Social Software

Is physical presence necessary for community?

A few months ago I responded to a site that claimed The Internet is Shit with a reposte designed to illustrate that although our networks might contain difficult and unpleasant material, they also contain enough of value and facilitate enough legitimate and real communities to be able to state pretty conclusively that The Internet is not Shit. Note – not that it’s perfect, not that it doesn’t have flaws, not that bad things don’t go on in it, but that pound-for-pound it’s more useful and valuable and community-generating than it is useless or damaging or culture-destroying.

Over the last few days, the post has turned into a bit of an argumentative arena, with various posters weighing with positions on what constitutes utopian rhetoric versus what constitutes a reasonable and rational position about the possibilities of (among other things) online communities. Throughout this article various people – myself included – have stumbled in our logic, presented clumsy opinions and misunderstood each other. Nonetheless, I want to pick up one particular fragment of these arguments – a fragment that I feel strongly about and am prepared to fight vigorously about. It’s about the authenticity or otherwise of online ‘communities’. At a certain point in the debate, my sparring partner posts:

“We’re not talking about abstract information – which is expedited magnificently over the internet – we’re talking about flesh and blood people. An actual meeting is far more meaningful than tapping on a keyboard. It is substantially different. Physically congregating with other folk is the same as being on the internet as is reading a book about Tibet compared to actually going there. Or reading a menu and eating the food. You can’t reduce and flatten the physical, sensory, emotional, kinaesthetic and social world in that way.”

Now I’m going to agree with the premise that the particulars of the medium through which people communicate can add a timbre to a community and that they can faciliate certain parts of the exchange more effectively than others. On the other hand, I’d also argue that the qualities of the community space are supprted by the software that they run on, and that quite possibly that software hasn’t yet – in the ten/twenty years that it’s been being developed – quite achieved the elegance and sophistication that we take for granted in some other social spaces. But the one thing I will not stand for is this sense that online communities are somehow inauthentic because they are unphysical – or that the truncation in social ‘signal’ somehow reduces them down to a point of uselessness or redundancy. So excerpts from my reply follow:

Your analogies are hideously flawed for a start – if I communicate on the internet or by phone with someone, it’s not like a transcript of that person or a decription of that person. You’re talking as if whenever you talked to people who weren’t present physically (say via the telephone), that what you were actually doing was listening passively to bloody recordings! Of course they’re not – it’s not bloody radio! People are talking to each other!

Now obviously there are things that you can do in person that you can’t do physically online. It’s harder to guage someone’s mood, it’s harder to have sex with them, it’s harder to get intonation or a tone of voice. But it’s still communication! And the possibility of community still exists! I mean, there are many circumstances in which certain elements of the experience an interaction can be truncated – if you’re on a phone for example and can’t see the person concerned, or if they’re wearing sunglasses so you can’t see their eyes, or if you’re actually bloody deaf and are forced to lip-read, for Christ’s sake! But none of these things stop the possibilities of communication, and none of them stop people being supportive, helpful, useful, friendly or even forming communities through them. I work on the internet, and often my first experience of people is online. Sometimes my only experience of them is online. And yet we can be friends! Most of them have helped me out in some ways in the past, and I’ve helped most of them out in the past as well. Those I haven’t met, I’d like to and those I have I see regularly. But that our relationships have moved sometimes from purely online to a mix of both online and off doesn’t mean they weren’t real to begin with.

You talk about ‘tapping on a keyboard’ as if touching keys was the entire point. You’re confusing the method of communication with the communication itself. It would be like me saying, “There’s a substantial difference between communicating with someone (online) and just causing air to vibrate with your vocal chords”. It’s trivialising, innaccurate, clumsy and – frankly – stupid.

[I should apologise at this point for resorting to name calling in the final line – put it down to frustration.]

There’s a lot more to the argument that’s worth reading and talking abotu on the post itself, but I just thought I’d ask do people still think that the term ‘online community’ is necessarily an oxymoron? Do you really think that the fact you’re interacting through your fingers dramatically limits the strength of the relationships you can make?

