Online discussion areas and the changing notion of community.

My senior thesis as a journalism major at Stetson University, presented in the spring of 1999.

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Digital Neighborhoods
By Andy Dehnart

Part I: Introduction.

In 1995, David Talbot created a community.

The community he created is not a neighborhood full of soccer moms and dads who coach little league. It’s not a nationwide intellectual community of artists or academicians. It isn’t a community with streets, houses, and a park with a swing set.

It is an online community.

Talbot, founder and editor-in-chief of the popular online magazine Salon, included as part of his online magazine a discussion forum where people from around the world come together and interact - digitally. And his online community (like many others) is altering our conception of what communities are. This is not unlike what happens with other forms of technology. Radio, the telephone, television - all of these changed the way people interact with each other because of distinctive characteristics that are directly related to the kind of communication that the technology supports. The Internet, as a tool of mass communication, is also facilitating changes in human interaction.

As online communities are developed and grow, they are beginning to add new components to the community equation, making us question our commonly held beliefs about communities. That happens because they have distinctive features and components, and also because of the ways in which online community interaction differs from “real life” interaction. For example, what do we consider to be a “normal” community? How does an online community deviate from that notion? In what ways are online communities forcing us to change our ideas about the way in which we interact with each other? Does the media just create community sometimes, or does it have a hand in the community’s day-to-day operation and maintenance?

This thesis attempts to answer those questions. Through an in-depth look at one online, media-sponsored discussion area, changes in the status quo understanding of “community” will be analyzed. First, I’ll discuss briefly the Internet and online media - specifically Salon, the media organization that sponsors and maintains a discussion area. That background will help in our understanding of Table Talk, its structure, and its features. Next, common definitions of community - from academia to popular culture, present day to the mid-century - will be examined and analyzed to find a common definition of community. Finally, deviations from that concept of community will be discussed by looking at specific aspects of Table Talk.

Through this analysis, it will become clear that what we’ve grown to know about community is not necessarily the case anymore, as online media communities are shifting our understanding of what a community is.

Part II: Internet-based media.

The Internet and media.

The role that the Internet plays in our lives is rapidly increasing, as more companies go online to offer products, services, and information. The Internet’s combination of qualities - worldwide accessibility, instantaneous communication, and anonymity, among others - makes it unlike any other medium that the world has seen. Television shows display Web site addresses with their credits. Instead of 800 numbers in commercials, companies give their Internet locations or URLs. Professors are using the Internet for its resources, encouraging research online. There are portals, weather-watching sites, places to get free e-mail and stock updates, contests, scams, and search engines.

The evolution of the Internet is occurring so quickly that one day a new feature or service is offered, and the next, other competing sites have the same feature, making competition vicious and the life cycle of many sites short. As money flows from investors, consumers, and businesses alike, the medium will undoubtedly change to suit the needs of the moment.

Web-based publications are a small but visible segment of the Internet community. Sometimes called “zines” or “e-zines,” these publications exist only online. Unlike the New York Times’ site, for example, which primarily publishes a digital version of its daily newspaper, these publications create content exclusively for the Internet. Content-based sites, however, are not as prevalent as commerce and consumer-oriented sites. As one reporter explained, “Content isn’t dead on the Internet, but electronic commerce is Wall Street’s current king” (Weaver 1999).

What makes a publication successful online remains to be determined. The medium is still in its infancy, and what happens over the next few years will help to define the characteristics that successful publications have. The waters for online content are largely uncharted, and with money dictating the actions of many companies on the Internet, these mostly independent Web sites must stand out from the fray. They must distinguish themselves with features and content that other sites do not offer. Technology giant Microsoft is currently experimenting with online content through its Slate zine. Edited by Michael Kinsley, Slate charged $19.95 for access to the majority of its Web-only content (Weaver); now, however, Slate has abandoned its practice of charging users, announcing in February that a subscription-only model was not as successful as the magazine hoped it would be (Kinsley 1999). Some publications like Feed ( are currently publishing independently, while others like Word ( - one of the first true ‘zines) have, in the midst of the merger mania occurring on the Internet, sought investors or whole owners. Others have come and gone - most notably Stim, a production of Prodigy, and ABC News’ All Politics site (Weaver).

Salon is one publication that has managed to pull through and become visible. With 1.2 million unique readers a month (Salon Internet 1999), it is “possibly the largest independent Web publisher” (Weaver).

Table Talk and Salon

Because there are hundreds of major online discussion areas, chat rooms, and other similar communication forums (not to mention the thousands of less-visible ones), it is necessary to limit the study to one site. Because of its distinctive features and relationship to its parent site, I have selected Salon’s Table Talk forum to use as a case study.1 A number of Table Talk’s attributes make it representative of other online communities, and thus, a solid example to examine. (Whether or not Table Talk constitutes a true community is not the subject of this thesis. There is significant debate about whether or not online discussion areas are really communities, but this thesis operates under the assumption that Table Talk is indeed a community, primarily because Table Talk’s attributes and features are congruent with the standard definition of community that will be defined later. This paper does not attempt to address dissension about the issue - which would constitute an entirely different thesis altogether - but rather suggests ways in which the Table Talk is forcing the evolution of the concept of “community.”)

