|Community/Virtual Community: TalkBack! Explained|
by Robert Atkins
"Now the world is ready to jump into cyberspace. Whether the rich, interactive marketplace that has created--and been created by--800 service [free phone calls for consumers] will translate to the online environment is largely up to people like all of us [telecommunications executives.]"
Robert Allen, Chief Executive Offer, AT&T
"Ultimately we have to decide whether we are no more than an economy sharing a common currency in which the primary social glue binding us together is the business transactions we do with one another, or if we are still a society in that we have special obligations to one another as citizens."
Robert Reich, US Secretary of Labor
Community is one of those nineties' buzzwords of choice. Turn on the tube and get an earful of commentators talking about the so-called business community, the African-American community, the online community, or even the S/M community. The term community, alas, seems nearly meaningless: Imagine lumping together vegetarians and Venezuelans, or bodega owners and Fortune 500 CEOs, simply because they like to relate to others of their "kind," or to act in concert with them.
But this meaninglessness is also full of meaning: We know that nobody pays any attention to particular phenomena or conditions unless they are endangered. Is community in crisis? Of course it is. And the causes are hardly a mystery, at least in the U.S.: The past quarter-century has seen the unprecedented degradation of public institutions and public spaces, accompanied by an assault on the bonds of family, neighborhood, and civic life. Often such policies are motivated only by profit-margins and political demagoguery.
Like so many crises in Real Life, this crisis in community is mirrored and accentuated online. Cyber-theorists, pundits, and various snake-oil salespeople prattle about virtual community as if sex chat rooms or online surveys about Your Favorite Entertainer somehow constitute community. Here at TalkBack!, we don't think so. To debate the nature and meaning of community, TalkBack! commissioned more than a dozen essayists to write on the subject. But not just any writers. The majority of them are doers and shakers; activists who've started bulletin boards, ISPs, or non-profit advocacy groups, written about virtual community, or created an arena in which others can showcase their art or writing. Their combined experiences are prodigious and diverse--as are the insights contained within their essays.
Before writing, they shared only a single point-of-departure, an invitation to write. It read, in part:
"I'm hoping that you'll be interested in writing a short essay that stems from your experiences but also transcends anecdote. Your assignment--if you choose to take it!--is to consider the nature of virtual community and what's at stake in its many contradictory formulations. Matters you may want to ponder:
- What's the relationship between a community and a network?
- If values are what's shared in a community, does that also imply that they need to be communicated or proselytized?
- Is community too warm, fuzzy and meaningless a concept? Is it a-political vis-a-vis the notion of consumers? Or a union of citizens?
- Is community more than association? What's at stake in such designations vis-a-vis real life? What's the online Girl Scout troop in California getting that's different from its non cyber counterparts?
- Does the ubiquity of the concept of cyber community(s) reflect a crisis in community in RL?
- How do we gauge the success or effectiveness of a virtual or real community?"
Few of them seemed to need my prodding. Their responses are so wide ranging that I hesitate to even try to encapsulate them in any summary. Suffice it to say, that these responses range from the highly-theoretical or manifesto-like, to case-study-style examinations of specific organizations and/or projects.
All of these writers have my profound gratitude. As does the Cultural Cryptanalysts Collective of Baltimore, which (in conjunction with Betsy Book) created a remarkable artwork on the theme of community, visible in the Gallery Section.
Also in this first-anniversary issue of TalkBack!: Writer/artist Jim Gasperini (in The Beef) defends the CD-ROM medium vis-a-vis online art (Jim will be reviewing multi-media regularly for TalkBack!); Dyke Action Machine struts their stuff (The Buzz); Joseph Nechvatal reports from Paris (Scene & Heard); and, from San Francisco (Scene & Heard), excerpted transcripts from two panels about online art and writing held this past summer at the SF Art Institute and featuring Lowell Darling, Sharon Grace, Perry Hoberman, Keith Manson, Margaret Morse, Mark Pesce, and Jane Veeder. Thanks also to Les Levine for images for the Online Timeline, to Betsy Book and Carter Hodgkin for their production- and design-contributions, respectively, and to Susan Hoeltzel for her ongoing support.