Digital Virtual Communities
How do virtual communities connect their members and allow them to interact amongst each other? And what is the type and quality of that interaction? These are the questions I want to probe below. As the reader will observe, I do not intend to give a verdict or a final illuminating answers to the questions above, but instead, my objective is to raise these issues and make us all ponder them. In the words of Socrates, this blog entry is a gadfly to us Digital Humanists.
A virtual community can be defined as a network of people with mutual interest who interact in cyberspace. Ok, let`s focus on the word “interact” for a moment. What is the essential element, or ingredient in human interaction? Is it exchange of information? Or maybe it is a way of reaching out and knowing that we are not alone in our apprehensions, beliefs or fears? If so, virtual communities can function as real communities of people who perform meaningful interaction. Before we get too cozy, let`s continue. What if human interaction needs something more such as contact, smell, heat, touch, voice tones, and texture? Perhaps, these are elements vital to constituting real, healthy communication between humans. How much is Second Life actually “life” or what kind of real friendship is created between MMORPGs players?
To some influential philosophers like Kant, the outside world is real and concrete but we can never really grasp its true naked realness. Reality is always filtered by our senses and our brain. In short, the exterior objective world is unattainable and must be understood by our interior subjectivity. We are cursed to never really interact with it in that sense (in fact atoms never really touch each other!) and for all we know, we could be brains floating in jars like in H.P.Lovecraft`s The Whisperer in the Darkness. With these thoughts in mind, we can ask ourselves: What constitutes then valid input? Is a typed “I ❤ you” for a person on the other side of the world equal to an actual face to face experience of these words?
These enquiries above are philosophically valid to ponder the nature of and approach to virtual online communities. Networks of communities expanded from small localized tribes to feature our neighbourhoods in cities, school friends and job mates. Now, with the digital revolution, cyberspace allows us to establish human communities and networks with people who don’t live near us, don’t share kinship, don’t go to our school or work in our department – people we usually don’t know much beyond a flickering online username or avatar. We have in the last two decades become social creatures on a scale beyond physical constraints.
We can make an analogy with the thoughts that Walter Benjamin expounded in his essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. According to the author, a super high quality photograph of the Mona Lisa or a perfect millimetre scan of every inch of the canvas would still lack the aura of the original work. The copy, as near perfection as it might be, is not the Mona Lisa (with its historical and unique authority) and we cannot interact with it really beyond a superficial surface level. Art Historians would have a hard time x-raying a photo of the Mona Lisa to find evidences of previous sketches or alterations or chemically analyse the pigments to discover who produced the paint and establish economical routes in the fifteenth century. So, applying Water Benjamin`s ideas to our case, we can ask: do virtual communities lack the aura of real off-line ones? Is a face to face talk more real than texting on Facebook or Twitter? These questions are hard to answer but it seems that to attempt to, we must isolate the key essence of what constitutes community and interaction.
Virtual communities do create an equalitarian platform for communication and discussion, a perfect democratic agora. It can wash away factors such as body language, race, gender, age, charisma, voice, presence, dress code, status – all of which normally influence us to whom we give attention and listen to. In cyberspace, the message, the logos, is free from these factors. Communication becomes disembodied and rarefied, pure and sharper. Perhaps a truer interaction between people can happen. We have all been sucked into virtual communities, be them gaming forums, a subscription to a Youtube channel one always post comments on, or Facebook groups for college or sports.
We just have to be careful and observe if we are establishing real interaction and participating in a community or just talking to ourselves, to our own reflection on the laptop screen. If we are we might run the risk of falling into a bottomless pool and Echo will forever preserve our texts in the void of cyberspace in some refrigerated server room in California. We must interact and truly communicate with people and establish meaningful communities in cyberspace else our thoughts and ideas become preserved in a pickle jar or empty 0s and 1s.