Of the uncountable number of chat rooms, discussion threads, and other interactive forums, Table Talk stands out because of the number of users it has and posts made to its discussions. As of May 1998, it was the second most popular discussion forum on the Internet (Cashel), with 102,500 registered posters as of March of 1999 (Salon Internet 1999). Because of the size and nature of the forum, no statistics are available that identify the exact number of active posters in the community. However, according to an informal study conducted by Table Talk member Peter Gorman, there are probably around 3,000 people who post regularly within Table Talk. Within a one-week period, Gorman counted 156 unique posters in the “Books” section of Table Talk. Assuming that the “Books” section is representative of the other sections, he multiplied that number by the number of sections (24), equaling 3,744 posters. As he posted, “Even if Books is representative (and if I sampled a typical week), this doesn’t take into account the number of people posting in multiple sections. I’d estimate the actual number of different people posting in Table Talk each week to be around 3,000” (Gorman 1999).

Second, Table Talk is “one of the most diverse posting areas on the Web” with an equal percentage of registered male and female participants (Table). While further demographics about Table Talk itself aren’t available, Salon itself attracts a less diverse audience: its readers are 34 percent female and 67 percent male, and have an average age of 34 and average income of $71,000. As a whole, the Internet attracts an audience that is 42 percent female and 58 percent male, is an average of 37-years-old, and has a mean income of $54,900.

To understand Table Talk’s function and role within Salon, and the reasons behind the discussion area’s creation, a history of the site is appropriate. While Salon vaulted into the national spotlight in the fall of 1998 for its reporting on Henry Hyde’s marital affair, it has been publishing - exclusively on the Internet - since 1995, although it was far less visible before then.

Salon is the creation of journalist David Talbot, a former editor at the San Francisco Examiner. Talbot “had long dreamt of a cultural magazine that would be neither a glitzy, celebrity-driven rag nor an organ for ‘highbrows, scholarly people, or eggheads’” (Thompson 2). The opportunity arose for him to create that publication when union workers at the San Francisco Examiner went on strike. The striking staff, fearful that the Examiner itself might use its Web site to force an end to the strike, created an independent publication on the Web to compete with the Examiner’s site. The new Web-based publication - the San Francisco Free Press - was popular during the 12-day strike, and readers responded well to the publication. Inspired by the creation of an Internet-only publication called Wired, a technology-oriented news site, Talbot pulled a group of Examiner editors together and they developed Salon. Soon after, he resigned from his job at the Examiner, and the group secured funding and began work on the magazine. In mid-November 1995, after a year of planning and three months of work on the publication, Salon was launched (Thompson 2).

In early April 1999, Salon unveiled a new site design and structure. The change represented the next step in the publication’s evolution. All of the sections now publish stories daily (or more frequently), although content was originally produced biweekly. Many of the sections went daily in February of 1997, and the rest have moved to that schedule gradually.

All of the stories Salon publishes fall under one of ten content areas or “sites.” For example, “Media” looks at media culture, and “News” has daily news stories about everything from President Clinton’s problems to genocide in Rwanda. In the “Entertainment” section, “Blue Glow” summarizes the evening’s television offerings, and “Arts and Entertainment,” “Books,” and “Travel” offer reviews and feature stories about their respective topics, often from a first-person perspective. “Mothers Who Think” focuses on feminist perspectives in addition to family and women’s issues. The “Comics” section has a different comic every day, but not of the Garfield variety. The cartoonists - some of them syndicated, some produced exclusively for Salon - offer biting and insightful social and political commentary. Salon’s group of columnists, who range from lesbian libertarian Camille Paglia to neo-conservative David Horowitz, offer regular views from their diverse perspectives. Provocative cover stories - like “Was Jesus gay?” - usually lead off Salon’s front page.

The content is facilitated by design and layout based on an art-deco look. The magazine’s art director, Mignon Khargie, developed “simple layouts and flat color fields” which “translated into good legibility and fast download times-both key element of Salon’s success” (Thompson). Each section’s cover features links to the lead stories for that day, plus links to past stories in the section. Certain articles and columns feature “introductory front pages or ‘doors’ for longer pieces that include links to related material such as an author’s bio or previous articles” (Thompson).

Salon is a well-read publication. Salon reports a February 1998 circulation of 382,480 readers. A total of 199,712 people are actually registered users, having provided their names and e.mail addresses for Salon’s weekly newsletters and/or the Table Talk discussion area (Salon). In March of 1998, they had a total of 7.7 million page views, which are the actual number of pages looked at by web surfers and regular readers alike. Of its readers, 83 percent are college-educated, and 45 percent have completed graduate work (Salon).

