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Community Formation and Dynamics in the Virtual Metropolis.

In his 1984 book Neuromancer William Gibson introduced the word cyberspace. As characterized by Gibson, cyberspace is "a consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation ... A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity Lines of light in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding." [1]

Six years later, Paul Virilio, in his book The Lost Dimension, speculated that the cities of today, what he called the "Neogeological... fossil of past societies whose technologies were intimately aligned with the visible transformation of matter," would be replaced by computer-mediated communications (CMCs)--including, but not limited to, the World Wide Web, electronic mail, bulletin board systems, and real-time chat services. He wrote: "From here on, urban architecture has to work with the opening of a new 'technological space-time'. ... Instead of operating in the space of a constructed social fabric, the intersecting and connecting grid of highway and service systems now occurs in the sequences of an imperceptible organization of time in which the man/machine interface replaces the facades of buildings as the surfaces of property allotments." [2]

Although the world that both of these writers has described is still the "virtual world" of the future, we can already see glimmerings of that world in the early part of the twenty-first century. The "clusters and constellations of data" that make up the virtual world have gone from being a place occupied in the late 1960s by the military or companies and universities having defense contracts (ARPANET), to one occupied principally by scientists and other academicians in the 1980s (primarily through the National Science Foundation's NSFnet). And finally, at the close of the twentieth century, it has become a teeming bazaar of information-driven activity Evidence of the current state of cyberspace can be seen in a variety of venues. Following are two examples.

Cyber-Commerce

Describing the phenomenon of "cyber-commerce" during the 1999 Christmas season, David Ignatius writes:

You can go to "santa.com" and check out "Nick's Picks," which include the "Millennium Princess Barbie Doll" and the "Pokemon Starter Gift Box." If your child is handy with a computer mouse, she can play an insidious little game called "Adopt a Reindeer," which requires her to feed and tend her own Donner or Blitzen--ensuring that Mom and Dad will revisit the site regularly. Or you can go to "SantaNow.com," where the computer plays a tinny version of "It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas." This one is real simple: You pay to have the electronic Mr. Claus send your kind [of] a "personalized" letter if he's been good or, alternatively, if he's been bad, a real bag of coal! [3]

Other forays into on-line commerce include banks, such as Chicago-based Bank One, the fourth largest bank in the United States. It launched "Wingspan" in June 1999, with just four months of planning, and by the end of 1999 it had 106,000 accounts. [4] By early 2000, Barclays has moved more than 7.5 percent, or 600,000, of its customers on-line. [5] SharkTank.com, a lawyers' Web site, offers a service analogous to what Priceline.com offers travelers: lawyers are bidding against one another for business. [6]

Education

Todd Oppenheimer writes in the Atlantic Monthly that one of the principal arguments used to justify increasing the presence of computer technology in educational settings is that "[working] with computers--particularly using the Internet--brings students valuable connections with teachers, other schools and students, and a wide network of professionals across the globe." [7] This same sentiment was echoed a year later, on November 23, 1998, in a speech by Vice President Al Gore, who said that "[f]or the first time in our history, these new tools are making it possible for a child in the most isolated inner-city neighborhood or rural community to have access to the same world of knowledge at the same instant as a child in the most affluent suburb." [8]

In these and other cases, two factors are especially important. First is the increased reliability and ease of establishing private access to the Internet, coupled with relatively low prices charged by commercial Internet service providers (ISPs) for private access. Second, Internet-based communication is visually interactive and permits individuals to easily store and recall transmitted information.

Because of such linkages, individuals no longer need to depend on the availability or accessibility of public ISP access. Local public access to information networks--for example, through a cluster of computers wired to an ISP at a public library, based on the geographic proximity of users to one another--has become a sinecure. In its place we are witness to the emergence of large, globally oriented ISPs and commercial communications concerns. The tendency of the technology of the Internet to "erase" geographical boundaries for private users raises a cluster of interesting and important questions:

* Is there a role for community-based information networks in the Brave New Wired World?

* Will community-based networks provide an essential service of localized public access points for those who cannot afford private access, or will they evolve to such a point that, even though the localized public access points have disappeared, the information network made up of private access points remains?

