Two decades of critical thinking and breathless utopian rhetoric about the potential of online communities says volumes about commonspace. What’s real and what’s vapourware?

Most of the existing books on the subject of online community (such as Howard Rheingold’s The Virtual Community, Hagel and Armstrong’s net gain, and Esther Dyson’s Release 2.1.) provide perfectly adequate explanations of the chat-based online culture of the early to mid 1990s. The problem is, there have been major changes in the habits and goals of Internet users since those books were written, and the original conceptual models haven’t managed to keep pace with the phenomena they purport to describe.

While it’s true that threaded online discussion really hasn’t changed all that much over 20 years, people do a lot more online these days than chat with each other. They exchange huge music and video files, they use sophisticated workflow groupware, they shop, bank, trade stocks, and even frag headcrabbed zombies (or evil halberd-wielding cows, or whatever other digital foes their video games throw in their paths).

Yet we can forgive Rheingold and company: they could hardly have anticipated the need to discuss the intricacies of zombie fragging. However, even recent writers on the subject of virtual community ignore online activity that doesn’t meet these traditional definitions of virtual community – activities that are widespread and impossible to ignore. It’s time to start thinking and talking about these broader models of interaction – the ones that make up the world of commonspace.

Homesteading the Noosphere: Theories of Online Community

The Power of the Collective

Howard Rheingold was the first widely read writer to inform the world that you don’t have to ‘become one with the Borg’ or worry about the creeping peril of communism to realize that there are advantages to collectivity, especially online. And Rheingold, the Ascended Master of online punditry; should know. He is the former editor of the Whole Earth Review, a long-time member of the WELL (Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link), the author of many books, and a consultant to everybody under the sun.

In his groundbreaking book The Virtual Community (1993), Rheingold provides a definition of virtual community that is still the benchmark for contemporary discussions:

Virtual Community (defn) A social aggregation that emerges from the Net when enough people carry on public discussions, with sufficient human feeling, to form webs of personal relationships in cyberspace.

Rheingold cites Marc Smith’s notion of ‘collective goods’ – the valuable things that people can only create by banding together online, to describe the power of the collective. On the WELL, such collective goods are:

  • social network capital – real-world relationships that benefit from online community;
  • knowledge capital – collective knowledge pools and aggregated data;
  • communion – empathy; what Rheingold calls the ‘human feeling.’

Of course, there are many other possible ‘collective goods,’ depending on the nature of the community – or commonspace – that creates them. The key point is that these ‘collective goods’ are now central to the culture of the Internet. Business managers, politicians, old people, young people – all kinds of people – are starting to understand this feature of the digital collective at a gut level. They know that accessing the collective goods of commonspace is essential to the success of everything they do online.

Conversation as Content

You’d think that the relationship between communication and content would be self-evident. But it took John Hagel III and Arthur G. Armstrong’s net gain: Expanding Markets Through Virtual Communities (1997) to identify it. Hagel and Armstrong, a principal and a manager in the influential consulting firm McKinsey & Company, pointed out that when members of a virtual community chat with each other, the conversation itself becomes new content.

The archive of any discussion group is a valuable resource for both the community members and its organizers, especially if that discussion group has an extremely focused constituency – say, Labrador Retriever fanciers, PowerBook G3 users, or Quake Rocket Arena 3 players. People with specific questions can search the archive for solutions to their problems or locate experienced users to help them with digital or real-world problems (How much kibble can you feed a Labrador Retriever without making it really, really fat?). Additionally, the archive can be sold to advertisers or marketing companies, providing the agreement with the users allows for such a sale.

Esther Dyson goes one step past the theory: as a consultant and free-lance intellectual, Dyson makes a living by applying it to her own life. Her 1998 book Release 2.1: A Design for Living in the Digital Age, which discusses the communication-as-content principle, is only one example. Her stock-in-trade is aggregating the opinions of others and selling them, and creating environments such as online forums and face-to-face (f2f) conferences that generate content. In turn, Dyson churns the principles she derives from these short-lived but highly focused communities into new material for her newsletters and printed books. Frequently, she even includes the actual postings and conversations from the archives of these events – it’s a great way to boost your page count.

