Virtual Communities: A Sociological Perspective From Pastoral Village to Metropolis

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The technical, functional, and symbolic characteristics of the Internet may have changed the ways that communities are formed and experienced through a decentralized global communication network that transcends physical time and space. While this notion of “virtual community” is closely associated with the emergence of information communication technologies (ICTs), the idea that communities can be seen as series of social ties that vary in density, size and nature is not a novel concept. The rise of cities and urban centers as a result of industrialization have long concerned sociologists, many of whom (e.g., Wirth, 1938; Woodsworth, 1911) feared that traditional social relations that permeated folk communities may be transformed and even threatened by the growth of contemporary metropolis. The development of traditional mass media (e.g., print, radio, and television) had contributed to the process of urbanization by serving as a means of communication for both social and commercial activities. To understand what the Internet may mean for human communities in today’s social and technological context, it is necessary to first explore the changing conception of “community” before the arrival of computers. While the existence of a community is typically defined by the types of social ties formed by its members (e.g., family or work) and by the physical boundaries that it occupies (e.g., neighborhoods or towns), the idea of community can be traced to ancient social and political thought, ranging from the five fundamental relationships in Confucianism to Plato’s ideal republic. During the Enlightenment period, philosophers such as Locke (1988/1689) and Rousseau (1998/1762) wrote extensively about the ways in which individuals enter t... ... middle of paper ... ...ace of community in the age of digital communication technologies. As a result, it is the person, rather than issues associated with the change in physical environment (e.g., urbanization, migration), becomes the new focus of the community research in the information age from a sociological standpoint. For example, what motivates individuals to join virtual communities? In what frequency and capacity do individuals interact with multiple social groups? And to maintain what kind of social relations? These are some of the emerging questions that community scholars will soon have to answer. It is for this reason that the study of community must move beyond the realm of sociology and incorporate perspectives from psychology in order to obtain a more compete picture of what has, and what has not, changed as a result of the networked environment at the individual level.

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