Disrecognized Space

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Wikipedia: A community is not an authority

Wikipedia’s entry for ‘Virtual community’ (“Virtual Community”, 2011) embodies both the advantages and disadvantages of online communities. Itself an article created by a (virtual) community mirroring its own subject, it shows how such communities operating through computer mediated communication can be a positive and a negative construct.The article treats virtual communities primarily as separate from offline communities, as evidenced in the very title, though this is increasingly seen as a misinterpretation of what is actually a change, and an extension, to the concept of communities. Wellman (1998) observes that communities exist everywhere – the important question is how they function within a sociological context (and are there any differences in them?). He also later noted (Wellman, 2001) that virtual communities erase location since they are everywhere, while yet another defining characteristic is their speed of operation. Pearson (2009) uses the metaphor of a glass bedroom to describe the performance of constructing identity in a space not private, not public, but a new mixture of both. These shifting senses of (non)location are not reflected in the Wikipedia entry.

Wikipedia also takes an unnuanced approach, ignoring issues such as the different meanings of ‘community’ for different groups (Keleman and Smith, 2010, p. 371) and situations, and the fact that community is more about relationship and meaning than physical platform (Keleman and Smith, 2010, p. 372). While it could be argued that some of these issues are unnecessary for a general entry, the fact that there is only a passing mention of ‘weak ties’ (“Virtual Community”, 2011, p. 5) is significant. Granovetter (1983, p. 208) states that these ties become extremely important in online communities, writing that “they are far more likely to be bridges [between networks] than strong ties”. Other topics in analyzing the nature of online communities, such as how identity is formed (or transformed) by computer mediated communication and how this affects publicity and privacy are also not discussed, though they are of concern to internet researchers such as Danah Boyd (2010) who notes that there are multiple actors online and offline with their own motivations, creating “a stew of complexity [with] no clear answers”.

Wikipedia provides a good deal of historical information and in this area it gives a comprehensive discussion but this same rigor does not extend to more recent information. Virtual communities, for example, are particularly distinguished by being ‘dispersed geographically‘ (“Virtual Community”, 2011, p. 1) though a lot of social networks now actually extend local communities. Social network services also receive only a single paragraph of discussion (“Virtual Community”, 2011, p. 4).

Indeed, Web 2.0 and how it might be transforming community is barely discussed. There are only two mentions: the first is brief and quickly turned into a further historical discussion (“Virtual Community”, 2011, p. 2) while the second is a negative comment noting ‘pernicious’ uses (“Virtual Community”, 2011, p.5). That Web 2.0 might, as Aguiton and Cardon (2007, p. 53) claim, be creating simultaneously more personal and more relational communities is not discussed.

While Wikipedia can be edited by anyone it will only be edited by those with a motivation to do so. Often that will be those with a technical predisposition. This is reflected in the article’s emphasis on the technological underpinning of virtual communities at the expense of sociological discussion. Comparing the most recent page (accessed May 12, 2011) with the previous version (accessed February 26, 2011) a whole paragraph describing the technical capabilities of virtual worlds has been added, even though it seems more like advertising than information (“Virtual Community”, 2011, p.4). Conversely, the page is now headed by a warning that the style of the article may be inappropriate and require cleaning up (“Virtual Community”, 2011, p. 1). Due to Wikipedia’s ability to be fact checked by anyone, this information is probably not incorrect, but it is subtly biased, omitting some concepts in favour of others.

The nature of Wikipedia can lead to articles being bizarrely weighted. This can be seen in the examples of virtual communities: a lengthy discussion of health forums, while the more prominent subject of social networking sites receives only a brief mention (though it does link to a separate entry). Wikipedia has been described by Baumann (2010, p. 8) as chasing a goal “notorious for running faster than even the most dedicated of its pursuers” but in this case it seems a long way behind.