All Aboard

After Hagel and Armstrong and Dyson had their say, everything to do with the Internet and the New Economy suddenly became Very Serious and Very Important. Fortunately, it wasn’t long before someone (actually, several someones) with a sense of humour climbed up on the Internet soapbox when the Serious and Important people weren’t looking.

Imagine In Search of Excellence crossed with Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. That’s how Thomas Petzinger of The Wall Street Journal described The Cluetrain Manifesto when it appeared in early 2000 . The Manifesto is the brainchild of Rick Levine, Christopher Locke, Doc Searls and David Weinburger, four IT professionals with a penchant for ranting and a healthy skepticism about the excesses of their own profession. You can (and should) read all 95 theses of the Manifesto yourself at , but the important points are as follows:

  • Markets are conversations between people, and these conversations should be conducted in a humane way, i.e. stripped of all forms of corporate rhetoric.
  • The Internet and other forms of networking connect customers to each other as well as to businesses, and these inter-connected communities immediately render invalid almost all of the forms of ‘communication’ that the corporate world has developed for interacting with its customers.

Cluetrain presents an older-but-wiser version of the anarchistic ethos of the early Net community. Just because we geeks have grown up and had to get jobs, it argues, doesn’t mean that we can’t change the way that work happens and have fun in the process.

Polemical rants have always comprised a huge part of the overall discourse of the Internet, and the authors of Cluetrain have obviously had a lot of practice at them over the years Christopher Locke’s RageBoy® site provides some high-octane examples, including this fragment of a dialogue between a Really Concerned Thoughtful Journalist and RageBoy® about The Cluetrain Manifesto itself:

RCTJ: Let’s turn to Cluetrain’s focus on discourse. What point is the manifesto actually trying to make about the ‘human voice’?

RB: The fuck would I know? I mean 95 Theses? How many people do you know who think that’s even normal, much less human? And ‘discourse’? Give me a break! Nobody talks that way. Except maybe academics, and they can hardly be classed among the standard hominids… Which reminds me, I have a paper coming out soon on Barbie Doll dentition. Fascinating study actually.

RCTJ: Yes, that’s all very interesting, I’m sure. But getting back to your main point, you’re saying you don’t agree with the idea that we should all number our sentences?

RB: I think you need to look at the issue on a case-by-case basis. Sometimes numbering is useful. Like say you’re ticking off the various medications you’re currently taking. In my case:

1. Marijuana
2. Tylenol
3. Heroin
4. Psilocybin
5. NyQuil
6. Viagra
7. LSD-25
8. Prozac
9. Jack Daniels
10. Vick’s Vap-o-Rub
11. Vicodin
12. Dimethyltryptamine
13. Tums
…and so on.

RCTJ: That’s quite a list, and I can see how you’d need the numbers to keep straight, so to speak. But in other cases not?

RB: Of course not! If you were Julia Child, would you say:

1. Carrots are vegetables.
2. Vegetables grow in the ground.
3. The ground is basically dirt.
4. People get dirty when they pull up carrots.
5. What has a carrot ever done to you?
6. Leave those carrots alone you dirty fucker!
RCTJ: Good example….

Understandably, then, there is more than a little hyperbole at work in Cluetrain’s pages, but it’s hyperbole with a mission. While items like thesis 74 (‘We are immune to advertising. Just forget it’) is probably more wishful thinking than truth, making the statement serves a purpose. Theorist Fredric Jameson claims that the function of utopian visions is to mark the limits of what’s currently possible . Our attempts to reach those utopias inevitably fail, but the process of reaching expands the borders of what’s possible. In other words, hot air is what makes our balloons fly.

Geeks Bearing Gifts

At one or two points in his free-wheeling, hippie narrative about the wonders of the online world, Rheingold mentions something called the ‘gift economy’, but doesn’t really go into much detail about it.. Yet an understanding of gift economies is essential in any discussion of online culture.

Briefly, gift economies (sometimes called ‘general economies’ or ‘potlatch economies’) are based on the excess and free circulation of goods, with a general, intangible expectation of return from the broader community. They are an alternative to restricted economies (including capitalist economies), which derive their value from scarcity: in a restricted economies, one make profits by controlling access to the goods created. Yet the two types of economy aren’t really opposites: the gift economy quietly percolates along underneath a restricted economy, occasionally erupting in wild and unpredictable moments of largesse.

