A community, whether online or not, needs to have a purpose, a reason for being, a common interest.
In many face to face (f2f) communities the participants are bought together through common interests or the purpose, and generally because they are geographically placed to do so. I live in a small rural town and while the residential and surrounding area is referred to as a community, the only thing that really ties us all together is where we live and who we pay our rates to! There are other examples of communities within my district that better reflect what I believe is a community because they have the reason for being, a common interest or a purpose. Clubs such as the Plunket parents group, the local Scout group, the ("oldies") Friendship group, Board of Trustees, Kohanga Reo komitee, Kindergarten committee, the Childcare facilities and the local sporting clubs all reflect, for me, what makes a community.
An online community should share the same attributes as a f2f community and often they do but sometimes they don't. The main difference between an online community and a f2f is obviously the geographical location. An online community can be made up of people from all over the world coming together.
So does that mean that every "gathering place of people online" ensures they are a cohesive community? I think not. I feel that to put a group of people together (even with a common purpose) does not initially assure these people their inclusion into the 'community'. I believe for people to become members of a community they must involve themselves in the comings and goings of that community and they must find or feel their way into the heirarchy of the community. There is always some sort of heirarchy in an online community, whether it be a commercial entity (website with administrators and users, e.g. the TradeMe community), a teacher/learner situation (online course) or a user defined collaboration (e.g. YouTube community).
I have always thought of YouTube as an online community simply because of the way it is used by some. YouTube is a way for some people to create and attain a public profile in much the same way celebrities do it through the media. Identities on YouTube create for themselves followers, supportive and some not so.
This was reiterated to me by Michael Wesch's video article "An anthropological introduction to YouTube" via his reference to Lonelygirl15. Lonelygirl15 had a massive following with many of her fans/supporters turning against her online personality when they realised she was a character and not the "real deal". Users felt duped in much the same way f2f situations leave people upset and dissappointed when they feel they've been let down. I remember when the Lonelygirl15 situation happened thinking "its online people, wake up its not real" but for some members it was real, it was their life for that short period. I also remember being amazed at what an impact this fictious identity had on its online community. YouTube grows each day, even each hour and the communities change, sometimes daily but one thing that remains constant is that it will always be a platform for entities that attract followers (good and bad) thus creating their own online community.
The article on Building Online Communities (O'Reillynet.com, 2002) begins with the opening line:
The Internet exists to improve communication. Communities can grow anywhere communication occurs.
Although this article was written seven years ago, it made interesting reading. Interesting because the ideas expressed 7 years ago are still true now (in my opinion) for online communties.
3 types of evidence I may look for are:
- Does the online group have a common purpose or common goal?
- Are the users, participants in the purpose or goal or just onlookers?
- Is the community supportive?
As I gather steam in this course I may add more to my list or change it completely but at this stage (and this time of the night...11.32pm on a Sunday) I am confident this is what I may look for.
I welcome your comments :)