Retrospective and an R&D Agenda

This final chapter investigates the interplay between three key concepts - new media, community, and social practice - which seem to be central to the articles contained within the book.

It's worth noting that these concepts are being considered by scholars of various disciplines and theoretical traditions, each of whom considers these topics through a unique frame of reference. For example, an engineering analysis may consider the technical abstractions, but fails to explain the social aspects - and within the social sciences, there are marked differences between on-line communities and their closest off-line equivalents. There is also the matter of novelty and the pace of evolution - attempts characterize, explain, or promote theory are discomfited by the changing nature of the phenomena.


The author proposes a "grid" on which social media can be considered, which categorizes virtual communities on one axis according to their scope (fully public to strictly limited) and the other axis according to their purpose (purely social to strictly productive). (EN: I'm not sure that this is quite comprehensive, or the only way to schematize communities, but it seems a reasonable start.)

The value of the grid to considering toolkits and practices for communities is that those of similar purpose (such as two social communities) may have similar needs for tools, and those of similar audience (two restricted-access communities) may have similar needs for practices. And where both factors overlap, there will be a high degree of similarity.


From an engineering perspective, the development of toolkits for communicating within a specific discipline has long been a functional requirement that drives their effort.

While this is generally complicated by the gap between the "symbolic world" of human communicators and the "digital world" of computer systems, the difficulty is compounded by the artificial language of a given discipline (e.g., the use of symbolic notation to communicate about music, or a flow chart to communicate processes in engineering)

The concept of linguistic domain is extended to include not only the subject of conversation, but the manner of conversation: the way in which participants choose to provide and consume information from one another. These conventions are largely cultural, but that culture may be derived from a geographic area or a conceptual one (an "area" of study), and largely depends on the customs that arise from previous practice.

Virtualization of a community is, itself, a break from "customs" - certain of the practices of the analog world can be carried over, but not perfectly, others cannot be carried over at all, and the medium presents new options that were previously unavailable. As an example, the "blog" is a mode of communication that was not previously available (in most disciplines, the ability of an individual to publish information daily, and to participate in commentary on the postings of others, did not exist) and encourages behaviors that were not previously considered to be necessary or valuable to discourse.

In this way, virtualization of a community is an influence upon its discourse. New methods for communication are considered, and if they take gain acceptance (as their adoption is not to be taken for granted), they become part of the "normal" methods of discourse, against which even newer methods for communication are considered. During this process, older methods of communication may atrophy or become discontinued, or there may remain concurrent practice of two modes of communication.

Therefore, the "virtual" toolkits and practices should not be viewed strictly as translations of offline practices, a continuation of "the same", or even a redundant method of communication They are "different," but not altogether separate, methods for communication that are added to the practice of a given field of study.


The author suggests that there are "macro" and "micro" contexts of practice, and provides an analogy of driving a vehicle in various countries. The differences in the road construction, signage, and behavior of other drivers make it evident that, while the task is fundamentally the same, there are marked differences between the ways it is done by drivers in different systems.

This is similar to the concept of linguistic domain, though it adds an additional layer of complexity, in that even within a domain, there may be multiple "micro" contexts of practice that are significantly differentiated (albeit to a lesser degree), which may explain the reason that a site has limited appeal, or that there are multiple virtual communities of the same nature, each adopted by a specific segment of the intended "macro" audience. (The example from social media is that Facebook is popular in some countries, Orkut in others, Friendster in others, etc.)


Finally, there is the dichotomy between connectivity among information and connectivity among people, which seems to imply that the focus of any given virtual community tends to focus on one or the other ... and that emphasizing one goal (social or informational) necessarily detracts from the other.

The author presents another grid theory, mapping social connection on one axis and informational on another, as a way ot comparing sites or considering the "trajectory" of a single site over time.


From the consideration of research into new media and virtual communities, the editors of this collection arrive at three conclusions:

First, that social software has achieved popularity due to its ability to reproduce practices that are already widely practiced in non-virtual settings. However, many of these practices are purely social and have little value other than entertainment.

Second, that technology provides, and will continue to provide, methods for networking that extend to additional existing practices and reveal new practices that are unique to the medium. These practices are becoming increasingly functional and productive.

Third, that practice-oriented toolkits are the key factor in leveraging the potential of technology to transfer or invent methods of online networking that are functional and productive - hence those who look to shape the future should focus more on developing the capabilities of the tools, less on the community aspects.