In the early days of the Internet (say, pre-1994), something very much like an online gift economy was occurring. BBSes, FreeNets and USENET didn’t cost a thing as long as you had a modem. How was this possible? Because people with a little computer savvy were willing to install a couple of extra modems in their basement and let other users into their spare computer. By giving people a place to congregate, they gained friends, conversation, shareware, software cracks and a constant source of amusement – in short, community. With the introduction of Netscape in 1994 – a FREE piece of software that provided access to a world of electronic wonder – everyone began to get a glimpse of what a gift economy was all about. And of course, this is where the problems began.

With the release of Netscape and the sudden availability of graphic user interfaces (GUIs) such as Web browsers and cheap, fast modems, regular people – not just geeks, scientists and students – began to flood the Internet. This online rush of people unfamiliar with the existing etiquette resulted in an erosion of the gift economy’s ethos. In order for a gift economy to continue to function, all members have to be excessive in their generosity. Instead, nations of consumers simply rushed online, saw a lot of free stuff, and gobbled it all up without leaving much in return.

Of course, the gift economy hasn’t entirely disappeared. Someone will always come along with the Next Big Free Thing, and all of a sudden, the rules for normal business will be turned on their heads again. In addition, gift economies have tended to be the source of the biggest changes and newest ideas online. Consider some of the recent ‘gift’ phenomena on the Internet today. File-sharing networks like Napster and Gnutella, open source software, and even the decision to release Web browsers for free demonstrate principles of gift economies.

The Two Sides of the Coin

Open source guru Eric Raymond calls himself an ‘accidental revolutionary.’ This flute-playing, gun-toting, martial-arts-practicing, live-action gamer also happens to be one of the most convincing champions of the gift economy. In his 1999 already-classic The Cathedral and the Bazaar, he pushes open source as the way of the future. ‘[T]he open-source culture will triumph,’ he writes, ‘not because cooperation is morally right or software “hoarding” is morally wrong (assuming you believe the latter, which neither Linus nor I do), but simply because the closed-source world cannot win an evolutionary arms race with open-source communities that can put orders of magnitude more skilled time into a problem.’

But for many people, the gift economy still represents the long-haired intellectual version of the story. On the opposing side are John Hagel III and Arthur G. Armstrong, the golf-shirt-sporting authors of net gain, the book that helped fuel the dot-com goldrush.

In Hagel and Armstrong’s biz-speak, the gift economy is a ‘reverse market’ – the opposite of the traditional economy of scarcity where businesses have the upper hand . In a reverse market, the customer has unlimited access to information, which in effect gives them the upper hand. Businesses that want to succeed in such an environment have to adapt, such as by supplying their customers with more and better information than what’s already available.

In a reverse market, businesses have to behave in unfamiliar ways. Moreover, they have to share information – and power – with their customers, for the site with the most information about quality and price will attract the most members. Sometimes power-sharing even necessitates a further (and seemingly heretical) reversion of common business principles: allowing users to have access to information from competitors. In some instances, it may even be necessary to cooperate with your competitors (something called ‘coopetition’) in order to maintain your user base.

The power of the reverse economy in online culture carries both a warning and a challenge for businesses: though the potential rewards are great, the world of online business is no place for stodgy thinking.

The Cycle of Community

In the summer of 2000, Blizzard released the 1.03 patch for their bestselling game Diablo II – and immediately infuriated many of their players. Some of the key skills of the favourite character classes – specifically, the Necromancer’s ‘Corpse Explosion’ spell and the Barbarian’s ‘Whirlwind’ attack – had been ‘nerfed’ or softened because the game creators had felt that they’d been too powerful and had disrupted the balance of gameplay. Many players promptly left in search of greener (or bloodier) pastures. That same year, the first beta version of Third Voice, the developers completely changed the underlying technology. That left anyone using the old software high and dry – at least until they downloaded the new software. The question is: How many of the original users bothered?

Mechanical changes, such as alterations to the overall site/service structure or user interfaces, can cause tremendous change to an online community. Such changes are common in the early years of a site’s existence. They can be useful for attracting new users or new investors. But as the community grows, large-scale change can alienate long-time users. And this can do a lot of damage.

