Virtual Communities

A Slice of Life in My Virtual Community

Howard Rheingold
June, 1992

Note: In 1988, Whole Earth Review published my article, "Virtual Communities." Four years later, I reread it and realized that I had learned a few things, and that the world I was observing had changed.So I rewrote it. The original version is available on the WELL as /uh/72/hlr/virtualcommunities88.

Portions of this will appear in "Global Networks: Computers and International Communication," edited by Linda Harasim for MIT press. Portions of this will appear in "Virtual Communities," by Howard Rheingold, Addison-Wesley. Portions of this may find their way into Whole Earth Review.

This is a world-readable file, and I think these are important issues;encourage distribution, but I do ask for fair use: Don't remove my name from my words when you quote or reproduce them, don't change them, and don't impair my ability to make a living with them. Howard Rheingold.

I'm a writer, so I spend a lot of time alone in a room with my words and my thoughts. On occasion, I venture outside to interview people or to find information. After work, I reenter the human community, via my family, my neighborhood, my circle of acquaintances. But that regime left me feeling isolated and lonely during the working day, with few opportunities to expand my circle of friends. For the past seven years, however, I have participated in a wide- ranging, intellectually stimulating, professionally rewarding, sometimes painful, and often intensely emotional ongoing interchange with dozens of new friends, hundreds of colleagues, thousands of acquaintances. And I still spend many of my days in a room, physically isolated. My mind, however, is linked with a worldwide collection of like-minded (and not so like-minded) souls: My virtual community.

Virtual communities emerged from a surprising intersection of humanity and technology. When the ubiquity of the world telecommunications network is combined with the information-structuring and storing capabilities of computers, a new communication medium becomes possible. As we've learned from the history of the telephone, radio, television, people can adopt new communication media and redesign their way of life with surprising rapidity. Computers, modems, and communication networks furnish the technological infrastructure of computer-mediated communication (CMC); cyberspace is the conceptual space where words and human relationships, data and wealth and power are manifested by people using CMC technology; virtual communities are cultural aggregations that emerge when enough people bump into each other often enough in cyberspace.

A virtual community as they exist today is a group of people who may or may not meet one another face to face, and who exchange words and ideas through the mediation of computer bulletin boards and networks. In cyberspace, we chat and argue, engage in intellectual intercourse, perform acts of commerce, exchange knowledge, share emotional support, make plans, brainstorm, gossip, feud, fall in love, find friends and lose them, play games and metagames, flirt, create a little high art and a lot of idle talk. We do everything people do when people get together, but we do it with words on computer screens, leaving our bodies behind. Millions of us have already built communities where our identities commingle and interact electronically, independent of local time or location. The way a few of us live now might be the way a larger population will live, decades hence.

The pioneers are still out there exploring the frontier, the borders of the domain have yet to be determined, or even the shape of it, or the best way to find one's way in it. But people are using the technology of computer-mediated communications CMC technology to do things with each other that weren't possible before. Human behavior in cyberspace, as we can observe it and participate in it today, is going to be a crucially important factor. The ways in which peopl

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