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Book: Communities in Cyberspace – Ten Years Later

When the late Peter Kollock and I published Communities in Cyberspace with Routledge in 1999 there were few broadband connections, no iPhones, and little WiFi.  Today, there is an ebook version of the book and Amazon sells a version for the Kindle, a device it was hard to even imagine when the book was written.  Google lets you browse most of it and search all of it.  But the key ideas of the volume:  identity, interaction, collective action and emergent order remain relevant in a wireless broadband netbook mobile social network real-time web world.  The book is now ten years old.

I. Introduction

Introduction to Communities in Cyberspace, Peter Kollock and Marc Smith

“Since 1993, computer networks have grabbed enormous public attention. The major news and entertainment media have been filled with stories about the “information superhighway” and of the financial and political fortunes to be made on it. Computer sales continue to rise and more and more people are getting connected to “the Net”. Computer networks, once an obscure and arcane set of technologies used by a small elite, are now widely used and the subject of political debate, public interest, and popular culture. The “information superhighway” competes with a collection of metaphors that attempt to label and define these technologies. Others, like “cyberspace,” “the Net,” “online,” and “the web,” highlight different aspects of network technology and its meaning, role and impact. Whichever term is used, it is clear that computer networks allow people to create a range of new social spaces in which to meet and interact with one another.”

More details from the book…

II. Identity

Identity and deception in the virtual community, Judith S. Donath, MIT Media Lab

“Identity plays a key role in virtual communities. In communication, which is the primary activity, knowing the identity of those with whom you communicate is essential for understanding and evaluating an interaction. Yet in the disembodied world of the virtual community, identity is also ambiguous. Many of the basic cues about personality and social role we are accustomed to in the physical world are absent. The goal of this paper is to understand how identity is established in an online community and to examine the effects of identity deception and the conditions that give rise to it.”

Reading Race Online: Discovering Racial Identity in Usenet Discussions, Byron Burkhalter (UCLA, Sociology)

Writing in the Body: Gender (Re)Production in Cyber Interactions, Jodi O’Brien (Seattle University, Sociology)

III Social Order and Control

Hierarchy and Power: Social Control in Cyberspace, Elizabeth Reid (Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, Communications)

Hierarchies and power on MUDs-the text-based multi-player virtual reality games found on the Internet-rely on the control of players’ abilities to manipulate the virtual environment. Social status on a MUD is linked to a player’s ability to manipulate the virtual components of the system; rewards consist of increased access to such world-manipulating tools. In Power/Knowledge Foucault described an effective form of power as one that enables the powerful to “gain access to the bodies of individuals, to their acts, attitudes and modes of everyday behaviour.” On a MUD, where the physical body is not present, but the virtual body is at the absolute mercy of those who control the system, such power exists. The theatre of authority in a MUD is one which demands and facilitates a strongly dramaturgical element. Underlying each MUD system are cohesive social structures which centre on control and the manipulation of game elements. Every piece of information a player integrates into the MUD universe permits and assures the exercise of power. Speaking and writing-transmitting knowledge-are acts of literal power in the virtual reality of a MUD, and permit the creation of hierarchies of social control.

Problems of Conflict Management in Virtual Communities, Anna DuVal Smith (Case Western Reserve University, School of Management)

This paper explores the sources of conflict and techniques of social control in an open-access, text-based virtual community. It argues that such social systems have the same kinds of opportunities and problems brought by diversity that real communities do, but that unique features of cyberspace make effective conflict management both more important and more difficult. Cases of interpersonal disputes collected during 22 months of participant observation revealed that power strategies of social control were generally counterproductive in managing the conflict that resulted from the multiplicity of values, goals, interests and cultural norms brought by members of the community. As in real life, methods that reconcile divergent interests mediation and factfinding) and adjudicate rights (factfinding and arbitration) appeared to manage issue-based conflicts more effectively. However, their utility and, therefore, the community’s ability to adapt and thrive as an open, goal-directed system depends on member awareness of the program, human resource availability and administration willingness to share power.

