Community experience: real vs virtual

Please note that this blog is written in an academic style, not my usual Matt-isms.

This short essay focusses the potential risks of particular types of community that exist only online. I will use concepts defined by Marshall McLuhan and other theorists to highlight and analyse the differences between online- and offline-specific examples and identify rationale for these risks.

In the essay, I look at computer virus exchange (VX) communities and how Jean Baudrillard’s theory of hyperreality helps to explain both the behaviour of these communities and the reasons behind their absence from the real world.

Van Dijk, (2006) states that “we may call the 21st century the age of networks” and this brings many advantages. McLuhan (1962) talks optimistically of a large harmonious utopian network encompassing the world using technology. This idea of a worldwide community is one that exists only in cyberspace. Without modern communication technology, McLuhan’s idea of the ‘global village’ would not be possible. “The new electronic independence re-creates the world in the image of a global village.” McLuhan (1962). The theory of the global village highlights some of the advantages of the “age of networks” and details the opportunities of the information age. UK Prime Minister Tony Blair spoke in 2002 of the increase in power and productivity of people and institutions that form large networks. If this statement is true then the global village, the largest network of all, would hypothetically weild great power for constructive, but also destructive, use.

The main advantage of this virtual community is to extend the functions of a real community across a greater physical distance which, as is evident within most modern web applications, a dramatically positive outcome. Many of the disadvantages of virtual communities are only created when they become more than an extension of real communities and become entities with characteristics unique to the virtual community, often dictated or shaped by the effects of the mediation itself.

Esther Dyson talks of virtual communities being an escape from the real world. Evidently, in some cases, this provokes a break from the real world laws and responsibilities. Escapism, when in the form of a computer game for example, is largely harmless. A user is able to break laws such as physics in-game by flying. A user is also able to break criminal laws by shooting a character controlled by another real person. In many games, other benefits of the virtual community, such as the ability to steal or break real laws, becomes an experience largely impossible using a real community on its own.

The immovable and permanent nature of real-life communities makes them more trustworthy in terms of identification by others. Whilst a real criminal could be identified by appearance, sound, smell and other characteristics, many of these are not yet present in virtual communities and can be hidden or disguised to a greater extent than in the real world. Removing these character-judging attributes such as body language can often make fraud in the virtual world more difficult to identify than in the real world. A prime example of this fraud is phishing and pharming. A pharming website replicating a reputable banking website is more easily constructed and likely to be more legitimate in appearance than the real-life alternative: setting up a fake bank branch, targeting possible customers in the street and directing them to the ‘new branch’ to confirm their personal details. The hypothetical and detached nature of the virtual world makes the process of employing fraud strategies such as this much easier and is therefore likely to be the medium for many less dedicated (and, considering the example, clearly more intelligent) thieves.

Howard Rheingold stated in The Virtual Community (1993) that “People in virtual communities do just about everything people do in real life, but we leave our bodies behind.” Does this mean that responsibility and morality is left behind with the body?

Esther Dyson (1997) states that the desires of the participants of or ‘buyers-in to’ an online community should mesh and that investment into the community should make it difficult to leave or face ‘punishment’. This lack of consequence removes consideration for certain real-life responsibilities. Verbally abusing a person in a web forum avoids the potential consequence of physical harm that is apparent when verbally abusing someone face-to-face. Virtual communities offer free speech without consequence. This fact, combined with the united purpose of many virtual communities, often the reason for joining the community, and likely the similar views of the group participants can create a largely unpoliced self-supporting gathering operating strong ‘groupthink’. This groupthink can be observed in certain communities operating on the world wide web, thus creating a dystopian reality where the benefits of the utopian global village are arguably outweighed by the drawbacks.

Web discussion communities operate groupthink and therefore have a distorted view of the subject matter because of the shared beliefs and ideologies of the community members. The purpose of a community, often defined by its title or location on the web provides a set of subliminal entry requirements of some sort which will prevent many of the much-needed opposing views from reaching the community, potentially eliminating conflict and arguement. Without opposition, this distorted representation of reality becomes reality to the community members. Jean Baudrillard (1998) supports this statement: “It [is] no longer real, but of the order of the hyperreal and of simulation. It is no longer a question of a false representation of reality (ideology), but of concealing the fact that the real is no longer real, and thus of saving the reality principle.” Internet paedophilia is another example of this groupthink community.

Taking the ‘Worlds Largest Pro Anorexia Site’ as an example, the name ‘Pro anorexia’ means that the public will only sign up to the community if they buy into the ideology of anorexia as a way of life. When communities such as this are kept on the web, the community members have to actively seek out content. On the other hand, the British National Party (BNP) website has a BNP-moderated discussion section. The BNP are renowned for being a far-right wing (arguably extemist) organisation. The difference with this community is the existence of biased propeganda across different media, reaching audiences that have not actively subscribed to the BNP ideology but, being as much of a real-life community as a virtual one, the BNP is subject to opposing views and is arguably not as ‘brainwashed’ as the anorexic community.

Hackers are thieves living the hyperreal hacker lifestyle that have “no evidence of meaningful sense of reciprocal responsibility or mutual obligation” (Postman, 1993). Viruses have real life effect on data, similar to the phishing and pharming sites mentioned earlier except theft takes place in a much more passive manner. ID theft and surveillance can become a very real problem from a completely virtual community such as a virus exchange (VX) community which is unfortunately subject to the same effects of groupthink as the pro-anorexia group.

Physical proxemic neighbourhoods with ‘jack of all trades’ abilities are inferior to the productive, often expert virtual communities where distance is irrelevant. Obviously this productivity is a great strength but, as explained above, it carries a great risk. This means that whilst virtual communities offer different experiences to real life communities, the impact of a virtual community on a real-life community or vice-versa can be of great significance and, considering the examples given, even dangerous. Before accepting the dominant ideology that a network such as the internet should encourage free speech and should be unpoliced, this can mean a level of protection is removed from the general public in terms of theft, compared with real-life theft. This virtual theft will in turn have a knock-on effect to real-life loss, meaning that although the experiences between virtual and real communities are different, they cannot logically be isolated in terms of risk of theft, damage and danger.

References

Baudrillard J (1998) Selected Writings. Stanford University Press.

Dyson E (1997) Release 2.0: a Design for Living in the Digital Age, Broadway books.

Griffin N (2007) The British National Party Website, viewed 3 December 2007, http://www.bnp.org.uk.

McLuhan M (1962) The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man, University of Toronto Press. ISBN 978-0802060419.

‘not_this_planet’ et al (2007) World’s Largest Pro Anorexia Site, viewed 4 December 2007, http://community.livejournal.com/proanorexia

‘not_this_planet’ et al (2007) not_this_planets’s LiveJournal, viewed 4 December 2007, http://not-this-planet.livejournal.com/1303.html

Matt Radbourne

Matt Radbourne

London-based web developer, tech enthusiast and digital exorcist.

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