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Communities in Cyberspace

Editor: Marc Smith, Peter Kollock
Publisher: London & New York: Routledge, 1999
Review Published: September 2003

 REVIEW 1: Janet Armentor

Marc Smith and Peter Kollock, in their edited book Communities in Cyberspace, provide readers with a series of sociological studies that address the question, "what kinds of social spaces do people create with networks?" (4). The content includes a series of studies on cyberculture that ranges from the investigation of persistent categories of inequality such as race, class, and gender to an analysis of community formations in cyber spaces. The authors emphasize media as a group endeavor rather than simply a communication tool. The book is divided into five parts beginning with Part I and chapter one as an introductory section outlining the topics throughout the book including types of communication media, identities in cyberspace, issues of honesty and deception, persistence of race, social control dynamics, community structures, and collective action processes. Furthermore, a common thread running through the chapters is an "understanding that the kinds of interactions and institutions emerging in cyberspace are more complicated than can be captured in one-sided utopian or dystopian terms" (4). Other concerns involve thinking of the Internet as a research site and understanding how interactions in these online spaces change social action as well as create consequences.

Part II deals with the topic of identity. In chapter two, "Identity and Deception in the Virtual Community," Judith Donath explores Usenet culture by creating an understanding of "how identity is established in an online community" by examining "the effects of identity deception and the conditions that give rise to it" (29). Donath begins this exploration by asking questions about the relationship between the self and the body. She explains the essentialness of identity as a fundamental part of a community. While this is an interesting perspective, a postmodern understanding might suggest a different approach to a notion of identity. A postmodern reading, through examining the consequences of a postmodern society, may understand identity formation and process as fluid and multiple, as well as fragmented and disjointed. Donath ends chapter two with two important questions for researchers of identity and cybercultures: how can online communities be structured to encourage types of communication and interaction that reveal identity cues? And to what extent are coherent, stable identities a necessity for online communities (55-56).

In chapter three, "Reading Race Online," Burkhalter discusses the construction of race in newsgroups such as ‘soc.culture,’ ‘soc.culture.african.american,’ and ‘soc.culture.jewish’ (61). The author explores the process of race identification occurring in spaces that challenge traditional methods of the construction and identification of race by affecting the "achievement, maintenance, and use of racial identity" with the removal of the body from the social frame. The author suggests that without the presence of physical cues (skin color), participants read race through "the perspectives on racial issues offered in authors’ messages" (62). Overall, findings suggest that race is no less relevant in online interaction than it is face-to-face interaction and may be more relevant on these Usenet newsgroups. Burkhalter closes by acknowledging the opening of dialogue that can exist in network settings and the importance of participation, leaving the reader with a sense of questions to ask about persistent categories of inequality such as race and its construction in cybercultures.

In chapter four, "Writing in the Body: Gender (Re)production in Online Interaction," O’Brien contemplates theoretical questions about gender and online communication. She asks the question "how likely is it that online communication will be a site/occasion for ‘complicating’ the customary gender dichotomy?" (79). Similar to Burkhalter, O’Brien questions the relationship between the body and self, but focuses more specifically on the "relationship between technology and culture in the (re)constitution of presentations of self when the body is not available as a source of information to others" (80). She cites Sandy Stone and follows her line of thinking on the new formations arising "in the boundaries between technology, society, and ‘nature’ in the architectures of multiple embodiments and multiple selves" (Stone 1995: 44). O’Brien suggests that along with possible challenging of gendered identities, online communication also operates by further inscribing harmful gender dichotomies. She suggests that because the body and its consequential gender constructions have come to be the central way of organizing our interactions, disembodiment does little to challenge gender constructs since the reliance on the body as foundation continues to be reinforced in participants’ text and interactions.

