A virtual community is a group whose members are connected by means of information technologies, typically the Internet. Similar terms include online community and mediated community.
The term "virtual community" is attributed to the book of the same title by Howard Rheingold in 1993. The book discussed a range of computer-mediated communication and social groups. The technologies included Usenet, MUDs (Multi-User Dungeon), IRC (Internet Relay Chat), chat rooms and electronic mailing lists. He pointed out potential benefit of such a group one can belong to via communication technologies for personal psychological well-being as well as for the society at large. (The proliferation of the World Wide Web started after the book was published)
Today, "virtual community" is loosely used and interpreted to indicate a variety of social groups connected in some ways by the Internet. It does not necessarily mean that there is a strong bond among the members. An email distribution list on Star Trek may have close to one hundred members, and the communication which takes place there could be either one-way (the list owner making announcements) or merely informational (questions and answers are posted, but members stay relatively strangers and uninterested to each other). The membership turnover rate could be high. This is in line with the liberal use of the term community.
The idea that media could generate a community is quite old. Progressive thinkers such as Charles Cooley, early in the 20th century in the United States, envisioned a nation whose members are united strongly because of the increased use of mass media. Also well-known is the term community without propinquity, coined by sociologist Melvin Webber in 1963.
The explosive diffusion of the Internet into some countries such as the United States was also accompanied by the proliferation of virtual communities. The nature of those communities and communications is rather diverse, and the benefits that Rheingold envisioned are not necessarily realized, or pursued, by many. At the same time, it is rather commonplace to see anecdotes of someone in need of special help or in search of a community benefitting from the use of the Internet.
Examples of virtual communities include:
- Kim, A.J. (2000). Community Building on the Web: Secret Strategies for Successful Online Communities. London: Addison Wesley (ISBN 0201874849])
- Preece, J. (2000). Online Communities: Supporting Sociability, Designing Usability. Chichester: John Wiley & Sons Ltd. (ISBN 0471805998)
- Rheingold, H. (2000). The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier. online version (http://www.rheingold.com/vc/book/)London: MIT Press. (ISBN 0262681218)
- Communities (http://www.communities.com/) - Online community with members from all over the world
- e-thePeople.org (http://www.e-thePeople.org) - a political community
- kuro5hin (http://www.kuro5hin.org) - a technology community
- The Manor (http://www.madwolfsw.com/) - New community
- LunarStorm (http://www.lunarstorm.se) - Only available in Swedish
- Meatball Wiki: OnlineCommunity (http://www.usemod.com/cgi-bin/mb.pl?OnlineCommunity)
- Playdo community (http://www.playdo.com) by Andreas Rehnberg (live example)
- Slashdot (http://www.slashdot.org) - "News for nerds, stuff that matters" (a technology community)
- Pictari.com chatroom and friend finder (http://www.pictari.com) - Global online community.
- The Virtual Community (http://www.rheingold.com/vc/book/intro.html) - By Howard Rheingold (electronic version)
- Zelaron Gaming Forum (http://www.zelaron.com/forum/) - International community for gamers.
- Online Community Report (http://www.ocreport.com/) - news and trends in online collaboration.
- Dave's Garden (http://davesgarden.com/) - "For Gardeners, By Gardeners" (a gardening community, mostly women)