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Online Communities: Commerce, Community Action, and the Virtual University

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Online Communities: Commerce, Community Action, and the Virtual University

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  • Copyright 2001
  • Edition: 1st
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  • ISBN-10: 0-13-032382-9
  • ISBN-13: 978-0-13-032382-8

Online communities: Understanding them, building them, making them work.

  • A comprehensive guide to online communities-how they develop and how they impact e-commerce, culture, politics, and education
  • Why some online communities thrive—and others fail
  • Contributors include Richard Stallman, founder of the Free Software Foundation

Whether you're an online community developer, marketer, political activist, or academic, you depend on online communities. In this book, leading community-builders in e-commerce, non-profit, open source, and higher education share their insights on crucial issues such as: How are online communities organized? How do they change? What do their participants expect from them? What makes them work? And how can you make yours work better? Coverage includes:

  • Leading models and key lessons for organizers of online communities.
  • Corporate-sponsored online communities: social impacts and success factors
  • Building alliances between diverse online communities
  • Uses of online communities worldwide: the U.S., Great Britain, Mexico, France, Italy, Bosnia, South Africa, Brazil, Nicaragua, and elsewhere
  • Distance learning: the promise and the reality
  • Richard Stallman on how online communities can democratize universities
  • Randy Connolly on why online communities may actually decrease social cohesion

Chris Werry and Miranda Mowbray bring together an extraordinary range of perspectives—and deliver unprecedented insight into the phenomenon and future of online communities. Whether you're a public policymaker or a system administrator, a distance learning professional or an e-commerce executive, you'll find this book interesting and useful.

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Table of Contents


1. Imagined Electronic Community: Representations of Online Community in Business Texts by Chris Werry.

Early Business Texts and “The Community That Isn't”. Community As Interactive Marketing. Online Community and the Future of Internet Commerce. A Critique of Contemporary Internet Business Models. Online Community and the University. Acknowledgments. References.

2. Three Case Studies by Janelle Brown.

Case Study 1: GeoCities. Case Study 2: SmartGirl Internette. Case Study 3: Electric Minds.

3. Cookies, Gift-Giving, and Online Communities by Hillary Bays and Miranda Mowbray.

Introduction: How This Research Came to Be. The Gift Economy in Online Communities. Cookie Exchange. Online Recipe Collections. Cookies As Food. Symbolic Sustenance and Virtual Cookies. Cookies As Discrete Units (Stereotypical/Mythological Image). Cookies in Early Internet Terminology. Web Cookies. Magic Cookies. Fortune Cookies. GNU emacs. The Cookie Virus. The Childlike Spirit in Cookie Terminology. Cookies Are Meant to Be Shared. Clifford Stoll's Cookies. Kindergarten. In-Group Politeness. The Hau of Cookies. Women and Giving. Cookies and Mom. Archetype of a Cookie Baker. Learning from an Urban Legend. The Expensive Cookie Recipe. Conclusions and Business Implications. Implication for Online Community Business Strategies. Conclusion. Acknowledgments. References.

4. Computer Networks Linking Network Communities by Robin B. Hamman.

Ambiguity in the Definition of “Community”. “Community”. Changing Demographics of Computer Network Users. Existing Research on the Social Impact of Computer-Mediated Communication. Existing Research on the Negative Social Impact of Computer-Mediated Communication. Changing Notions of Community. The Findings. Conclusion. Acknowledgments. References.

5. Reducing Demographic Bias by Miranda Mowbray.

Introduction. Case Study. Data Collection. Participation of Community Members. Demographic Profiles for D, B, and N. Presenting Gender versus Real Gender. Frequency and Longevity of Presence in the MOO. Creative Powers. Object Creation. Two Examples. Action Creation. Blaster Use. Common Features of Nontraditional Groups. Qualitative Description of Group Behavior. Examples of Internet Bias. Conclusion: Suggestions for Reducing Demographic Bias in Online Communities. Suggestions from the Case Study. Suggestions from the Examples of Internet Bias. Acknowledgments. References.


6. Education, Communication, and Consumption: Piping in the Academic Community by Norman Clark.

Laying the Pipe: The Rise of Campus Portals. Campus Portals to the Rescue? Campus Pipeline at ASU. Deconstructing the Pipe: Critical Analysis. Education. Communication. Community. Consumption. Draining the Pipe: Conclusions. References.

7. Building a Virtual University: Working Realities from the Virginia Tech Cyberschool by Timothy W. Luke.

Basic Foundations. The Cyberschool Idea. Virginia Tech's IDDL. Building Online Communities for Education. Conclusions. References.

8. Outsourcing Education, Managing Knowledge, and Strengthening Academic Communities by Joanne Addison.

A Brief Account of U.S. Distance Education. No HTML Required! (Or, a Prediction Falls Flat). Academic Communities and the Future of Distance Education. References.

