Community and Consumption: The Transformation of Social Space Online


Community, virtual community, public sphere, electronic commerce / Communauté, communauté virtuelle, domaine public, commerce électronique

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McGuire, M. (2005). Community and Consumption: The Transformation of Social Space Online. Digital Studies/le Champ Numérique, (10). DOI:


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1. Perverse Routing Decisions

This paper touches on the three related concepts: public space, public discourse, and civil society. Both the built environment and screen-based experiences shape our sense of community, and the concept of community is central to ideas about civic space and public life. Other presentations at this conference have highlighted the importance of open conversation with others and the transformations that these conversations make possible. In this paper, I argue that increasing privatization, specialization, and individualism place severe limitations on the shared spaces where these conversations can take place.

The process by which this happens is summed up by a phrase that a media commentator recently used to describe how Telecom New Zealand handles network traffic in that country: "Perverse Routing Decisions" ( Brown, 2005). Rather than making arrangements with other Internet Service Providers so that each can use the other's exchange to ensure that data travels to the destination in the most direct route possible, a process known as "peering", Russell Brown explained how Telecom diverts local Internet traffic to a distant exchange (say, in California) and back again. In networking terms, this is a "perverse routing decision" because it inhibits fast and cost effective communication between individuals online. Clearly, as a private service provider, Telecom is more interested the income that this indirect path generates than it is in the speed and quality of the communication. A decision that seems perverse to those engaged in computer mediated conversation makes perfectly good business sense to those who profit from the redirection of social discourse.

"Routing", the process of sending a message across a network using the most appropriate path, has its equivalent in the most efficient route that a car might take as it travels through the urban and suburban network of motorways, feeder roads and neighbourhood streets from one address to another. Yet the plan of many suburban areas reveals a perverse strategy as diversions, loops and cul-de-sacs increase distance, reduce proximity, and inhibit communication between people at different locations. In this way, physical environments and their online equivalent appear to mirror one another.

2. Irvine, California

A typical block plan in Irvine California illustrates how planning decisions can ensure that addresses that are in close physical proximity can be effectively separated, ensuring that people from different neighbourhoods are kept apart (Figure 1). The result is a reduction in communication between the residents and a weaker community. At significant intersections, where public squares or open markets might be found in a traditional town, Irvine commuters stop to full up on gas or shop at The Crossroads Mall (Figure 2). Opportunities to meet other residents here are very limited. Signs at the entrance to the parking lot announce that this is private property and that anyone caught loitering, soliciting or trespassing will be prosecuted. A small cluster of tables outside the ubiquitous Starbucks Coffee shop caters to just a handful of people (Figure 3). Most prefer to enjoy their coffee safe from strangers in the protection of their home-away-from-home -- the climate controlled automobile (Figure 4). Between the home and the workplace, this is where most face to face conversations takes place.

3. Mirror Worlds

Waiting for a bus can be a lonely experience in car-obsessed Irvine, where few people can be seen walking the streets (Figure 5). The same could be said for a place called "The Hole" (Figure 6), a dystopian mirror world that can be found in AlphaWorld, the oldest and most popular of more than 1,000 themed environments that make up ActiveWorlds. Every day, more than 1,000,000 individuals drop into this online universe via the ActiveWorlds Gate (Figure 7). 40,000 fee-paying "citizens" and countless "tourists" select an avatar and travel, chat, shop, build homes, and play games, all in real time 3D (The Activeworlds Corporation, 2003)

Cybertown, (, another popular 3D immersive, real-time chat environment, opened in 1995 and attracted more than 550,000 members before its tenth birthday. Citizens and visitors meet one another in the public Plaza (Figure 8), where more experienced members invite them to settle in one of the many themed neighbourhoods. Paying members can choose (or design) a personalized 3D avatar to shop in the mall, dance in the nightclub, play games in the Casino and Arcade, attend events, and chat. They become active citzens in this "large intergalactic online community" by joining and forming clubs, constructing objects, holding a job to earn "citycash," buying and furnishing 3D houses, and taking part in ongoing role-playing games ( Cybertown, 2004 ).

