Prudens Information Resources for the Internet

The Beginning of Community on the Internet

A Prudens e-Report


Online Community

Email and other types of electronic communications can be used to form strong inter-personal relationships and ultimately community; that is a community without its members being in physical proximity of each other. The idea of a "non-place" community, which predates the Internet, emerged from the urban setting of the 20th Century where telephones and transportation systems allowed people with a particular interest to gather as they wished 1. The first major online community was the Well, an online bulletin board service, where people discussed a range of issues, sometimes encouraged by the anonymity of electronic communications. This phenomena now flourishes on the Internet where, for example, iVillage hosts over 1,800 discussion groups for women.

Communities can form around any idea and members can share information, have debates, and develop and share solutions to essentially any problem. While the definitions for online community may vary, it is safe to say that it should have goals, should provide some form of support, typically through exchanging information and opinions, and should add value to each individual, that is, be a valuable experience. The experience can be valuable for a number of reasons which may vary for each member. It can occur through working to achieve the common goals; exchanging information; be a learning experience, and some members may also value the status of just "belonging" to the community. Most online discussion groups fall within this definition of community.

Online communities are also a forum for informal learning which is one of the ways a community can support its members. This is clearly recognized in e-Learning where each online course has a class discussion group where students exchange information and opinions and where the instructor may try to stimulate discussion, as in the class room. Based on the traditional classroom learning experience, especially at the post-graduate level, some say that most of their most valuable learning came in discussions with other students and therefore would probably endorse the idea that discussion groups are the essential part of online learning.

Personal and Community Communications

The Internet facilitates different types of communications between individuals that can be categorized as delayed or realtime. Examples of delayed, or asynchronous, communications are e-mail and the use of discussion boards. Examples of real-time, or synchronous, communications are chat rooms or the use of instant messaging.

Mail and Email

The obvious asynchronous, or delayed, form of communications is the mail, or postal service. One may dream of Victorian England where mail was delivered twice a day and where one could post a note from London to Oxford in the morning post and possibly get a reply in the evening. Of course this doesn't happen any more in England and can't even be imagined in the U.S. where mysterious routings may send a letter across the country faster than across town. The art of letter writing would certainly continue to die out if each letter had to be mailed. The daily mail consists increasingly of "junk" mail, a few bills, and perhaps a card or two on a special occasion, but rarely a letter.

But the Internet has revived letter, or note, writing in the form of email. Even when the Internet was initially set up for the purpose of the transmission of scientific data and the connection of research sites, scientists immediately began to use the system primarily for Email. Email remains the most popular use, or "killer application" of the Internet.

It is remarkable that it took a hundred years to achieve a system of asynchronous communication that was better than the English postal service. And while the English system sought to serve individuals and businesses, its modern counterpart could be considered an accidental side effect of a technology program. But it took only a short time to see that this service provided real value to its users. And, of course, junk mail hasn't gone away, it has actually increased with the addition of its online version, known as Spam. The reaction to both types of junk mail is revealing: junk mail is protected by traditional mail services since it provides the main source of revenue for the system. On the other hand, legal and technical efforts are underway to eliminate the interference of Spam with Email communications.


The End of the Post Office?

It appears that unless the US Postal Service can change, and add more value to its potential customers, it will go out of business.

Also, the future of the US mail system, as it currently exists, is doubtful. Email is replacing letters, and bill payments and greeting cards are moving online in greater numbers. Package delivery is increasingly done by specialized package delivery companies including Fedex and UPS. How can the US Postal Service change to provide more value to potential customers? If it can't, then its future is not bright.

Groupware

Groupware is used in every large corporation today. Groupware was initially asychronous, but are now web-based and can be accessed through a browser. They also typically feature some real-time tools such as web conferencing (see below). As new features are added Groupware products are becoming indistinguishable from web-based collaborative tools.

Discussion Groups

Discussion Groups are also a means of tracking organizational activities, services and products. Many e-Businesses now support a discussion group for their customers and potential customers because they know that if they don't, the customers may hold discussions about the company and its offerings elsewhere. By supporting group discussions on the company site, the e-Business can have an employee available to answer questions and correct mis-information, a common problem on the Internet.

Realtime Communications and Collaboration

Internet Telephone Service

Real-time, or synchronous, communication on the Internet is relatively new, compared to its traditional counterpart, the telephone conversation. The telephone and its asynchronous counterpart, voicemail, are obviously popular and not likely to be replaced by an Internet technology. But rather than replace it, the Internet is being used to host telephone conversations. The attraction, or value for the user, is that the phone calls are free, which tends to make up for the poorer than usual quality of the connection. Ultimately most telephone services will be conducted on the Internet, although whether they will be free remains to be seen, depending primarily on whether and how much the phone companies charge for handling the other's traffic. It seems likely that telephone calls, under certain conditions, will be free, like free Email, free web access, or free web sites, each of which add value to a user of a web site.

Online Chat

Online Chat is another form of synchronous communications where the users are present at a site and exchange messages in realtime. The messages may be public to others present on the site, that is, in the chat room, or between two individuals. The sites may be used to discuss any of thousands of subjects, including the bizarre and the criminal, where a friendly young person may be a police officer under cover on the net, and a "normal" person could be anyone.

False identities abound on the Internet. Almost all of the users choose a false identity to use on the web, unless they are interacting with others, whom they know in real life. Many parents insist that their children make up a false identity when providing information for any purpose on the Internet. This may explain those very strange characters who turn up in marketing databases!

