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<cyberville> and the Spirit of Community: Howard Rheingold-Meet Amitai Etzioni
You are on a roadway with many exits. You pass off-ramps that say: shopping district, university, library, town hall, the cracker barrel, government services, bank, church, and more. Although you are hurtling down the highway at at the speed of light, you somehow still have time for reflection as to where you are going and what you will do once you reach your destination or destinations. You unconsciously note the sign that you passed mere nanoseconds ago: <cyberville.next.n.exits>. You are traveling down the information superhighway, and some say that there exists a virtual community just beyond the verge.
When Howard Rheingold asserts that "whenever [computer mediated communications] technology becomes available to people anywhere, they inevitably build communities with it" (Rheingold 6), he is making a statement that demands examination. Community, after all, is a term that has been bandied about in recent years, perhaps as a result of the recent emphasis on its importance as promulgated by communitarian advocates such as Robert Bellah, and Amitai Etzioni, editor of The Responsive Community, the journal of communitarian thought. Etzioni, a professor at George Washington University, is perhaps the best known representative of the modern communitarian movement, having written numerous articles as well as an agenda for the movement, The Spirit of Community (1993), which explains the communitarian position-as well as rationale-on a number of issues where rights and responsibilities might appear to come into conflict.
Howard Rheingold, on the other hand, is a self-described former hippie and member of the "granola-eating crowd." He became involved in the computer conferencing group, the WELL in 1985, as a natural outgrowth of his involvement with the Whole Earth Catalog, the bible of serious counter-culturists during the 1960s. He is an acknowledged lay expert on the social and cultural implications of cyberspace, and has written extensively on the subject, mostly for the popular press. His most recent book, The Virtual Community (1993), has been cited as an authoritative source of information regarding the potential for the National Information Infrastructure (Katz, Schwartz, Weise).
I have attempted to determine the communitarian criteria for community from Etzioni's _The Spirit of Community_, as well as from the writings of James Fishkin and Evan Schwartz, who have written on the issue of community in cyberspace. While none of these communitarian authors commit to providing a taxonomy of community, much can be inferred from their writings. I have inferred certain determinants of community from their writings and compare them to characteristics that Rheingold suggests exist
in cyberspace (and meet his criteria for community). The characteristics that the communitarians assert as being required for a community are shared interests, shared values, caring and nurturing, discourse, and a moral voice. We will first examine these characteristics and then see if these characteristics do, as Rheingold suggests, exist in cyberspace.
The characteristic of shared interests.
Webster defines community as "a body of individuals organized into a unit or manifesting usually with some awareness some unifying trait," and we often speak of the legal or medical communities-communities defined by occupation; indeed, work-based communities have become part of our national vocabulary. Although less frequently encountered, we sometimes hear of a community of luthiers (stringed-instrument makers), model airplane enthusiasts, or motorcyclists; reference to ethnic communities abound, as well as to communities of minority or protected groups.
Is physical proximity critical to this interest-based paradigm of community? Not according to Etzioni: "there is room for nongeographic communities that criss-cross the others, such as professional or work-based communities" (Etzioni 32). He goes on to explain that, "they fulfill many of the social and moral functions of traditional communities . . . " and workers ". . . often develop work-related friendships and community webs. . . . As they learn to know and care for one another, they also form and reinforce moral expectations" (Etzioni 121). Even in cases where community is defined by ethnicity, geographic proximity is not required. As Etzioni states,
In some instances members of one ethnic group live comfortably next to one another, as in New York City's Chinatown and Miami's Little Havana. In other cities ethnic groups are more geographically dispersed but sustain ethnic-community bonds around such institutions as churches and synagogue, social clubs, and private schools. (Etzioni 120)
The characteristic of shared values.
Etzioni asserts that shared core values are another component of community. He lists the values of commitment to democracy, the Bill of Rights, and respect for other groups, as being basic to the United States community, and further asserts that, "constituent communities can follow their own subsets of values without endangering the body society, as long as they accept these shared values" (Etzioni 157).