14 replies on “Is physical presence necessary for community?”

Tom – i live in India – and i’ve been communicating with people all over the world through online communities for a while now. Have made some very ‘real’ friends and am working with some of them on joint projects. Anyone who calls these connections ‘inauthentic’ really hasn’t even begun to understand what ‘community’ really means. Technology makes it easy – with amazing audio like Skype and video capabilities as well – there have been times when i’ve worked with people thousands of miles away and felt we were infact sharing an office – each in our own cubicle – chatting over the partition !

well put. i would add that there are some things the non-physical communication mediums do better than the medium of physical interaction, such as balancing the communication styles of introverts and extroverts or fast talkers and slow talkers, allowing people to communicate coherently in large groups (it’s impossible for two people to talk over each other in a chat room), talking without passing illness to one another (which was important to me the last time i was having this conversation – in taiwan during the SARS outbreak), and – of course – communicating with people who aren’t nearby. in some cases these benefits outweigh the drawbacks and non-physical communication is not only an okay, lesser alternative to physical communication, but actually superior.

I suspect that the people who feel that internet communities are ‘inauthentic’ are the same people who think that internet relationships (friendships or romantic) ‘aren’t real’. But this distinction between online life and ‘real’ life is an arbitrary and fallacious one – the people that you meet on the internet are real, they have real feelings, real thoughts and real ways of expressing them. How can they not be real? (Unless the net is chock full of really good Turing machines and I just never noticed.) There is a long tradition of epistolary relationships and the only difference between us and, say, Victorian letter writers is that our letters get there faster. Yet no one doubted the sincerity of epistolary relationships in the past, so why is email or blogging different now? The truth is that it’s not, and anyone who thinks that it is probably has their own agenda to serve. After all, if one denies the validity of internet communities and relationships, one negates the need to take responsibility for one’s actions – if the medium is ‘not real’, one’s actions within it are ‘not real’, and the hurt one can cause is ‘not real’. I’m not saying this is the thinking of everyone who claims that internet communities are inauthentic, but one does have to wonder at their inner motivations for making assertations that are so patently incorrect. It is very easy to believe that there is in fact not a thinking, feeling human being on the other side of the screen, and I’ve been a victim of the kind of thoughtless abuse that that particular standpoint engenders. I’m sure we all have. But people who choose to believe that are stuck in the school playground of their own volition, and probably also believe that ‘I didn’t mean it’ is an adequate way to apologise.

Furthering Dina’s point, f2f and engaging in a m2m space are simply different modalities, each with their own strengths. In some situations, interacting at distance can be more effective. We also compensate for the lack of cues in different modalities, like when someone one of six senses.

Speaking as somebody who has been engaged in online communities since about 1994 (first through BBSes, later the Internet) I can say that whilst a certain degree of comradery and friendship can be built up via an electronic text-only medium, nothing beats a face-to-face meeting with the same people. Or better still, a great big party. Communication via text alone is missing out on the body language and numerous other non-word based ways of expressing our feelings, and thus can only ever be second best unless you’re really weird and socially maladjusted. What is it they say, something like only 5% of our person-to-person communication is in the actual words we use?

Finding the eBay of Social Capital
The blogosphere seems intent on finishing the year on a social note. I’m seeing plenty of posts on LinkedIn, ZeroDegrees, Spoke and continued tirades over what Ryze, Tribe and Friendster provide or don’t. Yes it’s an area I read about…

Interesting. I think the point being stressed, Marcus, is that online interactions/communities are not ‘inauthentic’. Sure, there are benefits to face-to-face meetings — just as there are benefits to being able to express your feelings through text (as outlined by Scott), but it’s like comparing oranges and mandarines: both are fruits, but which one is better really comes down to personal preference and what you find satisfies your needs.
In either medium, it’s an exchange of ideas. Sure, there are nuances in our body language that betray things our words fail to uncover, but there are just as many ‘signposts’ in the written word … especially when used in informal, friendly settings like online communities. Punctuation, the order of phrases and questions left unanswered are just a few “unspoken” signs that are waiting to be picked up on.
Still, to each their own. I do, however, object to having my online relationships labelled ‘inauthentic’. The emotions I feel when I chat with my partner overseas are not ‘digitised’ — they are as real as the happiness I feel when we are together in person. Sure, when we’re in the same country, it’s wonderful, but that doesn’t mean our online interations are fruitless wastes of time.

