Firstly I would like to thank the organisers for inviting me to speak at this conference to present my paper to you. The paper that I am presenting to you today is titled, “Social change in organic and virtual communities: An exploratory study of Bishop Desires”, in which I propose that social change occurs in both organic and virtual communities as a result of individuals experiencing desires.
No one could talk about social change and virtual communities without mentioning that famous case study by Christopher Mele, published in 1997. In this case study Mele illustrates how virtual communities can be used as tools for collective action and empowerment by drawing attention to how the organic community of Robert S. Jervay Place in North Carolina, USA underwent radical change through the use of the Internet.
Residents in Robert S. Jervay Place used virtual communities to bring together architects and lawyers specialising in affordable housing and were able to design a physical community that met their requirements.
As my paper suggests, individuals achieve social change as a result of experiencing desires. At the Post Cognitivist Psychology conference last year I identified five desires that an individual experiences in their use of virtual communities, these being social, creative, existential, order and vengeance.
Social desires were identified because virtual communities are inherently social spaces, and nearly all users will participate through posting messages or taking part in chat sessions. Indeed, Rhiengold (2000) describes ‘the social Web’ in which people like him participate as a result of being driven by their longings to participate. The ‘creative’ category was included because many actions in virtual communities are carried out to solve problems or create content. Existential desires were identified because despite the environment being computer-mediated, virtual community members will still experience desires to carry out actions such as eating and drinking, which will have an effect on their interactions in these environments. Order desires were identified because Internet users carry out actions such as organising bookmarks, rearranging pages and specific members such as leaders may desire to take control of a situation, such as when members are flaming each other in a chat session. Leaders may also experience an order desire if a bulletin board goes off-topic and will carry out actions to bring it back to the original topic. Vengeance desires were identified because virtual community members are known to be more aggressive than those from traditional communities, carrying out actions such as flaming, and posting negative feedback on other community members for purposes of revenge. Indeed, Smith (2001) describes how some virtual community members that have been banned from the community will return with new identities to harass other individuals, disrupt the community and challenge the authority of leaders.
In the paper I’m presenting to you today I suggest that each of these five universal desires have opposites, which although not universal can also be seen to exist in virtual communities. The opposite of social desires are anti-social desires, which can include posting offensive messages, known as flaming, where the intent is to offend someone. The opposite of creative desires are destructive desires, where the intent is to obliterate something virtual, the opposite of existential is thanatotic, where the intent of the individual is to cause harm to themselves, the opposite of order is chaos, where the intent is to create havoc or disrupt community life, and the opposite of vengeance is forgiveness, where the intent is to forgive someone for something they did.
In my paper I decided to explore the Scriptures for evidence of these desires, as well as carry out a case study of a website that could be considered to be an virtual community and that is Wikipedia, which is an open source encyclopaedia that can be edited by anyone. Wikipedia has the potential to be a vehicle for social change, but because of the sort of desires that occur in that community it probably will not realise that potential.
In my opinion, for Wikipedia to be a vehicle for social change it needs to meet three criterions; the impetus criterion, greenhorn criterion and the harmony criterion.
The impetus criterion means that social change can only occur if individuals are able to develop desires to participate. In my paper I suggest that there are at least three ways in which an actor can develop desires, including through picking up resonances from other actors, through picking out cognizances in their thoughts and through perceiving affordances in artefacts. We can see in the Scriptures that desires occur as a result of these processes as in Genesis 3:1-5 where Eve develops a desire to eat fruit after interacting with the serpent. Wikipedia makes it very difficult for desires to develop this way through not having any form of synchronous or asynchronous chat where individuals can discuss and develop ideas so as to develop creative desires. However Wikipedia does encourage participation through allowing individuals to experience perceived affordances and develop desires to participate that way, such as through having clearly visible ‘edit this page’ links. The desires that Wikipedia seems most able to initiate are order desires, where an individual develops a goal to edit an article because it is not ordered in the way they believe it should be. These desires can result in constructive change, though in some case, such as when someone suggests an article should be deleted, destructive changes. Perhaps the worst examples of such order desires is where a novice posts an article and then a regulars either radically modifies the article or suggests that it should be deleted, which brings me on to the greenhorn criterion.
