The digital age has pushed the concept of “community” into many a new frontiers. Whereas the term used to denote a specific geographic location, the Internet has enabled people to coalesce around shared interests and shared goals, without having ever stepped in foot in the same room, or even the same country.

Example of a virtual avatar. Image courtesy of secondlife.com

Example of a virtual avatar. Image courtesy of http://secondlife.com.

Some may think that virtual communities are not, strictly speaking, communities, citing physical proximity as a strict prerequisite. But I would disagree. Communities are networks of trust between large groups of people. Certainly, closeness is helpful in building that network, but there exist virtual substitutes for the closeness of someone’s physical presence. Virtual avatars are becoming ever the more sophisticated, and there are plenty of video clients for face-to-face chats.

Many may shudder at the conflation of a virtual avatar with a physical body. And this is understandable. As Johnny Cash sang, “Flesh and blood needs flesh and blood.” And to these people, this is an eternal truth of the human condition. They believe that virtualization of our socialization has some inherent flaws, and it is best that we don’t let it distract us from what they might call the “real” thing. In this case “real” is taken to mean “offline.”

Some of the more intellectual types might use the words “alienation” and “atomization” to describe this effect. They will claim that such technologies will only make people more distant from each other. For after all, what is the need to interact with any of your neighbors when all of your social needs are satisfied by your instant messaging and email contacts? And if we start to identify ourselves more by the websites we visit than the place that we live, how will this influence our participation and concern for that which lies beyond our four walls?

Any sociological development comes with its fair share of critics. But there are plenty who have a more hopeful outlook on these developments. Many celebrate the globalization of our relationships for many of the same reasons they celebrate the globalization of any other aspect of human life. They see in it the redistribution of the most coveted of social resources: the people you know. Relationships are crucial, both for personal and social growth and with the Internet, they are no longer constrained by the place that you live. One might find solidarity in online activist groups that would have been otherwise unattainable. Or on a more superficial level, they may participate in discussion threads that are far more meaningful to them than anything that comes up at the water cooler.

Example of a cyber community. Image courtesy of commons.wikimedia.org.

Example of a cyber community. Image courtesy of commons.wikimedia.org.

No matter which side you find yourself more sympathetic toward, this is no denying that the Internet has had, and will continue to have, a profound influence on our social relations. The important thing is to keep tabs on it. Consider how it is shaping your life, and consider whether it is in a positive or negative direction. And to take on a bigger challenge, consider also how it is shaping your community, whether it is the campus, the city or the 20-odd people you play a game, build a wiki or run a blog with online. These all have the makings of a community, and for the well-being of all those involved, it is best that we treat them as such.

This column is intended to be a meditation on the past, present and future of our virtual communities. Hopefully, it will give insight on how to maintain and develop the many communities that you may find yourself a member of. Or, it may teach you how to building one of your own. Whether it be a group of long-distance friends or one that is centered around set of interests that you find underrepresented on the web, the potential applications are yours to define.

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