* If network access continues to move from the public to the private, and if through a click of the mouse, one may as easily--if not more easily--exchange information with people a thousand miles away as with people two miles away, why suppose that relationships with those geographically distant people are less robust than the relationships with those who live nearby?

Recognizing the importance of these and related questions, we want to look at some of the social policy issues related to the implementation of community-based information networks. To this end, we will examine three different kinds of "information communities," in an attempt to better understand how these questions play themselves out. In geographic terms, we are seeking to explore the relationship of proximate to virtual space.

Community Issues

Because of the increasing sophistication of information and communications technology (ICT), we are no longer restricted to communication with people with whom we share interests determined by a shared geographic locale. We are now free to seek out people with whom we share a similar intensity of "concern" based on more general human interests, as well as concerns based on and created by widely disseminated information, like the immediacy brought about by television and radio coverage.

We are thus led to the question: "What is a community?" What we suggest is that the concept of community can be operationalized as a self-organizing group of individuals whose organizing principle is a shared interest or set of interests. This has obvious affinities with Howard Rheingold's 1993 definition of virtual communities--as stated in his book The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier--as "social aggregations that emerge from the [Internet] when enough people carry on those public discussions long enough, with sufficient feeling, to form webs of personal relationships in cyberspace." [9] Sometimes communities will self-organize because of minimal outside influences--for example, communities of scholars or organized soccer teams. And sometimes they will self-organize in direct response to an outside influence, such as unions or some sort of external funding. Although some people focus on the factors that inhibit the formation of communities [10]--often lumped generically under issu es of organization, we will focus on what factors are necessary for the successful formation of virtual communities. Even though frequently used in a geographic sense, there is nothing that necessitates that the meaning of "community" be narrowly linked to a specific spatial location. For instance, a metropolis is generally considered to be a large, sprawling urban center of culture and trade, or an incorporated municipality, whose precise boundaries may be legally precise but geographically vague.

What, then, are we to make of the expression "virtual reality"? This expression, as used in discussions of information infrastructures, generally implies a nongeographic matrix represented by an electronic coordinate system used for routing communication protocols. Though retaining some elements of a spatial metaphor (one, it is interesting to note, that has many of its roots in a Cartesian-like conception of space as an abstract mathematical manifold), virtual reality is at least one step removed in abstractness from a physically characterized infrastructure. Thus, by abstracting from the physical characteristics of metropolitan communities and focusing on a functional characterization, we can reconceptualize the concept of a metropolis to capture the defining characteristic of a specifically virtual community. Such a characterization does not deny that, in some sense, a virtual metropolis must be based on physical reality. What it does is to shift the focus from a narrowly physical characterization of a co mmunity to a "higher-level" functional characterization.

An analogy here might be helpful. Consider a game of chess. One way to characterize a particular game is to describe the physical characteristics of the chess pieces, their spatial locations relative to one another, the physical changes that occur during the playing of the game, and so on. However, there is a better way to think about a chess game--a way that lends itself to chess being a game that you can play on a computer, by mail, over the phone, or telegraphically. Here, what we do is to think of chess in functional terms. We characterize the pawns, rooks, and other pieces not in terms of the physical characteristics of actual playing pieces, but rather in terms of their functional relation to one another. From this perspective, it doesn't matter if the pawns are made of ivory, wood, or plastic, or are simply ideas in someone's head. What matters is the functional identity of each piece (which will also include how each piece can interact with all the other pieces in the game). What works for chess also works for the virtual metropolitan community What we want is not a characterization in terms of the physical characteristics of the community as it exists at any given point in time, but rather a functional characterization of the metropolitan community in terms of all the dynamic relations that constitute it. Accordingly from the viewpoint of the individual embedded in a variety at information, social, and neighborhood networks, linked by CMC and other ICT connections, "community" might encompass a variety of different types of relationships, depending on the context. [11] It is true that all virtual communities must be physically realized (science fiction examples notwithstanding), but their functional characterizations cannot be reduced to, or eliminated in favor of, physical characterizations. Accordingly, this notion of "virtual community" is similar to that put forth by Jan Fernback and Brad Thompson, who characterize it as a collection of "social relations forged in cyberspace through repeated contact within a specified boundary or place (e.g., a conference or chat line) that is symbolically delineated by topic of interest." [12]

Having delineated some of the philosophical and theoretical considerations surrounding the virtual-proximate dialectic, we present several case studies that reveal some of the subtleties of the virtual-proximate confluence as played out in actual implementation.