The “interactive” in Salon’s description comes from the magazine’s Table Talk area, which complements the various sections of the magazine. Registered users can start discussions in 24 different subject areas, including Politics, Hometown, Private Life, and Digital Culture (Cover 1999). Salon’s staff often join Table Talk discussions. Most present is Mary Elizabeth Williams, Table Talk’s host, and Cliff Figallo, Salon’s director of community development. Mary Beth monitors the discussion areas and threads, and upholds Table Talk’s community standards.

The standards, which all new registered users are directed to read, explains Salon’s rationale for wanting posters to use their real names, and also warns against “gratuitous personal attacks” (Sysop 1996). Members are expected to act maturely within the forum: “We encourage spirited discussion and debate, but please remember that disagreeing with an idea is different from attacking an individual” (Sysop). According to this rule, violators will be warned and then forbidden from making further contributions. However, enforcement of these rules - for uncertain reasons (logistics? ideology?) - tends to be arbitrary at times and nonexistent at others.

While Table Talk requires participants to register, one does not have to register to read the content in Table Talk. Guest access was added earlier this year, and permits anyone to browse through active and inactive threads. Of course, Table Talk’s database system does not keep track of the material that guest users have read - as it does for registered users - nor can guest users post to any of the areas. But all content is available for public viewing.

Posts by participants can be deleted at any time by the author, and often are. Reasons for such deletion by a poster of their own posts vary on a case-by-case basis. According to the post boxes that appear at the bottom of every page, participants always have the right to delete their own posts. This particular point has sparked controversy among members at times, because that rule does not apply to members who have been expelled from the forum. Their posts remain as part of the forum.

The host also handles “housekeeping” in Table Talk. For example, when particular topic areas get too large for the system to handle, older and inactive threads are purged from the system. Williams, the host, announces such deletions in special threads, and users often request the archiving of favorite threads. The archived threads are placed into “attics” where they remain as read-only files.

Part III: Community.

Common definitions of community.

Since this thesis examines whether or not online communities are changing our understanding of what “community” means, it makes sense to examine how “community” is defined. The notion that there are different (or conflicting) definitions of community is nothing new. From Greek to Roman to Enlightenment interpretations of the term, “[c]ommunity is an old and ambiguous term that has distinct applications” (Nascimento 4). It has described everything from the Greek’s polis to today’s transient neighborhoods. We hear the term used frequently by politicians and sociologists, academics and novelists. As such, even selecting common definitions is not easy: what time period? And what definition(s)? For the sake of defining community in relatively modern terms and contexts, I’ll limit the definitions to the last 50 years. I’ll examine one from the beginning of that time period, one from the middle, a more recent definition, and finally some that take digital communities into account. Additionally, some will come from commercial sources; others will be culled from academic texts. This broad spectrum will allow for a more complete definition to emerge, assuming common threads among the definitions.

First, I’ll look at a definition of community from the beginning of our half-century time period. A 1949 text by Jessie Bernard examining behavior within communities in the middle of the century is a rather exhaustive study of communities. To even begin such an examination, a definition of community is necessary to use throughout the analysis of the different types of behavior that occur within communities. For this reason, Bernard’s definition is complete and comprehensive. She first defines community loosely and “theoretically” as “any group of people who have something in common” (Bernard 34). But she then says that the term is “ordinarily used” to refer to “an aggregate of people who have living conditions in common” (35). Her latter definition, which he places weight upon because it is more commonly used, relies heavily upon the geographic proximity (“living together”) of people who have something in common. That something is defined geographically, too, as “living conditions.” It’s presumed, then, that people living in the same residence hall or apartment building are a community, whether or not they share common interests or interact outside casual encounters. This suggests that community, to the author, is dependent upon geography; if people are not together geographically, they are not a community.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, society evolved rapidly as the civil rights movement reached its pinnacle, forcing society to integrate people of color even more into the mainstream. Along with changes came a new understanding of community. In his look at The Social Construction of Communities, sociologist Gerald D. Suttles examines how we have come to define and construct communities. He defines communities as largely contextual entities that “use territory, residence, distance, space and movement to build up collective representations which have communicative value” (Suttles 7). His definition identifies space as central and key to the notion of community, but does not limit that space to a necessarily physical realm. Communities, he argues, are contextual in that their “existence and character depend on their relationship to a wider society (Suttles).

