1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Section 1 – Coming to Terms with Virtual-Communities
  5. Section 2 – Defining & Characterizing Virtual Settlements
  6. Cyber-Archaeology
  7. References

If useful explanations are to be provided about the relationship between computer mediated communication (CMC) technologies and online behavior, then a longer-term perspective needs to be taken than the current focus of CMC researchers. This paper provides such a perspective by outlining in theoretical terms how a cyber-archaeology of virtual communities can be conducted. In archaeology, researchers focus on cultural artifacts. A similar focus on the cultural artifacts of virtual communities should be a focus for CMC researchers as these artifacts can provide an integrative framework for a community's life, be it virtual or real. It is proposed that CMC researchers pursue cyber-archaeology by systematically examining and modeling the framework for virtual community life provided by their cultural artifacts.

The systematic exploration of cyber-space via cyber-archaeology cannot proceed without adequate linguistic tools that allow for taxonomy. The first step in the creation of such a taxonomy is to distinguish between virtual communities and their cyber-place, the virtual settlement. The second, is to define and operationalize the term virtual settlement so that they can be systematically characterized and modeled. With this new terminology, it is possible to detail a cyber-archaeology where technological determinism is replaced with the notion of bounded hierarchies and material behavior. The theoretical outline will show how cultural artifacts can play a role in constraining the forms virtual settlements can sustain. The modeling of the boundaries of virtual settlements via cyber-archaeology should dramatically increase our understanding of communication in general.


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Section 1 – Coming to Terms with Virtual-Communities
  5. Section 2 – Defining & Characterizing Virtual Settlements
  6. Cyber-Archaeology
  7. References

This paper confronts the question of how to provide explanations about the relationship between technology and online behavior that go beyond the specifics of current responses to new communication technologies. It does this by taking a longer-term perspective than is generally the focus of CMC researchers by outlining in theoretical terms how a cyber-archaeology of virtual communities can be conducted.

In order to proceed with the theoretical outline it will first be necessary to examine the two dominant and contrasting popular uses of the term virtual community. The first simply equates virtual communities with various forms of group-CMC. The second holds that virtual communities are new forms of ‘community’ created via the use of various forms of CMC. An examination of these definitions highlights how virtual communities are more than just a series of CMC messages. They are a sociological phenomena. The review thus demonstrates the need to distinguish between a virtual community's cyber-place and the virtual community itself. A virtual community's cyber-place will be termed a virtual settlement.

Once we have a term to describe a virtual community's cyber-place, virtual settlement, their essential features can be listed and details given of how individual virtual settlements can be methodically characterised. With this new terminology it is possible to detail a cyber-archaeology where technological determinism is replaced with the notion of bounded hierarchies and material behavior. In particular the theoretical outline will show how cultural artifacts can play a role in constraining the sustainable forms virtual settlements can take because of human cognitive processing limits.

Section 1 – Coming to Terms with Virtual-Communities

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Section 1 – Coming to Terms with Virtual-Communities
  5. Section 2 – Defining & Characterizing Virtual Settlements
  6. Cyber-Archaeology
  7. References

Virtual community as group-CMC

On May 5th, 1997, the European edition of BusinessWeek led with the cover story “Internet Communities: How They're Shaping Electronic Commerce” [(Hof et al 1997)]. This cover story highlights the extent to which the term virtual community has become almost synonymous with various forms of group-CMC, including email-list forums [(Erickson 1997)], chat-systems such as IRC [(Reid 1991)], MUD's and MOOs [(Turkle 1996; Reid 1994)], web-based discussion areas [(Hagel & Armstrong 1997)] and usenet news-groups [(see Kollock and Smith 1994 in conjunction with Smith 1992)]. There was no debate in the Business Week article as to whether the group-CMC discussions are really ‘communities’, rather how community as opposed to content can be used to encourage people to return to a particular part of cyberspace for commercial gain. In a similar vein, Hagel and Armstrong [(1997)] in “Net Gain” argue that virtual communities are a great marketing tool for businesses. They define virtual communities as computer mediated space where there is an integration of content and communication with an emphasis on member-generated content. They also claim that the first virtual communities were composed of scientists using the Internet or its predecessors to share data, collaborate on research, and exchange messages. Virtual-communities can also be distinguished, according to Hagel and Armstrong, from on-line information services by the extent to which content and user communication are integrated. For Hagel and Armstrong, the term virtual community loosely refers to the communication network formed via group-CMC. In fact, a quick examination of the output of various Internet search engines such as Digital's Alta Vista, shows that the term generally refers to group-CMC.

