Social Structures of Online Religious Communities

Social Structures of Online Religious Communities

Jerald Hughes (University of Texas – Pan American, USA) and Scott Robinson (Global Trading Group, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60566-208-4.ch014
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Abstract

This chapter examines interaction-oriented virtual religious communities online in the light of sociological theory of religious communities. The authors find that the particular importance of identity, authenticity and authority in religious communities populating online discussion forums may give rise to special problems online, which are demonstrated here to be direct outcomes of the necessary reliance on information technology to carry out functions of online religious social groups which are intended to correspond to offline religious categories. The authors draw upon both sociological theory of religious communities and information systems theory of computer-mediated communications to identify salient points of similarity and difference between online and offline religious social structures, and conclude that online religious forum communities as presently constituted are unlikely to be able to directly replicate the traditional social structures of the offline religious institutions from which they originated, due to the particular powers and constraints on action embodied in social software.
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Introduction: Religion In Cyberspace

The history of the Internet has repeatedly seen the transference, sometimes successful, sometimes less so, of categories and activities familiar from the pre-Internet world, into cyberspace. Personal mail, for example, been widely adopted as an activity appropriate to the electronic realm; so has gaming, including not just cutting-edge 3D games like World of Warcraft, but also traditional board games such as chess or Scrabble. Online personal auctions have transferred a market model familiar from the offline world of art houses and farm sales to cyberspace, with brilliant success. On the other hand, some models appear to transfer less transparently to the Internet realm. For example, while hard-copy magazines and newspapers in pre-Internet times successfully acquired subscribers willing to pay for content, subscription-based delivery for news content on the Internet has been marked by considerable difficulties in transferring the offline model to the online world—the technological channel through which information was delivered changed the user perception of the transaction taking place. Research has also determined that the technological conditions of computer-mediated communications, the potential for anonymity in particular, can affect human behavior online in ways which affect the usability of online social domains (Davis, 2002). In these latter cases, in which the offline paradigm does not necessarily translate in a straightforward manner to the online world, the potential is present for significantly increased understanding of the specific impacts and import of the information technologies themselves. This paper aims to examine such a case, contemporary attempts to employ offline formal religious categories of personal identity in online social contexts of computer-mediated communications conducted through forum software platforms. In order to understand this particular manifestation of religious activity online, we believe it is useful to examine the intersection of theories from two different disciplines: the sociology of religion, for an understanding of the foundations of religious community, and the information systems discipline, for an understanding of the constraints and powers of the technological components which provide for the possibility of computer-mediated communications. This paper will explore that intersection.

Modern religious life is increasingly taking place online (Pew Internet Research, 2004). More specifically, since the introduction of easy-to-use social software for online text-based user interactions, commonly referred to as bulletin boards or forums, websites hosting persistent conversations specifically aimed at religious topics have appeared, in which adherents of various faiths can affirm their religious identity and participate in religious communities online. In the sections which follow, we will provide information and analysis of some of the issues associated with the virtual communities of users whose loci in cyberspace are the URL’s of the websites hosting threaded discussions on religious topics through the use of forum software. Thus we are addressing the notion of user-to-user interactive “online religion” as opposed to “religion online”, per the distinction proposed by Helland2 (2000). Some of these fora are associated exclusively with specific formal religious institutions, while others are more or less open to the public on a broader range of beliefs associated generally with religious practice.

These online religious communities share characteristics with virtual communities generally:

  • Shared interests – in this case, religious topics;

  • Technology-mediated interactions – microcomputer-based, Internet/browser-based forum software;

  • Guided by protocols and norms – emergent from the interaction of users with the technology (Porter, 2004)

Some important dimensions of difference between different religious forums include:

  • Degree of association with specific religions/sects

  • Formal/Informal nature of protocols and social norms

  • Conditions for access to site or specific site areas

  • Methods of administration

Key Terms in this Chapter

Administrator: In the context of computer systems, including those which support online virtual communities, the ‘administrator’ is one with complete control over all aspects of the system; typically the administrator is the name under which a website is registered, and who bears legal and financial responsibility for it

Asynchronous: In communication, this term refers to channels which can operate with only one member of an interaction present at any time; one leaves a message, and later someone else reads it and perhaps responds; email is asynchronous

Forum: In this context, refers specifically to software which provides an Internet-based public bulletin board, in which mostly text messages are available for anyone to read, organized by topic and tagged with the poster’s online nickname