Case Study Factors

The first case is the Regional Information Infrastructure Policy Project (RIIPP), funded by the U.S. Department of Commerce's National Telecommunications and Infrastructure Administration. The RIIPP was a twelve-month policy demonstration project concerned with the role, function, and benefits of an information and communication infrastructure in community and commercial life. It represents an urban-exurban information infrastructure linkage between the city of Alexandria and Fauquier County, Virginia, where ICTs were used to extend Internet access to an area where users had to make a long-distance call to achieve Internet access.

The second case is the Rockville Community Network (RockNet) in Rockville, Maryland. RockNet represents the successful implementation of a local government-initiated community information network.

The third case--the Potomac KnowledgeWay--represents a private-public partnership focused on developing a regional virtual community network centered loosely on the northern Virginia portion of metropolitan Washington, D.C. Table 1 presents the particulars of the three cases.

In general, what we see in the table is that, unless the virtual information community links its inhabitants to one another by providing access to previously desired information, or it creates the need for new information based on previously desired information, the community is likely to be abandoned. When this happens, the virtual information community becomes what has been termed a "ghost town" in cyberspace. [13] Virtual information communities, as informational-functional entities, only exist as long as they serve one or more vital functions. Just as we do not pick up a telephone and randomly access other users without some purpose, so too is this the case for ICT-based information communities. For community networks created and sustained by the use of ICTs, this means that a twofold commitment must exist--first, to identify and meet the preexisting needs of the community members, and, second, to identify and meet those needs that emerge as community members dynamically interact with one another (and, fr om a larger perspective, as the communities interact with other communities). Without this twofold commitment, participation rates decline, and the virtual information community runs the risk of becoming irrelevant and eventually abandoned. This can be represented by Figure 1.

Assessment of Cases

The outcomes of the virtual communities are dependent on several things:

Key Actors. Each of the three examples represents a different organizational structure and set of objectives, with regard to relationships between the virtual information community managers and connection to a geographically based community Moreover, each case displays, to varying degrees, limitations on community membership, shared norms of community members, and shared affective ties. Another variable in assessing these cases is the role of centers of "intellectual capital." Independent of the generally higher education and income levels in the subject areas, the presence of networks of knowledge-or clusters of firms engaged in similar technological or professional activities-may be an influencing factor. There is also some indication that the location of a large university, either in the immediate geographic area or immediately adjacent to the systems discussed in the cases, had an influence on innovative activities.

Virtual information communities, at least with respect to networks with audiences outside of the core structure, need to take into account the needs and wishes of the users (or alternatively other members of the community). The RIIPP project has clearly indicated that a system that was optimized for technical objectives might not necessarily be optimized in terms of the demands of citizen users. There is also some evidence that this might ultimately be a factor in the demise of the PKW regional network with the least definable proximate linkages.

Innovation Factors. Several units of analysis appear in the three cases, depending on the frame of reference one adopts. If the analysis focuses on the technology used by the virtual information community, then the variables are principally ones of system implementation. This interpretation is especially pertinent in those cases where the primary function of the virtual information community is to provide a means of information exchange. In such cases, the members of virtual information communities are characterized as a passive audience of broadcast information rather than as creators of, and participants in, the information exchange. It is also important to remember that all three virtual information communities were initially--and principally--superimposed as an additional information overlay on densely populated urban areas. Since at least one factor that bears directly on the interaction of members in any community--virtual or otherwise--is the role of jurisdictional boundaries, it is also imperative to understand the role of local governments in the delivery of information. In this connection, in the RIIPP case there is some evidence that the initial reluctance of the exurban locality to participate may be related to its perception that, as an nonurbanized locality, there is less need to engage in the superimposed delivery service. In other words, what is illustrated by the RIIPP example is that, among other things, without some previous perception of an "information gap," there is little impetus to participate in the creation or ongoing activity of a virtual information community.

