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Online Communities: Commerce, Community Action, and the Virtual University

Editor: Chris Werry, Miranda Mowbray
Publisher: Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2000
Review Published: September 2003

 REVIEW 1: Gloria Gannaway

Online Communities: Commerce, Community Action, and the Virtual University, edited by Chris Werry and Miranda Mowbray, is a fascinating collection of seventeen chapters written by different scholars on different aspects of and issues concerning online communities. Divided into three sections - - commerce, community action, and the virtual university -- the book is packed with valuable research and analysis, extensive bibliographies, and provocative ideas.

The layout and organization of the book are very helpful with an outline of contents in the preface as well as before each section. Most chapters are very well-developed and clearly written, with clear introductions and well-labeled sections for reference and browsing.

Part One, Commercial Online Communities, consists of five varied and interesting chapters, the first of which, by Chris Werry, is, appropriately, a history and critique of the ways the concept of online communities has been represented in business texts. It shows how representations have changed over time with increased efforts by business to commodify and privatize online communities. Werry believes academics have an important responsibility to construct alternative models of online community in the context of increasing corporatization of higher education.

Chapter Two is a report by Janelle Brown on the tensions between the concepts of community and corporate profit using three case studies: Geocities, SmartGirl Internette, and Electric Minds. She finds that, in general, community and profit are mutually exclusive, that it is very difficult to offer a genuine community site giving some control to participants if one's aim is profit, and, conversely, it is difficult to turn a profit from a real community.

Next is a quirky and clever chapter on cookies and online community by Hillary Bays and Miranda Mowbray that explores the connection between the Internet "gift economy," the American cookie as symbol of giving, women as cookie bakers and givers, and the future of the online community. They conclude that, in the future, online communities will be dominated by the gift economy.

Following is a chapter by Robin B. Hamman who presents the findings of his study on the motivations of AOL users with special interest in identifying social isolation and loneliness and the effects of online activities on users' lives. He found research and communication with offline acquaintances to be common motivations and found no evidence of negative effects, contrary to the findings of other studies which claim that online communication tends to have a negative effect on offline community and social life. Hamman includes an interesting critique of the "seriously flawed" HomeNet study done by Carnegie Mellon.

The final chapter in this section on reducing demographic bias by Miranda Mowbray differs from all others in the book with its detailed description of a sociological study complete with tables of data. She studied an online community, Little Italy MOO, with an aim to learn something about reducing demographic bias in online communities. There are suggestions at the end, such as focusing on social communication and creativity in order to appeal to nontraditional Internet users.

Though I enjoyed reading every chapter in this rather lengthy book of four hundred pages, as an academic involved in both off and online teaching, I found the second and longest section of seven chapters on educational online communities to be exceptionally useful and interesting. First, Norman Clark looks critically at the commercialization of US college campuses by analyzing a successful company that sets up campus portal systems, Campus Pipeline. What is at stake is "the very definition of the academic community in an age of increasing commercialization. . . The rise of campus portals is linked to students' rising technological expectations and schools shrinking budgets," Clark says (130). Companies like Pipeline give services in exchange for the right to advertise, a practice that Clark strenuously objects to because of the dangerous message to students that everything is a commodity, even education. He is upset by educators who either don't object to treating students as consumers or feel they have no choice. He accuses these companies who claim to be revolutionizing education of exaggerated claims, of failure to deliver what they promise, and of redefining important terms such as "education," "communication," "community," and "consumption." His analysis reveals that, behind the rhetoric, lies a purely profit motive with the academic community defined essentially as a target demographic. Clark takes a very dim view of this trend and fears that advertising will become tied to instruction, a disastrous outcome.

In Chapter 7 Timothy W. Luke favorably contrasts his university's online program that is not for-profit with such corporate for-profit universities such as the University of Phoenix, a totally online institution. He believes that, so far, the enthusiasm for online education is mostly corporate hype, the reality being that not many students are signing up, the corporate programs aren't delivering what they promise, and there is fierce resistance from faculty. Nevertheless, Luke sees real potential for online education under certain conditions; i.e., emphasis on education not profit.

