“The net is an informal term for the loosley interconnected computer networks that use CMC technology to link people around the world into public discussions” that’s from Howard Rheingold’s intro to the book that defined Online Communities – The Virtual Community, way back in 1993, in which he documented his experiences from participating in the WELL, one of the earliest online communities. There’s nothing new here. right? what I really find important about this page is actually the next paragraph “Virtual communities are social aggregations that emerge from the net when enough people carry on these public discussions long enough, with sufficient human feeling, to form web of social relationship in cyberspace” to Rheingold, there is a deeper drive, a ‘human glue’ that holds everyone together to make them a community.
Rheingold was the first to put into words a notion that has been out there for around 30 years already – people with shared interests and expertise CAN communicate with no time, space and location restriction, using the magical help of a network. Some criticize Rheingold for being a bit too emotional and nostalgic with how he painted the value and experience of communities. Others hold him as the spiritual father of online communities as we know and grow and develop today. However you choose to view Rheingold’s view of communities, it doesn’t change the fact online communities a) have been around for a long time, so there is much we can learn about and from them b) online communities fulfill a wide range of human needs: be it emotional, informational or intellectual.
I personally connect with communities simply because it engages people in conversation and enhances the boundaries of one’s knowledge. And I am not necessarily talking about the kind of knowledge you get when you open a text book, but of a social, tacit, deep understanding you would have never found anywhere else. Be it a community such as Open Source, which changed the face of Software industry; a social network for leisure or family purposes that reassure and create emotional support; or a professional community that enhanced productivity and sharpens expertise. Each community is different, each changes lives and contributes to a much better and enjoyable personal and professional lives. You can tell by the ‘sound’ of my voice I am a Rheingold fan – yes I admit it…
So, which were crucial communities across the history and what was their contribution?
* ARPANET – mid-late 60’s. ARPANET stands for Advanced Research Projects Agency Network, created within the walls of the U.S. Department of Defense, but with a research oriented goal rather than a military one. The key figure was J.C.R. Licklider – Lick – who nicknamed the group of people working on the project ‘Intergalactic Network’ even before an actual network was formed, this was the beginning of internet as we know it today, but it also highlighted a crucial aspect of community: “It is not proper to think of networks as connecting computers. Rather, they connect people using computers to mediate. The great success of the internet is not technical, but in human impact.” (David Clark).
* USENET – late 70’s. The formation of ‘message boards’ allowing users to create threads of conversations.
* Communities of Practice – 90’s: Etienne Wegner develops the concept of learning and knowledge management around Communities of Practice, as an offline and online concept. Taking this thinking and using online messaging/chatting/discussion tools, a whole new set of options and personal/career experiences is discovered.
* AOL, About.com, Amazon, ebay – mid-late 90’s, with the internet and world wide web being discovered by the ‘ordinary person’, the online community, a group of people gathering around products, interests, and processes is starting to bloom.
Now we have social networking with or without a community built on top of it (facebook, LinkedIn), conversations (twitter) and social aggregators (friendfeed) – the web is a web of content, people and information, and we can choose whichever way to go and how much to consume, and the only limitation is that of time and not enough hours in the day.