It has been argued that on-line networked communication can enable the establishment of ‘virtual communities’. Empirical data from an electronic discussion group for general medical practitioners (GPs) are used to evaluate these claims, and to explore the similarities and discrepancies between on-line and face-to-face interactions.
A distinct social order for this ‘community’ is reported, and the strategies to establish this order in a textual environment are discussed. Participants went through a cycle of integration into membership, and some generated distinctive virtual identities or personae. The notion of a ‘virtual community’ is critically discussed. Participants interacted as if they were part of a community, but it is suggested that the interactions on the list are best understood as extensions of the wider social relations of general practice. The study of virtual communities may thus have relevance for wider issues of social inclusion and citizenship. The paper also includes reflections on ‘cyberethnography’, and suggestions for further research are offered.