Habbo Hotel ( ) is a game-like virtual Hotel that resembles an interactive Legoland, in which participants assemble their own toy-like "Habbo" character and explore the hotel, chat, play games and interact with objects and other members (Figure 9). The first Habbo Hotel opened in the United Kingdom in January 2001. In early 2006, 16 Hotels were in operation on four continents, with another planned to open in China. More than 5.4 million unique visitors check into these Habbo Hotels each month (Worldwide online community).

Individuals visit ActiveWorlds, Cybertown, and Habbo Hotel to play and to meet others. All are advertised as community projects that enable participants to construct environments that support social activity. However, before we accept that these sites constitute "virtual communities," we have to first ask what the term "community" means.

4. Community and Virtual Community

There is no single widely accepted definition of the term "community". The word is used indiscriminately to refer to groups of countries, religious groups, professional organizations, and neighbourhoods. However, in a survey of contemporary uses of the term, Isabel Garcia, Fernando Giuliani, and Esther Wiesenfeld found that most involve one or more core concepts. These include: a group of people; social interaction; shared cultural practices; common geographic space; and a sense of belonging (Garcia, Giuliani and Wiesenfeld, 1999, pp. 728-9). Joseph R. Gusfield divided the different uses of the term into two categories. The first is based on geographic location, or territory. These place-based communities arise from a feeling of belonging to a specific neighbourhood, city or region. The second category consists of communities of interest, which do not depend upon shared space (Gusfield, 1975).

Over the past twenty years, the conception of communities as geographically-based sites for social interaction has shifted to one that places greater importance on identity and meaning. In (The Symbolic Structure of Communities, 1985), Anthony Cohen suggests that communities are better understood as symbolic structures than as place-based social practices. In his first-person account of The WELL (Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link), one of the earliest efforts to construct a social space online, Howard Rheingold highlights the social potential of online communication. He defines virtual communities as "social aggregations that emerge from the Net when enough people carry on those public discussions long enough, with sufficient human feeling, to form webs of personal relationships in cyberspace" (Rheingold, 1993, p. 5).

Network analysts who, unlike place-oriented community sociologists, prefer to define community in terms of the connections between people, rather than in terms of space, share this view. Barry Wellman and Milena Gulia point out that "communities do not have to be solitary groups of densely knit neighbors but could also exist as social networks of kin, friends, and workmates who do not necessarily live in the same neighborhoods" (Wellman and Gulia, 1999, p. 169). Similarly, M. A. Royal and R. Rossi have commented that "the significance of community as a territorial phenomenon has declined, while the significance of community as a relational phenomenon has grown" (1996, p. 395).

In Imaginary Communities, Benedict Anderson defines a nation as an "imagined political community" (1991, p. 5). It is imagined in the sense that its members share a common idea of their close association, even though they will never meet most other members. He argues that this construction is a form of community that is just as authentic as traditional place-based variants. In fact, he maintains that "all communities larger than primordial villages of face-to-face contact (and perhaps even these) are imagined," (p. 6) and that it is the style in which they are imagined that distinguishes one from another. Since the Internet provides new ways of apprehending the world, it creates possibilities for different forms of imagined communities.

Echoing Anderson, Poster reminds us that, just as virtual communities exhibit characteristics of what are considered to be "real" communities, "real" communities also depend upon imagination. The crucial determinant of a true community, Poster suggests, is that its members treat the communication between them as important and meaningful (1995, pp. 35-6). Whether or not Rheingold 's electronically mediated "webs of personal relationships," or Wellman's "social networks," constitute a community, then, depends on the degree to which the members affirm the existence of necessary characteristics that will support meaningful communication. These characteristics exist to the degree that they can be imagined, or sensed by the participants. This is what Seymour Sarason describes as a"psychological sense of community" (1977, p. 157).

