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Trends and Issues in Virtual Communities

Scott Summers

MLIS Candidate, University of North Carolina at Greensboro


Virtual communities have become increasingly popular in recent years with the advent of social

media and the continuing use of message boards and other online gathering places. It is

important to understand what virtual communities are, how they are designed, and the positives

and negatives of online interactions to define trends and measure useful application. Online and

virtual communities are especially important for librarians and libraries, particularly in primary

and secondary education, and librarians must become aware of trends and implications of these

communities to become effective leaders and practitioners within their educational settings.

Keywords: social media, virtual community, school library

Trends and Issues in Virtual Communities


What is a Virtual Community?

A virtual community “is defined as an aggregation of individuals…who interact around a

shared interest, where the interest is…supported and/or mediated by technology and guided by

some protocols or norms,” (Porter, 2006). From this definition, we understand a virtual

community to take exist entirely online, even if real-life interactions occur. The basis of the

group is rooted in technology and the Internet, which foster communication and discussion. The

topics and interests covered by virtual communities are innumerable, and new communities are

established daily using a variety of platforms and web-based tools. These tools range from

discussion boards to social media, and I myself have used these tools to participate in virtual


My Experiences with Virtual Communities

I have a variety of social media accounts, including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram,

Snapchat, YouTube, and Waze. I also have participated in online group discussion boards about

sports, drum corps (a kind of semi-professional marching band), and video games. In addition to

these social applications, I have been a member of virtual communities for this graduate degree

program, as six of my eight classes so far have been synchronous online classes with no real

classroom component. Each of these six classes has been an aggregation of individuals that

interact around a shared interest in libraries, and WebEx, Canvas, and email have mediated this

interest. We follow social norms and participate in collegial discussions, so this online degree in

and of itself has thrown me head first into a firsthand experience of a virtual community outside

of my daily social interactions.

Participation in Virtual Communities by Family and Friends

The vast majority of my social network participates in discussion, learning, and

socializing on some type of social media. Therefore, my real life and virtual networks have

significant overlap. A friend on Facebook may also follow me on Twitter, Instagram, and

Snapchat. We use these networks to bridge large distances and to stay aware of events in each

other’s lives. I have distinct groups that exist on social media: one group is comprised of my

family and friends from my hometown in New Jersey, another is the group of people I met while

an undergraduate student at Michigan State University, and a third group is made up of friends

and colleagues I have met since I moved to North Carolina in 2013. Some members of these

groups are part of a virtual community established on various platforms, but the groups rarely

interact with one another. I am sure that there are shared interests among the members of these

three distinct friend groups, but it is impossible to ascertain from my vantage point whether or

not the members of these groups are part of shared virtual communities aside from being my

friend or follower. Given the scope and breadth of social media and virtual communities, I would

hypothesize that even if the people in my virtual community have never met, they likely follow

similar pages on Twitter or Instagram, engage in discussion on Reddit or another board, or have

seen the same videos or follow the same content providers on YouTube.

Trends and Issues

History of Social Media

Virtual communities began in the 1970s with the Bulletin Board System or BBS. As

access to computing technology was not widely available, “hobbyists who carefully nurtured the

social aspects and interest-specific nature of their projects” (Shah, 2016) used the BBS to

download files and games as well as communicate on message boards. As the popularity of the

BBS grew, links between boards were established and served as a precursor for the modern

Internet. By the 1980s and 1990s, Internet access was more widely available and provided

companies like CompuServe and America Online (AOL). These services connected thousands of

people on interest-specific message boards, and ignited the want of users to connect not only

with strangers with similar interests, but also with friends, family members, and professionals.

Social media really began with sites like SixDegrees and Friendster, which allowed users

to find their friends and expand their social networks, while LinkedIn provided professional

networking and job related discussion. Social networking as we know it today grew from the

launch of Myspace in 2003, Facebook in 2004, and Twitter in 2006. These sites promoted the

adding of friends, the sharing of a “status,” and allowed users to share their lives digitally while

“liking” posts from their friends and followers. Myriad other sites have come and gone since

2004, but Facebook’s staying power is a testament to the desire to live an interconnected digital

life. A staggering 68% of American adults say they use Facebook, while 35% use Instagram and

24% use Twitter (Smith and Anderson, 2018). It has become easier to join virtual communities

with the use of apps and smartphones, and theses services attract users with expanded

technological offerings like going “live” and applying filters to photographs and videos. The

ultimate basis for virtual communities is sharing and connecting with others, which bring their

own pros and cons.

Pros and Cons of Virtual Communities

There are definite positives to sustained membership in a virtual community. First, a user

is able to find their friends and keep in touch with people who may not occupy their same

physical space. Also, users can network, find jobs, and participate in virtual professional

development using a virtual community. These communities promote collaboration and

creativity, and allow users to develop, refine, and share their opinions with others. Another pro

for virtual communities is that there is something for every interest and group. If the group does

not exist, a user can create it. People who would be otherwise cut off from others who share their

interests are given a boost through technology and can find their tribe online. While this can

mostly be viewed as a positive, is also leaves room for negative interactions.

