February 1997



Communities Exist in Cyberspace

by John December

You'd think I were crazy if I suggested that the set of people using telephones world-wide constituted a community. You'd point out that national telecommunications agencies, such as the FCC in the United States, work to insure--or at least give the appearance of assuring--fairness in access, pricing, and accessibility. To say that the set of all telephone users constitutes a "community" is like saying that toasters foster a brotherhood/sisterhood of bagel eaters.

But then, why, do we assume there is a community of online users? The whole implication of this special issue--even of the term Netizen itself--is that people form relationships online--some private, some public--that together constitute a public space.

[]Shade reviews Stephen Doheny-Farina's most recent book about the nature of virtual communities.

[]Weinreich rejects the idea that Netizenship represents membership in any community.

People online have demonstrated a keen ability to pursue relationships, create artifacts rich in meaning, and take part in complex online interactions. The resulting fabric of human activity gives rise to social practices. And these social practices give rise to affinities, preferences, and all the chaos that people create in their activities and expressions.

For many of those accustomed to online communication, these social bonds may seem obvious. They are formed from communication that may be as casual as conversations on the bus, in a hallway, or on the street corner. You might never think that this kind of communication would need protection.

But online communication depends on a technological medium for its existence. So it is no surprise that the existence of online communities is made most apparent precisely when threats to the integrity of the online medium occur. For example, the users of America Online brought a lawsuit against that online service because they could not access their accounts. The recent case of the United States Congress attempting to limit free speech rights also raised howls of protest from Internet users.

Will a silicon curtain fall across countries whose governments are afraid of the Net?

In countries throughout the world, there are some governments that seem very uneasy about allowing free communication on the Internet. Hong Kong, for example, is near the end of its time as a British colony, and about to become a special administrative area of China on July 1, 1997. While China has been remarkably restrained in regulating the Internet within its borders--mostly because Net access is relatively rare among its more than one billion citizens--will the Beijing government crack down on a colony that is very much wired right now? I don't think Hong Kong, or any large group of people who share an identity--national or cultural--and communicate online would take lightly the revocation of their access to the Internet. In fact, the very act of censoring or limiting online communication itself would, in my view, give rise to stalwart protest which would (ironically) strengthen the bonds of affinity within the threatened online communities.

The key, then, is self-awareness and self-organization: the stubborn tendency of people to exploit the online medium so that it becomes part of their way of protesting. This demonstrates to me that online communities do exist and that there is meaning to the word Netizen.

John December's ( most recent book is The World Wide Web 1997 Unleashed (Indianapolis:, 1997).

Copyright © 1997 by John December. All Rights Reserved.

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