Changes in ownership – another frequent occurrence – can also send users fleeing. But this is not always the case. In 1999, the WELL, one of the first big online communities, was sold to Salon. There were probably a few scrupulous members who left at that time because they perceived that the service had ‘sold out.’ But the changes to the WELL’s overall atmosphere were surprisingly minor. Moreover, the sale ensured its survival. Likewise, when AOL bought the ICQ service, some users were afraid it would be buried or nerfed in favour of AOL’s competing product, Instant Messenger. But ICQ continues to post new releases and service upgrades and is still the most popular messaging community online.

Sometimes reorganizations and changes in mandate sound the death-knell for a community. In the late 1990s, Deja.com, the first people to bring USENET discussion onto a Web site, transformed their service from a product-rating system into something completely new: a consumer opinion site. Deja’s more-or-less altruistic nature died, and it became a business. Once again, user resentment was high, and many of the long-term Usenet readers abandoned Deja and returned to their newsreading software.

While the constituents of online communities tend to be very committed, the communities themselves do have a finite life span. As Amy Jo Kim points out in her 2000 book Community Building on the Web, these life spans tend to be cyclical in nature. A community begins to gather around a topic or technology, grows, undergoes changes in ownership or mechanics, and loses and gains members. When it has outlived its usefulness to the members – for short-term projects and workgroups whose goals have been completed, or for games whose technological features haven’t kept up with the pack – the community will fold up or simply fade away.

Kim rightly points out the difficulty of setting out to construct a particular type of community. Communities grow naturally and cannot be forced. Hotline Communications rebuilt their client software package enabling real-time chat, conferencing, messaging, data warehousing and file transfer and viewing, with an eye toward the business community that Lotus Notes and Open Text’s Livelink had already tapped. What they got instead was about three million script kiddies and crackers who download 150,000 files per month, many of them containing cracked and pirated software, porn and MP3s. But hey, it’s a living.


In addition to the general cycles of commonspace, Amy Jo Kim also points out that there are rituals specific to particular sites. For example, gaming sites hold tournaments, mark changes in user status with specific icons, and hold f2f (face-to-face) events such as conventions. Other companies hold gatherings of product users (i.e.. Saturn owners) on ICQ or IRC. These ritualized events mark specific phases of a community’s life cycle.

They also help to create the community’s sense of itself – in other words, its culture. Communities with a sense of culture are more attractive to users than those that lack culture, because they offer possibilities for participation and sometimes even a hand in the site’s evolution. When users have a sense of personal investment in a site, they’re more likely to to make a long-term commitment to it.

Like all life-cycles, the cycle of community includes a reproductive phase. Since reproduction is essential for long-term online survival, online enterprises are wise to capitalize on it. Communities that include features allowing members to assume control of sections of the community’s functions over time or split off into sub-communities tend to be more successful than static sites.

There are many examples of successful second-generation sites. Gaming modifications (‘mods’) like Quake 3 Fortress and Quake Rocket Arena 3 use the game engine from Quake 3 to create new types of game play. These mods are so successful that between them, on an average day, they constitute more than half of the Quake deathmatches in progress. For the eGroups site, reproductivity is its very lifeblood – the single purpose of the site is to spawn smaller subgroups, which then serve as highly specific target markets for various advertisers. In addition, the fledgling community of file-sharing sites is already experiencing cyclical growth. If groundbreakers like Napster cease to exist in their original form, there will be a number of new services (including Scour Exchange and Gnutella) to leap in to replace them.

Cyclical growth patterns suggest that we need to change the way we think about online communities. Given the unsteady ground of the Internet environment, a strategic, contingency-based model for maintaining communities of all types might be more realistic – and ultimately more productive – than one that expects them to remain unchanged forever.

Reality Check, Please

From the (slightly) more sane perspective that the far side of the millennium affords us, it’s obvious that things got a little silly in the late nineties in the world of online startups. The so-called ‘dot-com revolution’ spawned a lot of poorly designed ‘instacommunities’, most of which lived short, miserable and highly expensive lives. Simply ‘being digital’ (to steal a phrase from MIT high-tech cheerleader Nicholas Negroponte) isn’t enough anymore… if it ever was. These days, an online community has to either have a bulletproof business plan or an unprecedented ‘killer app’ to stand any chance of attracting venture capital.