MUDs and MOOs

MUDs are role-playing games that formed the basis for communities based on game playing. These user environments were text-based, that is, consisted of sending and receiving words via a telephone connection to computer bulletin board. They were known as multi-user dungeons, although later they also became known as multi-user domains, or multi-user dimensions, all of which are known as MUDs. Later, object-oriented MUDs, or MOOs, were developed. They were similar to MUDs, except that they were easily re-programmed to form new environments, or rooms, characters and other features. While early versions of MUDs on the Internet functioned like chat rooms, much of their use was for the suspension of reality among users. There is an ongoing concern that these types of games might be addictive for some people.

Instant Messaging and Collaboration Services

Instant Messaging (IM) is a more recent version of online chat. In addition to simple communications that allow chat with one or a select group of persons, IM may include voice chat (i.e. Internet telephone), plus real-time collaboration tools such as file transfer, white boarding (where writing or drawing on a computerized white board can be transmitted to a distant computer screen or other device) and co-browsing (having your browser "mirror" the browser controlled at a remote location). Online meetings, co-authoring, brainstorming, presentations, and many other activities that are beginning to occur with IM.

A remarkable aspect about IM is that, by and large its free, although not all of the features are currently available for the free versions. The free versions typically come from service providers trying to increase traffic to their sites: America Online (AIM), Microsoft Network (MSN Messenger) and Yahoo (Yahoo Messenger). PowWow, another free service, is interoperable with other IM services; an unusual situation as the main providers struggle to achieve dominance for their technical standard. But eventually, as common standards come into being, free IM services will become standard offerings and expensive versions will be at risk.

Some sites, such as Talk City and Koz, use IM to promote community building. These sites have hundreds of chat rooms on a range on topics. They battle to attract users by providing free email, a free web site and a host of other services. They also use the latest chat room software, such as that provided by iChat.

Web Conferencing

Web conferencing is a web-based adaptation of video conferencing, but also includes features such as Internet telephone, document and application sharing, and other online meeting tools. It adds video conferencing to many of the features of instant messaging.

Instant messaging, web conferencing and even recent versions of group ware, offer packages that differ to some extent in capabilities, ease of installation and operation, cost, and security. But these services will eventually become similar, differing only according to the needs of their users.

An important point to draw from this evolution of software for real time communications and collaboration is that software that is currently sold in packages, such as groupware, will be offered as part of a services package. As computer processing moves away from desktop systems to software on the server, the software industry will become a solutions-oriented services industry. And, correspondingly, the sales channel will shift from the sales of packaged software through distributors and retailers and downloading of software from the manufacturer (a transition nearly completed), to the sales of software solutions from new types of intermediaries, such as an Application Service Provider (ASP).

Interactive Graphic Environments

There are a range of interactive graphic environments on the web. They range from simple two-dimensional graphics to immersive virtual reality. However, the potential of many of the useful application of these technologies is limited by network speed, or bandwidth.

3D Virtual Environments

Three dimensional images on the Internet are now referred to as virtual reality, which is a different technology, described below. Virtual environoments may be developed with 3D graphics (e.g. X3D). The advantage of a 3D image, even though presented on a two dimensional screen is that it can be rotated, or can form a 3D space that the user can walk through, making them quite different from other graphics. Computer games like Myst, are shifting to online virtual environments as more bandwidth becomes available to users.

In a collaborative or game playing environment many users can share the same space. In order to differentiate between participants unique 3D images, called avatars, are adopted by the users. An avatar is often prepared by its owner and may have a special meaning which is usually superfluous. Avatars can be moved across the screen, throughout various rooms with particular themes, and can be used to initiate discussions or to access services.

Virtual environments offer chat and other services just like instant messaging but they also stress the community aspects of interaction or support business activities. An example of a 3D virtual environment is Cybertown, which has 3D virtual chat and email. In fact its 380,000 members are "citizens" in a community with social and economic systems. Players receive "city cash" when they log on and can use it to buy or rent a virtual house! A similar site is Active Worlds with hundreds of thousands of users in 1,000 unique virtual worlds where the virtual locations are actually mapped. Users are also allowed to build their own 3D homes. Active Worlds offers chat services and online shopping in its 3D virtual mall.

In the not-too-distant future, exciting community experiences will be possible. Consider shopping together with your "online buddy" from another country and comparing notes while you look at an item. Likewise you can watch a TV show or movie online with a friend and discussing it afterwards. What we have in the various efforts at role playing games is just the beginning of what will be possible on the Internet. Of course you have to use your imagination to see it!

Recent Improvements in 3D

Interactive and realtime 3D images are developed for the Internet using the Virtual Reality Modeling Language (VRML) which has been the "de facto" standard for online images. One problem with VRML is that it is not user friendly and it use involves downloading a plugin for the browser, which requires a significant amount of time and computer memory. Along with a broad move toward server-based systems, versus client-based, images are now being delivered to the browser as Java applets and require no conscious activity by the user. Also, there is an open source effort underway to rewrite VRML as an XML language, which initially will be known as the Extensible 3D (X3D) language.

Virtual Reality and Immersive Environments

Virtual Reality (VR) provides a three dimensional experience where the viewer uses special equipment, such as goggles and gloves, to sense a true three dimensional presence within a virtual environment. Also, work is under way on immersive environments where the presentation "surrounds" the user, such as on the walls of a physical environment. The meaning of virtual reality on the web has been broadened to include both non-immersive, 3D, environments as well as immersive environments.

James E. Burke, Ph.D., Guest Lecturer, City Planning 039, University of California, Berkeley, Spring 2000


Endnotes

(1) Introduced by M. Webber, the idea on "non-place" communities was quickly adopted by those studying and designing urban areas.



Dr. James E. Burke is a Principal in Burke Technology Services (BTS). BTS provides business assistance to startup technology companies, or organizations planning or integrating new technologies; develops and manages technology projects; performs technology evaluation and commercialization, and assists in technology-based economic development.

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