What are virtual communities? By definition, virtual community are just groups of people who congregate on the internet around certain medium. But at the same time it is so much more. Online communities are a cornerstone of the currently internet landscape. These communities bring like minded people together, create a gratuitous amount of content and have their own subcultures. So how do these virtual communities come together? There are many different forms of online communities. There are basic forums, which is just a message board that people can post threads of discussion and have a chat. There are gaming communities that enjoy the same online games, there are specialty community that is dedicated to a single topic, and there are community that follows no specific topic but gather like minded people anyway. There are special chat rooms that require specific log in conditions to view, and special mailing list that locks out all outsiders.
When I was in high school, 7-8 years ago, I bought a new computer game called Dawn of War, by Relic Entertainment. Having played the exciting and complex game, I found that I had very little idea of how to play well and win the game. So I typed into the google search box “Dawn of War Strategies Guides” and found myself becoming part of an online community that i still participate in even today.
The Relicnew Forum was a message board dedicated to the games created by the company Relic, where fans got together and veterans shared their knowledge with new players, I was more than surprise at the time by simply the amount of information that was collected. There were thousands of threads of discussion, and many posters going back and forth about every aspect of the game. Even today, 8 years after I started to play the game, and after the release of 3 expansions and a sequel that made the original game obsolete, if you need information about the game, whether it’s strategy, technical details, or modifications, relicnews forums still remain one of the biggest depository of information about the game.
This illustrate one of the most important aspect of virtual communities, that they collect and archive information that and skills, ensure that it is passed on to the next generation within the community, and disseminate them. Tradition, subculture and skills can remain within a virtual community for a very long time, as the original owner share it with newcomers, who in turn passed it on to the next generation. Since virtual communities tend to perpetuate itself, information and skills can be kept alive long after their original owner have passed on. The oldest online community, the WELL(Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link) has been in operation since 1985 and is still going strong even today.
“There is nothing quite like The WELL, and the secret has a lot to do with its evolution. Stewart Brand and Larry Brilliant founded the Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link in 1985, starting with a dialog between the fiercely independent writers and readers of the Whole Earth Review. This set the tone for the playful intellectual and social gathering that continues today. Over the years, WELL members have made fast friends, created enduring traditions, gathered casually face-to-face in cities ’round the world, and provided mutual support. They have founded organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Craig’s List, and documented what was emerging in books like Howard Rheingold’s The Virtual Community, John Seabrook’s Deeper, and Katie Hafner’s The WELL. They have gone into business together, fallen in and out of love, cultivated feuds, taken kickass vacations together and enriched lives.
The WELL social experience continues to evolve and surprise.”
Why is online community important? The collaboration of like minded people tends to produce a great deal of content, through vigorous discussion, ambitious collaborative projects or just great sense of community. The most important aspect of this is the fact that these content are user generated, meaning that it is self correcting, self updating and tend to be self perpetuating without continued input from any individual people. For companies, communities create contents to increase the firm’s web presence, and act as word of mouth advertising to a create deal of people worldwide, all at no cost to the company. For interest groups, these communities brings together talents and contributors from around the world, where knowledge is shared, efforts is pooled and tend to generate a self perpetuating pool of knowledge that is not lost with its original owner, and it can nurture and support new comers to the community.
When can online communities be bad? Once again, because the congregating effect, for every productive community, you tend to get some negative communities. Recently, Australian police shut down a child pornography ring that hid within IRC rooms and direct file sharing. A bit further back, LolSec, a group of hackers wrecked havoc on the internet and pulled high profiled attacks against public targets. What allowed these groups to pull off these things is in fact the collected knowledge from existing communities. In the end, it is the participant in the community that exposed the member of LulzSec and allowed the government to quickly arrest them. If we are to look back further, another famous hacking case, mafiaboy was also recruited and taught in a community chat-room, where he learned most of his tricks from better established hackers. It can be seen that some communities are in fact very dangerous. There are instructions freely available for homemade explosives if you just ask in certain chat-rooms, if the Chicago marathon bomber had access to those, they could have made their bombs magnitude more powerful. Terrorist organizations utilize these communities to recruit new members and distribute training and propaganda. Online communities can and have caused a great deal of harm to society as well, but do the positives outweigh these harms?
Online Communities will be a bit part of the future landscape of the internet. It is extremely important for government to establish policies to ensure that the positives flourish and the negatives stay far underground.