Despite its loss of momentum, the dot-com revolution still staggers on. However, both the general Internet community and the digerati have become considerably more cynical than they were in the early days of breathless enthusiasm.

In former times, we used to use memento mori – relics such as skulls – to remind us that our days were numbered, and that unless we got our act together sooner rather than later, there would be precious little to mark our passing. But for today’s online businesses, we needn’t bother with anything as grim and messy as a real skull. There are plenty of digital relics scattered across the Net that will serve just as well, perhaps better.

In fact, watching dot-coms go belly-up has become something of a spectator sport. Case in point: Fucked Company is a death pool site, where users place wagers on which shiny new Internet companies are actually on the brink of going under. Sardonic humour is the order of the day:

Public Service Announcement
Stop fucking your own companies just to get points on this stupid site. You know who you are (all of you). On second thought, that’s pretty cool — keep it up.
Posted: 6/10/2000

The turning point for dot-coms was arguably the failure of boo.com in early 2000, a trendy Eurpoean fashion site that soaked up millions in venture capital, only to fold within months of its launch. What was left of the company was broken up and sold off to various parties. The pickings were slim, though. The boo computers were leased, and the software already partly licensed. Bright Station ended up buying boo.com’s highly advanced software for $374,900, a price that Bright Station’s Andy Dancer estimates as being worth about 0.6% of the cost of developing it ! Though Fashionmall.com, a New York-based company that bought the company’s domain and brand names, plans to relaunch the site, all that remains on the boo.com homepage is an e-mail notification form and a picture of an Ananova-style computer-rendered woman. Here’s Fucked Company’s take on the matter:

That cartoon Boo.com chick is cute though

I actually received a $50 gift certificate from Boo.com a few days before they folded, so I never had a chance to cash it in. While we’re on the subject, Fashionmall.com, which bought the stinking, maggot-infested corpse of Boo.com, is now planning to relaunch it. Boo.com’s newly installed president Kate Buggeln immediately demonstrated her ineptitude by proceeding to insult and patronise its potential customers on cnet.com. ‘While analysts and techno-geeks know of Boo.com’s troubles,’ she said, ‘most of its everyday customers are not concerned with such things. Susie Shopper doesn’t care about that stuff.’ I think Susie Shopper should open a can of whoop-ass on her.

When: 8/5/2000
Company: fashionmall.com
Points: 101

Since Fucked Company first appeared, there has been a positively ghoulish surge in interest in dot-com failure. In fact, with the appearance of Startupfailures.com, failure is now officially a growth industry. Apart from the news and discussion groups where contrite businesspeople are invited to ‘Submit Lessons Learned’ or receive ‘Failure Feedback,’ the site also offers entrepreneur coaching, jobs and resource listings, and general news. Even The Industry Standard has gotten on the failure bandwagon, instituting a ‘Dot-Com Layoff Tracker’ and a ‘Dot-Com Flop Tracker’ after surveys revealed that as of September 21, 165 dot-coms had laid off at least 16,714 employees in 2000 . In addition, as of September 21, The Industry Standard counted 35 dot-coms dead in the water (a conservative estimate to be sure).

Aside from a general index of the Internet’s current level of dark cynicism, dot-com death sites are useful sources of both rumours and examples of how not to run an Internet enterprise. Sometimes, learning the hard way is the only way.

Even more pathetic than sites that are currently in the throes of dying are those which have lapsed into ‘bitrot’ (net jargon for the condition of an abandoned and decaying website) but continue to exist in some marginal form as the digital equivalent of a ghost town. There are plenty of well-documented digital necropoli in Ghostsites, a webzine that’s been around since 1996. In their short descriptions of failed sites, Ghostsites attempts to provide some analysis of the reasons that particular sites fail. Here again are negative examples that may be useful to online community builders.

Make a mental note to yourself: if your online enterprise fails, have the dignity to at least take the site down: it beats becoming part of the digital fossil record of evolutionary dead-ends.

Hazards on the Infobahn

Popular culture has become quite comfortable thinking about the online world as the ‘Information Highway.’ While the image is apt in some ways, it creates the impression of speeding along past poky little towns and side-roads to the heart of the matter: the information. Yet information only exists where there are people and communities to create it and post it and link it all up.