9. Respecting the Virtual Subject, or How to Navigate the Private/Public Continuum by Maria Bakardjieva and Andrew Feenberg.

The Private/Public Spectrum. How Private Is the Group? Privacy or Nonalienation? When Is Alienation Justified? Nonalienation As a Norm. References.

10. Community, Courseware, and Intellectual Property Law by Geoffrey Sauer.

Changes in the Duration of Copyright in the United States. The 1976 Copyright Act. The Thor Power Tool Case, 1979. Imbalance of Powers: Corporate, Government, and Consumer. Alienated LaborÒEven within the Star System. Commercial Publishing Influence in Web Courseware. Student Dissatisfaction with Traditional Teaching. Courseware Advantages. Alternatives: The English Server. Protection within Disciplines. Independent Course Materials. Conclusion: Public Intellectualism. References.

11. The Red Escolar Project Considered As an Online Community by Walter Aprile and Teresa Vazquez Mantec-n.

A Brief Description of Red Escolar. Integration with Face-to-Face Education. Collaboration Projects. Learning Circles. The Digital Library. Teacher Training. Means of Interaction within Red Escolar. Email. Forums. Mailing Lists. Chat. Magazine, Phone Calls, Visits. Joining Red Escolar. Requisites. Getting In. The Red Escolar Community Environment. What Is a Red Escolar User? Authority. The User's Point of View. The Administrator's Point of View. Designing for Growth. Linux on the School Server. Lessons Learned.

12. The Free Universal Encyclopedia and Learning Resource by Richard Stallman.

An Encyclopedia Located Everywhere. Who Will Write the Encyclopedia? Small Steps Will Do the Job. Take the Long View. Evangelize. What Should the Free Encyclopedia Contain? Criteria Pages Must Meet. Permit Universal Access. Permit Mirror Sites. Permit Translation into Other Languages. Permit Quotation with Attribution. Permit Modified Versions of Courses. Permit Modified Versions of Pictures and Videos, for Courses. Only Free Software in the Encyclopedia. No Central Control. Encourage Peer Review and Endorsements. No Catalogue, Yet. Making Links to Other Pages. Uphold the Freedom to Contribute. Spread the Word.

13. Afterword: Blood and Dreams in Cyberspace by Cary Nelson.


14. What Kind of Platform for Change? Democracy, Community Work, and the Internet by Douglas Schuler.

Elements of Democracy. Democracy and the Internet. Democratic Communication Technology in Seattle. Community Networks. Roles of Government and Community. Actions for the Future. References.

15. Oxfam GB Interviews: Experience and Thoughts about Online Communities edited by Julia Flynn.

Building Blocks for Bringing About a True Exchange of Ideas between North/South Communities. The CHOGM Meeting Website. What We Learned. On the Line. A Good Way to Create a Community. Learning from One Office and Applying It to Other Situations. The Managua Office. Experiences in Other Offices. Some Issues: Language and Content. A Cultural Shift. The Managua Website: A Key Resource. Some Advice for NGOs.

16. The Rise and Persistence of the Technological Community Ideal by Randy Connolly.

Previous Technological Enthusiasms. Canals. The Railway. The Telegraph. The Telephone. The Automobile. The Radio. Why These Hopes? Jeffersonian Republicanism. Conclusion. References.

17. Online Community Action: Perils and Possibilities by Luciano Paccagnella.

What Are We Talking About? The Problematic Community. Networks of People. To Change the World, Begin with Yourself. The New Riches: Information or Codes? Hacking the System. The Perils and Possibilities of Online Community Action. References.




This book will not tell you how to become an Internet millionaire. In our opinion, there are more interesting things that you can do with online communities than just use them for e-commerce.

Online communities are increasingly important in commerce, in education, and in the nonprofit sector. In this book, experts from these three areas write about the theory and practice of online communities. Issues discussed include the effects of commercial communities on the social interaction of community members; intellectual property implications of the commercial provision of educational online communities; alternative models for online community organization; and lessons drawn from contributors' experiences in the use of online communities for development work, in online activism, and in the Open Source movement. As part of their studies of the use of online communities, several authors also examine the practical implications of the metaphors and rhetorical strategies that are commonly used to talk about them.

Online communities are an international phenomenon, and this book has a truly international perspective. There are chapters by authors in New Zealand, the United States, France, Great Britain, Canada, Mexico, and Italy, and the chapter of interviews with staff of Oxfam GB mentions uses of the Internet in Mali, South Africa, Burkina Faso, Brazil, Nicaragua, Bosnia, and Albania, among other places. Much of the literature on online communities has tended to look only at the United States-or at best, only in the United States, Canada, Western Europe, and Australia. This book's chapters about the work of Oxfam and about Red Escolar in Mexico give evidence that some of the most interesting developments, both potentially and actually, are outside these regions. This book is itself the product of an online community. Almost all the communications between editors and contributors took place over the Internet. We (the editors) live in different continents, and would have had a hard task indeed to edit this book without the Internet.

