Online Virtual Communities as a New Form of Social Relations: Elements for the Analysis

Online Virtual Communities as a New Form of Social Relations: Elements for the Analysis

Almudena Moreno Mínguez (Universidad de Valladolid, Spain) and Carolina Suárez Hernán (IE Universidad, Spain)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60566-650-1.ch022
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The generalization of the new information technologies has favored the transformation of social structures and the way of relating to others. In this changing process, the logic of the social relationships is characterized by the fragility and the temporality of the communicative systems reciprocity which are established “online” in a new cybernetic culture. “Virtual communities” are created in which the interaction systems established by individuals exceed the traditional categories of time and space. In this manner the individuals create online social webs where they connect and disconnect themselves based on their needs or wishes. The new online communication technologies favor the rigid norms of the “solid society” that dilute in flexible referential contexts and reversible in the context of the “global and liquid society” to which the sociologists Bauman or Beck have referred to. Therefore the objective that the authors propose in this chapter is to try new theoretic tools, from the paradigms of the new sociology of technology, which let them analyze the new relational and cultural processes which are being generated in the cultural context of the information global society, as a consequence of the new communication technologies scope. Definitely the authors propose to analyze the meaning of concepts such as “virtual community”, “cyber culture”, or “contacted individualism”, as well as the meaning and extent of some of the new social and individual behaviors which are maintained in the Net society.
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Towards A Meaning Of “Virtual Community”: A New Study Object In The Information Society

The social dimension is one of the natural attributes of the human being, which must be understood as an individual person in interaction with a relational environment. Group, communities and culture are concepts which approach us to the man study in its complex network of social interaction as a social system. In this sense the plural evolution and interaction of the communities and the institutions as well as the forms of social relations and communication have shaped the history of humanity.

The community has been defined as a study object and subject from varied approaches, which comprise from the primitive forms of social association to the complex relationships of the post-industrial society in which the concept “virtual community” has emerged.

From the sociological point of view, community is a concept with a polysemous value, but as a global idea it responds to the anthropologic imperative of the social encounter and the need to create a sense and give shape to the human society. A possession feeling consolidates in it, understood as a psychological community feeling, in which one feels oneself as an active group member, which is decisive for the individuals own identity. Likewise, the feeling of a participation conscience and the link to a common territory are fundamental aspects (Gurrutxaga, 1991) (Pons Díez, J.; Gil Lacruz, M; Grande Gascón, J.M., 1996). The community is a network of social links, that can be based on a territory (a city), on common interests (associations, clubs) on similar characteristics of the individuals (Bar Association) or on an online platform (blogs, etc). Definitely, the community is an analytical category which defines human interaction as a constituent of the social reality, redimensioning the individual as a socialized person in a specific group, with social and symbolic representations and cultural values. Besides a social and anthropological approximation, we can consider the community as a context of action which contributes to the generation of realities based on symbolic truss.

The globalization and informationalization process has generated the transformation of our societies, including the space dimension. In such transformation the new space logic is characterized by the domination of a flow space, structured in electronic circuits that link themselves in the strategic nodes of production and management, which exceeds a space of places locally fragmented and the territorial structure as a way of daily organization. This new dimension takes us towards a Global City, understood as a “net of urban nodes of different levels and different functions, spreading all over the planet and that functions as the nervous center of Informational Economy. It is an interactive system to which companies, citizens and cities have to adapt themselves constantly. “(Castells, 1997: 2).

The Information Technologies are the fundamental instrument that allows the new logic of the social relationships to demonstrate themselves in reality. In them, Internet constitutes one of the most outstanding cases of the growing technological environment whose result has been the step from the Industrial Society to the Information Society (Cornella, 1997).

In the full expansion of Internet, the virtual communities are becoming a new social relationship format where the different communities turn to it to satisfy expectations and needs, to contribute its collaboration and to feel themselves as part of a great community. Unlike the Traditional Community, these impersonal spaces are characterized by the anonymity and the lack of human contact. These new relationship forms are giving way to a media society produced by a change of the social rules, by the capacity of transmitting ideology or by inducing behavior; definitely, by the generalization of a mass culture extensible to all social classes and communities. This turned Internet into a virtual community as means to unify the communications (Sánchez Noriega, 1997).

Key Terms in this Chapter

Virtual Communities: Virtual community is a community whose bonds, interactions and social relationships are not produced in a physical space but in a virtual one as Internet. Investigators like Rheingold define the virtual communities as social groups that emerge from the Network [Internet] when sufficient people establish social communication and interchange networks characterized by the relative space stay and based in a feeling of belonging to a group, to form links of personal relationships in the cyberspace. Three main elements of the social and communication relationships converge under this definition: the reciprocity, the relational affective component and the interactivity time.

Cyber Cultural Revolution: It is the social and cultural transformation process generated by the use of new communication technologies. The multimedia revolution has several ramifications in which Internet has a central place, but where other digital networks coexists. Under sociological terms it is about the coexistence and slow displacement of the Homo sapiens, product of the written culture, to the digital homo, who worships the new communication technologies. Definitely, it is about a transformation process of the social and communicative structures through which the daily consumption habits and the human relationships moved about gradually from the daily spaces of the social interaction to the virtual spaces of social relationships created by the new information technologies.

Society Network: It is a sort of advanced social organization based on technological communication networks. The networks are made up of nodes and links that use a plurality of paths to distribute the information from one link to another. This society auto regulates itself through even governance hierarchies and power distribution. In this sense, Castells states that “we are passing from the information society to the networks society”, where each one of the users is a node of different networks that exchange by means of the use of the information technology.

Cyber Culture: Is a new culture form (symbolic group of values, beliefs and rules that give sense to the social action) that is emerging, due to the use of the new communication technologies. Therefore, the cyber culture is an extension of the traditional concept of culture that brings together the set of human relationships mediated by the information control mechanisms through the different technological communication systems. This turns the communicative process into more fluid and flexible social relationships and in many cases distant from the traditional space-temporal categories.

Smart Mobs: It is a collaborative social dynamics made up of persons able to act jointly in order to achieve common objectives when they even know each other. The persons who perform these strategies called Smart Mobs, collaborate in a new context and under circumstances where the collective action was not possible before, thanks to the use of new communication tools and data development.

Online Socialization: It is the process through which the individuals internalize and learn the rules and values of a specific social and cultural context through the virtual relational spaces that are created on the online network. This concept is displacing the former socialization concept, as the new technologies create new virtual socialization spaces beyond the family, the educational system and the labor market. These new online socialization contexts do not refer to a specific space and time but in many cases they are created spontaneously and overlapped on the network arising virtual learning and socialization communities.

Connected Individualism: It is about a term coined by Wellmann (2002) in which the individual operator of his/her network is important, rather than the household or work unit. It is called network individualism—where technology users are less tied to local groups and are increasingly part of more geographical scattered networks. From the sociology point of view it is an expression about the “new liquid and individualized society” referred to by Bauman and Beck, according to which the individuals are more and more determined for the great social structures and therefore they are more owners of their individual destinies thanks to the communication possibility and customized relationship that facilitates the new information technologies.

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