There is no one information highway. Rather, there is a vast web of roads and communities. Unfortunately we are trying to navigate our travels with out-dated maps – ones that don’t show cities where villages used to be, or don’t indicate new bridges over old barriers. Overall, the fastest way to change the Internet from a pair of gravel ruts in a farmer’s field into an eight-lane superhighway is to use the right map.

Enough said: time to draft that map. What follows is a list of the major hazards of the Internet. A notion of the nature of commonspace will help you to avoid them, while guiding you safely to achieve your goals.

Naïve Optimism

When it comes to Web sites, the attitude ‘If we build it, they will come’ is bullshit, pure and simple. Nevertheless, a surprisingly large number of businesspeople have paid for truckloads of it, only to discover that nothing will grow in it.

Successful complex systems don’t appear out of nowhere: they evolve over time because of the demands of their users. Spending millions to create an online Taj Mahal before there’s a recognizable need for all the bells and whistles your consultant told you were necessary will leave you with just that: a big, empty, expensive tomb.

What’s more, it’s difficult to determine the needs of your potential users through traditional market research. Often, a small response to a small need will grow into something unique and significant. When planning the first version of an online service, it’s better to start small with your core functions and pay close attention to what features your users really want than to blow your entire wad on slick but impractical features.

Practical features are the ones that the users want – and determining users’ wants takes time. ePinions, a personal advice site, trades on the reputations of its community members for its success: more trustworthy users posting useful advice means a greater number of Net users will come to regard the site as a useful resource. For this reason, ePinions developed a ‘Mistrust this User’ as a result of a suggestion from an ePinions user ., The button has been very successful and makes this Web site stand out from its competitors. It not only provides some measure of control over the quality of postings, but also cleverly places the responsibility for policing on the membership rather than on the site’s operators. This simultaneously gives users a sense of power and reduces the likelihood that mistrusted users will bear any sense of ill-will toward the site itself – all of which contribute to the site’s longevity.

Missing the Forest and the Trees

Despite all this techno-hippie rhetoric about the significance of the individual in the online world, beware of over-generalizing. The unique individuality of users isn’t important to all online enterprises. For file-sharing networks, it’s even a liability. Concentrating too closely on the individual users or focussing on the community itself at the expense of links to the outside may cause you problems if that’s not what the users want or need. Worse, it might prevent you from noticing that someone has built a better networking technology that routes right around you and your service. The bottom line is that you have to think carefully about the individual, communal and technical needs of your site.

Beware also of trying to do too much at once. While elaborate user profiles can generate a lot of marketable data, consider the cost of collecting and maintaining this data. Are your users going to bother wading through huge, complex Web forms simply for the privilege of membership in your site? Can you justify collecting such data for the services you offer? Will your users be happy with the way you want to use their data, or just royally pissed off?

Every situation is different. If you’re building a personal advice site, where users will want background information on each other, complex user profiles are justified. On the other hand, a file-sharing network requires almost no user information, and a ‘minimal self’ may even be preferable to a complex user profile. Napster, the most popular file-sharing site on the Web is facing a huge court battle over its right to allow users to share copyrighted material. Because of Napster’s legally questionable position, the pseudonymity of its users is absolutely necessary . Gnutella , the most popular alternative to Napster, has only a spartan interface that doesn’t even have room for user names. But is at least as effective as Napster for the purpose of sharing files (if not more so) – and that’s all the users care about.

It’s Not Just Talk

Since Howard Rheingold’s heyday, there has been not one, but two younger generations of Net users raised on William Gibson novels and gangsta rap MP3s rather than The Whole Earth Catalog and Grateful Dead bootlegs. Whether they’re Gen-X e-commerce barons or Generation Next script kiddies and software pirates, odds are these new users take a more cold-blooded and pragmatic approach to online interaction that their long-haired predecessors.

So Rheingold’s emphasis on the necessity of ‘discussion’ with ‘sufficient human feeling’ doesn’t take into account the upswing in non-conversational online interactions, such as buying things, swapping files, and action gaming. Life is short, and time on the Internet is precious. Sometimes, like at the end of a Quake death-match, all there is to say is ‘gg’ (good game). This isn’t inarticulacy or the decline of conversation; it’s the register of a set of priorities for which Rheingold’s definition fails to account.