The characteristic of caring and nurturing.
Etzioni admits that typically, a community "is a place in which people know and care for one another-the kind of place in which people do not merely ask 'How are you?' as a formality but care about the answer" (Etzioni 31).
The characteristic of discourse.
Is discourse an important characteristic of a community? If we accept that democracy should be a basic component of the shared or core values of a community, then the conditions for deliberation or conversation becomes mandatory. In a deliberative setting, "citizens can exchange reactions, voice and receive rival arguments, and test their opinions against those expressed by others" (Fishkin 14).
The characteristic of a moral voice.
"Communities speak to us in moral voices. They lay claims upon its members," asserts Etzioni (31), of his requirement of rights and responsibilities for members of a community. It is this willingness to accept the requirement of service in exchange for rights that provides the underlying glue that keeps the community together. Members of a community must speak out when they perceive immoral behavior. "The disinclination to
lay moral claims undermines the daily, routine social underwriting of morality" (35).
<cyberville> and Computer Mediated Communications (CMC).
For the purposes of this paper, I have chosen to call my virtual community <cyberville>, adhering to the convention that textual references to CMC be in courier typeface and often set off by <> symbols. <cyberville> exists in cyberspace, the place-name created by science-fiction writer William Gibson (Neuromancer) to describe the "conceptual space where words, human relationships, data, wealth, and power are manifested by people using CMC technology" (Rheingold 5).
Also for purposes of this paper, I will depart somewhat from Rheingold's example of virtual community, the WELL (Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link), the computer conferencing system around which his book is based, to include the entire Internet. Thus, when quoting Rheingold's statements and assertions, while some may be specifically about the WELL, they will be equally applicable to the 'Net.
About the 'Net and <cyberville>
In other papers I have written on the subject of the Internet I have related its history , and will not repeat it here. However, there are several aspects of its growth that should be mentioned, primarily in the areas of BBSs and Usenet discussion groups. BBSs, or electronic bulletin boards, were among the earliest manifestations of non-technical persons using CMC to facilitate discussions around topics of mutual interest. Usenet was created in 1979 by students at Duke University and the University of North Carolina so that they could exchange information via modem at regular intervals. The universe of Computer Mediated Communications users has expanded exponentially to the point where it is
technologically accessible to an ever-more-mainstream populace. This population has grown "from a priesthood in the 1950s, to an elite in the 1960s, to a subculture in the 1970s, and to a significant, still growing part of the population in the 1990s" (Rheingold 68).
<cyberville>: a community of shared interests.
There can be no question but that a plethora of shared-interest groups exists and proliferates on the 'Net. In fact, its earliest genesis is owed to special-interest groups that grew up around CMC and its concomitant disregard for geographic distance, mostly on subjects directly related to computers and computing. Today, far from being confined to hackers and other devotees of arcana, Usenet offers as many as 5,500 discussion groups on subjects ranging from television, movies, and comic books to every stripe and hue of pet, politics, religion, sex, and rock-and-roll. One can find discussions about Rush Limbaugh alongside critiques of Noam Chomsky's writings. One criticism often leveled against Usenet is the fact that many of its threads of conversation are infantile, sometimes anarchic. Although not always the case, there is enough truth to the accusation to lend some validity to its critics. For those who seek more formalized and scholarly forums, there are the listservers, which are interest groups usually revolving around work-related themes. "Humanist", for example, is an extremely scholarly (some might say "stuffy") listserve that unites philosophers in the United States and on all continents. PACS-L is composed of librarians and those who love and would promote libraries. There are roundtables consisting of civic journalists and communications professionals as well as a little-used communitarian listserver. Mostly these groups post job bulletins, conference announcements, and discussions regarding the latest controversy to impact their group. I will speak further about these groups and Usenet in a following section on "discourse".
