Peculiarities of Cyberspace

Time for revisions

The analysis of virtual networks and communities have presented sociologists with considerable problems. The main cause of this is that the conceptual apparatus with which they tackled local networks and communities wasn't and isn't tailored to the decoding of their virtual counterparts. Therefore a number of basic concepts of the sociological tradition are in need of a thorough revision.

An attempt is made below to make a start with this revision. The core of this analysis is the relation between direct personal ('face-to-face') and computer-mediated social relationships. Next, the relation between traditional and virtual communities is investigated.

virtuele gemeenschapIn recent years many studies of virtual communities have been carried out. Three general conclusions can be drawn from this. Firstly, the development of virtual communities can be partly explained as a reaction to the desintegration of the traditional local communities, which were embedded in freely or cheaply accessible 'third places', such as bars and churches, parks and squares, streetcorners and markets. Secondly, virtual communities arise more or less spontaneously when enough people meet each other on a more or less regular basis in the 'third places' of cyberspace (for example chatrooms and conference systems). Thirdly, the members of virtual communities meet online to do just about everything that other people do in their local social world. The sole striking difference is that the members of virtual communities usually only interact and communicate via texts on computer screens.

The research-agendas of cybersociologists, however, are still full of tricky open questions:

  • Do people become more isolated from the local communities around them when they participate in virtual communities? Is it true that members of virtual communities start neglecting their local communities?
  • Will the virtual communities remain inclusive or will they be forced to become more exclusive when more people enter the Internet?
  • Is it possible to create truly multiform, multi-cultural virtual communities?
  • How are conflicts solved within virtual communities?
  • How stable are virtual communities whose members enter into and withdraw from them at random?
  • Is virtual community-building able to stop the fragmentation of social human relations?

Not a second-hand world

The notion of virtual community is not to be dismissed as a technological, cyberpunk fantasy in which people increasingly live in "second-hand worlds" (Mills 1959); chained to their computer terminals, experiencing life through dehumanizing technology rather than through human contact and intimacy.

Rheingold [1993:5] defines virtual communities as "social aggregations that emerge from the [Internet] when enough people carry on those public discussions long enough, with sufficient human feeling, to form webs of personal relationships in cyberspace." 

This definition lacks a spatial dimension. Rheingold uses a biological analogy to describe community within cyberspace, likening virtual community to the model of a petri dish:

  • "Think of . . . the Net as the agar medium, and virtual communities, in all their diversity, as the colonies of microorganisms that grow in petri dishes. Each of the small colonies of microorganisms -- the communities on the Net -- is a social experiment that nobody planned but that is happening nevertheless." [p. 6]

Community in cyberspace has burgeoned in part due to a public lament over the disappearance of informal public spaces in our real existence and in part due to the pioneering spirit of "Netsurfers" who are attracted to virtual community by means of interacting with other people on a completely novel level.

How strong is the bond within virtual communities?

  • "People in virtual communities use words on screens to exchange pleasantries and argue, engage in intellectual discourse, conduct commerce, exchange knowledge, share emotional support, make plans, brainstorm, gossip, feud, fall in love, find friends and lose them, play games, flirt, create a little high art and a lot of idle talk. People in virtual communities do just about everything people do in real life, but we leave our bodies behind. You can't kiss anybody and nobody can punch you in the nose, but a lot can happen within those boundaries. To the millions who have been drawn into it, the richness and vitality of computer-linked cultures is attractive, even addictive." [p. 3]

Howard Rheingold [1993] The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier. New York: Addison-Wesley. 

Online you can also read Rheinhold's Virtual Worlds: Communities and Realities

In the SocioSite you'll find other resources on virtual communities in the category WebSociologie.

Networks of the future

Network theories you will find in all sorts and measures. Some social scientists connect to the exchange theory of Blau, others build upon the older sociometric approach, upon the more recent communication approach or upon the empirical orientated research tradition of cultural-anthropology. So the network concept can be used in quite different theoretical frameworks.

