Reading Virtual Communities by Howard Rheingold

Slow, but steady. Isn’t that how the tortoise won the race? I made a note to myself to read Howard Rheingold’s Virtual Communities years ago, and now I am actually doing so!

The real motivator for reading it is an upcoming keynote by Rheingold at the STC conference in Philadelphia, June 1-4. I’d like to attend the keynote having read the speaker’s book.

The book is slightly historical, but I find the mix of history, internet, geeky stuff, and human behavior utterly fascinating. I thoroughly enjoyed the Victorian Internet, I have Where Wizards Stay Up Late in my to-read pile, so reading Virtual Communities is a no-brainer. Oh, and I borrowed his Tools for Thought from the library in MIT’s reprint from 2000. The online version of Tools for Thought looks like it might be from 1985.

Despite its age, the online version from 1985 can still be an interesting read. I think Rheingold has something to say that isn’t locked down to a specific point in time. Other people can make long-lasting statements on this still young topic. For example, Rheingold emphasizes these words:

Will “to be on-line” be a privilege or a right?

They are taken from a 1969 article by J. C. R. Licklider, Robert Taylor, and E. Herbert entitled “The Computer as a Communication Device”. Nearly 40 years later, we are discussing net neutrality, online accessibility, One Laptop Per Child, and more – issues that concern who controls the access to information and who has the know-how to get the information. This is just one tiny example of how this not-so-very old field or phenomenon raises some very fundamental human or society issues.

That is what makes this a fascinating read.

Some of Rheingolds anecdotes from the early WELL years illustrate clearly to me how the term “virtual community” popped into his head. Being a member of several virtual communities, I am fascinated by what makes them tick, so reading about early examples is enlightening. It also shows you that there is really not that much that is new under the sun. 🙂 People share love and flames alike – then and now. The caring stories, such as Elly’s health issues in India or another family’s encounter with leukemia, restore your faith in humanity. They are not there so much for the feel-good effect; they are there to show how the virtual community reflects the power we have in our face-to-face communities – and vice versa.

I feel that these stories can demystify computers and the internet for those people who still hold computers at arm’s length. Oh, they may use them by necessity at work, but not one second more. I can respect the desire for a work/life balance, but I think placing them in a mental leper colony is bit much. I think we need to embrace the role of computers and the internet to stay in control, both of the tools themselves, but also of the privileges and potential they bring.

Chapter 2 includes a section about “Gift Economies and Social Contracts in Cyberspace”. Many sections had me nodding in agreement, such as

Virtual communities can help their members, whether or not they are information-related workers, to cope with information overload. The problem with the information age, especially for students and knowledge workers who spend their time immersed in the info flow, is that there is too much information available and few effective filters for sifting the key data that are useful and interesting to us as individuals.

Recognize that overwhelming feeling? 🙂

This one justifies my information junkie habit:

This informal, unwritten social contract is supported by a blend of strong-tie and weak-tie relationships among people who have a mixture of motives and ephemeral affiliations. It requires one to give something, and enables one to receive something. I have to keep my friends in mind and send them pointers instead of throwing my informational discards into the virtual scrap heap. It doesn’t take much energy to do that, since I have to sift that information anyway to find the knowledge I seek for my own purposes; it takes two keystrokes to delete the information, three keystrokes to forward it to someone else. And with scores of other people who have an eye out for my interests while they explore sectors of the information space that I normally wouldn’t frequent, I find that the help I receive far outweighs the energy I expend helping others: a marriage of altruism and self-interest.

As an interested and active member of several virtual communities, I am eager to read more. I’ll blog about my thoughts as I go along.