Friday 29 October 2010

Topic 2.2 - Community and Identity

Shafi, Can a Virtual Community be any different from the experience of a Real Community?” Incoherent Thoughts, December 13, 2005. Archived by WebCite.

This blog post expresses the author's initial reservations about virtual community, and then moves on to a more positive stance on their possibilities. This highlights the normative use of the word community, that is, beyond being a way of describing a set of social relations, 'community' often implies certain values and expectations. What do you associate with the term, 'community,' and are these things available in both online and face to face types of community?

Don Slater. (2002). Social Relationships and Identity Online and Offline. In Leah A. Lievrouw, Sonia M. Livingstone & Sonia M. Livingstone (Eds.), Handbook of New Media (pp. 533-546). In E-Reserve.

This chapter in a student textbook on new media interrogates the distinctions between offline and online and provides examples of the changes in the way social relationships are formed and maintained, and identity is constructed.

  1. Discuss, in relation to an online community of your choice:
    1. How is this a 'community' (and what is a community)?
    2. Connections and gaps between the world of this community and face to face life.
    3. Who are the 'powerful' in this community, and how was this power acquired?
    4. Is there a difference between 'virtual' and 'real' life? What do these terms mean, nowadays?
  2. Pick 1 topic (e.g. dating) and list examples of the way the Internet has, in terms of your topic, become part of our everyday in terms of community, power, economy and identity.
Shafi defines a community as “a group of people having common interests” (Shafi, 2005) and Zhang defines a virtual community as "communities formed through computer-mediated communications" (Zhang & Tanniru, 2005).  I've chosen to examine Facebook, which is the second-largest website in the world (Facebook, 2010) with currently over 500 million users across the globe (, 2010).  Facebook allows "communications between people who are spatially dispersed", or "disembedded" (Slater, 2002); that is, it enables friends and family in different geographic locations to communicate with each other online.
There are some similarities between "real life" and an online community such as Facebook.  Facebook demands that you use your real name when joining, which removes some of the anonymity, or "disembodiment" (Slater, 2002), of earlier Internet-based communications such as IRC and ICQ and arguably makes it less detached and more "real" than those earlier communication platforms.  It allows you to control who can and can't view your personal profile, which is similar to you controlling who you do and don't tell things to in the real world. and you can also control what you actually say.  Some may argue that you only see what people want you to see on Facebook, but I think that's true in real life too - if I'm having a bad day then I'm just as unlikely to wander around the streets telling people as I am to post it on my Facebook page.

There are also some obvious differences.  After many years of travelling I have many friends scattered across the globe, who previously I would only hear from a few times a year via a lengthy email.  Now that they are Facebook friends I can keep up with them on a far more immediate basis.  In some cases too, I've learned more about individuals via their Facebook pages than I ever knew about them from real life.  The biggest problem I have nowadays is if a friend ISN'T on Facebook - it has become so easy to post an update about something in my life on my Facebook profile and letting 100+ know something simultaneously, that I sometimes forget to then contact those individuals who aren't on Facebook.

I think the power behind Facebook lies equally between Facebook themselves, and also users.  Facebook has access to the personal information of over 500 million people and, as was discussed in last week's iLecture (Kent, 2010), the fact that Facebook is free to use only means that they aren't selling Facebook to individuals but are instead collecting our data as a way of selling Facebook advertising to us.  However, Facebook itself is of no value if nobody uses it, and the public outcry (Swan, 2010) last year over the way they handled user privacy resulted in changes to privacy controls (Zuckerberg, 2010).

I think that the terms "virtual and "real life" nowadays really refer to what Slater calls “face-to-face embodied interaction” and "disembodiement" (Slater, 2002).  Traditional ideas of community have changed - community is now less about geographic location and much more about common interest (Shafi, 2005). (2010). Top Sites - The top 500 sites on the web.  Retrieved November 1, 2010, from
Facebook. (2010). Facebook Statistics, from
Kent, M. (2010). The Internet and Everyday Life: Power and Economy.  Retrieved from
Shafi. (2005, December 13). Can a Virtual Community be any different from the experience of a Real Community?  Retrieved from
Slater, D. (2002). Social Relationships and Identity Online and Offline. In L. Lievrouw & S. Livingstone (Eds.),In Handbook of New Media (pp. 533-546): Sage Publications Ltd.
Swan, D. (2010). Facebook backs down  Retrieved May 27, 2010, from
Zhang, Y., & Tanniru, M. (2005). An agent-based approach to study virtual learning communities, pp. 11c.
Zuckerberg, M. (2010, May 27). Making Control Simple.  Retrieved from


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