When you decide to inspect the sociological literature for a clear demarcation of the network concept, you have to prepare for a disappointment - you won't find a clearly defined and consistent concept of network. The reason for this cannot be confined to the fact that networks are analyzed in so many different theoretical perspectives. The object of analysis itself seems to have changed in character. The changing charakter of our personal relations and of the networks of these personal relations raises the question weather the network concept itself has to be revisited in a fundamental way. Let's see if this is the case.

In the traditional sociological view networks are defined as a specific level of integration of social action. In the most sophisticated versions of social theory three levels of social integration are differentiated: societal level, organizational level and the interactional level. I have discussed this analytical differentiation at length in an electronic book on economic sociology: Naar een nieuwe economische sociologie. Earlier treatments of the same problem are found in two other studies: Bader/Benschop [1988] and Benschop [1993].

Actions and communications in interaction systems occur in direct, physical copresence of the actors. The actions and communications in organizations can to some extent break away from these direct interactions through the development of organizational positions and structures. The societal level is always the most comprehensive social system of all social actions and action systems which are connected to each other in a communicative and actual way. These most comprehensive social systems can be 'societies' in the strict sense (such as the bourgeois society) or societal subsystems (such as the capitalist economic system).

Levels of social integration
System Level
Action Level
Societal level
Comprehensive social systems
Societal action
Organizational level
Organizational action
Interactional level
Direct social interaction systems: dyadic sociale relations and networks
Interactional or role action

The interactional level of social integration covers all social actions (interactions and communications) which occur in the direct, physical copresence of actors: face-to-face interaction. It assumes conditions of physical proximity, closeness: there has to be a temporal-spacial connection between at least two persons. Goffman's classical definition of the condition of copresence has been:

  • "persons must sense that they are close enough to be percieved in whatever they are doing, including their experiencing of others and close enough to be percieved in this sensing of being percieved" [Erving Goffmann 1963:8]

And here we do get into trouble. How close do I have to be to another person to be percieved in whatever I am is doing? At what distance does someone has to be for me to get the feeling of being percieved? Is there any reason to put a spatial dimension into our definition of dyadic social relations and networks of social relations? What is the connection between physical presence and social presence ? Is copresence in one limited space a necessary condition for people to feel the presence of a communicator? Is a face-to-face meeting in one place the only communication medium for social presence?

The combination of computer and telecommunication technologies has paved the way for a revolutionary compression of time and space. The acceleration of time and the contraction of space have created completely new possibilities for personal interaction and direct communication. Many forms of social interaction and communication can be mediated by computers which are connected to Internet. Computer-mediated communication (CMC) seems to make the traditional condition of copresence obsolete: personal relations and networks of social relations do not necessarily presuppose physical presence in one place anymore.

Personal interactions that in earlier days took place in one room, will be more and more mediated by computers. Social interaction and communication can be digitally replicated. This is possible now because the current generation of computer and telecommunication technologies allow us to duplicate almost all the cues we use in personal communication: text, sounds, moving pictures.

For direct interaction and communication two elements are essential: voice and facial expression. The digitalized recombination of face with voice has made physical presence as good as real ('virtual'). The presence of the communication partner is experienced as social reality. So we don't have to put a spatial dimension into our conception of personal relationships and networks of social relations, at least not in our conception of webs of personal relations in cyberspace.

The borders between direct face-to-face and computer-mediated interaction will fade away, but they will never completely disappear. Not all forms of socialization can be tranmitted by digital media. There are all kinds of experiments in which scientists try to implement digital duplications of smell and feeling into the computer. It is possible to simulate very limited forms of 'touching'. But this almost nothing compared to the high sensibility of our tactile organs. Especially for our intimate personal relations this is an enormous disability. As long as telefeeling and telesmelling is impossible (or extreme limited), we won't be longing for 'teleloving'. Computers will probably never reach a stage of sophistication at which they can mediated direct human interaction completely, for the simple reason that computers don't have a human body. Human beings know and feel certain things because they have a human body. No organism without a human body will ever know and feel the things in the same way humans do. That's the crucial reason why computers can never be really intelligent.