Computer-Mediated Communication (CMC): Communication channels provided by means of computer systems, such as email, instant messaging, Internet chat rooms, etc; a key feature of many CMC channels is the possibility of anonymous messaging

Synchronous: In communication, this term refers to channels which require both (or all) participants to be present simultaneously, communicating in real time; face-to-face, telephone and Instant Messaging communications are synchronous

Avatar: On Internet forums, an image which represents a particular user; these could be photos of the actual person, altered images, images of celebrities, or of practically any object; in virtual worlds which operate interactively in real time, avatars are animated characters designed in part by the members, using the controls made available by the system host software

Face-to-Face: This term refers to interpersonal communication which takes place in the physical presence of the other person; in other words, NOT via Internet or other electronic channels

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Editorial Advisory Board
Table of Contents
Foreword
Jennifer Preece
Acknowledgment
Stylianos Hatzipanagos, Steven Warburton
Chapter 1
Jon Dron, Terry Anderson
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How the Crowd Can Teach
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Chapter 2
Chris Abbott, William Alder
Although social networking has been enthusiastically embraced by large numbers of children and young people, their schools and colleges have been... Sample PDF
Social Networking and Schools: Early Responses and Implications for Practice
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Chapter 3
Eleni Berki, Mikko Jäkälä
Information and communication technology gradually transform virtual communities to active meeting places for sharing information and for supporting... Sample PDF
Cyber-Identities and Social Life in Cyberspace
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Chapter 4
Werner Beuschel
Weblogs are a popular form of Social Software, supporting personal Web authoring as well as innovative forms of social interaction via internet. The... Sample PDF
Weblogs in Higher Education
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Chapter 5
Mark Bilandzic, Marcus Foth
Web services such as wikis, blogs, podcasting, file sharing and social networking are frequently referred to by the term Web 2.0. The innovation of... Sample PDF
Social Navigation and Local Folksonomies: Technical and Design Considerations for a Mobile Information System
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Chapter 6
Rakesh Biswas, Carmel M. Martin, Joachim Sturmberg, Kamalika Mukherji, Edwin Wen Huo Lee, Shashikiran Umakanth
The chapter starts from the premise that illness and healthcare are predominantly social phenomena that shape the perspectives of key stakeholders... Sample PDF
Social Cognitive Ontology and User Driven Healthcare
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Chapter 7
Jillianne R. Code, Nicholas E. Zaparyniuk
Central to research in social psychology is the means in which communities form, attract new members, and develop over time. Research has found that... Sample PDF
Social Identities, Group Formation, and the Analysis of Online Communities
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Chapter 8
Jillianne R. Code, Nicholas E. Zaparyniuk
Social and group interactions in online and virtual communities develop and evolve from expressions of human agency. The exploration of the... Sample PDF
The Emergence of Agency in Online Social Networks
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Chapter 9
A. Malizia, A. De Angeli, S. Levialdi, I. Aedo Cuevas
The User Experience (UX) is a crucial factor for designing and enhancing the user satisfaction when interacting with a computational tool or with a... Sample PDF
Exploiting Collaborative Tagging Systems to Unveil the User-Experience of Web Contents: An Operative Proposal
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Chapter 10
Utpal M. Dholakia, Richard Baraniuk
Open Education Programs provide a range of digitized educational resources freely to educators, students, and self-learners to use and reuse for... Sample PDF
The Roles of Social Networks and Communities in Open Education Programs
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Chapter 11
Sebastian Fiedler, Kai Pata
This chapter discusses how the construction of an adequate design and intervention framework for distributed learning environments might be... Sample PDF
Distributed Learning Environments and Social Software: In Search for a Framework of Design
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Chapter 12
Yoni Ryan, Robert Fitzgerald
This chapter considers the potential of social software to support learning in higher education. It outlines a current project funded by the then... Sample PDF
Exploring the Role of Social Software in Higher Education
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Chapter 13
Kathryn Gow
This chapter focuses on the identification of a range of competencies that entry level workers, and thus graduating students, will need to acquire... Sample PDF
Identifying New Virtual Competencies for the Digital Age: Essential Tools for Entry Level Workers
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Chapter 14
Jerald Hughes, Scott Robinson
This chapter examines interaction-oriented virtual religious communities online in the light of sociological theory of religious communities. The... Sample PDF
Social Structures of Online Religious Communities
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Chapter 15
Helen Keegan, Bernard Lisewski