One con of virtual communities is that, if left to grow unchecked, they can become

breeding grounds for hate speech, terror, and intimidation. Chen (2014) details the work of

moderators who are tasked with removing all kinds of graphic, exploitative, and dangerous

messages from apps and message board feeds. Virtual communities can be places where a user

represents their authentic self digitally, but the opportunity to remain anonymous gives way to

trolling and veils the identity of people who choose to threaten and terrorize from behind a

keyboard. Lastly, the sheer number of virtual communities and their appeal can lead to

technology or social media addiction, as users are unable to pull themselves away from their

computer and phones screens and live in the actual world they inhabit. According to Billieux, et.

al (2015), “excessive mobile phone use is now often associated with potentially harmful and/or

disturbing behaviors (e.g., symptoms of deregulated use, negative impact on various aspects of

daily life such as relationship problems, and work intrusion)” and “has generally been considered

as a behavioral addiction that shares many features with more established drug addictions.”

While there are many positives to using and engaging with virtual communities, the potential

drawbacks can have a serious impact on users actual lives.

Virtual Communities and School Libraries

School libraries can use virtual communities as marketing tools, digital calendars, and

forums for discussion. One of the most important aspects of virtual community building,

especially in school libraries, is to develop a plan and measure for success. By utilizing a four

step approach of building a page, connecting with people, engaging the audience, and

influencing friends of fans, libraries can better connect their patrons to each other through the

shared interest of the school library space, programming, and staff (Dowd, 2013). Carscaddon

and Chapman (2013) also provide excellent guidelines for school librarians to build and promote

their library on Twitter. They suggest making a plan, monitoring mentions and chatter about the

library, and utilizing a social media management app like HootSuite or TweetDeck. The virtual

community that a library establishes should be an extension of the physical space and should

promote the library in a digital space. It is a great way to meet patrons in their own virtual

communities and form bonds that may result in increased circulation or utilization of library


The Future of Virtual Communities and Libraries

The landscape of social media and virtual communities is continually shifting, and new

trends and technologies are quickly emerging. Augmented reality and virtual libraries are

becoming more mainstream and will have significant impacts on how the virtual community

chooses to engage with the library. As libraries begin to shift away from print materials and

databases, virtual communities will become the repositories for digital materials and the

platforms to virtual reference interviews. Librarians will be at the forefront of this stewardship

and service, and will likely “see their role becoming one of helping users find paths through

complex content, and directing them towards making useful connections as efficiently as

possible – potentially by merging smart applications and human crowdsourcing, with the smart

component drawing on the human element by using social sources to retrieve information that is

personalized and relevant to a specific user,” (Taylor and Francis 2014).


How Libraries Should Use Social Media

Libraries should use social media to become present in the communities of their patrons

in the digital space those patrons occupy. Since virtual communities are wholly based in a shared

interest, the patrons and the library have a shared interest of gaining and disseminating

information, which can be a strong basis for a virtual community. In the era of “fake news” and

limited library resources, a virtual community formed by and for a library becomes a trusted

source of verified information and knowledge. Also, using social media can present the library as

a relevant actor in the digital world and show that the library as an institution is a willing partner

in ongoing discussions of current events and hot button issues. By casting wide nets and

engaging users online, the library establishes itself as a warm authority on which patrons can


Personal Leadership in Virtual Communities

I am personally quite comfortable with leading social media in my school library. I

currently administer our Twitter account and am the webmaster of our library homepage. We

have made strides in engaging our virtual community by seeking book recommendations via

Google Form and offering program evaluations for our teaching and outreach efforts. Also, we

encourage our patrons and staff to tag the library in their own posts when they think we may

have a vested interest in their reading, writing, or daily lives. Like Dowd suggests, we are

developing a measurement tool to determine the success of our efforts and are eager to continue

the work of building and supporting a virtual community.

Current Trends and Potential Trajectories

As stated above, libraries are becoming more technology based and are suffering from

diminished funding and a declining perception of the need for librarians. An aging workforce

may also become a potential problem in the field as time goes on. However, when looking at the

trends in libraries, the emergence of makerspaces and the maker mindset are given students

hands on experience with new technologies, including 3D printers, coding equipment, and

augmented reality tools. Students are also becoming more aware of technology and seek to

interconnect their learning at school with their peers, their families, and the world. Libraries

stand at the forefront of advocacy for these students and seek to provide access to all children

and patrons, not just those who are privileged or can afford cutting edge technology at home.

Ultimately the outlook for libraries and their use of virtual communities is trending up, and the

future promises to be an exciting time to engage in the work of librarianship.


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Disordered Mobile Phone Use Be Considered a Behavioral Addiction? An Update on Current

Evidence and a Comprehensive Model for Future Research. Current Addiction Reports,2(2),


Carscaddon, L. & Chapman, K. (2013). Twitter as a marketing tool for libraries. In Thomsett-Scott,

B.C. (Ed.), Marketing with Social Media: A LITA Guide. Chicago: American Library


Chen, A. (2018, June 22). The Laborers Who Keep Dick Pics and Beheadings Out of Your

Facebook Feed. Retrieved from

Dowd, N. (2013, September 09). Social Media: Libraries Are Posting, but Is Anyone Listening?

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Levien, R. (2011). Confronting the Future: Strategic Visions for the 21st Century Public

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Shah, S. (2018, June 20). The history of social networking. Retrieved from

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"State of America's Libraries Report 2018", American Library Association, March 30, 2018. (Accessed July 15, 2018)