I completely agree with what you (Dustyangel) and Tom are saying, albeit with the reservation that I still prefer the “real” thing. 🙂 I think “inauthentic” is a ridiculous, snobbish way to describe online community and social interaction. The implication that you’re not really communicating with people if you do it over the Internet is nothing short of bizarre. Sorry for probably failing to grasp the full issue here (slight hangover preventing full cogency), but I think that community and communication is what you make of it, no matter the medium. You may as well call sign language “inauthentic language” because it doesn’t use verbalised words…

Good point, Marcus. That makes me wonder if the arguments people like “Tom’s sparring partner” make are discriminatory towards, say, people with a visual impairment. If they can’t see who they’re talking to (sound familar?), does this mean they are incapable of having authentic communications/relationships? I dare say such people would also resent the implication.
As I said, I strongly believe it’s the quality of the content that matters, not the box in which it was packaged. Of course, having said that, I should also admit that I do love to analyse body language (and there’s nothing like a good hug to cheer you up on a blue day). I just happen to enjoy conversing in text just as much 🙂

Just to clear something up, since this thread vaguely concerns me. If you read back along the lines of this debate, it looks like Tom is saying *I* said online interaction is inauthentic. My post is still there, and anyone can see I never said that. What I emphasised is the ambivalent nature of online interaction, and the fact that it is different to RL – countering the tendency to equate online and offline as if they were the same thing. Which is ridiculous. The same applies point to Tom’s final post at the debate: that it mostly mis-characterises actually what I said, and is merely what he imagined my position to be. I have no intention of taking this any further; I really can’t be bothered. However what I will do is respond to the specific points aimed at me, which I think is reasonable. I’m not going to add anything else to this – very little, anyway.
I don’t presume to think I’m some kind of sole source of wisdom, as Tom said very explicitly, but I do think this kind of discourse is stuck in fairly rigid patterns which are amenable to critical methods from non-techno/cyber people. Saying, as he did, that my MA is “NOT NEARLY ENOUGH” grounding in this subject is missing the point. First, most of my ideas have derived from the 2 years since I did my MA. Second, from what I’ve seen of the cyber and techno theory currently popular, I’m not very impressed with the ‘thinking’ that goes with internet culture and this is not from 5 years ago but today: a book was published a year ago which is full of it, and it’s a core university text. All I’m saying here is there are psychological, sociological and phenomenological factors which other disciplines account for in sophisticated ways, and internet theory doesn’t. That you don’t need internet credentials to be able to analyse this. In fact from what I’ve seen, the more totally immersed in it you are, the less likely it is you can talk sensibly about it. Which seems to stir the proverbial hornet’s nest, to which I reply: people see things in different ways. There is no one viewpoint. It is legitimate and useful to consider what are alternative perspectives. The fact that the internet is technological does not mean it has to be considered only in techno-speak terms by internet workers. In the final analysis it is actually cultural, with cultural ramifications. Most critics are not themselves novelists, artists etc nor do they have to be. Academics aren’t the only people to build castles in the air, in fact the almost hypnotic nature of the internet makes it very conducive to castle-making.
But that doesn’t seem to go down very well.
I could also say *I’m* not going to get irritated. But that is effectively just internet-speak for saying I am irritated, but I’m not going to express it, because I am above that kind of thing. Internet discourse of that kind is not just straightforward and/or logical, it is *theatrical*. I could come up with a graph-theory about that, showing how at one end of the scale you have an emotional or emotive exchange, subject to its own kind of dynamics and having its own values – and at the other end of the scale you have a straightforward debate of ideas. The two things get mixed up – on the internet quite a lot – and its useful to disentangle this. But really, spinning out some kind of clever-dick model to illustrate that idea is uneccessary tautology: I can say it in just a few simple words.