IV Community Structure and Dynamics

Net Surfers Don’t Ride Alone: Virtual Communities as Communities, Barry Wellman & Milena Gulia (University of Toronto, Sociology)

Invisible Crowds in Cyberspace: Measuring and Mapping the USENET , Marc Smith (UCLA, Sociology)

The Economies of Online Cooperation: Gifts and Public Goods in Cyberspace, Peter Kollock (UCLA, Sociology)

V Collective Action

The Promise and the Peril of Social Action in Cyberspace: Ethos, Delivery, and the Protests over MarketPlace and the Clipper Chip, Laura J. Gurak (University of Minnesota, Rhetoric)

In April 1990, Lotus Development Corporation announced a product called MarketPlace: Households. MarketPlace was to be a direct mail marketing database for Macintosh computers and would contain name, address, and spending habit information on 120 million individual American consumers. After MarketPlace was announced, computer privacy advocates began investigating the product. Although most of the data contained in MarketPlace was already available (data was provided by Equifax, the second largest credit reporting agency in the United States), privacy advocates felt that MarketPlace went beyond current standards for privacy protection. Having the data so readily available to a mass market of personal computer users extended the existing network of information sources in the US, including credit profiles, grocery store checkout scanning systems, and government files. Furthermore, the data was provided on the non-correctable media of CD-ROM; therefore, if an entry was in error, it could not be corrected. And although Lotus did include certain privacy protection measures when designing the product, privacy advocates were not convinced.

From Lotus’s first announcement until months after it canceled the product, the Internet was full of discussions about MarketPlace; soon, debates about the privacy implications of MarketPlace and suggestions for contacting Lotus began to circulate. People posted Lotus’s address and phone number, the email address of Lotus’s CEO, and also gave information about how to request that names be removed from the database. Some people posted “form letters” that could be sent to Lotus. Notices were forwarded around the Internet, re-posted to other newsgroups, and sent off as email messages. In one case, a discussion group was formed specifically to discuss the product. As a result of the Internet-based protest, over 30,000 people contacted Lotus and asked that their names be removed from the database. The product, which had been scheduled to be released during the third quarter of 1990, was never released. In January 1991, Lotus issued a press release announcing that it would cancel MarketPlace: Households. In the end, many acknowledged the role of networks in stopping the release of MarketPlace. Some subsequently called it “[a] victory for computer populism” (Winner).

Electronic Homesteading on the Rural Frontier: Big Sky Telegraph and its Community, Willard Uncapher (University of Texas at Austin, Communications).

This chapter provides an overview of an ethnography exploring the introduction of a low cost computer mediated conferencing and communication system into the rural Montana one room school system and develops a framework based on the conflicts between the material economy using information technology to organize global economies of scale and an online gift economies and social scale to explore the informatization of rural communities. The paper proposes that we should not limit our analysis of online communities simply to online behavior.

Based on interview, site visits, and an extensive collection of secondary materials, primarily between January 1988 when Big Sky Telegraph first went online, and January 1990, the research provides a case study of the way social, cultural, economic, and pre-existing communication arrangements come to frame the uses of the new technology, even as they are transformed by them. Not all communities are transformed equally, and those users, such as rural teachers and women wanting to change their lives provided a base of new users, while the ranching and farming community was more circumspect. The social differences would impact not only online behavior, but how behavior gets online, and even how the borders between these worlds are imagined.

Cyberspace and Disadvantaged Communities: The Internet as a Tool for Collective Action, Christopher Mele (State University of New York at Buffalo, Sociology)

This chapter recounts the collective action of an organized group of African-American women residents of Jervay Place, a low-income housing development in Wilmington, North Carolina, and their use of online communication to attempt to challenge not only the immediate issue of adequate housing but their position within the unequal power relationship between African-American women and white elite-dominated institutions. In the case of Jervay, collective action emerged in response to the housing authority’s exclusion of residents as agents in the planning for the site’s future. Their efforts at mobilization and resistance and the reactions of the housing authority were particularly embedded in the local and historical context of power and race. Ultimately, in order to challenge the unilateral decisions of the housing authority effectively, resident determined it was necessary to circumvent the local customary (paternalist) forms of interaction that have long existed between disenfranchised African-Americans and local political and social institutions. Use of online communication afforded the women an opportunity to operate outside the local and exclusive pathways of information, discourse and social action controlled by the institution of the housing authority. In a broader sense, their grassroots networking activities online subverted longstanding local articulations of power. The chapter concludes with a discussion of the implications of online communication for mediation of historically unequal relations between disadvantaged groups and social institutions.

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