The greenhorn criterion means that social change can only occur if everyone is welcome to contribute and their contributions themselves are welcomed, whatever their level of computer knowledge. Wikipedia claims to be an encyclopaedia that anyone can edit, but does it really welcome edits from novices? There is some attempt to nurture novices in that on the novice’s ‘talk page’ leaders will post messages welcoming the novice to the community and suggest ways in which they can continue to make edits. However, edits made my novices are often reverted by regulars acting out what could be considered to be unconstructive order desires. In my paper for example, I highlight one case where a novice makes an edits and this edit is reverted by someone with a different interpretation of what a neutral point of view is. This can lead the novice to develop a belief that their edits will be reverted, which brings me on to the harmony criterion.
The harmony criterion means that social change can only occur if those taking part don’t develop negative beliefs that lead them to not want to participate. It can be seen in Wikipedia that individuals will develop beliefs that making a contribution may not be welcomed, as someone else will revert it, or worse, ask that their article be deleted. Such beliefs create dissonance when the individual has a desire to contribute and develops a plan to do so, which means they are likely to experience temperance and not contribute. Dissonance is not always a bad thing, as can be seen in the Scriptures, where in Genesis 3:1-7 Eve holds a belief that she will die if she eats the fruit, and although this belief was changed by the serpent, this could have led her to experience temperance and not eat the fruit. For virtual communities to meet the harmony criterion they need to allow an actor to act out a desire, such as a creative desire, without experiencing much dissonance. The risk with Wikipedia is that novices will develop beliefs that their contributions will be reverted, whilst regulars will continue to revert the edits the novices make, making it difficult for Wikipedia to meet both the greenhorn criterion and the harmony criterion.
Based on these three criterions, Wikipedia is perhaps not a vehicle for social change, but there are things that can be done to make it so. In my paper I suggest five guidelines for virtual communities:
Guideline 1 – Make artefacts explicit in their meaning
Artefacts in virtual environments, particularly mediating artefacts, can lead actors to experiencing cognizances or Joinder Desires, which lead them to do them to do things such as dragging and clicking. In order for virtual communities to be designed to encourage actors to develop constructive desires developers need to ensure that artefacts are explicit in their meaning. In a paper I presented to the Internet Technologies and Applications Conference last year I found that a graphic that displayed a movie was more likely to be clicked on if it contained a sign that depicted that meaning.
Guideline 2 – Provide spaces for actors to act out their social desires
One of the desires that an actor is most likely to develop in any virtual community is a social desire. Actors are more likely to develop these desires if there are spaces for them to act them out. Through providing facilities such as message boards, chat rooms or editable social spaces as Wikipedia does, virtual communities can encourage actors to develop constructive social desires and act them out.
Guideline 3 – Provide the tools for actors to act out their creative desires
Another constructive desire that an individual will develop in a virtual community is a creative desire. To enable actors to act out these desires virtual communities should provide the tools, such as the capability to edit a page or construct and post a message, something that Wikipedia does well.
Guideline 4 – Provide facilities for actors to act out or displace their less constructive desires
While taking part in virtual communities, an individual is likely to experience less constructive desires such as vengeance, chaos and destructive desires. Providing facilities for actors to act out or displace these desires can be one way of a community managing them. For example, Wikipedia provides ‘talk pages’ for each member, on which actors can pose questions or leave feedback on an actors who may have acted out a desire that they feel is non-constructive, such as the desire for order. Such a facility allows an actor to displace their vengeance desires so that instead of taking a retaliatory action they discuss the issue and resolve it, leading to more constructive desires such as creative and forgiveness.
Guideline 5 – Provide clear guidance as to which desires are allowed to be acted out and which are not
Certain desires that an individual experiences are not likely to be acceptable in any community, such as destructive desires and anti-social desires. It should be made clear to individuals which desires are allowed to be acted out and which are not. This can be done through providing clear policies and directing individuals to them whilst they are still lurking in the community and not yet a novice or regular in order to influence their values and beliefs.
So what have I told you? I’ve told you that the five universal desires also have opposites and that these desires can be found in the Scriptures and in virtual communities, such as Wikipedia.
I’ve identified three criteria that can determine whether social change can occur in organic or virtual communities and I’ve identified five guidelines that can lead to communities being more able to create the impetus for desires and lead to social change.