A related point is revealed by the other two cases, both of which were developed in densely populated urban areas. Specifically, if the primary intention behind the creation of a virtual information community is to provide some sort of "information connectivity," then it will generally be in direct competition with such established information providers as newspapers, radio and television stations, and private-sector ISPs. Moreover, if the virtual information community considers its purpose to be exclusively a source of local community-governance-type information, it may either duplicate information that was already widely available, or it may run afoul of local efforts to disseminate information. In either case, the implication is that a necessary condition for virtual information communities having justifiable and sustainable roles is their establishment of unique identities based on unmet information needs. Once these needs are met, more needs to be done. Not only must information needs be met, but new an d dynamic information needs must be created whose satisfaction can only be met by the continued operation of the virtual information community. Without this, even a flourishing virtual information community is doomed, like its geographical counterpart, to eventual abandonment and dissolution.

Perhaps one of the most expeditious ways of satisfying both demands is to precisely determine what informational needs are not being delivered in a specific geographically based community, and then generate a CMC-based community in this underserved population. What is important to see and appreciate here is the dynamic relation that exists between the geographically bounded communities and geographically distributed virtual information communities. The pronouncements of many notwithstanding, the latter do not arise ex nihilo out of the clusters and constellations of data composing "cyberspace." Rather, they evolve out of a geographic foundation to find life in the higher regions of the information-theoretic world.

Internal Organizational Factors. In general, the availability of personnel, as well as technical and fiscal resources, is generally linked to higher levels of innovation. [14] The same link is also present with respect to the ability to react more quickly to changes in the needs of the networked community It follows from this that the larger the served population, the more likely the variation in skills, talents, and communities of interest will be conducive to the establishment and support of virtual community networks. Moreover, in a larger, densely populated urban environment, the ready presence of organizational resources permits a greater margin of error in the introduction of innovations and, in this regard, reduces the risk factor.

Specifically previous studies on innovation have indicated that organizational redundancy is related to higher levels of innovation. [15] This factor is relevant in the three examples being considered, since organizational resources (at least capital resources) were not in critical shortage. On the other hand, certain operational areas--such as technical support for users--did exhibit some evidence of strain on resources.

The results of these strains were various system problems. For instance, although implementation of the systems per se were generally unaffected, the requirements of the users were not always immediately met. In the case of the RIIPP, limited personnel initially delayed necessary training or support in either a technical support capacity or in training. Furthermore, implementation issues such as the inefficient operation of various task groups within the Potomac KnowledgeWay Project may have been due to insufficient administrative support. Another element present in all three cases is that these virtual information communities were the result of multi-organizational collaborations and partnerships. Accordingly it is difficult to clearly separate the influence of organizational culture from political variables related to agendas of the various participating stakeholders.

Political Factors. The virtual information communities we are discussing in this article were chosen for the apparent presence of a readily identifiable connection with a geographic locale. In each case, at least one of the participants was geographically local, which added political variables to the operation of the systems. A review of the outcomes of these examples leads to the conclusion that political variables, such as the role of individual stakeholders, the political environment (vis-a-vis political risk), and high visibility of the projects, may have affected the projects' outcomes. In each example, there was a clear role for policy entrepreneurs, or organizational visionaries, to play, either directly as key actors (system implementers such as the schools) and decision makers, or as change agents (such as universities or elected politicians).

At this point, without the development of more precise analytic tools, it is difficult to determine the role of other factors. As noted above, the three communities were realized in relatively resource-rich environments. However, there is sufficient evidence from the literature on organizational innovation that these factors may also be important in resource-constrained environments, where they serve to "marshal resources" or generate sufficient community resources by encouraging collaboration. Alternatively, in environments that are not resource constrained, but in which organizational factors are key, the change agents or entrepreneurs may act as risk "buffers" by expending sufficient political capital to absorb the policy risk generated by adopting innovations. In this case, the scenario would be one in which the administrative arm of the locality is reluctant to risk innovation, but, acting under the leadership (or pressure) of the policy entrepreneur, it would implement the policy innovation. At the ver y least, then, virtual information communities need to consider the role and participation of governmental institutions in their operation. Communities may derive benefit from adoption or use of ICPs, but the fundamental realization is that the wireless world does not replace geographic ties.

