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By Howard Rheingold
Editor, The Whole Earth Review, 27 Gate Five Road, Sausalito, CA 94965.
NOTE: In 1988, Whole Earth Review published my article, "Virtual Communities." Four years later, I reread it and realized that I had learned a few things, and that the world I was observing had changed. So I rewrote it. The original version is available on the WELL as `/uh/72/hlr/virtual_communities88'.
Portions of this will appear in Globalizing Networks: Computers and International Communication, edited by Linda Harasim and Jan Walls for MIT press. Portions of this will appear in "Virtual Communities," by Howard Rheingold, Addison-Wesley. Portions of this may find their way into Whole Earth Review.
This is a world-readable file, and I think these are important issues; encourage distribution, but I do ask for fair use: Don't remove my name from my words when you quote or reproduce them, don't change them, and don't impair my ability to make a living with them.
I'm a writer, so I spend a lot of time alone in a room with my words and my thoughts. On occasion, I venture outside to interview people or to find information. After work, I reenter the human community, via my family, my neighborhood, my circle of acquaintances. But that regime left me feeling isolated and lonely during the working day, with few opportunities to expand my circle of friends. For the past seven years, however, I have participated in a wide-ranging, intellectually stimulating, professionally rewarding, sometimes painful, and often intensely emotional ongoing interchange with dozens of new friends, hundreds of colleagues, thousands of acquaintances. And I still spend many of my days in a room, physically isolated. My mind, however, is linked with a worldwide collection of like-minded (and not so like-minded) souls: My virtual community.
Virtual communities emerged from a surprising intersection of humanity and technology. When the ubiquity of the world telecommunications network is combined with the information-structuring and storing capabilities of computers, a new communication medium becomes possible. As we've learned from the history of the telephone, radio, television, people can adopt new communication media and redesign their way of life with surprising rapidity. Computers, modems, and communication networks furnish the technological infrastructure of computer-mediated communication (CMC); cyberspace is the conceptual space where words and human relationships, data and wealth and power are manifested by people using CMC technology; virtual communities are cultural aggregations that emerge when enough people bump into each other often enough in cyberspace.
A virtual community as they exist today is a group of people who may or may not meet one another face to face, and who exchange words and ideas through the mediation of computer bulletin boards and networks. In cyberspace, we chat and argue, engage in intellectual intercourse, perform acts of commerce, exchange knowledge, share emotional support, make plans, brainstorm, gossip, feud, fall in love, find friends and lose them, play games and metagames, flirt, create a little high art and a lot of idle talk. We do everything people do when people get together, but we do it with words on computer screens, leaving our bodies behind. Millions of us have already built communities where our identities commingle and interact electronically, independent of local time or location. The way a few of us live now might be the way a larger population will live, decades hence.
The pioneers are still out there exploring the frontier, the borders of the domain have yet to be determined, or even the shape of it, or the best way to find one's way in it. But people are using the technology of computer-mediated communications CMC technology to do things with each other that weren't possible before. Human behavior in cyberspace, as we can observe it and participate in it today, is going to be a crucially important factor. The ways in which people use CMC always will be rooted in human needs, not hardware or software.
If the use of virtual communities turns out to answer a deep and compelling need in people, and not just snag onto a human foible like pinball or pac-man, today's small online enclaves may grow into much larger networks over the next twenty years. The potential for social change is a side-effect of the trajectory of telecommunications and computer industries, as it can be forecast for the next ten years. This odd social revolution -- communities of people who may never or rarely meet face to face -- might piggyback on the technologies that the biggest telecommunication companies already are planning to install over the next ten years.
It is possible that the hardware and software of a new global telecommunications infrastructure, orders of magnitude more powerful than today's state of the art, now moving from the laboratories to the market, will expand the reach of this spaceless place throughout the 1990s to a much wider population than today's hackers, technologists, scholars, students, and enthusiasts. The age of the online pioneers will end soon, and the cyberspace settlers will come en-masse. Telecommuters who might have thought they were just working from home and avoiding one day of gridlock on the freeway will find themselves drawn into a whole new society. Students and scientists are already there, artists have made significant inroads, librarians and educators have their own pioneers as well, and political activists of all stripes have just begun to discover the power of plugging a computer into a telephone. When today's millions become tens and hundreds of millions, perhaps billions, what kind of place, and what kind of model for human behavior will they find?
Today's bedroom electronic bulletin boards, regional computer conferencing systems, global computer networks offer clues to what might happen when more powerful enabling technology comes along. The hardware for amplifying the computing and communication capacity of every home on the world-grid is in the pipeline, although the ultimate applications are not yet clear. We'll be able to transfer the Library of Congress from any point on the globe to any another point in seconds, upload and download full-motion digital video at will. But is that really what people are likely to do with all that bandwidth and computing power? Some of the answers have to come from the behavioral rather than the technological part of the system. How will people actually use the desktop supercomputers and multimedia telephones that the engineers tell us we'll have in the near future.
One possibility is that people are going to do what people always do with a new communication technology: use it in ways never intended or foreseen by its inventors, to turn old social codes inside out and make new kinds of communities possible. CMC will change us, and change our culture, the way telephones and televisions and cheap video cameras changed us -- by altering the way we perceive and communicate. Virtual communities transformed my life profoundly, years ago, and continue to do so.
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