In the next chapter, Joanne Addison critiques the AAUP position document on distance learning, seeing a fatal flaw in their failure to insist on teachers sharing responsibility for technological design and delivery along with course content. She says they also fail to address the problem of increasing commercialization of education by hiring for-profit companies and outsourcing instructional technology. Addison sees great danger in this, citing David Noble, Paul LeBlanc, Ester Dyson, and others on the deleterious effects of the commodification of education, mainly the usurping of copyrights by universities and control over knowledge material and courses by those with profit motives. She cites e-College's crass promotion of their ability to deliver a complete online program, including training, in sixty days. In contrast, she cites the Open University of London whose aim is education, not profit. She recommends, among other things, that educators answer certain questions about what the mission of colleges and universities is and what it means to be an educator these days in this environment of technological and corporate intrusion into education.

Maria Bakardjieva and Andrew Feenberg discuss the ethics of online research, specifically the question of consent from the observed subject. They introduce the concept of alienation as the main factor in considering the rights of subjects, even more important than privacy. It is an interesting and important argument that I think they could have made a bit clearer and more convincing. Leaving the door open for not informing subjects in the interest of the quality of the research seems problematic and needs more thorough discussion. A very important argument is made about people constantly shifting their boundaries of privacy as well as having different definitions of privacy. What is most clear is their commitment to respecting individuals being studied.

Geoffrey Sauer's chapter deals with copyright law, courseware, and intellectual property law; for example, how changes in copyright law affect universities and Internet publishing. Sauer argues that US publishing is dominated by four corporations that are decreasingly interested in publishing books that won't sell a lot of copies, greatly reducing academic book choices in the sciences and humanities and leading to increasing commodification of academic knowledges. Many academics are now, therefore, publishing on the Internet. Sauer, along with others in this volume, question the sales pitch of cheaper and better educational services and enhanced community life in universities provided by Internet courseware vendors. And he agrees there is potential for academics to provide alternatives to commercial courseware. He gives some examples, such as the English Server at the University of Washington, an academic cooperative publishing a wide range of humanities texts serving as a collaborative model that allows the sharing of much more academic work than is possible in print publication. Sauer argues for systems that allow authors to keep their copyrights and encourages them to work with the tech experts. He recommends a less "defensive strategy" than, say, David Noble, a more practical response following Richard Stallman's argument for open source software leading to public intellectualism. Sauer is worried that, unless something is done to change the current direction, there will be a decrease in the importance of humanities and culture in the US and in the world.

Many chapters discuss specific online communities which is a very effective way to illustrate points. The whole of Chapter 11 describes a successful, innovative, and exciting online community called Red Escolar that supplements the traditional education system in Mexico. The authors, Walter Aprile and Teresa Vazquez Mantecan, believe this program can be used as a blueprint for technological outreach and distance education initiatives in developing countries. Among its features are collaboration projects involving many schools in discovery and research projects and publication of materials produced by participating schools. It is inspiring how much can be done with such scarce resources as one email address for an entire school! Their ambitious and enthusiastic aim is to reach all public primary and secondary schools in Mexico.

Richard Stallman is a thinker with a vision but, unlike the Red Escolar project, his vision has a long way to go to fruition. He argues for the need and the possibility for a free universal encyclopedia which will "provide an alternative to the restricted ones the corporations will write" (257). He explains what it should be and how to start it. A fundamental principle of this long term project is that it will be decentralized with no central control and written by thousands of contributors all over the world. This chapter was published in 1999 and is a good example of the need for an updated edition of this book to show us what progress has been made.

Another interesting and unusual feature of this book is the Part 2 Afterword, "Blood and Dreams in Cyberspace," by Cary Nelson who brings together many of the ideas of this section and adds his own interesting example of an innovative and controversial online community, the Burn Web site at the University of California at San Diego. It's a site (if it still exists) where apparently anyone can post information on politics and world affairs, including FARC in Columbia and the Zapatistas in Chiapas, Mexico. It was closed down in 2000 after someone powerful objected, but a student organization immediately put up a "mirror" of the site. For Nelson, the Burn Web site dynamic is an example of unstoppable political and cultural struggle on the Internet. He and many others must be very happy to see how much unstoppable political activism has occurred on the Internet since this book was published for a worldwide anti-globalization and anti-war movement of unprecedented size and scope that continues to gain momentum, leading some to call it the second world superpower -- public opinion. Here is another good reason for a new edition of the book along with other enormous changes that have occurred, such as diminution of privacy rights in the US and other countries, for example. The second part of the chapter is a valuable and interesting summation and commentary of some of the main points made in this section of the book -- a great idea that many editors could consider emulating. Nelson emphasizes the undemocratic corporate influences that threaten freedom on the Internet, specifically online education, privacy rights, and control of content. For Nelson one of the main purposes of this book is to sound a warning about these negative factors while acknowledging the positive potential and accomplishments of the Internet.