As arbiters of word meanings, dictionaries provide the most up-to-date, commonly accepted, non-academic definitions of words. Webster’s New World College Dictionary, revised in 1997, defines community with eight different definitions. Since paraphrasing those definitions is nearly impossible, they are as follows:

1. a) all the people living in a particular district, city, etc. b) the district, city, etc. where they live; 2. a group of people living together as a smaller social unit within a larger one, and having interests, work, etc. in common [a college community]; 3. a group of nations loosely or closely associated because of common traditions or for political or economic advantage; 4. society in general; the public; 5. ownership or participation in common [community of goods]; 6. similarity; likeness [community of tastes]; 7 a) the condition of living with others, b) friendly association; fellowship; 8. Ecol. biocenosis (Community 282)

Discarding the definition that is not appropriate (number eight), we’re left with a conglomerate of definitions that use varying degrees of geography and interests. Webster’s geography can be much broader than Bernard’s can, however, since a group of countries can form a community if they have “common traditions” or if the community offers mutually advantageous components. That implies (but does not state) that geographic proximity is necessary (the countries are close enough that interaction is possible). However, that geography basically constitutes the entire Earth, rendering it rather pointless to discuss, since there is nothing right now to interact with beyond our atmosphere. For example, Australia and Nigeria can form a community, since both are on the planet Earth. The other dictionary definitions range from people living together in a geographic region to “society in general, the public,” a much broader definition. That some of Webster’s definitions (number 5, 6, and 7b) do not include geography as a prerequisite for community suggests that interaction is necessary, but not interaction within a similar geographic structure.

With the emergence of digital communities, a number of resources have created definitions of their own that actually include Internet-based communities. As one of the first print (and later online) publications to address issues related to technology and digital culture, Wired is viewed as a benchmark to many, as is its new “principles of English in the digital age” reference book. Commented one person about Wired Style, “Knowing how Wired handles language will give editors a useful frame of reference,” (Protomastro 1996). Therefore, it would make sense to look to Wired for its definition of community, specifically online community. Wired magazine’s style guide defines community simply as a group of Internet users. The editors write, “Online communities are groups of netizens small enough to make up a social organism” (Hale 110). Of all the definitions, this modern version is (ironically) perhaps the least helpful. What defines a group? Why does it have to be small? And what is a “social organism”? The editors define none of this; they only give examples of people who “cluster in a computer conferencing system” or people who “find each other in the public areas of online services” (110).

Wired is willing to define community only by small groups of people that form some sort of social entity. But is an economic or political entity a community? According to Wired’s definition, no. By identifying the interaction as social only, Wired’s definition is inherently limiting the definition of community. Their definition leaves out the limiting geography factor that is present in other definitions, but recreates boundaries by closing off realms other than the social like economic and political, which can be significant to groups of people and communities.

Aaron Delwiche, a professor at the University of Washington, offers much simpler, broader definition of community. He defines community as “a group of people who regularly associate with one another on the basis of a shared interest” (Delwiche 1). He readily admits that typical, standard communities exist within geographic arenas: “In a non-virtual community, interaction usually occurs within the context of a particular physical space” (5). Delwiche also recognizes the lack of actual geographic connection in online communities, redefining geographic proximity by identifying cyberspace or the Internet itself as a region. He writes, “In a virtual community, interaction occurs in an abstract realm called cyberspace. Although community members experience a feeling of “place,” cyberspace has no physical existence” (6). This extremely useful definition of community allows the Internet - or, as he calls it, cyberspace - itself to be the geographic boundaries that more traditional definitions require.

In his introduction to his Research in Community Sociology journal, Dan A. Chekki writes that a community is a “society in miniature. It is the sociocultural milieu where people live most of their time and satisfy most of their needs” (Chekki 1). Later, he offhandedly mentions that there is another type of community: “interest communities without explicit spatial boundaries” (2). Although his work ignores those types of communities, instead focusing on contemporary, urban communities, his identification of “interest communities” is important. Many definitions of community suggest that while shared interests are important to the formation and growth of a community, interest alone cannot cause a community to form. But professors and students across the country are members of the “academic community,” never uniting geographically, but in ways that allow them to revel in their shared interests. The same holds true for notions of a “religious community” or an “artistic community.” Those are primarily structured around interests, not geography.

Finally, since our example community is one that is sponsored by a media organization, it is appropriate to look at the idea of media-created community. In his late 1970’s analysis of major news media, Herbert Gans-a sociology professor at Columbia-presented different theories about the news media in a book titled Deciding What’s News. In the course of the conclusion of his analysis, he proposes 10 “functions of journalists” - roles he says that traditional media fills. People are not passive audience members, but they are active participants in the construction of the discourse that occurs within the community. Gans also suggests that community is, in fact, created by media because media institutions act as “constructors of nation and society” (297). The media plays a definitive role in fostering the development of community, because publications and “journalists help impose unity on what is otherwise a congeries of individuals and groups acting inside a set of geographic and political boundaries” (298). Salon does this through Table Talk, which allows participation by anyone. The magazine created a forum that permits participation by anyone with access to the Internet, and thus fulfills the role that Gans discusses. Gans also includes in his functions of journalists the suggestion that media acts as “managers of the symbolic arena,” which Gans suggests is “a public stage on which national, societal, and other messages are made available to everyone who can become and audience member” (Gans 298). Through those two definitions, Gans says that media is a constructor of community. His theory would suggest that communities need to be constructed in some fashion by some entity, media or not.