"Virtual communities are social aggregations that emerge from the 'Net when enough people carry on these public discussions long enough, with sufficient human feeling, to form webs of personal relationships in cyberspace" (5 Rheingold).
Even then, it is not unknown for people who have forged relationships in cyberspace to extend those relationships to real life (IRL: "in real life").
<cyberville>: a community of shared values.
It would not, I think, be overstating the case, to assert that the residents of <cyberville> share certain common values. To use an example of Rheingold's, regarding the WELL, it was comprised of "the Whole Earth [Catalog] crowd-the granola-eating utopians, the solar-power enthusiasts, the space-station crowd, immortalists, futurists, gadgeteers, commune graduates, environmentalists, social activists" (Rheingold 48). The Last Whole Earth Catalog (1971) described these values in its Statement of Purpose":
We are as gods and might as well get good at it. So far remotely done power and glory-as via government, big business, formal education, church-has succeeded to a point where gross defects obscure actual gains. In response to this dilemma and to those gains a realm of intimate, personal power is developing-power of the individual to conduct his own education, find his own inspiration, shape his own environment, and share his adventure with whoever is interested. Tools that aid this process are sought and promoted by the Whole Earth Catalog. (1)
But that is not to say that other groups on the 'Net do not also share values. Especially as regards the listservers mentioned supra, most groups share some common thread of value that has attracted and kept their
members. For example, participants in PACS-L believe in the value of public libraries, and the public's access to them; and, members of CIVJOUR-L, believe in an active role for journalists in the polis; in addition, there is a communications roundtable for professionals in the field of communications, discussing the value of communications in the public interest. In <cyberville> , as in any other community, "a core of people must flat-out believe in the possibility of community and keep coming back to that amid the emotional storms in order for the whole loosely coupled group to hold together at all" (Rheingold 53).
<cyberville>: a community of caring and nurturing.
Rheingold makes much of the caring nature of his community, and relates the story of the actions of a fellow member of a Parenting subgroup of which they were both members upon the revelation that his child had been diagnosed with leukemia. Immediately
the Parenting regulars, who had spent hours in this conference trading quips and commiserating over the little ups and downs of life with children, chimed in with messages of support. One of them was a nurse. Individuals who had never contributed to the Parenting conference entered the conversation, including a couple of doctors who helped Phil and the rest of us understand the daily reports about blood counts and other diagnostics and two other people who had firsthand knowledge, as patients suffering from blood disorders themselves
Over the weeks, we all became experts on blood disorders. We also understood how the blood donation system works, what Danny Thomas and his St. Jude Hospital had to do with Phil and Gabe, and how parents learn to be advocates in the medical system without alienating the caregivers." (Rheingold 23)
The child's illness, by the way, went into remission shortly thereafter.
I have also been the recipient of the largess of my fellow residents
of <cyberville>. When, on more than one occasion, I have had the need for advice or information, be it school-related, job-related, or something as mundane as the lyrics to a badly remembered song, I have received it almost immediately and without hesitation. I have also provided the same to those in need. In fact, just prior to my taking the GED exam recently, I was browsing a Newsgroup for graduate students, and came upon a question from a Canadian student regarding admission into US universities. I was able to and did answer her query, just one small payback for the many times that I have received help from my fellow citizens of <cyberville>.
<cyberville> might also be more inclusive than other communities. For example, "people whose physical handicaps make it difficult to form new friendships find that virtual communities treat them as they always wanted to be treated-as thinkers and transmitters of ideas and feeling beings, not carnal vessels with a certain appearance and way of walking and talking (or not walking or not talking)" (Rheingold 26). Thus, citizens of <cyberville> might reach a utopian goal of equality before those in real life.
<cyberville>: a community of discourse.