Virtual community as a new form of Community

Not all virtual community commentators agree with the Spartan position taken by Hof et al., and Hagel & Armstrong above. Rheingold, one of the prime popularizers of the term virtual community, provides us with a more emotive definition in his book The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier [(1993)]. According to Rheingold “virtual communities are social aggregations that emerge from the Net when enough people carry on those public discussions long enough, with sufficient human feeling, to form webs of personal relationships in cyberspace” (p.5). Rheingold's definition is extremely popular and has been quoted in many discussions about virtual communities [(e.g. Haupt; Overby 1996; Johnston; Scime)]. As discussed below, for social scientists, particularly sociologists, Rheingold's definition raises many issues, espically with regards to the notion of community. This is due to the fact that Rheingold argues via a variety of analogies from the real world such as homesteading that virtual communities are indeed new forms of “community”. In fact, Rheingold implies that virtual communities are actually “a kind of ultimate flowering of community” [(Jones 1995 p.11)]. Still further Rheingold argues that “whenever computer mediated communications technology becomes available to people anywhere, they inevitably build communities with it”. Rheingold can thus be labeled as a technological determinist as he holds that there is a predictable relationship between technology and people's behavior.

The debate over the validity of Rheingold's position has raised doubts about the existence of virtual communities and the appropriate use of the term. Weinreich [(1997)] argues that the idea of virtual communities “must be wrong” because “community is a collective of kinship networks which share a common geographic territory, a common history, and a shared value system, usually rooted in a common religion”. In other words, Weinreich rejects the existence of virtual communities because group-CMC discussions cannot possibly meet his definition. Weinreich's view is similar to that presented in a discussion paper by the Critical Art Ensemble, Utopian Promises – Net Realities, in which they assert that “anyone with even a basic knowledge of sociology understands that information exchange in no way constitutes a community.” To examine the validity of this position, a brief review of sociological literature in the decades prior to the advent of group-CMC is necessary. This review will show the confusion surrounding the term and the reasonableness of suggesting the existence of communities based on CMC.

Sociology & virtual community

In the 1950s the analysis of various definitions of community was a thriving sociological industry. The piece de resistance was Hillery's analysis of ninety-four definitions in his paper Definitions of Community: Areas of Agreement [(1955)]. In the early 70s Bell and Newby wrote that: “the concept of community has been the concern of sociologists for more than two hundred years, yet a satisfactory definition of it in sociological terms appears as remote as ever.” [(1973, p.21)]. Others noted that the fact that the term community can be used in several different ways diminishes its usefulness for purposes of scientific communication. [(Poplin 1972)]. This is because the term “community” refers to different things, depending upon who is using it and upon the context in which it is used [(Nelson, Ramsey, Verner 1960)].

Even the debate about the relationship between physical space and community is not new. In 1960, Nelson et al. wrote “the confusion of space with the community itself is doubtless a result of the strong influence of space upon human relations” [(Nelson, Ramsey, Verner 1960)]. As early as 1973, Bernard, in The Sociology of Community, argued for a Kuhnian sort of scientific revolution in our understanding of the term community which would result in the term being independent of the concept of locale. Bernard, in fact, ushers in the notion of CMC-based virtual communitywhen he writes:

The distribution of people in dispersed social systems is not only spatial but mental. Some people are in a planetary community; some are in a national community; still others are in a community bounded by their limited interests. The bodies of people might be in one spatial area, but not their social worlds. The concept of locale has little meaning in this context. The concept of communality was once proposed to refer to these locale-independent relationships. Now the implications for the community of the independence from locale as shown by these new kinds of relationships are becoming overwhelming. [(Bernard, 1973, p. 183)].

Just as sociologists were not clear about the meaning of the term community in the decades prior to the advent of group-CMC, it is clear that not all definitions excluded the possibility of communities based on CMC. The current state of affairs is no better:as Penguin's Dictionary of Sociology notes, “The term community is one of the most elusive and vague in sociology and is by now largely without specific meaning”.