My reference to ‘small scale activities’ seemed to really irk Tom, big-time. Thus, I was ‘superior’ because of my intellectual declaration, arrogant etc etc. Now, I’ve never doubted Tom’s experience in online community. However that is what he DOES know about, focus on, and theorise; what DOESN’T really interest him is more dysfunctional activities, more transitory, ephemeral, and fleeting internet exchange. But actually they are very widespread. I said I’m interested in the big picture, and all that means is: I incorporate all the wild, wacky, distasteful and negative stuff into my ideas and conception about the internet. Tom focusses on quite specialised areas and tries to support them and take them forward all the time. I like to consider the whole spectrum of internet activity. That’s not superior at all, its just a different focus. The initial debate began “is the internet shit” and my point was a) that’s a silly polarised question b) ultimately its both shit and not-shit and c) by definition it’s a question about the whole of the internet, not just groovy online community. However the debate was construed only in online community terms. The internet is actually quite big, and even though Tom has knowledge in certain areas, he is not some kind of Universal Internet Guru. There are plenty of other people out there – maybe even not online, maybe in print – who say things beyond Tom’s range, different to it, and referring to other facets of the internet phenomenon.
I think what is ‘authentic’ and what isn’t is an argument not really worth pursuing. The term is not defined for a start; there are plenty of people who would say that plenty of aspects of RL society are ‘inauthentic’. That a human being can be inauthentic when they are in bed with someone, or say they love you, or anything else. This is what I mean: internet theory gets into areas like this, and flattens out what are quite big subjects. Basically, if you feel online communication is ‘authentic’, well then for you it is. Simple as that really. If you go into a MUD or a MOO and feel you’ve been raped because someone takes control of your avatar and abuses it, well no one can say that’s not ‘authentic’ if that’s how you feel. But it *is* possible to disentangle the psychology and phenomenology of all of this. That there’s no getting away from the fact that you were just in front of a VDU. That there is a strong tendency to ignore and flatten out these distinctions, in internet culture.
I think my conclusion is there are theoretical areas of no concern to Tom, and no *practical* concern for anyone who enters an online community – me included, actually! But what what I “won’t stand for” is when quite sensible enquiry is dismissed, mischaracterised, derided as beginners arrogance etc.
Incidentally I use the term ‘utopian’ not only in a perfect world-building sense, but also in the sense that logical and rhetorical construction is deemed sufficient to establish ideological positions, regardless of logical fact and shaky real world correlation. Castles in the air, in other words.

It’s all very simple. If you’re likely to conjure up ice-cream castles in the air, you’ll do so regardless of whether you’re online or not. Personally I’ve made some interesting connections which have helped me out, specifically when I’ve been unable to talk, and needed an outlet.
Can’t find any fault in that.

I agree with Dustyangel. Web Communities or networks are centered around ideas and the sharing of information and knowledge (and a lot of horse @#$%, but what can you do).
The social aspects of the Web can’t replace the real life experience of eye contact, body gestures, smiles, bad breath, and so on…but it is isn’t supposed to. What is so significant about this tool we created is that it is non-hieratical, a true “web”. This will have profound impacts on society, culture, politics, and even our evolution and this is what I find exciting. We may not know for years, decades perhaps, what this human creation has done for those who created it, but clearly we are just at the beginning of a major social change, a social movement.
The rapid growth and evolution of technology in the last decades didn’t “just happen.” There was and is a social need; that is, something has to change (exactly what I don’t know) and that is why we have this period of rapid growth in new technologies; we need a new tool because something needs fixing. The internet is just one of many new technologies that will serve this need in the years to come.
My two cents anyways.

Comments are closed.