"At its heart, democracy is about citizens reaching decisions through argument and debate," Rheingold asserts (Weise). Elsewhere, he characterizes the Internet as "the electronic agora", after the Athenian marketplace, "where citizens met to talk, gossip, argue, size each other up, find the weak spots in political ideas by debating about them" (Rheingold 14). If we accept this premise, that democracy is arrived at through discussion and debate, then the truest picture, I believe, of democracy at its most basic can be found in an institution known as Usenet. Comprised as of this date of discussion groups on over 5,500 subjects, Usenet "newsgroups" are often raucous, freewheeling, seemingly anarchistic free-for-alls of vigorous discourse and debate. Although newsgroups are arranged hierarchically according to whether they are more
in keeping with discussions regarding societal, cultural, or scientific emphasis, the rubric alt.politics.* ("alternative topics on political issues"), alone, offers the following tantalizing laundry list of subtopics:
• • • • • • • • • • • • • •
drinking age economics republican conservative libertarian elections homosexuality org.misc (Political organization) Perot radical-left reform sex ("Blue Laws") socialism.trotsky usa.constitution (Issues)
Although a moderator will sometime mitigate the acrimony of the various participants of groups dedicated to such topics as Ross Perot, Libertarianism, Scientology, Abortion (pro and con), Save-the-Earth, or Pave-the-Earth, and though - notwithstanding my previous characterization of the groups as being untidy and uncivilized - the overwhelming majority of the groups and their participants do tend to behave themselves. In this manner, these forums can be - and often are - comparable to college "bull sessions", where thoughts and ideas are flung far out into areas normally off limits to "serious" students.
Indeed, the anonymous nature of pure cybertext allows a degree of freedom from presupposition and stereotype often absent in other forms of discourse. In cyberspace, one reveals one's true gender, race, or
abilities only by choice. A favorite Doonesbury arc of mine has Mike Doonesbury "flirting" via the 'Net with a person whom he believes to be a female. It is only later that we (although not Mike) discover that his opposite number is actually Mark, a college chum of his, who has recently realized that he is gay. The fact that they (as do many Internet users) have each adopted a pseudonym also helps keep the anonymity going.
Because it has been suggested that there are significant differences between the manner in which men and women utilize the resources of the Internet (Kantrowitz, Katz), several forums on the Internet (PACS-L among them) are currently addressing this issue. There has also been much discussion as to the acceptance and utilization of new technology by our nation's senior population, which tends to be far more conservative insofar as acceptance of new forms of technology are concerned. This is also a current subject of discussion on the 'Net. It is of no little concern that some groups may be excluded from the conversation, and although there is a recognition of the potential problem, it has not yet been resolved.
In discussion groups such as I have described, geographic limits do not exist. An issue must be highly parochial if it is not engaged in simultaneously by participants on at least three continents. European, Canadian, and English as well as Australian voices routinely take energetic and informed part in "American" discussions. And, lest there be concern that only a few "elites" among American citizens will be able to take advantage of this emerging technology, consider that computers are already in 23 million homes and that 55 percent of Americans use them at work. As the proliferation of technology advances throughout our society from VCRs to ATMs - can home computers be far behind? Or, for the more skeptical egalitarians among us, many city and county governments are exploring the means toward developing an information infrastructure with placement of terminals in public places for enhanced community access. (Schuler)
<cyberville>: a community with a moral voice.
Although I've taken pains to admit the anarchic nature of the Internet, an overarching morality, I contend, does exist, much of it based in custom. Its codification can be found in a document called "netiquette", which is located in the newsgroup news.announce.newusers, and at various other sites on the 'Net. This document suggests one's ideal behavior on the 'Net. For example, one should not enter a discussion unless one has at least learned a bit about it in advance, often by reading a FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) statement posted on the group. One should not interrupt a conversation with inappropriate postings, nor should one post all in upper case-it is the Internet equivalent of SHOUTING. One should never repost private email without the author's permission. And, one should never advertise on the Internet. This last, I believe, epitomizes a core value among the citizens of <cyberville>, i.e., that gross commercialism has no place in the virtual community. As an illustration of the moral voice of the <cyberville> community speaking out against a transgression against its values, I offer the following true story: In April of 1994 an Arizona couple, attorneys, ignoring the anti-commercial value-system of the 'Net, posted an advertisement for their legal immigration services on "every active bulletin board on the Internet-some 5,500 in all-thus ensuring that it would be seen by millions of Internet users, not just once but over and over again" (Elmer-Dewitt 51). Simultaneously, Dewitt continues, from all over the world, Internet users expressed their displeasure by "flaming" the attorneys; that is, sending megabytes of vituperate email to their Internet mailbox . So many angry messages were sent that, ultimately, their host closed their Internet account. The values that were transgressed, I believe, were (1) that citizens' privacy should be respected on the 'Net, and (2) mindfulness of the community's limited common resources (in this case the available disk space allocations of the users' accounts).