Although these are just a small sampling of definitions, they are rather varied. So what common threads exist? All definitions agree that communities require more than one person. That principle may seem obvious, but a community requires the participation of multiple people who can interact with each other. Beyond that fact, however, the definitions diverge - sharply. How many people are needed? Can two people constitute a community? Or are hundreds, thousands, or millions required? The answer is uncertain. It is also uncertain exactly what sort of arena is required for the interaction, although it is agreed upon that some sort of geography - whether it is earthly or digital - is required. Must people physically live in the same space in order to have a community, as the dictionary definition suggests? Or is the abstract realm of cyberspace adequate? The term community is used often - professors are members of “academic communities,” collections of Web pages are called “communities,” and our neighborhoods are referred to as “communities.” As we approach a definition of community, all of these ideas must be considered. If online communities are indeed reshaping what we understand community to be, then they are doing so from very loose, somewhat conflicting definitions of community. Communities are being redefined without anyone having a clear understanding as to what they really are.

A standard definition of community.

Pulling the standard definitions of community together, I will develop a general, broad definition that can be used to examine the deviations that online communities are creating. Common ideas in each definition will be merged together to present one cohesive definition that embodies how we define “community” today. In order for this merged definition to be successful, questions about specific aspects - for example, “How many people are required to form a community?” - will be left until the definition has been created.

This process is inherently flawed, however, for a number of reasons. First, it is impossible to consider every definition of community that exists. There are definitions offered by sociologists, communication studies professors, journalists, dictionary editors, novelists, Internet junkies, and many others; even taking a cross section of those definitions is difficult. For that reason, I’ve selected sources that are both commercial and academic. Additionally, definitions vary with time. To compensate for that, the definitions above are from a variety of time periods - some as old as 50 years and some as recent as 1997.

First, and most fundamentally, all the definitions include the notion that community includes at least two people. Next, each definition includes aspects of geography. For a community to exist, the members must have a place to interact with each other. This interaction can occur on different levels, but primarily happens directly: people meet each other in person to interact. However, the word “community” is still used to refer to interest communities that do not exist spatially, as Chekki and Suttles both suggest. Therefore, even with our current, pre-Internet media understanding of the word, community is not necessarily concrete or physically identifiable.

Shared interests or common ideals are also part of each definition (except for the limited Wired definition, which does not extend beyond a notion of people forming a group of some sort.) Part of the development of communities therefore includes some common interest among the participants. That interest might be in the place where they are interacting. For example, retired people living on a beach in Florida might share an interest in living on the coast, whereas students living in a college residence hall might be interested in foreign languages and not necessarily in the building itself. All the definitions also suggest that community must also be constructed. If it was not created, then it would not exist. That construction occurs either deliberately, as Gans suggests, or by coincidence, when people with common interests converge.

Therefore, community is defined as a constructed arena where multiple people with shared interests interact with each other.

To even consider the existence of changes to that definition, it needs to be deconstructed. The meaning behind each part of the definition should be examined. Current interpretations of this definition relate what each term means. As with definitions of “community” itself, definitions of the terms that define community also vary widely.

The definition says that communities will be constructed. Such construction presumes that an entity, either an individual, group, or organization, will do the constructing. The word “arena” can be interpreted as a physical place or geographic location, but very well might not. Communities exist in definable, but not necessarily physical, realms. Those realms are often broad (for example, the “global village”) or very narrow (a group of friends living in a house. ) When people “interact” in their community’s place, they do so directly. They communicate face-to-face, person-to-person as they pass by in the hallway or have dinner with each other. Even when they are not communicating directly - that is, in person - they know who they are talking to, or e.mailing, or paging, because their primary interaction with people is face-to-face.

Part IV: Changing notions of community.

Working from the developed standard definition of community, changes in that definition can be examined. Because of the nature of online communities and electronic communication, portions of the standard definition are being extended and modified. Online communities like Table Talk are changing our understanding of community in five major ways: media is becoming an arbiter, not just a creator, of community; communities can be entirely dependent upon technology for their survival; the identities of community members is becoming more ambiguous; communication is becoming less direct, requiring more proactive interaction among members of a community; and passive or anonymous participation is becoming standard.

Media as arbiter, not just creator, of community.

As Gans suggests, media often serves as a creator of community. Newspapers and other publications act as unifying agents that bring together groups of people, both in and outside of their pages. The media readily accept, and even promote, this role. An ad for The Orlando Sentinel on television flashes the words “There’s no sense of community here” onscreen, and then follows that phrase with a series of rapid-fire images of the paper’s local sections (Orlando 1999). The phrase is ironic; the Central Florida and Orlando area is often criticized for its lack of community. The Sentinel counters that notion by identifying its extensive coverage of local communities, which are apparently thriving, judging from the amount of content in the newspaper. Internet media is no different. Salon admits that its Table Talk forum makes it “an interactive magazine” that fosters a community (Rosenberg 1996).

