Cyber Communities


Introduction


As internet related developments continue to accelerate, a relatively cheap and easy means of communicating and sharing experiences between different cultures and across vast geographical expanses can be realised, via cyberspace, from a computer terminal and keyboard without having to physically speak or travel. The main focus of this essay will be on cyber communities that offer a different dimension of human interaction from traditional geographically bound communities. The aim is to analyse the sociological definition and functions of cyber communities and to explore the make‑up, means of membership, issues of inequality, and the possibility that real communities will become a secondary means of social functioning.


Cyber Communities


Cyber communities, a place where people can meet, associate, and exchange experiences, found its gestation in the birth of the internet. Members of cyber communities use their keyboard and screen to exchange pleasantries, argue, engage in intellectual discourse, conduct business, flirt, fall in love, and more (Fernback & Thompson n.d). They do virtually everything they do in real life except they leave their bodies behind. The richness and vitality of cyber cultures is attractive and even addictive, noted Rheingold (1993, p.3). Real, or flesh and blood, communities are a group of people who are different yet interdependent and who are bound together by a common set of rules and responsibilities (Lewis 2002) and a place where inclusion may depend on economic, employment, gender or race status. Inclusion in communities within the realms of cyberspace, however, can be as easy as few mouse clicks. Just start surfing, find a group that appeals to your interests, create a profile, screen name, obtain a password, and life in a new community begins. You are now part of a community of likeminded individuals who could be situated anywhere around the globe. Geographical constraints on community participation and formation suddenly become irrelevant. Real communities, on the other hand, are forged through gradual acceptance, integration, and participation on many levels by citizens and have a general locale. Friends, experiences, participation in clubs, and schooling are just a number of community functions that bring people together to form a community. However, marginality and associated discrimination can be a causal factor in the exclusion from real communities of some individuals and groups.


Inclusion and Alienation


For many, the internet can be a source of new found community or another source of alienation for others. Inclusion in technological advances associated with cyberspace, continue to be but a dream for the poor and least educated for whom computer and internet accessibility remains unattainable (Loader 1998, p. 65). Even though computers are becoming less expensive, the inequity of access for lower socio‑economic classes remains while the more endowed segments of the larger society continue to keep pace with, and adapt to, a changing world. Cultural or ethnic minorities, woman, youth, homosexuals, disabled and so on, are minorities that may find greater acceptance and inclusion in cyber communities. Cyber communities can be a good adjunct or complimentary aspect to real communities because they allow people from marginalised groups, and people who for various reasons participate little in their real community, to interact with multitudes of likeminded people who they simply would not have been able to in real life. This is an obvious strength of virtual communities in that they offer an alternative means of community and social life from which they might otherwise have been excluded. These people have a chance to have some type of life and identity where they can be greeted and welcomed without their race, gender, disability, or appearance being an issue. This does not mean, however, that anybody regardless of race, age, creed or other personal characteristics would be welcomed or included in all cyber communities. Many virtual communities can be ideologically specific where people who are not considered acceptable members may find themselves excluded or feeling unwelcome. To some extent at least, such issues can be redressed by the freedom to role‑play and manufacture identities in cyberspace.


Identities and Loss of Reality


Real communities develop through physical interaction and face‑to‑face relationships requiring members to put up with each other’s shortcomings and burdens and accept that within their community, opposing ideals, views, and personalities abound. In contrast, cyber communities often develop without these fundamental factors and thus can encourage an