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Virtual Community

In 1988, when everybody thought the only people who would use computers to communicate were adolescent boys with complexion problems, I witnessed some heart-touching acts of spontaneous support and charity—people raising tens of thousands of dollars to help parents struggling with a sick child, shifts organized to sit and read to a dying comrade, and other instances where flesh-and-blood humans reached through the computer screens and changed each other's lives. I wrote on "Virtual Communities" for Whole Earth Review , and five years later published The Virtual Community . Since then, I've been involved in public discussions in person, in print, and online about whether a community can truly be virtual, whether that metaphor debases the meaning of community, whether we are changing the nature of community itself by using e-mail and discussion groups online. Those debates forced me to look into the literature about community; a term that has been hotly debated for over a century, and that turns out to be harder to define than one would think.

Even if I had had the foresight to see the virtual community metaphor's deep influence, I probably would not have been able to persuade my book editor to let me use a title like People Who Discuss Things Online and Form Relationships and Groups That Resemble Community in Some Important Ways But Differ in Others. That's the beauty of metaphor: it packs a lot of meaning into a small number of symbols. But that packing process doesn't include the actual entire phenomenon the metaphor describes. In particular, when a metaphor attempts to reify human relationships, to make a dynamic process into a concrete, unchanging thing, what the metaphor fails to describe can be as important as what it imparts.

In the fifteenth century, news was a social event: When someone walked into town, everyone gathered to find out what was happening up the road. Broadsides turned reading into a private event, eroding a part of European village life. Printing put villagers in touch with broader groups they had not identified with before. People who didn't speak the same language or live anywhere near each other began to join together, to go to war over ideas promoted by the millions of copies of Martin Luther's work. The Protestant Reformation brought together what Benedict Anderson called "imagined communities," and which I would be tempted to call "virtual communities."

The changes we initiate regarding tools and communications have grown increasingly abstract, and have increasingly disruptive impacts on what had been former models of "community." Alphabets, printing presses, broadcasting stations, Web sites, virtual communities, all extend our minds, disrupt old forms of community, create new ways to relate, remove us further from the concrete world, and make possible empires, weaponry, medicine, democracy, metropolis, agriculture.