Friday, December 17, 2010

Community in Cyberspace: Real or Imagined?

By Carl Hunt

What do the reactions to the recent WikiLeaks (also here), Facebook, and your town have in common?  Well, since you saw the title to this week’s blog already, you guessed it: community.  The line of inquiry we take up today, however, is how “real” are these communities and what do they mean to us in terms of individual and collective human behaviors?

Since we talked a bit about Facebook previously, we'll focus on real "imagined" communities.

We all experience effects of behavior and one of the very first insights we consider is the effects of behavior in cyberspace-based communities.  Regardless of nation-state ties or physical locations, the virtual communities of cyberspace can create real effects that cause challenges to the traditional structure of government or business.  The communities that formed to do “virtual combat” against those that initially cut off access to the WikiLeaks site caused real damage that can be measured in lost income or customer confidence.  While the level of damage caused is still being debated, it was indeed quantifiable.

Equally as interesting, there is no evidence that any of the groups (communities, if you will) had ever met or coordinated their attacks on each other before the recent US government-related WikiLeaks were released.  These communities may have previously existed but their objectives and capabilities remained largely unnoticed until a rationale manifested itself and these groups self-identified around a common cause.  They “imagined” a status that empowered them to act as members of a community.

So, what is an imagined community as opposed to a real community?  Is there a difference as far as cyberspace communities are concerned?

Americans, Chinese, French, and even Somali citizens understand their ties to a nation-state entity.  In some populations, the concept of nationalism creates great personal patriotism and fervor, and in some a personal identification with national spirit is less relevant.  But in all cases, according to Cornell emeritus professor, Benedict Anderson, some quality of fraternity emerges and a people develop a sufficient sense of national identity that they come to be willing to die for their identity and the national entity.

Since we have not yet fought any full-blown Cyber World War, it’s unclear yet how such a strong sense of “nationalism” will play out in cyberspace.  Anderson’s ideas about imagined communities still resonate strongly in both real and virtual life, however.  We’ll have to see how the notion of willingness “to die for their identity” as a part of a community, whether physical or virtual, will play out, but there are insights we can start to accrue, as the recent wikileaks episodes clear.

NY Times technology reporter and author Nick Bilton has begun to address the idea of imagined community as it applies to cyberspace in I Live in the Future and Here’s How it Works (Crown, 2010).  Bilton writes “…we are constantly weaving in and out of small and large, obvious and imagined communities.”  Cyberspace, or the digital realm, as Bilton further clarifies it, is an “always on, real-time, creating, consuming society,” and the media has been bringing this trend to human community for many years, perhaps centuries, as noted by both Anderson and Bilton.

Writes Bilton about Anderson’s perspectives on community and the media: “In the same way that Anderson recognized that the printing press and its ability to communicate in a person’s language could break up power structures and create meaningful and powerful nations, so too may our online communities reshape and remake both our own personal imagined nations and our traditional ways of communicating.”

The creation of new globally-connected, yet often self-detached imagined communities such as the participants in the wikispaces conflict demonstrate is important to watch.  Community may be real or virtual but it is in the mind of the beholder what role and actions the inhabitants may take, and in fact, cyberspace may amplify those roles and accelerate behaviors around the globe.  While we may never see the Cyber World War, we will likely see constant transformation of conflict as enabled by cyberspace and imagined communities.

Study and modeling of these communities is a critical objective of SENDS as we have noted here and here, for example.  Creation of common terms and concepts so that we can better understand the wicked nature of the problems we discover along the way is also a mandate.  Before we can understand communities and new forms of conflict in cyberspace, we have come to grips with the nature of cyberspace, and we need your help.  Please send us your thoughts to and let’s move forward with this real and important community!