Conclusions and Suggested Avenues for Further Research. In summation, the widespread dissemination of sophisticated ICT access for individual and private use has once again focused attention on the changing dynamics of communities and their functions. Such access has reminded us that there is more to the identity of a community than a specification of geographic boundaries. The growing deployment of sophisticated ICTs permits new modes of communication and information exchange, as well as the concomitant emergence of an entirely new array of relationships. In the assessment of the cases presented above, we have begun to see some of the dynamics of the new relationships. However, as is almost always the case in empirically based research, there remain many unanswered questions that merit more in-depth research. These questions include, but are not limited to, the following:

* If the importance of "place" and the friction of distance are significantly minimized by the introduction of increasingly sophisticated ICTs, then just what separates "places" in a virtual context? For instance, do firewalls take the place of national boundaries, and moderated "chat-rooms" the place of community forums? Does a gauge of interest act as an analogue to a gauge of distance in the "new spaces"?

* Although the decentralizing effect of ICTs has been noted, an opposite effect is noted with respect to concentration of the "physical infrastructure"-- that is, the actual wires, servers, and access to bandwidth. ICTs allow a user to be anywhere, but the density of physical infrastructure underlying communications technologies allows for a denser flow of information. A virtual information community may spread over a large physical area, but a fast link to the Internet seems to provide a reason to recentralize. So just how do the limitations of physical infrastructure affect the formation, operation, and dynamics of the virtual?

* As the physical infrastructure becomes itself more distributed-for example, through the use of satellites and satellite telecommunications linkages-what will happen to the virtual information community? If I no longer need a PC or "physical wires" to participate in the virtual community, what does this portend for the character and dynamics of such communities?

* At this point, it's also worth thinking about the claims of some writers who predict that the dissemination of CMC will lead to a postindustrial society with two distinguishing characteristics: first, that there will be a gradual dissolution of the urban and a rise of the local and rural (though at the most extreme, this localization becomes the dissolution of the face-to-face public into the mediated private); second, that there will be a gradual "globalization" of shared ideologies. In this connection, Michael Dertouzos, in his 1997 book What Will Be: How the New World of Information Will Change Our Lives, suggests that the use of the Internet will promote what he calls "computer-aided peace." He writes that "once governments really begin using the Information Marketplace to alter their internal practices, they will be a short step away from improving intergovernmental activity," and the "common bond reached through electronic proximity may help stave off future flare-ups of ethnic hatred and national br eakups." [16] The same sentiment is echoed in Geoff Mulgan's 1997 book Connexity: How to Live in a Connected World, in which he states that a "more connected world would be a more moral one, or at least more sophisticated about morals." [17] Thus, a significant segment of the literature on CMC suggests a "centripetal-centrifugal dichotomy," [18] increasing decentralization and concomitantly increasing globalization. [19] But is this correct? Our suggestion is that there is no particularly good reason to suppose that either will occur.

The virtual metropolis presents tremendous possibilities for geographic communities, as well as for those charged with governance of the polity. In addition, the potential exists for nascent virtual groups who may not yet realize their commonality of interests and so will become significant competitors for the attention of citizens. Administrators, elected officials, and other interested stakeholders must proactively attempt to "colonize" the virtual metropolis or risk being left behind by these other virtual interest groups.

Just as telephones and automobiles have not eliminated the impact of geography, so, too, ICTs will not replace the need for people to meet face to face. We see that in those places where a geographic sense of community exists, ICTs can serve as intensifiers, or more efficient conduits for information flow, be it social or political. In this case, virtual information communities provide an adjunct or additional information overlay that amplifies the existing geographic community interests. Moreover, it enables and facilitates various types of interests to more readily reach a critical mass of survival within a geographic community that might not have been practical otherwise. Of course, we must also be cautious in our advocacy of new technologies and the communities they create.