Traditional media provides community in the sense that it creates forums, real or artificial, in which people can interact. At the very least, that community is one people consider themselves a member of. But their role, for the most part, does not go beyond the construction of the community. In traditional media communities, “members” do not look to the creator of their community - the media organization - to arbitrate disputes and manage the community. The community is external to the media organization. Online communities sponsored by online publications are different, however. The direct interaction between members occurs in an arena constructed directly by the publication for that interaction. While that sort of interaction occurs on a minor level in print publications in letters to the editor forums, for example, it is not direct interaction.

In digital communities, the direct interaction creates a different environment where participants look directly to the media organization to act as providers of structure and mediators. Table Talk’s members certainly consider the parent media organization to be both a provider (of the software and forum itself) and mediator (of disputes between members). Many threads include discussions where posters openly challenge the quasi-government - Salon and its staff. Participants look to the forum’s moderators and hosts to solve technical problems, provide answers about the system, and resolve disputes between themselves.

For example, after one participant posted messages subtly suggesting that other posters had threatened him, one of the posters named in the accusatory message responded with the following post:

Salon, Mary Beth Williams, Cliff Figallo, David Talbot: [emphasis original]

I recommend that if Christopher Dale can not resist subjecting posters to his defamation formed with innuendos that they have committed a serious crime, then it is unlikely that he is fit to post in this forum. (Amasfer 1998)

The writer, Steve Amasfer, addressed - in large, bold type - the online magazine and its editor David Talbot, in addition to the forum’s host, Mary Beth Williams, and director of community development, Cliff Figallo. (The emphasis in the post’s first line is similar to other posts by Amasfer wherein he poses questions to Salon staff or makes comments he wants them to notice.) Later in the post, he writes, “I trust you, implicitly, to take necessary action…” (Amasfer). Amasfer clearly expected Salon, its editor, or its other employees to arbitrate or at least address a problem he has identified within the community. It should be noted that this particular poster often makes comments rejecting the notion that Salon’s staff should step in to arbitrate disputes. However, as demonstrated by the post cited in this case, when another person’s comments were extreme enough (bordering on libel), Amasfer did turn to the organization’s owners and managers.

This post (and others throughout Table Talk) shows that, because Salon has established and supports the community, both physically (via the software and computer space it provides) and organizationally (it establishes the rules for participation and interaction between members), the magazine places itself in the role of community leader. It might even be considered the community’s government, since it fills the roles of government - establishing and enforcing rules and regulations.

Online communities are changing our understanding of community (specifically, media-created community) to include expected arbitration and assistance by sponsoring entities.

Community as an entity dependent on technology.

Online communities have technology-based infrastructures. They are constructed using technology: software and hardware forms the foundation for the community. And for the community to exist, the technology must be present and operating efficiently.

Table Talk’s infrastructure is a database program called Web Crossing, or WebX for short. Lundeen and Associates, an Alameda, California-based firm, created the software. Besides Table Talk, WebX powers a number of sites, including the New York Times’ discussion areas, and those operated by CNN (Lundeen 1998). Individual companies or Web sites purchase and then operate the software on their own, just as companies license and use copies of more common software, like Microsoft Word.

WebX, for all the features it offers, also has flaws. Last summer, Table Talk was offline for weeks because of problems with the software. Various technical failures have caused posts to be lost and the system to be down for extended periods of time. In mid-March, the system experienced problems similar to ones faced in the past. Table Talk was offline and inaccessible for about two days, and all the messages posted on Thursday, March 11 were lost. Table Talk staff posted this message on the status page:

March 13, 1998

Status as of 7:30 a.m. PST:
Table Talk is up and running after experiencing some system problems. Unfortunately, we have lost data entered on Thursday, March 11.

TT Staff (TT Staff 1999).

Because of technological failures, the community was non-existent for more than a day. And records of an entire day’s interactions were lost. Conversations, questions asked and answered, and arguments were all destroyed because of a technological failure. Members could, of course, try to re-post what they wrote that day, but for the most part, the record of their interaction was lost. The loss of the day’s posts is significant because, while interaction still took place between some of the community members, many people missed complete conversations and discussions. A person who posts late at night, for example, would normally have been able to read and reply to the day’s postings. But because the technology forced the elimination of that material, the late-day poster never had the chance to even read posts from that day.

Such problems with the software and technology have existed from Table Talk’s inception in 1995. On the occasion of Table Talk’s first “anniversary” in 1996, Salon Senior Editor Scott Rosenberg wrote, “Sure, we’ve had problems: in the first few months the biggest glitches were technical” (Rosenberg 1996).

