Online Communities

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Like the term “community,” no dominant definition of the terms “virtual

community” or “online community” exists (see Jones, 1997 for a history of the

term). Instead, a wide variety of definitions and understandings abound that can

be clustered into three groups. The first, oldest, and broadest use of the term

is as a descriptor of a group of people who share characteristics and interact

in essence or effect only (e.g., Hill et al., 1995). While this definition is logically

coherent, its usage has gone out of fashion, because it is overly broad, and is

therefore not used here. The second way that the term has been used is to

describe computer mediated group-discourse spaces (e.g., Hagel & Armstrong,

1997) or what is referred to here as online community spaces (see the following

section). However, this is problematic as “discourse spaces” and “communities”

are not equivalent. Online community spaces can be “empty” but communities

cannot. Further, while it might be possible to create through programming

a computer-mediated discourse space, it is not possible to program social

interactions. Therefore, online community is not equivalent to online community

space where users interact. It follows then, that it is important to distinguish a

virtual community from its medium or platform through which its users or agents

build social relations. This leads to the third definition of virtual or online

communities used here, as a set of individuals with partially overlapping

personal social networks tied together by computer technology that collectively

provides a sense of belonging. For many sociologists, this follows naturally

from analogy to real communities (e.g., Wellman & Gulia, 1999). From this

perspective, both are based around social networks, although in the case of

online communities they are computer-supported social networks (CSSNs).

Online communities can be “networked communities;” communities whose

interactions are mediated primarily through the Internet (Carroll & Rosson,

2003) with non-geographic affinities leading to shared social ties. They can

also be formed through “community networks” which are computer-mediated

communication systems that aim to support interactions among geographical

neighbors (Schuler, 1994). So online communities may or may not be closely

related to proximate communities. Proximate communities are typically comprised

of individuals that have heterogeneous attitudes, beliefs, and interests.

As such, there are special difficulties with motivating user participation in online

community systems, because in part meaningful affinities between people are

not always readily apparent (Millen et al., 2001).