Development of IT and Virtual Communities

Development of IT and Virtual Communities

Stefano Tardini (University of Lugano, Switzerland)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60566-014-1.ch048
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Abstract

The notion of community is pivotal in the sociological tradition. According to Nisbet (1966), “the most fundamental and far-reaching of sociology’s unit ideas is community” (p. 47). Yet, it is not easy to define what a community is. Though in everyday life the concept of “community” is widespread, nonetheless this concept is very problematic in scientific reflections, partly because of its strongly interdisciplinary nature. As long ago as 1955, Hillery could list and compare 94 different definitions of “community,” finding only some common elements among them, such as social interaction, area, and common ties. Generally speaking, a community can be defined as “a group of persons who share something more or less decisive for their life, and who are tied by more or less strong relationships” (Cantoni & Tardini, 2006, p. 157). It is worth noticing here that the term “community” seems to have only favorable connotations. As observed in 1887 by Ferdinand Tönnies, the German sociologist who first brought the term “community” into the scientific vocabulary of the social sciences, “a young man is warned about mixing with bad society: but ‘bad community’ makes no sense in our language” (Tönnies, 2001, p. 18; Williams, 1983). Two main ways of considering communities can be singled out: 1. Communities can be intended as a set of people who have something in common, and 2. Communities can be intended as groups of people who interact. The distinction between the two ways of conceiving a community is very well illustrated by an example provided by Aristotle. In his Politics (3.1.12), the Greek philosopher tells that, when Babylon was captured by an invading army of Persians, in certain parts of the city the capture itself had not been noticed for three days. This is the reason why Aristotle considers Babylon not a polis, but an ethnos. In fact, according to Aristotle, what distinguishes the polis, that is, the perfect form of community (see Politics 1.1.1), from the ethnos is the presence of interactions and communications among the citizens. In a polis citizens speak to each other, they interact and communicate, while in an ethnos they just have the same walls in common. In the sense of the ethnos, we speak, for instance, of the community of the linguists, of the community of Italian speaking people, of the open source community, and so on. The members of such communities usually do not know each other, they do not communicate each with all the others, but they have the perception of belonging to the community, they are aware of being part of it. According to Cohen (1985), such communities are symbolic constructions. Rather than being structures, they are entities of meaning, founded on a shared conglomeration of normative codes and values that provide community members with a sense of identity. In a similar way, Anderson (1991) defines the modern nations (the Aristotelian ethne) as “imagined communities”: [They are] imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellowmembers, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion. […] In fact, all communities larger than primordial villages or face-to-face contact (and perhaps even these) are imagined. (pp. 5-6)
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Introduction

The notion of community is pivotal in the sociological tradition. According to Nisbet (1966), “the most fundamental and far-reaching of sociology’s unit ideas is community” (p. 47). Yet, it is not easy to define what a community is. Though in everyday life the concept of “community” is widespread, nonetheless this concept is very problematic in scientific reflections, partly because of its strongly interdisciplinary nature. As long ago as 1955, Hillery could list and compare 94 different definitions of “community,” finding only some common elements among them, such as social interaction, area, and common ties.

Generally speaking, a community can be defined as “a group of persons who share something more or less decisive for their life, and who are tied by more or less strong relationships” (Cantoni & Tardini, 2006, p. 157). It is worth noticing here that the term “community” seems to have only favorable connotations. As observed in 1887 by Ferdinand Tönnies, the German sociologist who first brought the term “community” into the scientific vocabulary of the social sciences, “a young man is warned about mixing with bad society: but ‘bad community’ makes no sense in our language” (Tönnies, 2001, p. 18; Williams, 1983).

Two main ways of considering communities can be singled out:

  • 1.

    Communities can be intended as a set of people who have something in common, and

  • 2.

    Communities can be intended as groups of people who interact.

The distinction between the two ways of conceiving a community is very well illustrated by an example provided by Aristotle. In his Politics (3.1.12), the Greek philosopher tells that, when Babylon was captured by an invading army of Persians, in certain parts of the city the capture itself had not been noticed for three days. This is the reason why Aristotle considers Babylon not a polis, but an ethnos. In fact, according to Aristotle, what distinguishes the polis, that is, the perfect form of community (see Politics 1.1.1), from the ethnos is the presence of interactions and communications among the citizens. In a polis citizens speak to each other, they interact and communicate, while in an ethnos they just have the same walls in common.

In the sense of the ethnos, we speak, for instance, of the community of the linguists, of the community of Italian speaking people, of the open source community, and so on. The members of such communities usually do not know each other, they do not communicate each with all the others, but they have the perception of belonging to the community, they are aware of being part of it. According to Cohen (1985), such communities are symbolic constructions. Rather than being structures, they are entities of meaning, founded on a shared conglomeration of normative codes and values that provide community members with a sense of identity. In a similar way, Anderson (1991) defines the modern nations (the Aristotelian ethne) as “imagined communities”:

[They are] imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion. […] In fact, all communities larger than primordial villages or face-to-face contact (and perhaps even these) are imagined. (pp. 5-6)

Borrowing the linguistic terminology of structuralism (de Saussure, 1983; Hjelmslev, 1963), the two different typologies of communities can be named “paradigmatic” and “syntagmatic.” The former are characterized by similarity: members of paradigmatic communities share similar interests or have similar features. The latter, on the contrary, are characterized by differences: they are built up through the combination of different elements that carry out complementary functions, that is, through the succession of concrete interactions among the members (Tardini & Cantoni, 2005).

Key Terms in this Chapter

Social Networking Services: Online services that focus specifically on maintaining social relationships and on building new ones for whatever purpose.

Avatar: A virtual representation of a person in a virtual environment.

Cyberculture: The form of culture that emerges by users’ interactions in virtual environments. Since its origin, it has become subject of scientific studies that focus in particular on the features of virtual communities and virtual identities.

Computer Mediated Communication (CMC): Interpersonal communication that takes place by means of networked computers.

Multiuser Dungeons (MUD)/Multiuser Virtual Environments (MUVE): Virtual environments to which more users can be connected simultaneously in order to explore them, interact with one another, and operate according to the environments’ rules.

Web 2.0: Evolution of the World Wide Web that aims at enabling user participation on the Web and at recruiting a large number of users as authors of new content.

Virtual (Online) Communities: Groups of people to whom interactions and communications mediated by ICT play an important role in creating and maintaining significant social relations.

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