This chapter explores emergent behaviours in the use of social software across multiple online communities of practice where informal learning... Sample PDF
Living, Working, Teaching and Learning by Social Software
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Chapter 16
Lucinda Kerawalla, Shailey Minocha, Gill Kirkup, Gráinne Conole
With a variety of asynchronous communication and collaboration tools and environments such as Wikis, blogs, and forums, it can be increasingly... Sample PDF
Supporting Student Blogging in Higher Education
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Chapter 17
Lisa Kervin, Jessica Mantei, Anthony Herrington
This chapter examines blogging as a social networking tool to engage final year preservice teachers in reflective processes. Using a developed Web... Sample PDF
Blogs as a Social Networking Tool to Build Community
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Chapter 18
Jennifer Ann Linder-VanBerschot
The objective of this chapter is to introduce a model that outlines the evolution of knowledge and sustainable innovation of community through the... Sample PDF
A Model for Knowledge and Innovation in Online Education
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Chapter 19
Petros Lameras, Iraklis Paraskakis, Philipa Levy
This chapter focuses on discussing the use of social software from a social constructivist perspective. In particular, the chapter explains how... Sample PDF
Using Social Software for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education
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Chapter 20
Dimitris Bibikas, Iraklis Paraskakis, Alexandros G. Psychogios, Ana C. Vasconcelos
The aim of this chapter is to investigate the potential role of social software inside business settings in integrating knowledge exploitation and... Sample PDF
The Potential of Enterprise Social Software in Integrating Exploitative and Explorative Knowledge Strategies
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Chapter 21
M. C. Pettenati, M. E. Cigognini, E. M.C. Guerin, G. R. Mangione
In this chapter the authors identify the Personal Knowledge Management (PKM) pre-dispositions, skills and competences of the current effective... Sample PDF
Personal Knowledge Management Skills for Lifelong-Learners 2.0
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Chapter 22
Sharon Markless, David Streatfield
This chapter questions whether the shift from the Web as a vehicle for storing and transmitting information to the new Web as a series of social... Sample PDF
Reconceptualising Information Literacy for the Web 2.0 Environment?
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Chapter 23
Catherine McLoughlin, Mark J.W. Lee
Learning management systems (LMS’s) that cater for geographically dispersed learners have been widely available for a number of years, but many... Sample PDF
Pedagogical Responses to Social Software in Universities
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Chapter 24
Alexandra Okada, Simon Buckingham Shum, Michelle Bachler, Eleftheria Tomadaki, Peter Scott, Alex Little, Marc Eisenstadt
The aim of this chapter is to overview the ways in which knowledge media technologies create opportunities for social learning. The Open Content... Sample PDF
Knowledge Media Tools to Foster Social Learning
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Chapter 25
Luc Pauwels, Patricia Hellriegel
This chapter looks into YouTube as one of the most popular Social Software platforms, challenging the dominant discourse with its focus on community... Sample PDF
A Critical Cultural Reading of "YouTube"
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Chapter 26
Ismael Peña-López
The author of this chapter proposes the concept of the Personal Research Portal (PRP) – a mesh of social software applications to manage knowledge... Sample PDF
The Personal Research Portal
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Chapter 27
Andrew Ravenscroft, Musbah Sagar, Enzian Baur, Peter Oriogun
This chapter will present a new approach to designing learning interactions and experiences that reconciles relatively stable learning processes... Sample PDF
Ambient Pedagogies, Meaningful Learning and Social Software
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Chapter 28
V. Sachdev, S. Nerur, J. T.C. Teng
With the trend towards social interaction over the Internet and the mushrooming of Web sites such as MySpace, Facebook and YouTube in the social... Sample PDF
Interactivity Redefined for the Social Web
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Chapter 29
Sue Thomas, Chris Joseph, Jess Laccetti, Bruce Mason, Simon Perril, Kate Pullinger
Transliteracy might provide a unifying perspective on what it means to be literate in the 21st Century. It is not a new behaviour but has been... Sample PDF
Transliteracy as a Unifying Perspective
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Chapter 30
Martin Weller, James Dalziel
This chapter looks at some of the areas of tension between the new social networking, Web 2.0 communities and the values of higher education. It... Sample PDF
Bridging the Gap Between Web 2.0 and Higher Education
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Chapter 31
Steve Wheeler
The use of group oriented software, or groupware, encourages students to generate their own content (McGill et al, 2005) and can foster supportive... Sample PDF
Destructive Creativity on the Social Web: Learning through Wikis in Higher Education
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Chapter 32
Scott Wilson
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Presence in Social Networks
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