Barry Wellman and Milena Gulia – Virtual Communities as Communities: Net Surfers don’t ride alone – 1999, Communities in Cyberspace – Peter Kollock and Marc A. Smith eds, Routledge
Wellman and Gulia note that much existing research on online identity and communities have failed to take into account the wider context in which the interactions online are taking place. Rather than treating internet activity as one part of a person’s life, much research isolated online behavior and examines it out of context. They also note that there is little in the way of long term or in-depth analysis of online communities, looking at the ways in which various social networks online and in real life interlink, or how virtual communication factors into the overall communication patterns of people. They also note that there has also been relatively little research conducted on the nature and longevity of online intimacy.
Most of the analysis that does exist is parochial. It almost always treats the internet as an isolated social phenomenon without taking into account how interactions on the Net fit together with other aspects of people’s lives. […] There have been very few detailed ethnographic studies of online communities, no surveys of who is connected to whom and about what, and no time-budget accounts of how many people spend what amount of hours virtually communing. (p170)
When Wellman and Gulia then go on to describe the narrow focus of many internet communities and groups it raises the question for me whether this narrow focus of research has been dictated to some degree by the nature of the communities being studied. Wellman and Gulia say that the Internet continues the trend of the real modern world of fostering specialized relationships. Many discussion groups are topic-oriented (political, technical, social or recreational) and this can lead to the creation of narrow relationships that focus more on the information shared than the relationships.
However, they also note that many of these specialized groups still perform a role of social support and companionship. Performing these roles for others online is often a way of expressing identity, particularly for people to whom expertise or supportive behavior is an important part of their self-identity. These supportive behaviors help them to develop their reputation and recognition within the group.
Even when online groups are not designed to be supportive, they tend to be. As social beings, those who use the net seek not only information but also companionship, social support, and a sense of belonging. For example, while the majority of elderly users of “SeniorNet” reported joining the net to gain access to information, nearly half (47%) had also joined to find companionship. Indeed, the most popular activity was chatting with others. (p173)
On other occasions groups are mobilized online with the specific intent of providing both information and support – often for an event or activity that is happening/coordinated in the real world. After the Oklahoma City bombing in April 1995 local university students had created information sites and electronic bulletin boards all within hours of the blast. These sites informed locals of critical information like the names of the wounded, the hospitals in use, and where they could go to donate blood. Another example that Wellman and Gulia give is that of striking professors in Israeli universities who coordinated their action in public and private groups online.
The lack of status or situational cues can also encourage contact between weak ties. Often, the only thing known about others are email addresses which may provide minimal or misleading information. The relatively egalitarian nature of the net can encourage responses to requests. (p176)
Kiesler and Sproull 1992, and Hilts and Turoff 1993 argue that “without physical and social cues or immediate feedback, email scan foster extreme language, difficulties in coordination and feedback, and group polarization.” Without situational cues or pre-established status within a group ties can often be weaker, however the same lack of predefined structure gives an egalitarian nature to these groups and can encourage responses from those who may not otherwise have responded.
In he end, despite their effort to do otherwise, Wellman and Gulia concluded that they have resorted to the anecdotal tactics of their predecessors. They finish with a call to action for more evidence-based research in the area.
We have concluded this chapter more like pundits and tellers of tales than like researchers. As others before us, we have argued often by assertion and anecdote. This is because the paucity of systematic research into virtual communities has raised more questions than even preliminary answers. […] It is time to replace anecdote with evidence. The subject is important: practically, scholarly, and politically. The answers have not yet been found. Indeed, the questions are just starting to be formulated. (p188)