Keeping all these limitations in mind, we can safely conclude that we face the beginning of an era in which computer-mediated networks of social relations will play an increasing role. The sociological conception of (networks of) personal social relations must be redecorated. It has to be 'stretched' in such a way that computer-mediated interactions and communications can get their rightful place within this concept. This can only be done when the classical sociological assumption of physical copresence is thrown out off the window of the network concept. We don't have to be at one place at the same time anymore to interact and communicate directly. We can 'meet' each other at distance and we can organize meetings without transporting our bodies to one place.

The essence of the interactional level of social integration is not the direct physical presence, but social presence, that is the ability of a communication medium to allow the group members to feel the presence of an actor with which one can communicate directly ('interactively').

It is time to apply the Thomas theoreme on virtual communities:

  • If people define networks as real, they are real in their consequences.

The new social reality of electronic communication (of computer-mediated interactions and networks) is virtual, 'just like reality'. Virtual networkers share the same hallucination as other inhabitants of the Internet community. Virtual communities really exist. For many people they have a much bigger impact on their daily activities than traditional communities. 

Quantity creates Quality

  • "Cyberspace is the realm behind the computer screen, the other side of the telephone receiver, just a centimetre beneath the surface of the keyboard, where words and sounds and images and all forms of codified phenomena dance. This is the virtual world in which media mix; the city square of the technological nomad; the new phase space of the economic. Cyberspace is, in theory, unbounded. Everything which can be reduced to zeroes and ones eventually finds its home here--all that can be measured, codified, transacted." [Christopher Keep and Tim McLaughlin, Dictionary of the Khazars].

When you are not a mathematician, you seldom have fun with numbers. Certainly not when these numbers are only zeroes and ones. Why is it then that so many people get excited when they are only busy transmitting zeroes and ones to and from their computers to other computers?

  • "Cyberspace is made up fundamentally of numbers (binary bits and bytes) and is not only quantifiable, but in a sense almost made of quantity. Yet, through virtual reality, simulation, and visualization, people experience it qualitatively, even immersively, just like reality." 
    Steve Mizrach, Lost in Cyberspace: A Cultural Geography of Cyberspace.

If we could say that the virtual reality which is created and recreated on the Internet has a physical form of existence, then it is constructed out of gigantic series of zeroes and ones. The Internet is 'made of quantity', but it displays itself to its participants as a series of cues - texts, pictures, sounds, movies - to which we attribute qualitative meanings, with which we can experience fun or sadness, from which we can learn something good or bad, about which we can get excited or horrified, through which we can even fall in love. Is this perhaps the metaphysics of cyberspace?

Does this differ from the metaphysics of the movies? When you go to the movies to watch a film more often than not it occurs, that you are scared when that leading character is in danger, that you are happy when he or she falls in love, and that you become confused when you don't know exactly how it will end. In brief: you have all kinds of feelings, even if it is a virtual experience. The person you sympathize with is an actor or actress who is never in danger reality. The feelings projected on the screen are acted, they are impersonated feelings. In reality you are onlin in the movies, watching a film which is wound through a projector at great speed.

The basis of all our virtual experiences is our human fantasy. By means of our powers of imagination something that isn't completely true can be turned into something that seems to be true. "Dreams don't come true, but when I wake up I still see you!" The computers we use to log into the Internet are dreammachines. We only produce new forms of reality with them, which only exist 'between our ears' and which are revealed in the effects these dreams have on our real social life. With this dreammachine we can duplicate nearly everything for which we don't need our body: we can communicate and interact virtually, play games and discuss, we can marry and divorce virtually, celebrate birthdays and mourn the death of our beloved. We can even do much more because we can leave our body behind at the computer. The laws of physics do not seem to operate in the virtual world. Therefore we can move faster than lightning across the earth and beyond; therefore we can walk through solid walls and descend to the bottom of the largest oceans. Actually everything is possible in the computer-mediated fantasy-world of cyberspace, as lon as we don't need our body (especially not our embedded powers to smell and feel) to achieve our goal. In this world anything can be reprogrammed by the users.