Not only do some sociological definitions of community allow for the possibility of CMC-based ‘communities’, but Stone [(1991)] suggests that the term virtual community can be used in a more general sense. According to Stone, there were “textual virtual communities” from the mid 1600s, “electronic virtual communities” after the invention of the telegraph and still others based on radio and television. Stone notes that “arguably one of the best examples of a virtual community in the late twentieth century is the Trekkies (Star-Trek Fans), a huge, heterogeneous group partially based on commerce but mostly on a set of ideas” (p.87–88). Stone's broad use of the term virtual community is clearly referring to a different range of phenomena than other authors. This highlights the difficulties associated with arriving at a tight definition of the term based on a straight forward etymological analysis.

While many sociological definitions of community do not exclude the possibility that virtual communities are new forms of community, connotations associated with the word suggest to some authors that a better label could be found. For example, Shenk in Data Smog [(1997)] argues that group-CMC does not foster communities, which are naturally inclusive, but are rather more limited “microcultures”. Shenk is a representative critic of Rheingold's rosy view of virtual communities. Nevertheless, he too uses the term in his book to refer to certain forms of group-CMC (p.111). It seems that Shenk is rejecting some of the ideological baggage [(See Barbrook and Cameron on the “Californian Ideology “[1])] attached to the label virtual community by Rheingold and others, rather than the use of the term itself to refer to a particular class of group-CMC. Fernback and Thompson [(1995)] similarly argue that “the term virtual community is more indicative of an assemblage of people being “virtually” a community than being a real community in the nostalgic sense”. At the same time Fernback and Thompson do not reject the use of the term; in fact they specifically state that their “comments should not be construed as protests against the corruption of a term” as the word “community has a dynamic meaning”.

Summary: Getting On With The Virtual

As noted by Erickson [(1997)], although virtual community “is an engaging and provocative notion, the concept of community is not always well-suited to describing on-line discourse.” In particular, the notion of community offers little guidance to those interested in designing the infrastructure for supporting various classes of group-CMC. It was noted above that the term virtual community is considered by many to be synonymous with a class of group-CMC; however no details were given as to what characterizes and distinguishes this class of group-CMC from others. It is also apparent from the above literature review that for many, virtual communities are more than just a series of CMC messages, they are also a sociological phenomena. The difficulties associated with the term virtual community demonstrates the need to distinguish between a virtual community's cyber-place and the virtual community itself.

Section 2 – Defining & Characterizing Virtual Settlements

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Section 1 – Coming to Terms with Virtual-Communities
  5. Section 2 – Defining & Characterizing Virtual Settlements
  6. Cyber-Archaeology
  7. References

The need to distinguish between a virtual community's CMC messages and the virtual community itself creates a dilemma similar in form to those faced by a number other disciplines. For example, after centuries of debate over the mind-body problem, psychology now distinguishes between the act of cognition and observable behavior. Likewise, it is necessary to distinguish between a community and its material in order to determine when a series of group-CMC demonstrates the existence of a virtual community. Therefore a distinction will need to be made between the cyber-place within which a virtual community operates, which will be termed a virtual settlement, and the virtual communities themselves.

Defining Characteristics

For a cyber-place with associated group-CMC to be labeled as a virtual settlement it is necessary for it to meet a minimum set of conditions. These are: (1) a minimum level of interactivity; (2) a variety of communicators; (3) a minimum level of sustained membership; and (4) a virtual common-public-space where a significant portion of interactive group-CMCs occur. The notion of interactivity will be shown to be central to virtual settlements. Further, it will be shown that virtual settlements can be defined as a cyber-place that is symbolically delineated by topic of interest and within which a significant proportion of interrelated interactive group-CMC occurs. It also follows that the existence of a virtual settlement demonstrates the existence of an associated virtual community.

(1) Minimum Level of Interactivity

It has been argued by some sociologists [(Minar and Greer 1969)] that our understanding of community begins with an examination of interaction and that leads to commitment to a given place and group. Both communities and virtual communities are composed of “groups”. Homans [(1951)], in his seminal sociological work The Human Group, defines group as the following:

a number of persons who communicate with one another often over a span of time, and who are few enough so that each person is able to communicate with all the others, not at second hand, through other people, but face-to-face. (p.1).

He went on to write:

Sociologists call this the primary group. A chance meeting of casual acquaintances does not count as a group.

It is possible just by counting interactions to map out a group quantitatively distinct from others.

The impact of new technologies suggests that our understanding of what makes up a primary human group needs to be radically changed. Interactive-group-communication no longer requires face-to-face communication and is not restricted to a few people. The extent to which virtual communities are dependent on interactive communication represents a significant departure from the more traditional mass media forms [(Newhagen & Rafaeli 1996)] and emphasizes the need for a paradigm shift by media researchers. The fact that the communication is computer mediated makes it considerably easier to “count” and “map” group “interactions”. At the same time the advent of virtual communities has further highlighted the importance of human interactions.