During technical outages, the community ceases to exist. Without the existence of the standard meeting space, Table Talk participants cannot interact with each other like they usually do. Of course, they can still e.mail each other or meet in person (assuming contact had been made prior to the outage), but the central component of the community is removed solely due to failures in the community’s infrastructure.

Because of the lack of a “real life” community comparison, this aspect of digital communities makes them distinctive. Their foundation can cease to exist with a well-placed kick to an electrical socket. It is impossible to remove the foundation of a small-town community (one cannot just remove the buildings and streets and parks - the underlying physical structure of the community). Similarly, it is impossible to remove the overarching foundation for non-geographic communities (neither academics nor the arts can just disappear, leaving members of those communities without a basis for their community). But because digital communities rely upon technology, they are only as stable as the equipment that allows them to exist.

The basis for Table Talk’s community is the software and technology that runs it, and that sort of foundation for a community is not found elsewhere. Technology is solely responsible for the existence - and, alternately, the removal of - the foundation of these new communities. Therefore, our understanding of community is being shifted to allow for the possibility of the instantaneous and complete disappearance of the structure of the community.

Identity as a complete mystery.

Because of Table Talk’s registration policy, which permits people to register under false names, the identity of users is not readily known. The operators of the forum encourage the use of real names, but because they do not require it, false names (like “The Great Beast,” KRAKATOA, “Kitty Kat,” and “Prentice Hall”) can be found throughout Table Talk’s discussion areas. Despite the fact that valid e.mail addresses are required, those e.mail addresses are not necessarily identity revealing.

Table Talk participants often question the identities of other participants, especially those people with user names that appear to be pseudonyms. Sometimes such questioning can border on conspiracy theory. In a thread frequented by a poster who used a pseudonym, another poster questioned the attention the other poster was getting. “Paying all this attention to ‘Liria’ is like encouraging that seventh grader to pull on your pigtails some more” (Marin 1998).

The only way identity is revealed to all participants is through revelation by the participants themselves. All details about people - personal, philosophical, emotional, and intellectual - are revealed through posting by individuals. If a participant chooses to reveal something that is false, everyone must accept or reject that without supporting information.

This somewhat parallels what happens in real life, as people allow parts of themselves to be known or not known. As studies of self-disclosure in communication show us, people choose to reveal aspects of their personalities or beings. However, in non-digital communities, there are other sources available to learn more about a person besides just self-reported information. One can examine the physical environments that person frequents, talk to the person’s friends and acquaintances, or even do covert background checks through birth records or county records. None of that crosschecking is possible online; it all depends entirely upon what the person reveals about him- or herself. Even something as seemingly simple and innocuous as sex can be unknown, whereas in real life, that - along with other attributes - is (for the most part, and there are exceptions) instantly apparent to a third party. Therefore, our concept of community is changing to force us to accept others entirely for who they present themselves to be.

Communication as less direct, requiring more proactive interaction.

Communication involves sending signals to other people. In verbal communication, those signals take a number of forms besides just the actual words spoken: inflection in one’s voice, facial expressions, and gestures. The person receiving the signals interprets all of these together. If someone says, “I hate you” and is grinning and laughing, it will probably be obvious to the receiver of the signal that the sender is joking. If the person says, “I hate you” and looks angry or is crying, that’s most likely an expression of a genuine sentiment, and the recipient will, again, most likely, treat it as a genuine statement. But if someone posts the words “I hate you” in an online community, they are open to interpretation. There are no other signals sent besides words.

The nature of the medium, therefore, causes people to regularly misunderstand other people and their intentions. Misunderstandings are a common occurrence in Table Talk. “So, Zora, what is this, ‘Zora takes potshots at Maggie night’ ? Care to take this apparent spat to email?” (Osterberg 1998). The poster she was addressing, Zora, replied 17 minutes later: “[Henry Higgins Accent]: Damn, Damn, damn, damn! (You misunderstood the pun …) ” (Boswell 1998). Obviously, the first poster, Margaret Osterberg, had missed a joke Zora made, and then, angry about that, posted a message accusing Zora of taking “potshots” at her. Zora’s follow-up post conveyed that she was, in fact, joking, and upset that Maggie missed the humor in her message. Because their interaction is entirely dependent upon the words they post, Maggie had to depend solely upon her interpretation of Zora’s words to determine if she was being facetious or vicious. Even non-linguistic electronic communication, like smiling faces created with text characters, can be misinterpreted, even though it is used to try to identify tone and intent.

In real life, if an exchange misunderstanding like that were to occur, generally, the person who felt verbally attacked could immediately react. Likewise, the accused attacker could immediately respond. While a similar misunderstanding could certainly occur (and often does) in real life, the possibility for escalation is greatly diminished because people are more immediate to each other. With online interaction, the participants interact in an arena that is removed from all of them. Their interaction is delayed depending upon how often they log on to the system. Maggie and Zora’s misunderstanding took place within a mere 17 minutes; people who log on and post less frequently are more likely to go away mad and allow their anger to intensify without knowing that their interpretation was incorrect.

