The Virtual Community examines the social and political ramifications of computer networking which, in Rheingold's view, is having a profound affect on the nature of democratic discourse. He suggests that computer-based communication has introduced a new form of human social life called "virtual communities" — groups of people linked by their participation in computer networks. People in virtual communities share many of the characteristics of people in ordinary communities, Rheingold says, yet they have no face-to-face contact, are not bound by the constraints of time or place, and use computers to communicate with one another.
Using highly engaging anecdotes from the virtual community to which he belongs — the WELL — Rheingold describes computer networking as decentralized, informal, eclectic, and essentially self-governing. It is difficult to generalize, he notes, for "there is no such thing as a single, monolithic, online subculture; it is more like an ecosystem of subcultures, some frivolous, others serious." Nevertheless, there is a distinctive quality about the sort of discourse that takes place online. It can be compared with the conversation that arises in cafes, community centers, bars, beauty parlors, and other public places. The virtual community, in this sense, is analogous to the concept of the public sphere.
After tracing the history of what he calls "the Net" — the web of "loosely interconnected computer networks that ... link people around the world into public discussions" — Rheingold explores some of the many possibilities of virtual communities, from electronic mail to global bulletin boards to real-time computer conferencing. He then examines how the Net operates overseas, particularly in Japan and France where new computer technologies have been met with greater political resistance than in the United States. He also looks at the widening circles of cyberspace — which he refers to as the "electronic frontier" — particularly the innovative methods network pioneers and online activists have used to counter the growing pressures of corporate control and government regulation.
Despite his concerns about commercialization and government intervention, Rheingold is skeptical of the sort of technological utopianism that characterizes many online enthusiasts. The notion that new technologies can cure our social and political ills "is a kind of millennial, even messianic, hope, apparently ever-latent in the breasts of the citizenry," he observes. The power of electronic democracy, and computer networking in particular, is that it can radically decentralize political communication and reinvigorate the public sphere. But "the Net that is a marvelous lateral network can also be used as a kind of invisible yet inescapable cage," he adds, subject to the whims of "malevolent political leaders" or "the owners of television networks, newspaper syndicates, and publishing conglomerates." In conclusion, he says that "instead of falling under the spell of a sales pitch, or rejecting new technologies as instruments of illusion, we need to look closely at new technologies and ask how they could help build stronger, more humane communities — and how they might be obstacles to that goal."
See also: Life on the Electronic Frontier: An Interview with Howard Rheingold
Copyright 1993 by Scott London. All rights reserved.