The terms interactivity, interactive and interactive-communication as used in this paper refer to the concept defined by Rafaeli [(Rafaeli 1984, 1988, 1990; Sudweeks and Rafaeli 1994)]. Interactivity is not a characteristic of the medium. It is the extent to which messages in a sequence relate to each other, and especially the extent to which later messages recount the relatedness of earlier messages. “Interactivity is an expression of the extent to which in a given series of communication exchanges, any third or later transmission is related to the degree to which previous exchanges referred to even earlier transmissions” [(Rafaeli 1988, p.111)]. This definition of interactivity recognizes three levels of communication: two-way non-interactive communication; reactive communication (or quasi-interactive); and fully interactive communication. Two-way communication is present as soon as messages flow bilaterally. Reactive communication is when in addition to a bilateral exchange, later messages refer to earlier ones. Fully interactive communication requires that later messages in any sequence take into account not just messages that preceded them, but also the manner in which previous messages were reactive. In this manner interactivity forms a social reality.

The literature regarding virtual communities is insistent that interactive communication is a necessary condition for a series of CMC messages to demonstrate the existence of a virtual community. For example, Smith [(1992)] defines virtual community as “a set of on-going many-sided interactions that occur predominantly in and through computers linked via telecommunications networks”. When Rheingold [(1993)] states that virtual communities result from “public discussions with sufficient human feeling to form webs of personal relationships in cyberspace” and Erickson [(1997)] that virtual communities are “long term, computer-mediated conversations” they are both indirectly acknowledging the interactive nature of virtual communities. This is because long-term meaningful discussions/conversations require interactivity.

The requirement for a minimum level of interactivity allows us to exclude a variety of classes of CMC from the category virtual community. For example, an email list where subscribers receive news and information but are not able to conduct interactive discussions with fellow subscribers would not be classified here as a virtual community.

(2) Variety Of Communicators

The second necessary condition, a variety of communicators, is linked to the first condition of interactivity. Clearly if there is only one communicator there can be no interactivity. Further, authors universally relate the term to group-CMC, where there are more than two communicators, that is, more than two individuals who post their messages to the virtual community common-public-space (see below). By making variety of communicators (more than two) a necessary condition, we are able to exclude most database queries and database interactions from the category virtual community.

(3) Common-Public-Space Where a Significant Portion of a Community's Interactive Group-CMC Occurs

It is commonly understood that virtual communities exist within cyber-space. Papers that deal with virtual community often discuss their “inhabitants” [(Paccagnella 1997)], what “takes place” within them, and “where” the virtual community under study can be found [(e.g. Smith 1992)]. This is because as Jones [(1995)] pointed out “computer-mediated communication is, in essence, socially produced space” (p.17). Other authors have noted the connection between common-virtual public space and virtual community. Fernback and Thompson [(1995)] define virtual communities as “social relationships forged in cyberspace through repeated contact within a specified boundary or place (e.g., a conference or chat line) that is symbolically delineated by topic of interest”. Therefore according to Fernback and Thompson a virtual community needs a virtual-space. At the same time a virtual community is not equivalent to its cyberspace.

By arguing that a necessary condition for virtual communities is the existence of a virtual-place it is possible to distinguish between a virtual community and a number of other categories of CMC. This is because this requirement distinguishes a virtual settlement from private communication where postings go directly from one individual to another with no common virtual-place. A similar process can be noted in non-virtual human settlements where there is often overlap in the citizenship and allegiances and where a variety of social structures exist. At the same time the notion of common public space raises the issue of when an area of cyberspace consists of one or many virtual settlements.

The entire collection of Usenet newsgroups cannot be considered a single virtual community (or a single virtual settlement) because it is not one symbolically delineated place, but rather thousands of individual places. On the other hand, an individual newsgroup or a collection of related newsgroups could have an associated virtual community. An IRC-server containing hundreds of unrelated channels would also not indicate the existence of a single virtual community for exactly the same reason, although a single channel or a small collection of channels could. At the same time activity on an individual IRC channel does not demonstrate the existence of a virtual community as it may not represent a significant degree of interactive group-CMC. A listserv managing email discussion groups should also not be considered a virtual community because the symbolic delineation occurs at the level of the individual email-groups.

