Faculty of Communication and Culture
University of Calgary
San Diego State University
The objective of this paper is the further development of the concept of “virtual community” in the context of Internet design and use. We understand “community” in the strong sense as a scene of long-term interactions on which a large share of human development occurs. As such it is a fundamental human value and deserves a prominent place in the field of computer ethics.
The practice of virtual community is also related to the prospects for democracy in the information age. The democratization of the Internet involves not merely the economics of participation, but also the ability of ordinary people to express themselves and pursue meaningful experiences in the virtual worlds created by computer communication. We believe the vitality of online community is one significant index of the democratization of the Internet.
Unlike work-oriented groupware, community applications on the Internet have emerged spontaneously for the most part and there has been little study of how different types of software impact online community life. But we believe that the adequacy of the software support for network communities will be among the decisive factors determining whether they will succeed in becoming a widely accepted means to reliable and consequential relationships and cooperative action with others. Without such support, network communities may remain in the category of those technical possibilities that emerge for a short historical instant and then fall into oblivion. As commercial interest in online community begins to emerge, groupware intended for community-building proliferates on different platforms and in different formats. A new field of software development – “groupware for community” – is starting to take shape.
Our research, funded by the US National Science Foundation, aims at contributing to this new field by focusing attention on the ethical dimensions of online community. We address three central questions:
- How familiar moral concepts are reconstructed as the basis of online community in the unusual network environment.
- How experiences with computer networks relate to the everyday lives of users.
- What technical features and designs of computer networks support and facilitate the activities and values identified in (1) and (2).
In the first part of the paper we review the history of community practice and the evolution of groupware for community on computer networks. We identify the contexts in which such practices and groupware have emerged and the actors involved in their social construction.
The study reported in the second part of the paper examines in depth one particular virtual community – a self-help mailing list. The research methodology includes observation and discourse analysis of the verbal interactions in this online community and online and off-line interviews with its moderator and participants. The data are used to understand what participation in virtual communities means to these people, as well as how it fits into the larger picture of their lives. Relationships between the specific groupware community members utilize and the ethical quality of their interactions are identified and evaluated.
Our analysis reveals that the existence of voluntary online communities, such as the one we examined, is critically dependant on the emergence of a reliable system of ethical norms. In fact, people turn to their virtual community because it represents an ethical environment they can predict and control as opposed to the precarious ethics of their surrounding world. Software can help or obstruct the emergence and maintenance of ethical norms in a decisive way. The lack of flexibility and community-friendliness in mailing-list software sometimes creates serious difficulties for participants in upholding the ethical standards of their community. We identify some of these difficulties and propose ways in which they can be eliminated by alternative software designs. We provide guidelines for designers and organizers who face the challenge of constructing viable virtual communities.