The interaction between members of an online community is still dependent upon interpretation of the signals sent by other participants, but they have far fewer signals to work with. Some users might put notes identifying the tone of their message, like “” or “(sigh).” They might even use emoticons - symbols representing facial expressions - to convey their mood or tone. However, such self-reporting of signals is not common, and even when it is done, the words and symbols must still be interpreted by the recipient. And all the recipient has to work with are the words that appear on the screen.

In online communities, there is a greater burden placed upon people to send and receive communication with greater care. Because individuals select when to interact with one another, they are relying entirely upon their own interpretation of a situation or comment. While another community member’s words are on screen, that person isn’t there to fully explain the meaning of the post or to identify sarcasm or humor. That burden falls entirely upon the receiver. The sender can, of course, correct an interpretation, but that will only occur after the receiver has reacted incorrectly to the original words.

Our understanding of community is being changed because basic components of personal interaction do not exist online, and that requires the participants to be more proactive.

Passive/anonymous/voyeuristic participation as normal.

Last year, Table Talk’s operators turned on a feature of the software that had previously been off: guest access. Guest access allows non-registered members to browse through Table Talk and read all posted messages. However, guest users may not post messages, start discussions, nor read personal information that is contained within registered users’ profiles.

In standard communities, members of the community do not have to be public members of those communities. But to participate in any way, they must be present for interaction. Whether that involves being in a debate with a group of people, or hearing second-hand information from another person, they are “known” members of the community. There are, of course, covert ways of gaining information about a community without being known, but those are rare in our society - most people don’t sneak around uncovering information about people they interact with. Generally speaking, community members are all identifiable as such.

But online, when you can observe a community solely by reading through the interaction that takes place, the community cannot identify you. In fact, members of the community do not even know you exist. Online community participants recognize this phenomenon, known as “lurking.” They’ll often refer to a thread’s “lurkers” - people who are reading the words the others write but who are not contributing themselves.

Digital communities, because of their structure and format, allow participation and observation by people who are not known to the community at large. Because of that structure, our notion of community is changing to include observation of our conduct and actions by people we don’t even know exist.

Part V: Conclusion.

The Internet is revolutionizing communication. The Web is changing our understanding of what “normal” communities are. Like other communication-oriented technological advancements, online, media-sponsored communities are helping to change the direction discourse and communication takes in our society. Through this look at Salon’s Table Talk, I’ve shown how our general notion of community has shifted somewhat due to quirks within the structure of the new medium. The community’s existence in digital form on the Internet combined with its distinctive features helps to reshape our understanding of what communities are.

No longer are media-sponsored communities just hollow shells - the sponsoring entities like Salon take an active role in the day-to-day operation of the community, acting as arbiter in the community. Online communities are entirely dependent upon technology for their existence - a phenomenon that no other communities to date have experienced. Identity of community members is largely unknown, and depends entirely upon self-reported information. Because of the nature of the discussion area, much of the burden of communication is placed on the receivers of messages to interpret the sender’s words. And unknown individuals can secretly monitor a community’s interaction, lurking behind the comfort of their computer screen, never identified by the members of the community.

While this examination of Table Talk has revealed a certain set of changes in our understanding of community, the conclusions drawn are, to a degree, unique to that particular site. Examine another community site on the Internet, and a whole new set of changes will become apparent. As with real-life communities, online communities vary in shape and size, content and form, and each version has different implications for the meaning of “community.”

Changes in the interpretation of concepts like community aren’t new, especially in the rapidly evolving world that we live in. With every new forum that opens on the Internet, new interpretations will be possible. It’s even possible for these ideas to change as Table Talk itself evolves. A new moderator for the forum could change rules and alter the structure, effectively changing the underlying foundation of the community and affecting the way people interact. New posters will undoubtedly spawn different discussions that might affect perceptions about the type of communication that is occurring and the type of community that exists.

Ultimately, we can no longer just assume uniformity of our traditional understanding of a concept as basic-sounding as “community.” This concept is significant because it directly affects the way we interact with other people. The structure of our communities - the gathering places where we interact with others of similar or shared interests - can radically change our interpretation of situations and events. More importantly, that structure can affect our interpersonal communication and interaction. Because of the different format, we relate to each other differently, communicate in different ways than we normally do, and have different interpretations of the messages and signals other members of the community send to us.

New forms of digital communication and interaction are changing our notion of what “community means.” Online communities have the potential to revolutionize the way we communicate with our fellow human beings. Communication is of vital importance to our society and to us as members of that society - wars are fought over misunderstandings; leaders are elected because of effective communication styles; people change their ways of life because of effectively communicated ideas. The communities we interact in affect the ways in which we communicate, and as they evolve, so do we.

1 In the interest of full disclosure, it should be noted that I contribute to Salon as a freelance writer. Additionally, I have been Table Talk participant for over a year.

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