Publication Date: November 11, 1997
NEW YORK, NY—Some of the world’s leading experts on virtual communities and the Internet say society must create formal, inter-disciplinary forms of research to better examine the powerful impact the Internet is having on our boardrooms, classrooms, courts and legislatures. The call to have more robust and dedicated courses of study of life online at the world’s top universities was the centerpiece of a recent M.I.T./Markle Foundation panel, Virtual Communities: Questions, Theories and Opportunities.
Panelists are now part of an effort to organize a worldwide conference at M.I.T. intended to gather social scientists in fields ranging from Sociology and Psychiatry to Architecture and the Humanities slated for the fall of 1998. The panelists joined a multi-discipline group of top M.I.T. scholars, including Sociologist Sherry Turkle and M.I.T. Artificial Intelligence Lab Scientist Roger Hurwitz, in setting the agenda for the adoption of formal courses of study on how cyberspace impacts society.
“Tens of millions of people are sitting in front of screens all day, and that’s influencing the way we think, the way we identify with ourselves and the way we socialize,” said panel participant and noted author Howard Rheingold. A lot of decisions about how our children and grandchildren will be able to communicate in the future are being made on the basis of remarkably little knowledge, but the number of people doing research on the subject could fit in a small room. “We need a much larger, better-funded sphere of research on the subject.” said Rheingold, whose pivotal book, The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier, has been acclaimed for delving into how we behave differently online and offline.
The panel also included lively discussion on how to safeguard the free and open content control of the Internet in the future. Amy Bruckman, an M.I.T. PhD. and Georgia Tech faculty member who has created virtual communities for children and professionals, warned of the Disney Dilemma, or a growing domination of Internet content by media and entertainment conglomerates.
She mentioned concerns raised in a recent meeting held with the creators of Disney Online, a children’s site open only to paid subscribers, in which she clashed with Disney’s philosophy about controls in the structure of its virtual community. Their plans are in some ways, oxymoronic,” said Bruckman. “The great promise of the Net is the way people are contributing and how users are creating content. But if you let people contribute content, it’s not always going to be squeaky or Disney-perfect. Will the polished, perfect content overwhelm the imperfectly created content?”
Bruckman also dismissed conventional wisdom alleging that participation in Virtual Communities somehow leads to deviant behavior. As with anyone managing a gathering of people, Bruckman said, you have to be prepared to manage the “one weirdo who can do a lot of damage.” Bruckman recommended strategy for manage troublesome participants: lay the same ground rules you would if you were hosting a party in a private home.
Panelist and UCLA scholar Marc Smith, who has launched an exhaustive study to map traffic and behavior in the myriad of different UseNet discussion groups, said, “We don’t know how group dynamics or political power are developed yet in social cyberspaces.” Smith said that 1.2 million different people had posted to the Usenet in the past ten days, and pointed out that the wide majority are participating not during leisure time, but from the office during 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. “The Usenet is distributed by a large, decentralized anarchy, and yet its still robust after 17 years,” said Smith. “By examining the Usenet, in aggregate, over time, we’ll find behavior and patterns we’d never expect. For example, one of the most popular cross posting patterns is between alt.fashion and alt.dieting.”
University of Toronto sociologist Barry Wellman criticized most research on cyberspace behavior as being filled with traveller’s tales, or unscholarly antecdotes. Nonetheless, Wellman believes that research that applies foundations of sociology to the Internet will reveal some new social behaviors, such as the unforseen cyber side effect of a Toronto suburb of “wired” homes he is studying. Homeowners who were promised high-bandwidth access, video phones and other experimental technologies have now begun to use the Internet connections provided in their homes to organize a protest against the developer, who they claim has not delivered much of the technical wizardry promised in the suburb’s marketing material. “We have to understand that people have online lives and offline lives,” said Wellman. “These people are using an online community to develop offline relationships. They’re building their own political organization and a new kind of civic community.”
“We are just beginning to recognize the importance of cyberspace as a field of study. Many essential questions about the nature of democratic life, about interest groups and the establishment of new forms of community now confront us,” said David Thorburn, an organizer of the Media in Transition project and a Professor of Literature and Director of the M.I.T. Communications Forum. This emerging on-line culture is already a major presence in our society, and we must begin to classify, describe and evaluate its impact Virtual Communities: Questions, Theories, Opportunities is the latest panel discussion in the 18-month-long Media in Transition project, a collaboration of the M.I.T. Communications Forum, the M.I.T. Media Studies Program and the Markle Foundation.
The primary goal of the project is to establish a conversation, across a wide range of academic, professional and social disciplines, on the impact of new media technology on society. Moreover, the project will examine the roles of political, legal, social and cultural institutions in mediating and shaping technological change. Both the Virtual Community panel and the project will aim to nourish a sense of history by comparing older periods of media transition with our contemporary experience of technological change and instability. The Media in Transition project will consist of a program of seminars, forums, lecture series and cyberspace activities that will be held at M.I.T. during 1997 and 1998. It will conclude with a national conference in 1998.
The governing board of The Media In Transition project includes leading M.I.T. faculty members, authors and experts William Mitchell, Dean of The School of Architecture and Planning; Sherry R. Turkle, Professor of Sociology Program in Science, Technology and Society; Peter Donaldson, the Ann Fetter Friedlaender Professor of Humanities; Edward Barrett; Senior Lecturer Program in Writing and Humanistic Study; Markle Foundation President and noted media studies visionary Lloyd Morrisett, and conference co-organizer Henry Jenkins, Professor of Literature and the Director of the Film and Media Studies Program at M.I.T., in addition to Thorburn and Hurwitz.
The Media In Transition project is funded by New York City-based Markle Foundation. Founded in 1927, the John and Mary R. Markle Foundation, Inc. was established “to promote the advancement and diffusion of knowledge and the general good of mankind.” The Markle Foundation has supported some of the nation’s most influential research on how media forms impact society, including partnerships with PBS, CNN, the Children’s Television Workshop, and more.
Markle Foundation works to improve health and national security through the use of information and technology. Markle collaborates with innovators and thought leaders from the public and private sectors whose expertise lies in the areas of information technology, privacy, civil liberties, health, and national security. Learn more about Markle at www.markle.org.