As we have noted, and as is amply shown by even the most cursory study of history it is all too easy to be swept up in the fervor that accompanies the introduction of a new technology. In this connection, the somewhat disappointing outcomes of the efforts to establish a virtual regional community without an underlying recognized geographic component seems to indicate that a core concept of community must exist. The successful functioning of a virtual information community results from some extant interconnections, and not the converse. Although it may not always be true, and though the day may come when thriving virtual information communities will spring Athena-like from the forehead of some virtual information community Zeus, for now building a virtual community simply because it is possible will likely result in a cyber ghost town. If you build this community people will come, but only if they already have some other reason for coming, and for staying once they arrive.

Paul M. A. Baker is a visiting assistant professor at Georgia Institute of Technology's School of Public Policy, and is an affiliate assistant professor of public policy at the School of Public Policy, George Mason University.

Andrew Ward is an associate professor at Georgia Institute of Technology's School of Public Policy and is on the faculty of the Cognitive Science Program at Georgia Institute of Technology.

Notes

(1.) Gibson, W. Neuromancer. New York: Ace, 1984, P. 51.

(2.) Virilio, P. The Lost Dimension. (D. Moshenberg, trans.). New York: Semiotext(e), 1991, pp. 13-14.

(3.) Ignatius, D. "Grinch May Lurk on Mountaintop of Online Products." Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Dec. 12, 1999, p. G1.

(4.) Gallagher, J. "This Is What Your New Bank Could Look Like." St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Jan. 17, 2000, Business Plus Section, p. 1.

(5.) Carr, R. "Survey-Personal Finance Online." Financial Times (London), Mar. 25, 2000, p. 4.

(6.) Ranalli, R. "Clicking with a Lawyer in Cyberspace Could Ease Hunt for Legal Help." Boston Globe, Apr. 17, 2000, p. B1.

(7.) Oppenheimer, T. "The Computer Illusion," Atlantic Monthly. July 1997.

(8.) White House Press Release, Nov. 23, 1998.

(9.) Rheingold, H. The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier. New York: Addison-Wesley, 1993, p. 5.

(10.) See Fernback, J., and Thompson, B. "Virtual Communities: Abort, Retry, Failure?" [http://www.well.com/user/hlr/texts/Vccivil.html]. [May 1995].

(11.) See Barry Wellman, B., and Gulia, M., "Virtual Communities as Communities: Net Surfers Don't Ride Alone." In M. A. Smith and P. Kollock (eds.), Communities in Cyberspace. London: Routledge, 1997.

(12.) Fernback and Thompson, p. 7.

(13.) Kanfer, A. Ghost Towns in Cyberspace. National Center for Supercomputing Applications. University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. [http://www.ncsa.uiuc.edu/edu/trg/ghosttown/]. March 1997.

(14.) Rogers, E. M. The Diffusion of Innovations. (4th ed.) New York: Free Press/Simon & Schuster, 1995.

(15.) See Rogers, 1995.

(16.) Dertouzos, M. What Will Be: How the New World of Information Will Change Our Lives. San Francisco: HarperEdge, 1997, pp. 218, 282-283. See also Etzioni, A. The Spirit of Community. London: Fontana, 1995; Kapor, M. "Where Is the Digital Highway Really Headed?" Wired, July-Aug. 1993, P. 53; and Nunes, M. "What Space Is Cyberspace? The Internet and Virtuality." In D. Holmes (ed.), Virtual Politics: Identity and Community in Cyberspace. London: Sage Publications, 1997, pp. 172-173.

(17.) Mulgan, G. Connexity: How to Live in a Connected World. Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 1997, p. 124.

(18.) An expression attributable to Robins and Hepworth, "Electronic Spaces: New Technologies and the Future of Cities," Futures, 1988.

(19.) Ray, C., and Talbot, H. "Rural Telematics: The Information Society and Rural Development." In M. Crang, P. Crang, and J. May (eds.), Virtual Geographies: Bodies, Space and Relations. London: Routledge, 1999, pp. 149-163.
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Author:Baker, Paul M.A.; Ward, Andrew
Publication:National Civic Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2000
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