Traditional and virtual communities

Most people have a natural affinity with their community. Communication is the structural process leading to community formation: without communication there can be no social action which leads to the organization of our social relations.

In the meantime it has become a sociological commonplace that the traditional concept of 'community' is problematic one. The traditional concept of community refers to a range of sociale relations operating within specific - ethnic, religieous, linguistic - bounderies or geographic localities. The community is characterized by an organic sense of togetherness, brotherhood, family and tradition, and by a bond based on understanding, consensus and language. In short: traditional communities are characterized by direct social interaction, a shared system of values and a shared symbolic system [Vliet/Burgers 1987]. The concept community has played a part in the discussions on the 'the just society' for a longer period of time.

Society, on the other hand, is characterized by a kind of hyper-individualism in which relations between people are orientated mechanically, fleetingly and contractually. Tönnies [1887] introduced the distinction between society (Gesellschaft) and community (Gemeinschaft). This last aspect of sociale relations was placed in the context of modernity and the continuous degeneration of traditional sociale structures. The processes of urbanization and industrialization wouldlead to the destruction of the community and thus of the traditional community and thus of security and intimacy.

Direct personal relations:
geographically restricted, direct social interaction
Commodified, contractual relations:
mechanical relations or marked relations
Community spirit: intimacy
Individualism: professionalism
Collective identity
Rational association of interests
Common interests
Competing interests

Modern communication technologies offer new opportunities for other kinds of social relations and communities. The development of electronic communication technologies hasn't destroyed time and space, to be sure (as McLuhan claimed in 1964), but time and space have been condensed in such a way that we actually live in an infinite 'global village'. Communication technology connects people in a new type of community, in virtual communities. These new technologies can unite people in coherent interest communities, but they may also atomize people, causing them to further withdraw in tribalism.

Computer-mediated communication (CMC) is both an interpersonal communication medium (one-to-one) and a form of mass communication for one-to-many and even many-to-many. CMC may have a strong hold on the nature of sociale life. This applies both to our interpersonal relations ('dyadic' social relations) and to the nature of the community ('networks' of social relations). A virtual community comprises all dimensions of a community: economic, political, social and cultural ones.

  • Social: Social interaction and solidarity within electronic conferences and chat boxes may result in new friendships and love affairs. The Internet is a virtual place where we can meet our friends, collegues and lovers at any time, regardless the places they are living.
  • Economic and political: Within cyberspace the number of international transactions that are concluded and political advice that is exchanged via electronic networks is growing every day. More and more corporations are virtualizing their organizations and their employees become teleworkers.
  • Cultural: People are exposed to the values and symbolic systems of other nations and cultural configurations.
  • Ideological: In cyberspace communities the emphasis is laid on a shared belief in the principles of freedom of speech, individualism, equality and free access to the same symbolic interests.
  • Habitus and Lifestyle: The cyberspace community stresses a collectivity of interests, usually bound by the topic of discussion. This may lead to a collective attitude (the 'spirit' of our virtual circle) and a clear social bond, involving relatively long-lasting social obligations.

What changes occur when people communicate via computers? Are we capable of showing our emotions via computers? Does the anonymity of communication via computers and networks lead to undesired effects, such as unrestrained and uncontrolled behavior?

Communication via commputers is often called inferior because it can never come near face-to-face contact. The same old prejudice as when the telephone had just been invented. People would be inclined to have less personal contact, family life would be ruined, circles of friends would fall apart, and so on. The telephone was only thought suitable for brief business messages and not for affectionate, emotional ('full' and 'warm') communication.

So far, however, research into computer-mediated communication has shown a completely different picture. It is indeed possible to exchange emotions and start affectionate relations via computer networks. It even seems as if people show stronger social behavior and strongly hold on to group norms in computer-mediaded communcation [Tom Postmes, 'Social influence in computer-meditated groups', 1997].

It is a fact that each medium has its specific possibilities and restrictions. CMC doesn't allow the exchange of all signals sent and received in face-to-face contact. Yet, the social-emotional contexts of contacts is relatively independent of the medium bringing about these contacts. Whether computer networks enable affectionate, emotional communication, primarily depends on the social context, i.e. the expectations, norms and values of the participants.