The general conditions under which people participate in Internet culture have also changed greatly over the last five years. Rheingold mentions Jeremy Bentham (and Michel Foucault’s) notion of the ‘panopticon’ – a prison in which all inmates are perpetually visible to the guards – to warn of the Internet’s negative capacity to monitor people’s actions and transactions . From Rheingold’s 1994 perspective and the influence of the WELL on his thinking, a panoptic Internet may have seemed avoidable. Today online privacy continues to decline as user-logging technology increases in sophistication. But the decline in user anonymity is more a result of data aggregation by online businesses than oppressive government interference – at least, so far.

Hello, My Name is * ][ |_ |_ E G ][ |3 |_ E *

Esther Dyson’s Release 2.1 baldly states that ‘lurkers’ – people who only read or listen to online discussions – are not really part of the community. They may fancy themselves to be, but no one would miss them if they left .

Not true. This may have been the case before the invention of cookies and the widespread practice of user tracking and data aggregation. But in these panoptic days, even lurkers and casual visitors to a site leave a digital trace of their comings and goings that translates into valuable market research data for the site hosts, and even into potentially useful information for other users.

Consider Amazon.com for a moment. The simple act of shopping for books online creates a large amount of information capital. Under every title, there is a ‘Customers who bought titles by [this author] also bought titles by these authors’ link, which represents the aggregated results of other shoppers’ forays through Amazon. There are also editorial reviews, customer reviews and ratings of the title, as well as links to other books by the same author, and a search option that allows you to look for similar books by subject. As a content-creation strategy, Amazon has thrown every conceivable widget at its users. And it’s worked.

And then there’s also the question use of pseudonyms (also called userids, tags, handles and nicknames). Pseudonyms allow users to fabricate alternate identities for themselves, with varying degrees of detail. While Dyson recognizes that there are some positive aspects to the use of pseudonyms (‘pseudonymity can also be a mask that allows a person to reveal a true identity rather than to hide one’ ) she insists that pseudonyms have to be consistent for online community to work. For this reason, she excludes anonymous self-help sites from her notion of community, because ‘A monologue explaining who you are does not bring you into a community, however good it feels and however cathartic or liberating it may be’ . Similarly, Elizabeth Reid, an Australian student whose research on IRC (Internet Relay Chat) users is cited by Howard Rheingold, suggests that one of the forces crucial to the development of online communities is the minimum certainty about identity that consistent nicknames provide .

Once again, there is a wide gap between the theory and actual practice. Users adopt new online pseudonyms all the time. There are many reasons for changing pseudonyms, some good, others not so noble. In gaming circles, a user’s pseudonym as a ‘newbie’ may be abandoned for another after they have gained enough expertise in a game to build a more impressive win/loss ratio. Some users maintain different identities for different purposes, such as to differentiate between the machines they use for logging in, to try on different avatars in a chat service or character types in a game, or simply to behave in a different manner (such as MorFing, a kind of digital transvestitism where a person pretends to be the opposite sex). In addition, on a service where a user has been banned for flaming or other annoying behavior, they may adopt another identity, maybe even several, to continue their activities, whether their continued participation is desired or not.

In fact, identity has become sufficiently alienated from actual users that it has become a form of capital. In her book on building virtual community, Amy Jo Kim provides the following tidbit on ‘character as currency’:

[Ultima and EverQuest] Players who have spent months, and even years, developing their characters and amassing wealth and property are now selling their well-tended accounts to the highest bidder [on eBay]. Although many of these accounts are being purchased for their real estate (houses and castles are hard to come by these days in Britannia [the digital realm in which Ultima Online play occurs]), some people are obtaining fully developed characters, and then playing those characters within the game.

When digital identity can be bought and sold, perhaps it’s not so important who you are as who people think you are.

All Talk = No Action

Talk is cheap… so cheap that you can get reams of it anywhere in the online world.

But it’s still only one element of commonspace. Adding a chat group to a sluggish Web site probably won’t accomplish anything if you haven’t already captured the imagination of your present and potential members by providing them with something extra, something they can’t get anywhere else. In order to be attractive, an online service needs to offer its users a tangible reward for their participation. Information may have wanted to be free, once, but now it wants to get paid, baby.