The third section of the book, Alternative Online Communities, begins with a discussion by Douglas Schuler on the necessity for participatory democracy at all levels of decision-making processes on the Internet as the key to democracy on the Internet. He claims that there are at present few examples of democratic process. He puts communication technology into the context of the many problems the world faces today such as the increasing gap between rich and poor. Schular provides many important facts about the imbalance in the world of who has access to the Internet and the dominance of English. After giving some gloomy predictions, he highlights Seattle as a possible model of democratic communication technology and describes numerous successful projects. He also points out the importance of conferences and symposia on the new information communication technologies, such as "Shaping the Network Society" held by Computer Professionals for Social Responsiblity in 2000. [There has been a subsequent "Shaping the Network Society," held at the University of Washington in 2002 -- ed.] There are now over 400 community computer networks worldwide that are democratic and community oriented, he notes, but, on the downside, world governments are increasingly shirking their social responsibility requiring an increase in community networks and more struggle for policies that strengthen public media.

Chapter 15 features a set of interviews of Oxfam staff talking about their pioneering use of intranet and the Internet along with their difficulties, successes, and failures edited by Julia Flynn. This chapter illustrates the use of the Internet as an important tool for improving the world and the concluding paragraph makes one of the most important points in the book -- a very savvy Oxfam staff member emphasizes the importance of making a distinction between information and knowledge in the effort to overcome world poverty; information must be turned into useful knowledge that can be shared.

The following chapter is a fascinating and eye-opening history lesson that teaches, in a nutshell, that every revolutionary technology from the canal and railway to computers has spawned rapturous utopian claims in the US for increased democracy, morality, equality, and community. And so far none of these claims have materialized. Thus Randy Connolly evaluates the claim that online communication as political instrument can offer solutions to today's social and political problems. His perspective suggests that the current hope invested in the online community is "just the latest chapter in a continuing hope that a technology can ameliorate the political problems of a large and geographically dispersed republican democracy" (318). But he doesn't rule out the possibility that it really will happen one day, and it would be interesting to see what he thinks now that there may be more reason than ever for hope.

The final chapter ends the book with a bang, not a whimper! It is quite dense and has by far the longest bibliography in the book; Luciano Paccagnella cites many theoretical scholars and packs in enough material for a book. There is no doubt that he has a lot of important things to say and has said some, though not all, of them clearly -- clearly enough to whet one's appetite for more, at least. One of the most important concepts he discusses is the "network society" developed by Manuel Castells, who is mentioned by other authors in the book as well. Paccagnella likes this idea for its emphasis on relations rather than individuals. He also talks about the importance of "weak ties" -- the many small but significant connections one has in daily life that can greatly increase in number and kind with the Internet. He has an interesting definition of the "global village" as, not the world as a village, but each person's village made up of people from all over the world. The complexity of social networks includes and is enriched by relationships in cyberspace with no implication that he can see of rejection of the physical world. Interestingly, Paccagnella valorizes the hacker attitude because it "makes visible the power hidden behind the code-producting monopolies," showing the vulnerability of society and the strength of individual freedom (392). He presents a very important and interesting argument about the "production and control of symbolic codes that organize information and make sense of it," claiming that "in the information society, power moves from the control of material resources toward control of codes" (388). He emphasizes that these codes contain values and modes of thought and behavior and that power and hegemony will survive even if access to information and technology increases because there is more to the reality than a simple equation of information and power. However, he is optimistic that the examples of genuine alternative life-enhancing online communities that currently exist will be seen as models.

It is interesting and reassuring that many contributors to this book share a skepticism toward the intrusion of corporations into education as well as an enthusiasm for exploring the positive potential of online education and the Internet in general; many cite the same sources and even each other's chapters. Fortunately, however, all authors have different slants on the subject and the chapters complement each other. Though Chris Werry and Miranda Mowbray’s Online Communities: Commerce, Community Action, and the Virtual University was published in 2001, one wishes for an updated edition as soon as possible since things change so rapidly in the world of online communities.

Gloria Gannaway:
Review by Gloria Gannaway, Ph.D., is a writer and a teacher of an online cyberculture course, Perspectives On Cyberculture, for the University of California, Berkeley.  <GLOBOGAL@aol.com>

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