Face-to-face or CMC?

The face-to-face meeting is the least complex but at the same time most informative means of communication. Direct personal conversation knows several levels of communication. Apart from the words that are spoken there is inflection and body-language and even the specific context is meaningful. In computer-mediated, sheer textual communication (via email or chatboxes) a number of these elements were lacking, until recently. This lack manifests itself in the users' need to invent emotions to bridge the language-barrier ('emoticon'). By a digitalized reunion of face and voice the social presence comes closer and closer and physical nearness almost comes true. ('Virtual' is derived from the Latin word vertus, meaning truth; virtual is something that looks like reality, that isn't completely real but appears to be real).

It seems unlikely that the significance of face-to-face communication will decrease. Experience shows that managers of virtual faculties do the right thing by taking increasing travelling expenses into account. Those people who have the opportunity to make worldwide virtual contacts develop a stronger desire to meet the people they contact via the computer in the non-virtual world ('live'). That is only possible when the bodies are moved.

Everybody needs a sense of 'locality', whether it is territorially limited or in 'spaceless' cyberspace. Virtual communities are only restricted by the specific nature of the field of interests. They are transnational or transcultural figurations, which seems to oppose the traditional notions of collectivity as a public domain.Therefore it is essential to redefine the concept of community.

Computer-mediated communication has certain advantages compared to face-to-face communication:

  • no mistaken ideas about the other person based on physical appearance;
  • the ease of meeting each other;
  • equal access to the conversation for the participants.

From the perspective of communication-economics the consequence is that people can be reached faster and that communication can pass off more efficiently. Yet, the social consequences are harder to determine. It is suspected that hierarchical differences become smaller through communication via computers. This way, cooperation on equal terms and sharing information resources would be stimulated. Besides, there would be less room for ascriptive discriminations. Since there is no perception of somebody's physical appearance, there is supposedly no room for ethnic-cultural prejudices. In electronic conferences there's a lot less room for male macho-behaviour, which would lead to diminishing male-female differences in communication. In short: computer-communication would lead to more democratic and solidary interpersonal relations.

Yet it is not that simple to determine the effects of computer-communication. After all, the disadvantages of computer-mediated communication might be more important than the advantages. As it happens, each of the mentioned advantages could also be a disadvantage:

  • in many cases appearance is important;
  • conversation should not only be based on efficiency;
  • some ideas are more useful than others.

The reverse of the advantage of communication-economics efficiency is that organizational forms come into being, in which the control of output and social behaviour of employees is tightened up tremendously.The same means of communication which enable equal interaction between many people may also lead to such totalization of the controlsystem that employees are observed and controlled every minute. The other side of the advantages linked to 'faceless interaction' is that this anonymity can also be used as a facade for antisocial behaviour (unrestrainedly insulting people, pretending a false identity, beastly misleading advertising, etc. ). Besides, physical appearance and the desire to touch play a very important role in intimate relations. After all, face-to-face encounters remain important for the realization of real community spirit.

The most plausible outcome of the development of virtual communities via computer-mediated communication is that the supreme culture remains dominant. It would be naive to think that the present economic, political and technical elites would freely renounce their dominant positions or would knowingly sow the seeds of their own destruction.

Undoubtedly a new virtual public domain arises via computer-mediated communication. This public domain leads to a sense of involvement, without leading to actual participation. As it is, communities do not come into being through discourse. Rather, they are formed or strengthened whenever action is needed, as for a strike or in a war. Citizenship via cyberspace is therefore no universal remedy for the problem of democratic participation. The new communities have indeed brought about a feeling of solidarity, but as yet they have also contributed to the fragmentation of cultural and political life.

The hope of and desire for new ways of communication, such as CMC, are an indication of and a compensation for the failure of old and new technologies to create a just and democratic-egalitarian society. The high utopian expectations with respect to CMC are out of place, because a change of society doesn't come about by changing technology, but by reforming the political and social contexts from which this technology stems.


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