Some Research Challenges for Studies of Virtual Communities Using On-Line Tells

Some Research Challenges for Studies of Virtual Communities Using On-Line Tells

Chris Kimble
DOI: 10.4018/jvcsn.2010100102
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This article reports on a study of learning and the coordination of activities in a geographically distributed community (a research consortium) using survey / Social Network Analysis methods combined with interviews. This article comments on and expands some of the important issues that were raised. After outlining the wider context, it highlights two broad themes related to research in the area of Virtual Communities: the nature of the communities themselves and the way in which they are studied. Following this, four areas for future research are outlined: the continuing role of face-to-face communication in Virtual Communities; the significance of the dual nature of such groups; the importance (or otherwise) of the structure of such communities; and the role played by exogenous factors. The article concludes with some comments on where this field relates to the debate among social theorists about the role of agency and structure in human activities.
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2 Two Broad Research Questions Relating To Virtual Communities

Before looking at the issues raised by Dimitrova and Koku's article, it is perhaps worthwhile to step back and look at some of the more general problems faced by research into Virtual Communities. Exactly what do we mean by Virtual Communities and what are the most appropriate ways to study them? Although the questions might seem banal, pausing for a moment to reflect on these issues will help to highlight some of the key difficulties that are faced in attempting to examine the themes for future research that are contained in the following section.

2.1 What is the Nature of Such Groups?

People working together as geographically distributed groups is not a new phenomenon as such, however the explosive growth of digital technologies, and the communications revolution that followed (Cairncross, 1997; McLuhan & Powers, 1989), opened the door to the myriad of “new organisational forms” that can be found in the current literature. Although the term “Virtual Community” only came into popular use about a decade ago following the publication of Howard Rheingold's book (Rheingold, 1993), this new concept has been quickly accepted and has become part of everyday life (Sayago & Blat, 2010). The notion of “Virtual” working has become commonplace.

Although the notion of Virtual Communities may be commonplace, this does not mean that it is fully understood. While co-located, face-to-face groups have been the topic of study and conjecture for many years, their similarities to, and differences from, “Virtual” groups is far from clear. For example, although many of the early studies of Virtual Communities focused on the issue of identity (Bruckman, 1993; Turkle, 1995), understanding how the sense of identity that characterizes the “esprit de corps” of co-located groups (who share the same experiences in the physical world) translates to the virtual world (where the nature of the shared experience is much less tenuous) remains vague.

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