Similarly, individuals who behave inappropriately on an individual group are liable to be flamed, the cybernetic version of being censured.
The author has been subject to flaming after he posted what was felt by others to be an inappropriate question to alt.philosophy.objectivism. Another form of censure in the Usenet is through "kill-filing," whereby any member can designate that a certain author's postings not appear in his mailbox nor on his screen. This would be equivalent, I might suppose, to being shunned or sent to Coventry-an expression of disapproval of one's actions.
<cyberville>: a community of rights and responsibilities.
With the exception of those restraints on individuality which find their expression in 'netiquette, described supra, the Internet, as has been asserted, is rather anarchic. As long as one behaves oneself and comports oneself in conformity with accepted norms, one has pretty much the right to do anything that one wishes. However, as a member of a group, one is expected to contribute in certain ways. One of the most basic is posting to the discussion: in listserve groups if one fails to join the discussion and contribute to the mosaic of discourse, one is likely to find oneself dropped from the list. This is because these groups are, by and large, forums for serious dialog and debate, and freeloaders are frowned upon. On many bulletin boards, one's access time is determined by the number and quality of postings that one contributes to the BBS: the more postings, the longer one is allowed to remain online, using the community's resources. In addition, moderators or facilitators perform the function of keeping discussions moving and dynamic.
There is also an "informal, unwritten social contract", that requires that information discovered in niches or nooks of <cyberville> be shared with those who have an interest in, or could make good use of it. The ability to forward information to one or thousands of fellow citizens with a mere keystroke, makes the hoarding of information an antisocial act. "This informal, unwritten social contract is supported by a blend of strong-tie and weak-tie relationships among people who have a mixture of
motives and ephemeral affiliations. It requires one to give something, and enables one to receive something" (Rheingold 57).
<cyberville>: perhaps not for everyone.
Periodically the concern is voiced that the proliferation of CMC will lead to greater atomization of the populace, as the need and desirability for face-to-face encounters diminishes. I know: I've voiced those concerns myself. Notwithstanding the preceding philosophical exercise, I am still of a divided mind as to whether <cyberville> is a place that we all can-or should-live in. If we posit that the concept of community can be reduced to a taxonomy of abstractions, then, yes-<cyberville> meets the criteria and is thus a community in every sense of the word.
But the feeling that the human condition requires face-to-face interaction persists. After the recent California earthquakes, officials suggested that as many people as possible "telecommute" to their jobs, to avoid freeway traffic on the damaged arterials. In some parts of the country-particularly the Northeast-telecommuting is becoming increasingly popular as more and more professions involve the manipulation of data, a process which can be performed anywhere. Will this lead to greater disconnectedness among people, or will it lead to greater communion by allowing us to spend more time in our geographic communities and with our families?
