Community Building by Internet

The author draws a metaphor between the Internet and the Greek agora, the open area in a city where people would gather for various purposes (commercial, political, and leisure).

The Internet began as a sort of community among academics, with a wealth of information stored in data files and e-mail and bulletin boards for interactive discourse among he researchers and scholars who had access as a virtue of their positions in academia.

Even in the earliest days of the internet, the central bulletin board system (USENET) developed communities of interest among a wide array of topics that branched out from scientific study to create their own forums.

And what drove the success of the Internet was a "collective experience of global users," each sharing information of interest with like-minded individuals. This was true long before the network went commercial.

Early attempts at commercialism largely failed, or enjoyed very limited success, as they were considered to be unwelcome intrusions into a social network - though ultimately, the Internet went commercial in a big way, and a new breed of user surfaced whose primary use of the Internet was as a consumer rather than a producer or participant.

In the present day, users are re-discovering the community aspects of the network: peer-to-peer file sharing services replace FTP and gopher servers; blogs replace sponsored Web sites; personal networking sites replacing USENET as a forum for discussion.

The implication of all of this is that "online communities" are not a new phenomenon or a fad, but are part of the DNA of the Internet itself.

Free Internet?

In the early days of the Internet, users were generally in agreement that the Internet should be free - but it was intended in the sense of freedom from constraints (not "free" as in "no charge"), but many of the latecomers, after the commercialization of the Internet, took the latter attitude.

The problem is that, to keep the internet free of cost meant bending to commercial interests (in the form of advertising) to sponsor sites and the content they provided. And to some degree, free speech was contrary to paying advertisers who wanted the world to have a biased opinion of their companies, products, and services and were paying for the privilege.

This heralded a change in the nature of the Internet, to a medium for free speech to an atmosphere in which speech was to be controlled and legislated to the liking of those who felt they were footing the bill.

This also ushered in an era of content control, where a site's desire to build an audience through exclusive content often meant defending their content against others who would use it (or even link to it), and locking down their information warehouses to access by paying subscribers, a business model that was largely unsuccessful in making money, but effective in restricting the free flow of information online.

The commercial invasion also became intrusive, in its attempts to force commercial messaging (web site advertising, commercial "spam" e-mail) on an unwilling audience, and meanwhile wanting to obtain more information on its potential customer base by methods that were intrusive to users' desire for privacy in the new medium.

And in each instance, the intrusion of the commercial sector resulted in a backlash from the user base, and defensive countermeasures undertaken by individuals to, in effect, withdraw themselves from the community to combat or avoid these intrusions.

Social Software, Social Networking

To some degree, Internet users were lured back into the community by the development of server-based technologies such as blogs and wikis that facilitated online publishing for the masses. These technologies were largely "free" in both senses of the word - free of charge, and free of constraints - though there were specific boundaries as to the latter.

Another key factor in the return of community was anonymity: these various services enabled users to communicate with one another anonymously (especially when paired with anonymous private e-mail addresses) without disclosing the kinds of personal information demanded by the commercial sector.

While anonymous media cajoled the average internet users back to the community, users later became less inhibited in the medium, at which point Web sites devoted to the disclosure of personal information (MySpace, Friendster, etc.) sprang up.

The result is that the Web, which started as a worldwide global community, is regaining its community aspect.

Market and Agora

The author returns to the concept of the Greek agora, which began as a centrally-located public space where people simply happened to meet, and alter chose to assemble, as it was a common nexus in the paths of their daily lives. The aggregation of humanity became an attractant to merchants, who opened market stalls, crowding the agora, and politicians, who saw the agora as a place to address the public as well as to control what others said about them in this environment.

This led to the evolution of the agora into a market place, which in time became the modern shopping mall. And ironically enough, the shopping mall became the cultural center where youth in suburban communities would gather.

EN: I think she's stretching the metaphor a but too far, and the article itself is weak on many fronts - but the key point worth preserving is that community is at the heart of the Internet, and the current "trend" toward social networking is merely a return to the original purpose of the Internet, rather than a new phenomenon.