The Online Community Does Not Compute

I have spent the past semester studying the WELL, the on-line "intentional community" celebrated by Howard Rheingold in The Virtual Community, to see exactly what kind of community exists online. Rheingold is the WELL's greatest proponent; he portrays the WELL as a true and solid community, comparable in almost every way to "real life" communities. Although I myself am sceptical of the extent to which online communities like the WELL are able to serve its "members" as well as geographical communities, Rheingold's celebratory tone is contagious, especially when coupled with the current cry for renewed interpersonal ties in the face of an intrapersonal and mediated age.

In an early draft of this essay, I used the term "non-mediated communitites" instead of the above "geographical communities." Nick Carbone responded to this and other points:

...I take it that by non-mediated, you mean specifically non-computer mediated. Ain't nothing in this whole wide world, we've learned from Sausseure, Derrida and Barthes, to name a few of the biggies by way of padding the old works cited, that isn't mediated in some way, by some technology, no matter how old... Go on to read the rest of Nick's comments (including my response) and add to the dialogue yourself.

Thus, when the first section of Talbott's book rather rapidly turned into a critique of Rheingold's work, I was ready to read a scathing critique of the very premise of on-line community, and I was not disappointed. Although Talbott, like Rheingold, portrays himself as a "child of the sixties," and thus a member of a generation which "at some deep level...knew their challenge to society was both radical and founded on a yet-unrealized potential in the human being" (55), Talbott's main concern is that the members of that generation, from which the WELL itself sprung, have lost their focus on humanity. Instead, he suggests, they have allowed themselves to place their hope for renewing community ties in the technology itself, rather than looking beyond the technology to their expectations for it.

At first glance, Talbott's early stipulative definition of "community" as "the meaning that we find through our life together" seems far too broad to be useful (64). But Talbott's agenda is to demonstrate that before we can discern "the human future in the networked computer," as Rheingold does, we must recognize "the origin and future of the computer in the increasingly computational bent of the human being." If we use the computer to communicate but tailor our communication to the needs of the machine, the community which results is far removed from the real interaction of the village square. In Talbott's eyes, such "community" has no "meaning," for "meaning" ultimately begins and ends with direct experience. There is not enough meaning online, he suggests, due to the abstract nature of mediated information, to be able to consider online behavior true "community behavior." The abstraction allows us to substitute thoughts of technology for thoughts of "the actual terms of human existence"(p.65), and technology, as one chapter subheading of Talbott's proclaims, is not community. (In his own words.)

One of the most interesting ideas which Talbott addresses is the common premise of Rheingold, John Barlow, and others that the Net currently allows its users a greater ability to participate in, and to influence, their society. This same premise has justified the existence of many online communities: The high level of user influence allows for more control of the Net structure, and thus one can create space for communities much more freely than "outside" the machine, in the already static world (perhaps this is why most activism today has moved to the online frontier). Of course, Talbott has earlier pointed out that the Net also can have the opposite effect of increasing "big brother-hood;" it is this paradoxical nature of the technology which Talbott uses to show that the dualities we see inherent in the machine originate within ourselves. But Talbott also points out that this new, frontier-like quality of the Net which allows us to feel like we have so much influence over our online social structure will not last. To Rheingold's contention that the Net offers "enormous leverage" to the ordinary citizen at little cost, Talbott has this to say: "What becomes of the activist's differential advantage (his special leverage) when the political process has fully adapted itself to networked communication and all campaigns are Net campaigns?" (49). It is this same question which has made me suspect of the WELL's continues existence as a close-knit community, and this same question which has prompted me to spend the current semester examining the Microsoft Network, as an example of "the other side" of the future of the Net (when compared, for example, with the WELL community).

It is important to recognize that, although he comes close to doing so, Talbott is not suggesting that communities cannot exist on-line. What he is attempting to point out is twofold. First, Talbott suggests that a community cannot exist entirely on-line because, due to the abstract nature of all mediated information, not enough meaning can come across the datastream for full and true community participation to exist. Both WELL proponents and opponents have, since the publication of Rheingold's seminal text, used the fact that the WELL is a local server for California's Bay Area to suggest 1) that true and fully functional communities do not, after all, seem to exist entirely in an on-line state and 2) that it is the geographical basis which in part makes the WELL so successful. It may be this recognition of geographical "place" at the foundation of what had been promoted as the "ideal" on-line community which prompted Rheingold to start his own, specifically non-geographical community, Electric Minds.

More importantly, Talbott aptly demonstrates that the existence of on-line groups who proclaim themselves "community" suggests that we need to think about what these people are not getting in their daily existence, and why they are willing to accept such abstracted information as a substitute for the real. "The Net demands a higher order of communal awareness," says Talbott, "from a society that has already failed badly at the 'easier' levels. Our potential for a descent, under the Net's influence, from bad to worse is chilling, and all the more likely at a time when so many are hailing the Net as a nearly automatic cure" (54).

Want to decide for yourself the extent to which the WELL is a true community? Check out the WELL homepage.

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