Another concern might be caused by our love affair with technology. Blind worship of technology can be as insidious as the Luddite position that all technology is evil and destructive. As Rheingold himself admits,
Many people are alarmed at the very idea of a virtual community, fearing that it is another step in the wrong direction, substituting more technological ersatz for yet another natural resource or human freedom. These critics often voice their sadness at what people have been reduced to
doing in a civilization that worships technology, decrying the circumstances that lead some people into such pathetically disconnected lives that they prefer to find their companionship on the other side of a computer screen. There is a seed of truth in this fear, for virtual communities require more than words on a screen at some point if they intend to be other than ersatz. (23)
Rheingold is asserting that community requires more than mere passive receptacles of cybernetic input, and that personal stakes and personal involvement-responsibilities-are required in order to create communities in cyberspace. And, as Evan Schwartz points out in an upcoming issue of The Responsive Community, "for many people the choice seems to be between a very good simulation of community and no community at all; that choice makes virtual community look attractive indeed."
What is the answer, then? Is a virtual community better than no community at all? I assert that the answer is a qualified "yes." Temporary residence in <cyberville> allows us to broaden our intellectual horizons and interact with groups of people in arenas that may not have been accessible heretofore. It provides us with templates by which we can hone our moral voices: transgress in cyberspace and the moral voice of the community will let you know it! Through conversation around the cybernetic cracker barrel, we might stand a better chance of coming to democratic judgment than we might otherwise, being restricted to a communities based solely upon geography and work. If we have elected to join a community that fosters nurturing and caring, a support group may exist that can lend a virtual hand in times of crisis and turmoil. No matter where one lives, one is almost assured of "meeting" others who have shared interests and-yes-values.
My major caveat is that we should resist the temptation to accept this new vision of community uncritically. The social sciences have not yet advanced to the point where we can say "this is good for the human condition, this is valuable, this is what makes us human" with absolute certainty. However, neither should we reject the idea of virtual communities out of hand. I contend that <cyberville> , like Las Vegas, is
a nice place to visit, but one probably wouldn't want to live there. Occasional trips to <cyberville> for friendship, work, information, discussion, clarification, amusement and entertainment, are fine and good. And, if we see a virtual community as the least of the Chinese nesting boxes which Etzioni uses as a metaphor, in which "less encompassing communities . . . are nestled within more encompassing ones . . . which in turn are situated within still more encompassing communities" (32), there may be some value in their designation as communities. However, we should still view them with a skeptic's eye.
I wrote the foregoing in 1994 as a class assignment at UNLV’s Institute for Ethics and Policy Studies, under the guidance of Dr. Alan Zundel. At the time, Netscape Navigator and the future ubiquity and relevance of the World Wide Web were known to but a few thousands in the technological community, and I certainly was not among that group. For that reason the paper seems dated, naïve, and a bit precious. In preparation for resubmitting the paper to various websites, I have made the following changes only: • • • • Formatted it in MS Word as well as PDF Made a few spelling and grammar corrections Attempted to remove as many line breaks as possible Otherwise, it remains just as I wrote it in 1994
However, I believe that my conclusions regarding the atomizing effects of <cyberville> should be weighed along with its bonding effects—the Internet is a null, neither good nor evil—and should be so considered. Roger Scimé (November 13, 2010)
Elmer-Dewitt, Philip. "Battle for the Soul of the Internet." Time 25 July 1994: 50-56.
Etzioni, Amitai. The Spirit of Community: Rights, Responsibilities, and the Communitarian Agenda. New York: Crown, 1993.
Fishkin, James S. "Beyond Teledemocracy: 'America on the Line'". The Responsive Community. Volume 2, Issue 3, Summer 1992.
Kantrowitz, Barbara. "men, women & computers." Newsweek 16 May 1994: 48-55. Katz, Jon. "Hackers 1, Media Elite 0. Online Readers Bite Back." New York 30 May 1994: 16-19.
Portola Institute. Inc. The Last Whole Earth Catalog. Menlo Park, CA: Random House, 1971.
Rheingold, Howard. The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier. Reading. MA: Addison-Wesley, 1993.
Schuler, Doug. "Community Networks: Building a New Participatory Medium." Communications of the ACM January 1994: 39-51.
Weise, Elizabeth. "Cyber philosopher predicts bright future for Internet." Las Vegas Review-Journal, 26 June 1994: 14B.