Online communities

I find the most significant question that arises out of Rheingold’s “Daily Life in Cyberspace” to be, how well can a virtual community replace a real one? And is there even a difference between the two?

Rheingold’s portrayal of the heady early days of the Internet reveals something that is becoming exceedingly true today. We are addicted to communication and information and it doesn’t so much matter where or what is satiating this desire, as how much and how fast can we receive it. My guess is that this phenomenon has its roots in our social evolution. For example, as we learned in my neuropsychology class last semester, humans aren’t terribly strong or fast compared to other animals in the wild: our strength is that we can band together to form incredibly cohesive groups that are able to create a stable core that allows us to survive. By and large, a human cannot survive on his own and thus requires communication for survival.

Additionally, the ability to survive is also dependent on being aware of one’s surroundings. We are quite good at taking in vast amounts of information and the more we can get the better. I think this is why we have the news. I have a friend who once told me that she gets breaking news text updates from CNN that often wake her up in the middle of the night. I was dumbfounded and asked her why. She said “I want to know what’s going on the world,” as if a bomb going off in Pakistan really had any effect on her life. It’s more about just wanting to know. The New York Times published a great article in 2008 called “Overfeeding on Information” in which it reported that news information is not just reassuring (“In times when people think their fate is tied to enormous events that are out of their hands, stockpiling information can give some people a sense of control, social scientists said”) but it is also valuable in terms of maintaining social bonds (“for those whose social circles think of knowledge as power, having the latest information can also enhance status”).

So, with the WELL, it’s easy to see what makes it so appealing, and intoxicating. It combines these two fundamental human drives of information and communication into one website with plenty of members. The same could be said about any community existing outside of cyberspace though, too. I guess it’s a little eerie to think that of our social drives as biological as, say, eating, but this seems to be the case. However, before while we were restricted by factors like distance and temporality and just the normal conventions that humans interacted in, now it is always possible to find an online community that is available and active. With the Internet, when it comes to social interaction and relevant information, we take as much as we can get to the point of dependency.

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