At the end of William Mitchell's book City of Bits (1995), there is an image of a near-future in which "bitsphere planners and designers" shape the interfaces through which commerce, education, and community take place. He writes:

For designers and planners, the task of the twenty-first century will be to build the bitsphere-a worldwide, electronically mediated environment in which networks are everywhere. . . . This unprecedented, hyperextended habitat will transcend national boundaries; the increasingly dense and widespread connectivity that it supplies will quickly create opportunities-the first in the history of humankind-for planning and designing truly worldwide communities (p. 167).

We think that this vision of the civic design of the bitsphere is praiseworthy, but that more groups should be involved than just the designers and planners that Mitchell mentions. In keeping with this, we considered it important that this book should include contributions by authors with different backgrounds. Janelle Brown is a journalist; Robin Hamman and Miranda Mowbray are employed by high-technology companies; Richard Stallman and Doug Schuler are long-standing Internet activists; Walter Aprile and Teresa Vazquez Mantecon work at the Latinamerican Institute for Educational Communication; other authors include academics in several different disciplines. We have not attempted to produce a book with a homogeneous tone, since we believe that the variety of styles and perspectives in different chapters is valuable, and that preserving this variety is in the spirit of online community.

Although we believe that the Internet has a great potential for social good, we are far from believing that this potential will necessarily be realized. Much of this book describes worrying trends in the way online communities are currently being used, and warnings about future developments. We have encouraged the contributors to include practical recommendations for the administrators and citizens of online communities that may help to counter, or at least defend against, these trends. Randy Connolly's fascinating historical chapter is more pessimistic: he argues that the online community ideal may be not only unrealizable, but actually counterproductive. He shows that the rhetoric with which earlier communication and transportation technologies were greeted in the United States is in some cases eerily reminiscent of the optimistic predictions made for the social effects of Internet technologies. But these earlier technologies, far from increasing social cohesion as was promised, arguably reduced it. So why should the Internet be different?

Part 1 of the book looks at commercial online communities-that is, communities on Internet sites that are run for a profit. Commercial online community sites are used by many millions of people. They have become an important part of how the Internet is experienced and are central to contemporary models of e-commerce. However, when we investigated the literature and visited conferences on online communities before working on this book, we found relatively little specifically written about the social effects of commercial online community. At academic conferences the papers were largely concerned with communities hosted by noncommercial organizations, while at business conferences most papers addressed technical considerations and business models for online communities, rather than their social aspects. The chapters in Part 1 attempt to bridge this gap, just as the book as a whole attempts to bridge the gap between the views of online communities in the commercial, educational, and nonprofit sectors.

Part 2 is concerned with educational online communities. Distance education is an application for which in some ways online communities are particularly well suited. Technology that enables geographically dispersed pupils and teachers to communicate with each other, and to interact with pooled information sources, has clear potential in education. This part includes a description of a remarkable online community, Red Escolar, which assists the education of over one and a half million school students in Mexico. Red Escolar is not intended as a substitute for face-to-face education, but as a complement to it. The "courseware" industry in the United States has sometimes been bolder in its claims. Several of the chapters in Part 2 discuss problems arising with the courseware model of the Virtual University, and experiences with different models. (In some instances, the same organizations that specialize in developing commercial online communities have adapted their business models to the "education market," and are involved in developing resources for academic communities.) Some of the chapters in this part also examine what happens to the resources produced by academic communities when they are moved online. Tim Luke looks at some of the models of community that are emerging for online education, and at issues they raise concerning the ownership and organization of academic communities' resources. Also in Part 2, Richard Stallman, founder of the Free Software movement, calls for a project like the Free Software Foundation for online educational material.

Apart from supporting distance education, what else can you do with online communities that is more interesting than just using them for e-commerce? The final part of this book, Part 3, gives some examples. You can use online communities to assist community activism, or as support groups for personal change; Luciano Paccagnella writes about the potential benefits and dangers of these uses. You can use online communities to strengthen local democracy; Doug Schuler of CPSR writes about the vibrant local online community scene in Seattle. Or you can use online communities to help overcome poverty and suffering. This book includes two interviews with some people who are doing just that, staff of Oxfam GB, who describe candidly the lessons they learned about how to build online communities involving people in developing countries, and about how charitable organizations can best use online communities.

The Internet is yours. Whether it is used for good or for ill depends on you, the citizens of cyberspace. We hope that this book will inspire you to use online communities in new, surprising, and socially beneficial ways. If it does, tell us. We'd love to hear from you.

Chris Werry (cwerry@mail.sdsu.edu)
Miranda Mowbray (mjfm@hplb.hpl.hp.com)
July 2000


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