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A virtual community is a social network of individuals who interact through specific media, potentially crossing geographical and political boundaries in order to pursue mutual interests or goals. One of the most pervasive types of virtual community include social networking services, which consist of various online communities.
The term virtual community is attributed to the book of the same title by Howard Rheingold, published in 1993. The book, which could be considered a social enquiry, putting the research in the social sciences, discussed his adventures on The WELL and onward into a range of computer-mediated communication and social groups, broadening it to information science. The technologies included Usenet, MUDs (Multi-User Dungeon) and their derivatives MUSHes and MOOs, Internet Relay Chat (IRC), chat rooms and electronic mailing lists; the World Wide Web as we know it today was not yet used by many people. Rheingold pointed out the potential benefits for personal psychological well-being, as well as for society at large, of belonging to such a group.
The traditional definition of a community is of a geographically circumscribed entity (neighborhoods, villages, etc). Virtual communities, of course, are usually dispersed geographically, and therefore are not communities under the original definition. Some online communities are linked geographically, and are known as community websites. However, if one considers communities to simply possess boundaries of some sort between their members and non-members, then a virtual community is certainly a community.
Early research into the existence of media-based communities was concerned with the nature of reality, whether communities actually could exist through the media, which could place virtual community research into the social sciences definition of ontology. In the 17th-century, scholars associated with the Royal Society of London formed a community through the exchange of letters. "Community without propinquity", coined by urban planner Melvin Webber in 1963 and "community liberated," analyzed by Barry Wellman in 1979 began the modern era of thinking about non-local community. As well, Benedict Anderson's Imagined Communities in 1983, described how different technologies, such as national newspapers, contributed to the development of national and regional consciousness among early nation-states.
Purpose of Virtual communities
Virtual communities are used for a variety of social and professional groups. It does not necessarily mean that there is a strong bond among the members, although Howard Rheingold, author of the book of the same name, mentions that virtual communities form "when people carry on public discussions long enough, with sufficient human feeling, to form webs of personal relationships". An email distribution list may have hundreds of members and the communication which takes place may be merely informational (questions and answers are posted), but members may remain relative strangers and the membership turnover rate could be high. This is in line with the liberal use of the term community.
Internet-based Virtual Communities
The explosive diffusion of the Internet since the mid-1990s has also fostered the proliferation of virtual communities taking the form of social networking services and online communities. The nature of those communities is diverse, and the benefits that Rheingold envisioned are not necessarily realized, or pursued, by many. At the same time, it is rather commonplace to see anecdotes of someone in need of special help or in search of a community benefiting from the use of the Internet. Virtual communities may synthesize Web 2.0 technologies with the community, and therefore have been described as Community 2.0, although strong community bonds have been forged online since the early 1970's on timeshare systems like PLATO_(computer_system) and later on USENET. Online communities depend upon social interaction and exchange between users online. This emphasizes the reciprocity element of the unwritten social contract between community members. The embedding of virtual community in the experiences of everyday life and its reflection of and influence on the communication practices and patterns of identity formation make online community a colossal research enterprise which requires continuous investigation and theorizing
Howard Rheingold's Study
Howard Rheingold’s Virtual Community could be compared with Mark Granovetter’s ground-breaking "strength of weak ties" article published twenty years earlier in the American Journal of Sociology. Rheingold translated, practiced and published Granovetter’s conjectures about strong and weak ties in the online world. His comment on the first page even illustrates the social networks in the virtual society: “My seven year old daughter knows that her father congregates with a family of invisible friends who seem to gather in his computer. Sometimes he talks to them, even if nobody else can see them. And she knows that these invisible friends sometimes show up in the flesh, materializing from the next block or the other side of the world.” (page 1). Indeed, in his revised version of Virtual Community, Rheingold goes so far to say that had he read Barry Wellman's work earlier, he would have called his book "online social networks".
Rheingold’s definition contains the terms “social aggregation and personal relationships” (pp3). Lipnack & Stamps (1997) and Mowshowitz (1997) point out how virtual communities can work across space, time and organizational boundaries; Lipnack & Stamps (1997) mention a common purpose; and Lee, Eom, Jung and Kim (2004) introduce "desocialization" which means that there is less frequent interaction with humans in traditional settings, eg. an increase in virtual socialization. Calhoun (1991) presents a dystopia argument, asserting the impersonality of virtual networks. He argues that IT has a negative influence on offline interaction between individuals because virtual life takes over our lives. He believes that it also creates different personalities in people which can cause frictions in offline and online communities and groups and in personal contacts. However, more than a decade of research has not supported Calhoun's arguments. (Wellman & Haythornthwaite, 2002). Recently, Parsell (2008) has suggested that virtual communities, particularly those that leverage Web 2.0 resources, can be pernicious by, for example, leading to attitude polarization, increased prejudices and enabling sick individuals to deliberately indulging in their diseases 
|This article includes a list of references or external links, but its sources remain unclear because it has insufficient inline citations. Please help to improve this article by introducing more precise citations where appropriate. (November 2009)|
- ↑ Pears, Iain. 1998. An Instance of the Fingerpost. London: Jonathan Cape.
- ↑ Webber, Melvin. 1963. "Order in Diversity: Community without Propinquity." Pp. 23-54 in Cities and Space: The Future Use of Urban Land, edited by J. Lowdon Wingo. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press. Wellman, Barry. "The Community Question: The Intimate Networks of East Yorkers." American Journal of Sociology 84 (March, 1979): 1201-31.
- ↑ Anderson, Benedict. 1991. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso.
- ↑ Rheingold, Howard (1993). The Virtual Community (1st. ed.). Addison-Wesley Pub. Co. ISBN 9780201608700. http://www.rheingold.com/vc/book/intro.html. Retrieved 2008-12-29.
- ↑ Rybas, S. (2008). Community Revisited: Invoking the Subjectivity of the Online Learner. PhD Thesis. Graduate College of Bowling Green State University.
- ↑ Parsell, M. (2008). Pernicious virtual communities: Identity, polarisation and the Web 2.0. Ethics and Information Technology. Volume 10, Number 1: 41-56. http://www.springerlink.com/content/p737755248127761/
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