Part III emphasizes the topics of social order and control. In chapter five, "Hierarchy and Power: Social Control in Cyberspace," Elizabeth Reid examines the dynamics of power and methods of social control in two kinds of MUDs, and finds that disinhibition encourages a wide range of behaviors and therefore creates a crisis that instigates social control processes such as software rewriting or individual sanctions toward unacceptable behavior. In Chapter six, "Problems of Conflict Management in Virtual Communities," Anna DuVal Smith discusses conflict mediation as a method of social control in online communities. Similar to Burkhalter, Smith emphasizes the "open boundaries, the relative anonymity of computer-mediated interaction, and the possibility of great social diversity" and also directs the discussion to the types and mechanisms of social control used to monitor such environments. Findings suggest that online interaction has "double-edged effects" on the conflict resolution process but is nonetheless "more important and more of a challenge than in many face-to-face settings" (14).

Part IV shifts to a discussion of community structure and dynamics. In chapter seven, Wellman and Gulia in "Virtual Communities as Communities" outline a detailed comparison of online and ‘real-life’ communities and suggest that online communities are actual communities that are not simply a substitute for our traditional understanding of ‘community’ and they demonstrate the "many distinguishing features of online communities that change the economics of social action and organization in important ways" (17). The authors frame their discussion around several key questions of interest to researchers of the Internet, including: are online relationships narrowly specialized or broadly supportive?; in what ways are the many weak ties on the Net useful?; is their reciprocity online and attachment to virtual communities?; are strong, intimate ties possible online?; how does virtual community affect ‘real-life’ community?; does the Net increase community diversity?; and are virtual communities ‘real’ communities?

In chapter eight, entitled "Invisible Crowds in Cyberspace: Mapping the Social Structure of the Usenet," co-editor Smith offers some useful survey data on participants of Usenet groups and also suggests the unique opportunities for studying group interactions with the "electronic tracks that can provide detailed data about what vast numbers of groups of people do online" (196). This study offers a useful typology or map of the "emergent social structure" growing from a vast networking system. Smith emphasizes the importance of conducting long-term historical studies of large scale networks and offers some implications for researchers interested in studying archived online interactions. Co-editor Kollock’s chapter, "The Economies of Online Cooperation: Gifts and Public Goods in Cyberspace," argues that instead of focusing on the hostility and ‘flaming’ that occurs in online communities, we should ask "how it is that there is any significant cooperation at all" (18). He maps out processes by which participants have shifted from gift giving to the production and use of public goods as a form of cooperation. His work has implications for researchers interested in the incentive structures involved in online communities.

Part Five deals with collective action in online communities. In chapter ten, entitled "The Promise and the Peril of Social Action in Cyberspace," Laura Gurak uses a case study and rhetorical analysis of texts and communication associated with protests occurring in online communities. As with other chapters in this volume, Gurak emphasizes the double-edged quality that online interactions have on the rhetorical activity of forms of collective action. In "Electronic Homesteading on the Rural Frontier," AUTHOR NAME provides a case study of a rural community in Montana and discusses its use of technology to create a community network called ‘Big Sky Telegraph’ designed to address the needs of a sparsely populated state for communication channels between isolated teachers. The author concludes that this simple text based networking system proved to be useful for ‘real’ communities. Finally in chapter twelve, "Cyberspace and Disadvantaged Communities: The Internet as a Tool for Collective Action," Mele offers a case study of a low-income housing development in Wilmington, North Carolina and their implication and use of the Internet to rebuild their housing community by gaining information and knowledge from a wide range of sources including urban planners and architects in a relatively cost free manner.

While the book follows several sociological perspectives, it offers an excellent survey of current topics surrounding the structures and processes involved in new online communities. Social scientists should find this useful for teaching a course on cyberculture or for background literature for other cyber-community studies. It problematizes and avoids the extremes of utopian and dystopian understandings of the Internet and its communities and, instead, focuses on the often contradictory processes occurring in online communities.

Stone, A. (1995). The War of Desire and Technology at the Close of the Mechanical Age. London: MIT Press.

Janet Armentor:
Janet Armentor is a doctoral student in sociology at Syracuse University. She is also an instructor there teaching Introduction to Sociology, Sex and Gender, and Sociological Theory. Her dissertation research involves a discourse analysis of a regional web chat community. The project explores how participants construct and maintain persistent categories such as gender, race, and sexuality and the strategies they use to resist them. Her research interests include contemporary social theory, science and technology, sex and gender, sexuality, power and bodies, and cybercommunities.  <JLArment@maxwell.syr.edu>

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