Virtual Communities

views updated


Virtual communities organize and bring together individuals, groups, and businesses in cyberspace around common interests or purposes. From identity-and interest-based communities to industry-based business-to-business exchanges, virtual communities proliferated in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Each community has its own character, rules, culture, interface, and features, depending on the purposes to which it is dedicated and the community it serves. Thus, it is difficult to articulate the make-up of a "typical" community, although virtual-community operators shared many of the same technical and logistic concerns common to the community model. In general, however, the manner in which a virtual community develops must be dictated by the organic needs of its members, not the other way around.

According to Howard Rheingold, former online host for one of the world's largest virtual communities, The WELL, and founder of his own company specializing in helping businesses build virtual communities, businesses looking to add value by providing a business or customer community on their Web sites would do well to first consider how the community will fit into their marketing schemesin other words, to determine how the community will add value not only for the customers, but for the firm. Secondly, businesses need to amass and implement the appropriate technical infrastructure. Finally, businesses must decide on what Rheingold refers to as the "social infrastructure," which includes the basic ground rules for the types of questions that will be addressed, the modes of etiquette that users must abide by, whether the community discussions will be moderated, and so on.

Each of these architectural and design issues has its own layer of considerations. For instance, communities need to determine what kinds of people they do and do not wish to attract, and what they're going to do to procure the desired audience. These kinds of issues can prove crucial down the line. For example, U.S. courts generally hold that virtual communities that host chat rooms are not liable for slanderous or libelous postings by their members provided that the chat room is unmoderated. But if a moderator is present in the online chat rooms, the virtual community can be held responsible.

While businesses tapped into the community model to gain a competitive edge and create value with the Internet, some commentators viewed the virtual community as one of the primary methods by which the Internet could deliver on its promise of democratizing not only information but social and political life in general. According to this view, online communities allow generally isolated or marginalized groups to find each other in cyberspace, share ideas and concerns, and begin to build institutions for effecting societal change.

According to Online Community Report, in the early 2000s online communities were facing a turning point in their business operations. Typically, a community will try to sustain itself via a combination of membership fees, e-commerce, and advertising. While a handful of communities enjoyed success with this model, the majority of communities were likely to shift their business models to stay afloat. Online advertising, for instance, was in poor shape throughout the e-commerce world, and companies were particularly reluctant to advertise on pages on which the content was generated by users, such as in community conferences. Moreover, it was difficult to generate subscriber fees substantial enough to make up the difference, because users are hard-pressed to pay too much simply to talk to others. Thus, for all but some of the largest and most established communities, the early 2000s were likely to see communities seeking out a tighter focus, trying to capture a niche in which they can generate revenues to cover costs.

There exist a plethora of tools frequently employed by virtual communities, including chat rooms, listservs, message boards, email, forums, and more. Some virtual communities, such as GeoCities, simply provide users with free home pages and let them build communities themselves from the ground up. In this case, users establish their own sites to draw traffic, and in the course of its growth the page adds links to other sites of interest, until a community of common interests emerges from the grass roots.


One of the most popular of the Internet's online communities was The WELL, one of the oldest and most pioneering of communities. The WELL catered to an intellectual audience of educators, journalists, artists, activists, programmers, and others. To give its members a community feel, the WELL refuses to sell any information on its subscribers to marketers or conduct advertising inside membership areas on the Web site.

Born in 1985 as the Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link, the WELL emerged from a dialog between independent readers and writers of the Whole Earth Review. As the community grew, it was dominated by a literary and intellectual membership, though its specific focus expanded beyond the world of literature, initially drawing in counter-culture and computer enthusiasts and eventually opening its doors to thousands of topics of interest. In 1992, the WELL became one of the earliest commercial sites plugged into the Internet, and its Web site went online in 1994. In 1996 the community split in two, with the Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link splitting from the Internet access operations to concentrate on the full-service community model, developing its own forum software and becoming The WELL, LLC. In 1999, The WELL, LLC was acquired by

The hallmark of the community was its Conferences, numbering in the hundreds and devoted to wide-ranging topics, from the technical to the philosophical, from the social to the artistic. Conference hosts orientate new members and spur new lines of discussion. The WELL sees its core mission as providing space for rich conversation along with tools and services for building new, viable communities. Known mostly for its vigorous, often contentions intellectual discussions, the WELL particularly gave birth to many of the possibilities inherent in the Web for fueling intelligent discussion across worldwide networks.

The ezboard Web site went online in 1999, built only on a dial-up modem and a laptop computer, according to founder and chief executive Vanchau Nguyen, and grew into a hub of some 700,000 communities hosting 10.9 million users as of April 2001. ezboard provides its users with tools to personalize their online experience within the community so as to extract the greatest value out of their community experience. To generate extra revenue, ezboard instituted its Community-Supported Communities program, in which community users can make a small monthly contribution in return for boosted services. In this way, ezboard, with its large user base, was able to continue generating revenues despite declining advertising fees, and was further able to enhance communities where users voted with their dollars.

Founded in 1996, first emerged as a support community for parents. Over time, the community recognized that the shortfall in its revenues could be traced to advertisers' reluctance to market to such a broad demographic as "parents." Thus, iVillage decided to narrow its focus to women specifically, labeling itself the Woman's Network. From there, iVillage opened its community doors to topics of interestsfamily, parenting, career, relationships, legal advice, medical information, and morespecifically from women's perspective. The message boards are monitored by volunteers drawn from the community. In the early 2000s, iVillage merged with to form the largest online community devoted to women's issues. By 2001 the community boasted some 5 million members. was among the most popular virtual communities for African Americans. The community featured a variety of chat rooms focusing on diverse topics of interest to the African-American community, along with extensive news coverage and other writings. Moreover, featured an online career center for the exchange of resumes, company-profile searches, job postings, and other employment-related services, as well as a shopping center specializing in products produced and sold by African-American entrepreneurs. In addition to its many online systems and features, the community sponsors monthly events in the physical world for members to meet face-to-face. Other African-American-oriented online communities, such as, focus primarily on African-American culture and lifestyles, and feature extensive content in the form of poetry and prose, events listings, streaming-media performances, and culture-based shopping venues.


Andrews, Whit. "Who's Responsible? Host, Moderator, or Member?" Internet World, September 21, 1998.

Berst, Jesse. "What's Igniting Online Communities?" ZDNet, October 1, 1998. Available from

"Care for the Community." New Media Investor, February 15, 2001.

Cashel, Jim. "Top Ten Trends for Online Communities." Online Community Report, July 2001. Available from

Etzioni, Amitai. "E-Communities Build New Ties, But Ties That Bind." New York Times, February 10, 2000.

ezboard, Inc. "Welcome to ezboard." San Francisco, CA: ez-board, Inc., 2001. Available from

Hafner, Katie. "The Epic Saga of The WELL." Wired, May 1997. Available from

iVillage, Inc. " : The Women's NetworkBusy Women Sharing Solutions and Advice." iVillage, Inc., 2001. Available from

McKay, Jason. "Virtual Communities." Black Enterprise, October 2000.

Shapiro, Andrew L. "The Net that Binds: Using Cyberspace to Create Real Communities." The Nation, June 21, 1999.

Telleen, Steven L. "What it Means to Have Virtual Communities on an Intranet." Internet World, November 16, 1998.

The WELL LLC. "The WELL." San Francisco, CA: The WELL LLC, 2001. Available from

SEE ALSO: Community Model