From Virtual Communities to Project-Driven Mediated Collectives: A Comparison of Debian, Wikipedia and the Open Directory Project

From Virtual Communities to Project-Driven Mediated Collectives: A Comparison of Debian, Wikipedia and the Open Directory Project

Christophe Lejeune (Université Libre de Bruxelles, Belgium)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-61520-841-8.ch002
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The lay notion of a virtual community is not satisfactory as, strictly speaking, depicted phenomena (Internet-coordinated collectives) are neither communitarian nor virtual. Moreover, the idiom embraces too wide a range of situations. For these reasons, we propose the narrower notion of mediated collectives. Previous ethnographies of Debian, Open Directory and Wikipedia help to define the notion based on empirical observation.
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The notion of virtual community was not created by researchers. It came from the relevant actors, in other words the people actually involved. Such a vernacular idiom has to be defined before it can be embodied in scientific concepts (Pareto, 1935; Mounin, 1995). This can be achieved in two ways. Either it is considered a vernacular label2. This implies that the researcher must describe precisely how the actors define the notion; this way of defining a notion is specific to social sciences (whose subjects include languages and cultures). Otherwise the notion becomes a professional concept, whose content is defined by the researcher3. The terms alone are not enough. In the case of virtual communities, no such terminological task has yet been achieved.

The following sections deal with the two separate terms that make up the idiom.


The term virtual was coined by IBM when it introduced a virtual memory device. This subsequently led to the creation of such idioms as virtual reality and virtual community (Rheingold, 1991; Rheingold, 1993).

Virtual communities are social aggregations that emerge from the Net when enough people carry on those public discussions long enough, with sufficient human feeling, to form webs of personal relationships in [...] the conceptual space where words, human relationships, data, wealth, and power are manifested by people using CMC [computer mediated communication] technology. (Rheingold, 1993)

Despite this original definition, the notion remains vague. One of its common sense meanings is similar to simulation. According to this meaning, the virtual is opposed to the reality. A second meaning describes how, with cognitive artifacts, information is no longer attached to a support; the virtual then refers to disembodiment, as opposed to materiality. A third (philosophical) meaning defines the virtual as what could be actualized. As a matter of possibilities and becomings, the virtual is then opposed to the actual (Deleuze & Parnet, 2002).

Some Internet analysts oppose the virtual to categories. According to them (Lévy, 1998; Lévy, 2000), categories are about frontiers, whereas the virtual is about crossing barriers. Categories thus resemble clear-cut and impermeable containers or classes that delimit, divide or enclose. Inherited from the past, they are structures that determine history once and for all. Reticular ideology (Parrochia, 1993) breaks with such a tradition: interactions are more likely to actualize on-line, in an open, liberated way, similar to the horizontal, immanent, continuously moving relations enabled by hypertext.

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