From Virtual Communities to Research on Virtuality: Emerging Concepts and Research Challenges—Ethnographic Research in the Digital Age

Raudelio Machin Suarez, Diana Viscay Mantilla

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review

Abstract

The concept of “virtual communities” has emerged since the creation of the Internet in the 1970s—although the term was not introduced until 1993 (by Howard Rheingold). These consist of groups of people who interact through virtual networks and have common interests. Unlike traditional communities, virtual communities do not require concurrence of their members in space or time, thus allowing asynchronous communication and interaction among geographically distant people. Along with the development and massive use of communication technologies, virtual networks have been modified (particularly through the emergence of virtual communities with greater numbers of members and for a wide variety of purposes such as recreational, teaching and learning, political and economic ones, among others). This has led some people to prefer to aggregate in virtual communities as opposed to traditional communities, such that the massive use of virtual networks become their main way of communication. Current examples of virtual networks are e-mail groups, online chat rooms, instant messaging and virtual social networks (e.g. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter). Each of these networks has reasons to call itself a community and also to not do so. In this context, the study of virtual communities is an issue of increasing interest in the social sciences (cf. authors such as Howard Rheingold, Barry Wellman, Milena Gulia, Robert Kraut and Sara Kiesler). With this in mind—and particularly as a means for explaining dynamic aspects of virtual communities—some authors’ ideas have been premised within prior theories of social networks (as used in the interpretation of traditional communities). At the same time, new concepts have been proposed that are framed in terms of the interaction between civilisation and technology. They aim to explain the changing way people communicate and exchange ideas in cyberspace, the adjustment of humans to technology, their participation in virtual communities and citizen mobilisations mediated by virtual networks. Regarding this last point, Howard Rheingold (Smart mobs: The next social revolution. Basic Books, 2002) suggests the concept of “smart mobs” to explain virtual mass coordinations as new modes of social organization. The present chapter aims to carry out a review of the proposed theories and current research on virtual communities. In particular, these conceptual frameworks are described in order to better understand the trajectory of these communities from their inception, as well as their features that are both common with and different from traditional communities. They also consider the systematic categorization of individual effects and social impacts of virtual communities. Main emerging concepts and research challenges in the topic are also summarized. Emphasis is placed on what could be the inflections of ethnographic and subjective-based studies of virtual communities and, as well, the potentialities and gaps of this methodological approach in the context of social networks. Finally, we briefly discuss several prognoses that have been made about the presence of virtual communities and consequent social changes for the coming years.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationNew Waves in Social Psychology
PublisherSpringer International Publishing AG
Pages223-255
Number of pages33
ISBN (Electronic)9783030874063
ISBN (Print)9783030874056
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2022

Keywords

  • Ethno-psychoanalysis
  • Human being
  • Networks
  • Social psychology
  • Virtualization

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Psychology

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