5. Early Online Communities

The first decade of online social interaction, up to about 1995, was characterized by great optimism, social and technical experimentation, and a sense that grass roots activism could lead to new kinds of community formations. The term "Netizens" began to be used to refer to people who, in the words of Michael Hauben, "decide to devote time and effort into making the Net, this new part of our world, a better place" (Hauben, 1997). The term reflects a new, non-geographically-based social membership that includes anyone willing to work in a voluntary, cooperative and collective fashion to create a global online community for the benefit of the world at large. This utopian vision reflects the early, optimistic period in the development of the Internet, when it was regarded as an open, public, forum that provided an alternative to privately owned print media and commercial broadcast networks.

The WELL (, one of the earliest and most influential bulletin board systems, was set up as a social experiment by individuals who were motivated by the ideals of 1960s student activism, had lived in intentional communities, and who shared an interest in alternative publishing. In his 1993 book documenting the first seven years of the WELL, Rheingold describes this celebrated online service as a "new kind of culture" and an "authentic community" ( Rheingold, p. 2). He believed that, if this citizen-designed, citizen-controlled network could serve as a model for larger scale projects, the public sphere could be revitalized (Rheingold, pp. 13-14).

Although the network grew to ten thousand members at its peak, the core participants lived within a limited physical area, and regular face-to-face meetings kept the virtual community grounded in the everyday physical world ( Rheingold, 1993, p. 2). Crucially, the combination of screen-based and person-to-person interactions enabled the members to work through serious interpersonal disputes, to agree on a set of rules, and to establish and administer sanctions for uncivil behavior. Indeed, managing conflict "seemed to cement the WELL's sense of community" ( Hafner, 2001, p. 42).

Other successful early experiments in the creation of computer-mediated online social spaces shared many of the WELL's central characteristics: a connection to a local place-based community, a simple, text-based interface, member participation in governance, and a lack of commercial content. Echo (, which resembles the WELL in many respects, is a virtual community that has served as the virtual salon of New York City since 1990. More than 80% of the 3,000 participants meet other Echo members face to face, a practice encouraged by regular Echo parties, softball in Central Park, beach trips, and other events. Echo ties into New York City's social, cultural and entertainment activities by hosting live chats with local writers, artists and filmmakers, and listing books and live performances by Echo members (About Echo, 2004).

The Blacksburg Electronic Village (BEV) demonstrates how computer-mediate communication technology can support a physical community by focusing on accessibility, rather than on the technology ( The variety of community events and announcements listed on the simple, but very usable, BEV home page highlights the inclusive nature of this online effort, which began in 1993 (Blacksburg Electronic Village, 2004). Bell Atlantic of Virginia, Virginia Tech, and the Town of Blacksburg formed an alliance in 1993 to create a community network for the 36,000 residents of this rural college townthat could serve as a model for other communities. A non-profit corporation with community representation, BEV, Inc., was set up to provide input to the members of the alliance. By 1999, when only 35% of US residents had access to the Internet, 85% of the citizens of Blacksburg were connected. More than 400 other community networks were active nation wide, with many applying the lessons learned at the BEV.

Blacksburg residents still socialize in cafés, bars and other public places, and more businesses, restaurants and stores continue to open physical premises in the town. The BEV demonstrates that electronic communication and online shopping can complement social and commercial activity offline, if they are designed by and for the local community (Bowden, Blythe and Cohill, 2000).

6. The Electronic Public Sphere

In the early 1960s, Jürgen Habermas outlined the origins and development of the "public sphere," a social institution that he traces to the salons and coffee houses of late seventeenth century Germany, England and France. In these public forums, which were accessible to a wide variety of people, citizens could engage in rational critical discussion, and promote ideas to advance the common good. Social experiences were discussed, state affairs were debated, and ideas were publicized through the print media. However, when market forces pervaded the realm of public discourse, "the web of public communication unraveled into acts of individuated reception" (Habermas, 1989, p. 161) and the public sphere was "transmogrified" by the mass media into a "sphere of culture consumption." (p. 162). The result is a public sphere that exists in appearance only. Subsumed into the marketplace of commodities, it is controlled by, and serves, private interests. The conversion of the Internet, which began as a public service project, into a collection of privately owned online communities, repeats this transformation in electronic space. In both cases, the image of what has been replaced is all that remains. This façade mitigates the loss and conceals the revised function.