To some extent the issue of virtual community boundaries is a new issue. It is widely accepted that the first virtual communities resulted from the on-line bulletin board services (BBS) of the mid-1970s. It is likely that these early BBSs were accurately associated with the label virtual communities because the necessary conditions specified here were met. However, this is an empirical question for which the historical data may or may not be available. These early systems were not originally connected to the Internet and as such often catered to geographic localities [(Rafaeli 1986; Rafaeli & LaRose 1991; Rafaeli & LaRose 1993)]. Users were likely to participate in many of the discussion areas contained on the BBS so that user interaction was often at the level of the BBS. The virtual common-public space was the BBS itself.

One of the earliest BBSs was The Well. It has been described as “the world's most influential online community” [(Hafner 1997)]. A number of the texts discussed in this paper have used The Well as their exemplar of virtual community [(e.g. Rheingold 1993, 1994, Smith 1992)]. “For a long while The Well was an intimate gathering, a place where nearly everyone held a stake in nearly every discussion that arose” [(Hafner, p.100)]. In this case interactive communication was delineated at the level of The Well rather than at the level of individual discussion areas. The Well has grown exponentially since its pioneering days, raising the question as to whether The Well today should be considered one virtual community or rather a cyber-locale/region that contains many virtual communities. At the time of writing there were more than 260 conferences functioning on The Well. The Well's systems administrators currently describe The Well as “a cluster of electronic villages that live on the Internet” suggesting that they too see themselves as supporting a number of virtual communities. The development of The Well demonstrates the way in which a single virtual community can grow into many virtual communities and the importance of delineating boundaries of virtual settlements via an examination of both their interactive communication and symbolic division via topic of discussion.

The above review raises a number of issues. First, it is possible to object to the inclusion of common-public-space as a necessary condition because it excludes the possibility that virtual communities can be formed without a sense of cyber-place. However, it was noted that without the notion of common-public-space the notion of virtual community loses its value by becoming indistinguishable from many other forms of CMC. Second, from the discussion about interactivity and variety of communicators, it follows that the common-public-space associated with virtual communities contains interactive group-CMC. Finally, Fernback and Thompson's definition can be restated as: a virtual community is a set of social relationships forged via a virtual settlement.

(4) A minimum level of sustained membership

Some authors have argued that virtual communities are “long term, computer-mediated conversations amongst large groups” [(Erickson 1997)], suggesting that for group-CMC to be classified as a virtual community it should have some degree of sustained membership. The level of membership stability required for a reasonable level of interactivity will also relate to the density of CMC messages (message postings per-unit of time). For example, IRC has a fairly high density of postings in comparison to many email lists and therefore does not require the same stability of membership to produce interactive discussions. This requirement suggests that it is worthwhile conducting research into the stability of membership of various virtual communities to determine at what point membership patterns become disruptive to community survival and communication.

Characterizing virtual settlements

Once a virtual settlement has been identified it can be characterized via an empirical description of its CMC-message-system. For example, does the virtual settlement under study have a large but unstable population? Or is it small and cohesive? Such a characterization can result from the modeling of a number of variables such as the number of subscribers; the number of posters; the density of posting; the number of topics generated over a particular period of time; the average length of postings. and so on. In a similar fashion, traditional human settlements have been characterized by archaeologists who have been interested in such issues as the development of sedentism, agrarian-based urban settlements and the growth of industrially based cities. In both archaeology and the field of CMC, researchers focus on cultural artifacts: the archaeologist on scarabs, pots, arrow heads, the remains of cities, etc., the CMC researcher on listserv postings, web site structures, web site content, number of spams[2], Usenet content, etc. These artifacts can provide an integrative framework for a settlement's life, be it virtual or real, or they can obstruct or fail to facilitate otherwise viable, active behavior. As will be shown below the discipline of archaeology provides insights into how such characterizations of virtual settlements can be studied in order to expand our understanding of communication in general.


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Section 1 – Coming to Terms with Virtual-Communities
  5. Section 2 – Defining & Characterizing Virtual Settlements
  6. Cyber-Archaeology
  7. References

Archaeology is the study of humanity's past by scientific analysis of the material remains of cultures. The last two hundred years has seen archaeology turn from a casual treasure hunt into science [(Fagan 1985)]. The result of this change has been a radical shift in Western culture's understanding of both human history and humanity's relationship with the environment. This change includes a general acceptance that humanity is older than the 6000 years derived from a literal interpretation of the bible and recognition of the important interrelationship between humans and their environment. The recognition of humanity's impact on the environment has been enhanced through repeated discoveries in the archaeological record of cultural destruction resulting from inadequate resource management [(Rindos 1984)]. Archaeologists have developed sophisticated classification methods to describe artifacts and other finds. Such methods combinded with the time scale provided by an archaeological perspective allow for the study of the process of cultural change [(Fagan 1985)]. The archaeological record of the past is in fact an essential context for understanding humanity because no other cultural milieu provides the time perspective and the range of comparative cases necessary for the recognition of the immense, slow consequences of community behavior [(Fletcher 1995)].