The discussion of advantages and disadvantages of online communities is also idiosyncratic. Advantages include avoiding “pricey [sic] mark-ups” on internet based transactions (“Virtual Community”, 2011, p. 5), while disadvantages include being able to create a fantasy persona (“Virtual Community”, 2011, p. 6). The former has only a tangential relationship to community, while the latter may well be a benefit for many people. As evidenced by many of the papers presented at the ‘Online Conference On Networks and Communities’ (http://networkconference.netstudies.org/2011/) and as Wellman (1998) also observes, the advantages and disadvantages of new technology are often “projected onto the future in Manichean debates”. This tension and ongoing debate is not noted by Wikipedia in any depth.

Less obvious, but notable by exclusion, is an apparent dominant cultural paradigm. The Wikipedia article makes no mention of how virtual communities may be utilized by disadvantaged or minority groups, or how they manifest in non-English speaking populations. The different ways younger people create and utilize online communities is also missing, and this is an important topic. Livingstone (2008, p. 12) describes how teenagers are actualizing identities through a play of Web 2.0 opportunities and risks in conjunction with the limitations and possibilities of the underlying technologies. The ‘Online Conference on Networks and Communities’, in contrast, showed the multiplicity of sites and uses by online communities, and varying attitudes and approaches to the opportunities and threats these offer (especially in the contentious issue of gaming, such as in the papers by Affoque (2011) and Jovicic (2011)).

Hence, it can be seen that Wikipedia, like other virtual communities, has its own nature, its own audience and membership, and its own purposes and needs. The article on Virtual Community is far from perfect as an academic treatise, being incomplete, unfocused and idiosyncratic, but it does fulfill its purpose if it is seen as a brief introduction aimed at a general audience. Online communities are complex, shifting, contentious spaces, none of which is necessarily like the other. Wikipedia is one form of such community which it fulfills well, but it should not be seen as having any more authority than any other such community.

Bibliography

Affoque, D. C. (2011). Online games: when addiction overtakes fun. Retrieved from http://networkconference.netstudies.org/2011/04/online-games-when-addiction-overtakes-fun/

Aguiton, C., & Cardon, D. (2007). The strength of weak cooperation: An attempt to understand the meaning of Web 2.0. Communications & Strategies. 65, 51-65.

Baumann, Z. (2010). Privacy, secrecy, intimacy, human bonds, utopia – and other collateral casualties of liquid modernity. In H. Blatterer, P. Johnson, & M. R. Markus (Eds). Modern privacy: Shifting boundaries, new forms (pp. 7-22). Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

Boyd, D. (2010). Privacy, publicity and visibility. Retrieved from http://www.danah.org/papers/talks/2010/TechFest2010.html

Granovetter, M. (1983). The strength of weak ties: A network theory revisited. Sociological Theory, 1(19), 201-233. Retrieved from http://www.si.umich.edu/~rfrost/courses/SI110/readings/In_Out_and_Beyond/Granovetter.pdf

Jovicic, N. (2011). The positive spiral of social gaming: It can save the world! Retrieved from http://networkconference.netstudies.org/2011/04/the-positive-spiral-of-social-gaming-it-can-save-the-world/

Kelemen, M., & Smith, W. (2001). Community and its virtual promises: A critique of Cyberlibertarian Rhetoric. Information, Communication & Society, 4(3), 370-387.

Livingstone, S. (2008). Taking risky opportunities in youthful content creation: Teenagers’ use of social networking sites for intimacy, privacy and self-expression. . New media & society, 10(3). 393-411. DOI: 10.1177/1461444808089415

Pearson, E. (2009). All the World Wide Web’s a stage: The performance of identity in online social networks. First Monday (14) 3. Retrieved from http://firstmonday.org/htbin/cgiwrap/bin/ojs/index.php/fm/article/viewArticle/2162/2127

Virtual Community. 2011. Retrieved May 12, 2011, from Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Special:Book&bookcmd=render_article&arttitle=Virtual+community&oldid=427640180&writer=rl

Wellman, B. (1998). The network community. In Networks in the global village: Life in contemporary communities. Boulder: Westview Press. Retrieved from http://homes.chass.utoronto.ca/~wellman/publications/globalvillage/in.htm
——— (2001). Physical place and cyber place: The rise of personalized networking. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 25. Retrieved from http://homes.chass.utoronto.ca/~wellman/publications/individualism/ijurr3a1.htm

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