Virtual communities have been around almost as long as the internet itself has been. As time goes on, virtual communities have begun to grow. Their growth is imminent, and they will continue to grow so long as the internet exists.
What is a Virtual Community?
A virtual community is a place in virtual or online space where a group of people interact. This usually takes the form of a chat room, a forum, a social networking site, or a game.
- Chat rooms – Usually found on websites, chat rooms are an excellent source of real-time interaction between individuals. Their topics may vary greatly, but ultimately, joining a chat room can be very rewarding if it is a source of open-minded people with different opinions.
- Forums – Always found on websites. They allow extended time for responses to questions and comments, but still allow for varied topics. However, if you are going to start an argument with a regular, expect to lose even if you’re right. Unlike chat rooms, responses, comments, and questions can be quite lengthy, being anywhere from a couple of sentences to a couple of paragraphs in length. Forums usually are focused on a certain aspect of life, society, habits, problems, likes, or dislikes. For example, there are forums for parents, forums for people of certain religious beliefs, forums for people of various subcultures, so on and so forth.
- Social Networking Sites – We all know what these are by now. Facebook, Twitter, Myspace, Experience Project, and even Divine Caroline are all examples of social networking sites. Some social networking sites have instant messaging capabilities (see: Facebook). Most have forum capabilities. The difference is that with a social networking site, you have a page just for yourself that you can design however you please and fill with your information, which may or may not attract people to you.
- Games – Games are very similar to chats. A virtual community within a game consists of various players, usually ranging from ages 13 to 40 (ages depend on the game. see: World of Warcraft). They usually require a download of some sort in order to play or participate in. People in this setting have an extremely wide range of ideas and beliefs and even locations, sharing only one thing in common: their love of games.
Why Join a Virtual Community?
People join virtual communities in order to expand their network. A person’s network consists of people that this person may know. The larger your network, the more upkeep it requires. Ultimately, there is something to be gained from this larger network, whether it is friendship, people you enjoy arguing with, or people with skills you may find yourself needing currently or in the distant future. The primary reason is friendship with the runner up being people with skills you may need.
Often times, joining a virtual community isn’t an active decision you knowingly make. It’s more of a subconscious thing. You find yourself, for example, looking up information on horses for some reason. Maybe because you love horses. You stumble onto a forum for people who love horses and have loads of information about horses. Before you know it, you’re a member of that forum. Not long after that, you’ve become a regular of the forum and actively participate in discussions.
There is always the chance, however, that you may be actively looking for a virtual community to join. Perhaps you are of a certain religion and you can’t find anyone in your area who shares your beliefs. You have questions, you have ideas for discussions, and no one to talk to. So you hop online and look for a chat room that pertains to your religious beliefs. Once you’ve visited that chat room a couple of times, it could be said that you’ve become a member of that virtual community.
Statuses within Virtual Communities
As with “real” communities, there are various statuses to be had within virtual communities. These are as follows:
- Lurker – Visits the virtual community but does not actively participate in it.
- Novice – Visits the virtual community fairly often and only participates a little within it.
- Regular – Visits the virtual community almost daily and actively participates constantly.
- Leader – Visits the virtual community daily, if not more often than that, actively participates in conversations, and is looked up to for one reason or another.
- Elder – No longer visits the community, or visits and participates as frequently as a novice does. Either was previously a regular or a leader, making their opinion on various matters valued.
Virtual Community Dos and Don’ts
Do: Ask questions. That’s the only way to find things out and keep the conversation going.
Don’t: Be rude. Know your boundaries.
Don’t: Ask personal questions. If someone wants to tell you about their life, they will on their own.
Do: Give your honest opinion.
Don’t: Delve too deeply into your personal life. Unless you don’t mind people who you may, at the time, know little about knowing your personal life, it’s usually a good idea to keep things to yourself.
Don’t: Lie. Just omit. If you’re caught lying, don’t expect to be trusted in that virtual community.
Don’t: Be insulting. Giving your opinion is one thing. Calling someone an insulting name for their beliefs, thoughts, and ideas is a complete other. Nobody likes a bully.
Do: Type with proper sentence structure, grammar, and punctuation.
It’s okay to: Type in all lower case.
Don’t: Type holding the shift key or caps lock. It’ll come off as if you’re yelling then, and it makes it more difficult to read.
Do: Hold interesting conversations.
Don’t: Talk about people behind their back or post their personal information online. If they wanted the person you’re talking to to know about them, they’d have told them on their own.
Do: Treat others online as you yourself would like to be treated.
Don’t: Treat others online as you yourself have already been treated.
Do: Make friends. They’re good for you.
Don’t: Trust everybody, especially people fishing for your information and asking you questions like your home address, phone number, cell phone number, or full name without any good sort of reason. A big red flag is if someone asks for your social security number. Block, ignore, or stop talking to that person immediately. They are not your friend, going to be your friend, or looking out for your best interest. Another red flag is someone who wants to know your password. No one should ever ask for your password, they have no reason to need it at all. If there’s information on your e-mail or computer that someone wants their hands on for a collaborative project, you can send it to them via e-mail or a file-sharing website.
Virtual communities are a great place to make friends and get to know others, working towards similar goals with them. Virtual communities exist in a variety of places and you may be part of a virtual community without knowing it! Remember to be polite and respectful in order to keep your virtual community experience at its best.