Sociology of Virtual Communities and Social Software Design

Sociology of Virtual Communities and Social Software Design

Daniel Memmi (University of Quebec in Montreal, Canada)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60566-384-5.ch045
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The Web 2.0 movement is the latest development in a general trend toward computer-mediated social communication. Electronic communication techniques have thus given rise to virtual communities. The nature of this new type of social group raises many questions: are virtual communities simply ordinary social groups in electronic form, or are they fundamentally different? And what is really new about recent Web-based communities? These questions must first be addressed in order to design practical social communication software. To clarify the issue, we will resort to a classical sociological distinction between traditional communities based on personal relations and modern social groups bound by functional, more impersonal links. We will argue that virtual communities frequently present specific features and should not be assimilated with traditional communities. Virtual communities are often bound by reference to common interests or goals, rather than by strong personal relations, and this is still true with Web 2.0 communities. The impersonal and instrumental nature of virtual communities suggests practical design recommendations, both positive and negative, for networking software to answer the real needs of human users.
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The Web 2.0 movement consists in powerful social trends as well as technological innovations. This recent phenomenon is in fact but the latest wave in a wider evolution toward computer-mediated social relationships conducted over the internet. Ever since the 1980s, computer networks and the applications they support have greatly enlarged our capacity for social linking. E-mail, data transfer, chat rooms, forums, and more recently the World Wide Web, wikis, social networking software (to name a few important applications) have enabled us to manage virtual relationship at a distance and across social circles, thus considerably widening the potential range for social links.

The nature of Web 2.0 has been formulated in a well-known text (O’Reilly, 2005) as a new generation of software applications fostering collaborative activities on the internet. It consists mostly in web-based, interactive communication and social networking software (such as MySpace, Facebook or Orkut), photo and video sharing systems (Flickr, YouTube), general techniques such as wikis and blogs, as well as popular commercial sites (Amazon, eBay). We should also mention virtual worlds like Second Life. Social networking is often the primary motivation, but social linking may also be associated with software originally designed for sharing texts or images, or may take place as a side-effect of any collective activity on the web.

We will not attempt a general analysis of techniques available and their various features, whether they belong to the first internet generation, or to Web 2.0. It should be sufficient to mention that specific techniques are either synchronous (e.g. chats) or asynchronous (e-mail, social networks), and mostly one-to-one (e-mail), one-to-many (blogs) or many-to-many (forums, wikis, social networks). They may share text, images, and music, or emphasize social relations and community building, but we will be mostly interested here in the type of virtual social relationships these techniques give rise to.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Online Community: Specific virtual community linked by internet or web-based communication and interaction.

Goal-Oriented Task: Objective task which can be performed without apparent emotional involvement or personal relationships.

Social Network: Structure of links in a social group, by extension specific software designed to manage and foster social relations (social networking software)

Collaborative Work: Performing tasks by working together toward common goals, with help of appropriate communication techniques

Virtual Community: Social group without physical contact or geographical base, usually united by computer-mediated communication

Gemeinschaft: (German) sociological term for small traditional densely-linked community.

Intimacy and Trust: Extent of personal disclosure implying confidence in others, levels vary widely with different types of relationships

Gesellschaft: (German) sociological term for larger, sparser, more impersonal modern group

Personal Bond: Strong, stable personal relationship with marked emotional involvement

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