources towards the edification of their homes (Barlow, 1995, p. 167). However in a virtual community, the environment is first built to cater to individuals with a specific worldview, the idea being that the reciprocal nature of that community will then draw in the corresponding type of virtual inhabitant. These pre-planned and controlled environments restrict the real world conflicts that naturally accompany human interaction and are intrinsic to identity formation. As a result, the character of the constructed community is severely limited, and there is little room for unbiased nurturing of the already established identity. In addition, the abundance of alternative virtual communities means that when an individual’s adoptive virtual community no longer suits the sensibilities, that person can effortlessly move to another virtual community. The availability of accessible alternatives makes it almost impossible for virtual communities to create a rooted and long-lasting society, which is essential to the formation and preservation of any community (Barlow, 1995, 167). However, the convenience and accessibility of virtual communities is one area where physical communities trail behind. Virtual communities are not affected by the same economic forces that till today continue to draw people away from their physical communities and towards the suburbs (Barlow, 1995, p. 166), and are thus able to sufficiently imitate physical communities by providing a medium through which the same quantity (but not quality) of discourse and social engagement can be carried out. Although Rheingold (1993) asserts that these virtual communities are places of conviviality where the aspects of community that are being lost to the forces of production could potentially be regained (p. 157), the pliable nature of the virtual identity, coupled with the generous freedom of movement afforded by cyberspace does little to inspire confidence in the ability of virtual communities to properly recreate the communal spirit. In his article, Barlow (1995) mentions another element as being a key characteristic of the physical community: shared adversity (p. 167). Both Rheingold (1993) and Barlow (1995) agree

5 that in times of adversity, virtual communities can be a source of immense comfort and support. The common experience of death is a hardship shared by every person, regardless of affiliation, and virtual communities provide a mesh of round-the-clock support that can ease the burden of loss. However, we must realize that the adversity of death is common to all, and that the indispensible support of community in times of grief can be found both online and offline. The highly networked nature of virtual communities does not mean that physical communities are any less capable of providing solace for the grieving heart. Instead, what virtual communities do offer is a medium for the expression and amelioration of emotional pain. Sometimes, putting feelings into writing behind the semi-private veil of cyberspace is simply easier than saying the words out loud. Another advantage that virtual communities have over their physical counterparts is speed, and their ability to disseminate information quickly and synchronously over vast geographical distances is unmatched by any physical community past or present. Rheingold (1993) mentions how in 1992, the WELL community had mobilised to effect a rescue plan for Elly van der Pas, a former member of their virtual community who had moved to the Himalayas and became a Buddhist nun, and who not long after succumbed to liver failure (pp. 160-163). Within days, members of the WELL community had managed to leverage their online networks to get the right contacts, proper equipment, and sufficient funds to save Elly, and they were rewarded for their expansive efforts. This powerful example of human compassion casts no doubt on the virtues of virtual communities and the extraordinary possibilities they can engender. But on the issue of identity, the case of Elly serves to highlight the real manner in which the individual identity is influenced: through physical experience and human interaction. It was the real-world exposure to a new physical community at the Buddhist monastery in the Himalayas that had compelled Elly to devote herself to a new religion and a completely different mode of existence

6 from the one she was used to, and in doing so, she had fundamentally reshaped her identity. The virtual community of the WELL had only played the minor role of facilitating the maintenance of her ties with her former commune. Even as we lament the erosion of physical communities, we have to accept the fact that virtual communities can never truly replace them. They lack a certain quality present in physical communities that Barlow (1995) describes as prāna, the Hindu term for breath and spirit (p. 166), and this prāna is deficient in virtual communities due to their fundamental reliance on the virtual identity, itself an inadequate and misleading representation of actual identity. However, for all their shortcomings, it is undeniable that the virtual communities of cyberspace are havens wherein the support of community thrives even as physical communities continue to deteriorate, and like most things in life, they should not be subjected to the uncompromising classifications of moral absolutism. Ultimately, the virtues of physical and virtual communities in influencing individual identity simply lie along different paths. The physical community shapes and nurtures identity, while the virtual community serves only to augment it.


1. Barlow, J. P. (1995). Is There a There in Cyberspace? Utne Reader , pp. 164-169.

2. Rheingold, H. (1993). The Heart of the WELL. In H. Rheingold, The Virtual Community (pp. 151-163). Addison-Wesley Pub. Co.

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