For most people the term ‘e-community’ may seem unfamiliar, and in fact it does not / yet have common currency in the study of the Internet. So why use it? You might think that ‘e-community’ is short for electronic community, and while this may be true in some cases, for me the term conjures up nearly 12 years of me evolving my understanding of how communities exist both on and offline, that is, the blending of electronic technologies with real-world practices.
There is a plethora of information relating to how networks of individuals come together to form a presence online. The first core text looking at this was Howard Rheingold’s, ‘The Virtual Community’. This set the direction for seeing online social networks as communities, something some authors were still coming to terms with even at the end of the 1990s in a book edited by Marc Smith.
When all this academic discourse was going on I was busy inventing new methods of using databases and Web applications to allow people to manage their social networks online, something I termed the ‘Circle of Friends’.
A sequence of seminal books followed Marc Smith’s, including the first edition of ‘The Network Society’ by Jan Van Dijk in 1999. I read these as soon as they were published, and they were heavily influential in my understanding of online communities during my first degree, the BSc(Hons) Multimedia Studies, and long into my early research career. One of the books, by Amy Jo Kim, has directly influenced the definition I give to the term ‘online community’, which I define as ‘a virtual community that is accessible via electronic means, where its participants establish a presence through taking part in membership rituals’.
Before attempting to understand what an ‘e-community’ is, it is first necessary to define ‘community’. When people hear the word community, often some notion of a group of people in a defined locality who support each other and depend on one another comes to mind. We often think of the archetypal Victorian community, where there is the butcher, baker and candlestick maker for example. The term ‘community’ could therefore be defined as, ‘a network of actors whose unifying characteristic is their dependence on the existence of each other’.
As I have just implied, there is a natural tendency when discussing e-communities to draw a distinction between those communities which exist physically in the natural world and those which are across frontiers and are socially constructed in the minds of those participating in them. I must admit, I all too often differentiate the two by calling one the ‘real world’ and the other the ‘virtual world’.
However, Jan Van Dijk distinguishes these by describing the former that exist in the so called ‘real world’ as organic communities, and those that exist in people’s minds and are shaped by media as virtual communities.
It is clear from Van Dijk’s definition of ‘virtual community’, that the term is quite distinct from ‘online community’, as the former applies to any socially constructed community including clubs and societies where members are connected through printed media distributed by mail. The latter is mediated in an electronic environment via the Internet. I therefore define a virtual community as ‘a distributed community where its members enable its existence through their continued participation in its activities’.
The organic community on the other hand, as Van Dijk suggests, is more physical and tangible. It could be defined as, ‘a geographically-constrained community where the actors within it enable its existence through remaining within its boundaries’.
With all these different definitions of types of community it becomes clear that the term, ‘community of practice’ used to describe a group of people with for example shared customs is not appropriate for contemporary studies into such groups.
Not all such groups are based on members who depend on each other, as within Etienne Wegner’s definition there can include people who have shared practices and information whose presence is not contingent to the success of the network.
A more appropriate term would be a ‘network of practice’, which could be defined as ‘a group of actors connected by commonalities such a shared purpose and shared information, who take part in one or more information systems to construct and use knowledge in deference to these’.
Taking this into account would lead to a definition of ‘e-community’ as ‘a community that is supported through electronic means, which functions as a network of practice’.
Types of e-community could, yes, include basic ‘electronic communities’, which could be focussed around a topic such as a local sports team, or it could include an e-government community, which could be run by a local authority to allow citizens to network, such as Shape-it.org in South Wales. It could also include an e-learning community.
It makes sense to me to try to carve out a new discipline called ‘e-communities’. It reflects how the Internet and society has changed and the way I have changed.