Though we are the guests here of the Web Based Communities conference, I want to raise some impertinent questions about the concept of web communities. Though the word is now more ubiquitous than ever, I argue that this concept is not fertile anymore. To put it bluntly: this is not a community 2 neither this 3, nor this 4 But let's start at the beginning. 5 VC def Since the eighties of the last century the emergence of social gatherings by computer– mediated communication have been observed, on bulletin board systems and on the early Internet. In 1987 Howard Rheingold already coined the term "virtual community" but it became really popular in 1993 with his book The Virtual Community. From then the term really took off, along with Internet itself. Basic in Rheingold's definition were public debate and personal relations: "Virtual communities are social aggregations that emerge from the Net when enough people carry on those public discussions long enough, with sufficient human feeling, to form webs of personal relationships in cyberspace." This remained the core, though the definition had been extended. A virtual community came to be defined as a localized social aggregation on the Internet, gathering at a collective place, having a core of recurrent users with a shared interest, engaged in on ongoing group communication, and so developing its own shared values. 6 VC as metaphor That we imagine and experience a set of messages on a screen as a living community is invoked by a sense of place. This is facilitated by two things: 1) software and protocols (such as usenet, IRC, webforums) 2) a strong metaphor, that of community. The software produces a gathering space, represented and hold together on the screen, as list, as page, or as forum. The community metaphor reinforces the sense of place. This metaphor is derived from the image of a pre-modern village, with clear borders, and a strong social cohesion. The notion has nostalgic connotations, but its import to the Internet really worked. In the early nineties the community metaphor served to highlight the communicative and social bonding capacities of computers. Which was necessary, since at that time computers were mainly conceived as cold calculation machines.

The concept of virtual community was also associated with idealism and bottom-up democracy, but eventually this utopian aura dissolved. What remained is the association with a virtual collective space and a group of recurring visitors. The concept of virtual community even survived the dot-com hype and its crash, and today, in the midst of a new hype, it is stronger than ever. I mean the hype of Web 2.0. 7 WEB 2.0 A few years after it's first mentioning Web 2.0 is still the latest thing on the Internet. The Web 2.0 discourse suggests a new kind of culture: a participatory culture, marked by collective intelligence, sharing and linking principles, user added value, the wisdom of the crowds, and, of course, communities. Typical 2.0 sites are Flickr (sharing photo's), YouTube (sharing movies), Del.icio.us (sharing bookmarks), MySpace (sharing friends and interests), and weblogs (sharing diaries and links). Important is that all this sharing is not just publicizing as a selfcontained product; Web 2.0 is about making things public as semi-autonomous entities, to be handled across websites by scripts. But the acts of sharing, linking and tagging are up to the users. Hence, Web 2.0 is all about user participation, linking and sharing, giving away your digital stuff, your comments, your tags, your data. This massive sharing suggests a final victory of the idea of communities. And indeed, unmistakably something social is happening here. Patterns and clusters emerge, patterns of popularity, of hypes, of groups and personal networks. But: should we call these aggregations communities? Should we stick with that metaphor? Metaphors are mighty things. They are productive – their creative blending between formerly distinct domains produces new ways of perceiving and acting. But they also tend to acquire a life of their own. Metaphors tend to condensate, to become reified as one thing instead of a relation between two things. The map tends to replace the territory, so to speak. Reified metaphors render inconceivable their constitutive elements. When a map replaces the territory, we loose sight of the territory itself, and of the specific fabrication of the map. I argue this has happened with the concept of virtual community. The notion is no longer a metaphor for specific digital-social assemblages, but for any assemblage. Any trace of social gathering online is called a community, any virtual space for customer's complaints, any forum or grouping of data. And, as could be expected, Web 2.0 sharing and linking tends also to get subsumed under the notion of community.

8 Web 20 com are no com But meanwhile a few things have profoundly changed. In the software, and in the social organization of communication. Again, this is related to virtual space. What Web 2.0 software basically does, is dissolving the page as a unit of collective gathering. While Web 1.0 was build up by HTML-pages, accessible by their unique URL, Web 2.0 pages consist of several semiautonomous entities, each having their own URL. These entities may be be movies, photo's, blog posts, or profiles, and each of these may be composed of other data entities: title, date, author, tags, comments, et cetera. A Web 2.0 page is thus aggregated on the fly, by reassembling data from databases. The beauty of the web as platform is that URL's are public things, out there to grab: they can be taken up and reassembled again – by search engines, by comparison sites, by plug ins, by blogs, by RSS-feeds, by other application layers. Seen from this software perspective, Web 2.0 is more about data entities interacting with each other than of users interacting with each other; more about information snippets than communication lines. Of course, there is communication on Web 2.0. Communication is ubiquitous, as all kinds of communication software can be integrated and personalized – mail, chat, guest books, forums, blogs. Yet, the sum of these disparate public and private communications does not equal a virtual community. Web 2.0 in fact lacks two of the Rheingoldian basic ingredients for a virtual community. First, there is no common collective place of gathering provided by the interface – instead there are millions of distributed micro-spaces with ever shifting borders, millions of floating personal MySpaces and hyperlink clusters. These microspaces are not isolated, they are connected in multiple ways, and there is definitely something social going on, but not as virtual community at a perceivable virtual place. And second, there is no ongoing debate between a recurrent group of users who share a collective interest – instead there are thousands of coming and going microdebates between ever shifting users. Again, not isolated but connected, and surely social and valuable, but not in terms of virtual community. The fuzzy spaces and floating fragments on Web 2.0 are so hyper-virtual and volatile that they even go beyond virtual spaces. In short, the community metaphor is exhausted here. We need other concepts or metaphors to frame what is going here. If we keep using old reified maps, we might miss precisely what makes this territory special.

9 The Web 2.0 metaphor When looking for other metaphors, we should not forget that Web 2.0 is in itself a metaphor. It is derived from the field of software releases: a version 2.0 is a fundamental upgrade of version 1.0, and the urge is to update. It also suggests an integral package, and though a software release needs not necessarily be commercial, it certainly has a shade of branding and marketing. The Web is of course not a software package from the shelve, but it is surely about code and scripts. Most intriguing about the Web 2.0 metaphor is that it focuses on software as such. This is rare in Internet metaphors; most of them lead our attention away from software – as with electronic highway, or virtual community – but this one foregrounds it. And it claims a fundamental difference between the software of 1.0 and 2.0. As we have seen, the difference lies in data snippets, scripts and databases. In fact this shows how the metaphor of the page, imported from the domain of print and books, is dissolved. Web 2.0 shows that the age of the page is over, that there are other forms of digital-social space construction, criss-cross assembled on the fly. Data clouds, created primarily by data bases, not by page metaphors. What we don't see is what else is in the databases, what they process in the back office, and how they may be connected to other databases. Behind the public Web 2.0 there is a dark secret data web. The digital-social assemblages thus constructed might be remediating our lives and thoughts more than the metaphorized assemblages we call communities. In this deep database domain we not only lack the vocabulary to grasp what is happening, we are often not even aware that something is going on. Perhaps we should take the software metaphor of Web 2.0 more serious, and scrutinize it beyond the level of the interface and its so called communities.

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