There are plenty of options for what might constitute that reward. Money is the most mundane, though it’s not necessarily the most attractive. Discounts on merchandise, club point systems, files, and even ego rewards (called ‘egoboo’) will suffice, under the right circumstances. Assessing the desires of your users is key to establishing what the proper incentive will be.

I Have No Life

Almost all existing definitions of community place it exclusively in the civic sphere, separate from the workaday world. In other words, they contend that community is a purely recreational or educational pursuit. However, for many online people, work and recreation are inextricable – either you play at work, or you work while you’re playing, or both. The phrase ‘I have no life’ is a common refrain from anyone who has anything to do with the Internet.

Expanding the map of commonspace to include corporate intranets, business-to-business networking, and even the obligatory after-work Quake matches, then, make it much more useful than a purely recreational model.

What Do You Want, Anyway?

The expectations of online community members aren’t always clear, nor are their contributions always the same. Logging onto an online service is often about contingencies, short-term relationships and trial offers rather than long-term commitments. Commonspace has a shelf life, and perhaps we need to shift expectations for online experiences to reflect this.

Moreover, some people go online just to shop or to sell things, others to talk, still others to share files, flirt, or seek information. Then there are the people who are there to maintain the site, people with special posting or moderating privileges, etc. In the old definitions of online communities, user roles are considered to be fairly symmetrical within any given community. But that is no longer the case, if it ever was. Accounting for different simultaneous modes of participation by making each as rewarding as possible will help to ensure the ongoing hardiness of commonspace.

Nobody Likes A Cop

Every culture has rules, and online cultures are no exception. But how strong do the sanctions that govern commonspace need to be, really?

Esther Dyson’s sense of necessity for punishment (or the fear of it) seems, well, a little draconian:

Community members should feel that they have invested in the community, and that therefore it is tough for them to leave. The ultimate punishment in a strong community is banishment, expulsion, excommunication, exile … All those words signify the terror of being cast out of a community.

The community’s rules should be clear, and there should be recourse if they are broken .

The Internet is not the Island of Doctor Moreau (with or without Marlon Brando). Paranoia and the urge to control are far too common in the business community’s approach to online community. Corporations are anxious about the actions of their users because they are ignorant about the slightly irreverent and iconoclastic nature of online interaction. The failure to allow some room for unruly online behaviour is one of the quickest ways to kill a nascent online society. Clearly, there need to be some disincentives to causing mischief online; but just making it difficult and inconvenient should suffice in most cases.

Strictly Business?

One of the biggest stock market crashes of the past decade suggests pretty strongly that the ‘commercial orientation’ that Hagel and Armstrong tout in net gain as the destiny of online communities is woefully inadequate. On April 18, 2000 the NASDAQ plummeted, taking the bloom off the high-tech stock market and venture capitalist money with it. It had a sobering effect on investors, who learned the hard way that adding ‘.com’ to the end of your business name just doesn’t cut the mustard.

That ended the first attempt of would-be net barons to take over the Net. But the techno-hippies, anarchists and idealists weren’t out of the picture yet. In fact, many of them are still running the show. And the reason is that they know that the ‘show’ is.

While the dot.com empires are still rubbing the bruises on their greviously kicked asses and trying to figure out exactly what went wrong, the original spirit of the Internet continues to reassert itself. As the NASDAQ tumbled, Napster and other peer to peer networking tools were rolling into bedrooms, dorm rooms and courtrooms across the planet. At the same time, open source, which Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer compared to communism , was continuing to gain widespread credibility. The values of the older, anarchistic Internet are returning with a vengeance and are being taken seriously. The pendulum may swing back farther than the suits would like.

The Upshot

What’s necessary for a useful discussion of online phenomena is not the polemics of the various online factions, but a model that will take all perspectives into account, and be able to explain how opposites like the gift economy and the restricted economy can co-exist and interact.

The Internet is a much more complex beast than it was even a couple of years ago. Its increasing intricacy demands more sophisticated models than the received ideas about virtual community. Without some new theories, we’re like the proverbial blind men trying to describe the elephant to each other while violently disagreeing about what each is experiencing. What follows is our attempt to take a step backwards and get a look at the larger picture (without stepping in a big heap of elephant shit).


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Commonspace: Beyond virtual community Copyright © 2002 by Mark Surman & Darren Wershler-Henry is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.