When private companies decided that they could profitably use the Internet to advance their corporate agenda, they were quick to discover that creating the illusion of community could form part of a successful strategy. By disguising their private cyberspaces as community projects, they could encourage private consumption while appearing to contribute to the development of a public sphere online. The result is a domain that appears more public and sociable as it becomes increasingly privatized and commercial.


A 1997 manifesto by John Hagel and Arthur G. Armstrong, Net Gain: Expanding Markets through Virtual Communities, explains how existing businesses can profit from incorporating a community component into corporate sites, and it describes how new businesses can be designed around the community model. The key, they argue, is the combination of content and communication. Because virtual communities provide an ideal context for this integration, they could serve as "the kernel of a fundamentally new business model" (Hagel and Armstrong, 1997, p. x). A successful virtual community business is one that provides a transaction environment that attracts a large number of interested members, who are then turned into active customers. "What is really at issue," stress Hagel and Armstrong, is "who will own the customer," and who will extract value from the user profiles and usage records that are collected in these online commercial spaces (p. 109).

In their book Communities of Commerce, Stacey E. Bressler and Charles E. Grantham note that belonging to a community meets some basic psychological needs, and that company executives can take advantage of this by utilising the community metaphor in their businesses. Communities of commerce satisfy the need for a "comfortable environment" in "[t]imes of extreme change and rapid growth" by establishing a psychological connection between customers and suppliers through controlled "patterns of interaction" (2000, p. 38).

In her handbook Community Building on the Web, Amy Jo Kim advises that designers make two lists at the planning stage: one of members' needs and one of the owners' goals. The inevitability of competing objectives is apparent in her recommendation that two different missions statements are needed. One, for the designers, programmers, marketers and managers, is for internal consumption and highlights the owners' desire for a return on their investment. The other, which is "intended for public viewing," reflects the perceived needs of potential community members (Kim, 2000, pp. 9-25).

8., which began as an online book retailer in 1995, has grown into a virtual mega mall consisting of over 50 major stores and almost 200 specialty shops. As well as providing "Earth's Biggest Selection" of goods, the colourful, orderly site also offers a sense of belonging for loyal customers. As part of a welcoming ritual, registered users are greeted by name and are invited to examine a list of recommended items, which is generated automatically based on items previously viewed or purchased. Newcomers are encouraged to create a personal profile and a list of their most desired objects, which results in more recommendations and targeted specials (Amazon.Com: Welcome, 2004).

To be part of the social scene, one has to buy into it. Participants establish their identity and reputation in this environment through making purchases and posting reviews. Customers are invited to build a community of consumers by sharing wish lists, recommendations, reviews, and records of purchases (with personal ratings and comments), with a list of "Favorite People" consisting of friends, other Amazon shoppers and preferred reviewers (Amazon.Com: Friends, 2004). Members can also visit and join "Purchase Circles" that are automatically assembled by aggregating sales information into groups based on where members live, work, or attend school (Amazon.Com Purchase Circles, 2004). Since these circles are anonymous collections of purchasing activity, any feeling of belonging is limited to similarities in buying patterns and wish lists. Other relationships are established using a "collaborative filtering" algorithm that connects members to other shoppers with similar buying habits, and calls attention to their purchases (although not to their personal information). In this commercial space, any information that might lead to a purchase can be shared. What cannot be shared, according to the guidelines, includes personal contact details or a Web address that directs a shopper outside this community of consumers.

It may well be that, as social network analysts argue, that geographic territory is no longer a necessary prerequisite for community formation, and that the Internet will enable the creation of new kinds of social groups. However, it is not the nature of the technology itself that will determine whether computer mediated communication helps or hinders community formation. Ownership and control are central issues that are more likely to determine whose interests will be served.


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Mark McGuire (University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand)





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