Archaeologists don't research communities and cultures directly; rather they examine the remains of human habitation. Of direct relevance to CMC researchers, archaeologists have also shown that the material components of settlements play a substantial and essential role in many large-scale transformations of human community life [(see below, under material behavior Fletcher 1986)]. This is because material becomes recognizable as an actor without intent, whose operations are played out on a scale beyond the limited perceptions of daily community life. Likewise it is being proposed that virtual-communities and cyber-cultures can also be examined one step removed from social theory, where human intent is not of particular importance and larger-scale cultural changes can be assessed. Of course this can only be done if we take an archaeological perspective so that the patterning of cyber-artifacts can examined. In other words, it is being suggested that virtual communities and virtual settlements be systematically researched via the longer term perspective of cyber-archaeology.

In this paper, a type of cyber-archaeology will be outlined based on the theoretical approach of the archaeologist Roland Fletcher [(1995)]. The outline will focus on the replacement of technological determinism with the notion of bounded hierarchies and an analysis of material behavior. The focus of the material behavior section will be on how cultural artifacts can play a role in constraining the sustainable forms virtual settlements can take because of human cognitive processing limits.

Rejecting Technological Determinism

Technological determinists propose that the invention and adoption of a particular technology will lead to a particular set of outcomes. Theories based on technological determinism are generally teleological, that is they explain outcomes in terms of purpose rather than cause, and conceive of a certain set of long-term outcomes as inevitable. A variety of CMC theorists have provided communication theories based on one form or another of technological determinism. Rheingold, for example, holds that there is a predictable relationship between technology and people's behavior: “whenever computer mediated communications technology becomes available to people anywhere, they inevitably build communities with it” [(1993, p.5)]. Two other examples of technological determinists in the field of CMC are Levinson [(1990)] and Daft et al. [(1981, 1986, 1987)]. Levinson argues that media technology will inevitably evolve towards human function and Daft et al. that the most efficient medium will inevitably be used for a particular level of task ambiguity. The notion that technological advances automatically lead to positive social change is also pervasive in the related field of Information Systems. Ein-Dor and Segev [(1993)] in fact noted that “virtually all developmental IS explanations” up until the date of the publication of their paper in June 1993 were teleological. Gurak [(1995)] lists four broad classes of deterministic CMC theories: (1) that CMC will change the workplace for the better; (2) that CMC will do away with the physical classroom; (3)that CMC will enhance democracy [(also see Arterton 1987)]; and (4) that CMC is inherently egalitarian.

Technological determinism can be rejected on both empirical and theoretical grounds. Empirically, CMC has been shown to elicit behavior that does not follow the predictions of the “rational economic” theory of the consumption of information [3] [(Rafaeli 1990; Rafaeli & Ritchie 1991; Rafaeli & LaRose 1993)]. Further, the four broad classes of deterministic CMC theories listed above have all been systematically rejected by Gurak [(1996)]. In archaeological and historical analysis, simplistic technological determinism has also been demonstrably rejected [(Scranton 1992; Perdue 1992; Fletcher 1995)]. Technologically deterministic theories can also be rejected on the theoretical grounds that they are self-referential (rely on circular reasoning), and can therefore not be considered scientific explanations [4]. Their self-referential nature means that they are likely to result in non-progressive research programs [(see: Lakatos 1974)]. This can be seen from the history of science in general [(see Kuhn 1970, 1977; Scranton 1992)]. It can also be seen from studies into CMC, where models of CMC behavior based on technological determinism have been supplanted by models resulting from studies of the relationship between social context and CMC use [(Fulk & Boyd 1991)].

Despite the problems with technological determinism, determinist theories are proposed time and time again because of the desire to explain the relationship between technology and social structures. Researchers exploring virtual-communities, for quite understandable reasons, want to suggest straightforward relationships between CMC-technologies and human behavior. However, what has actually been shown empirically by CMC researchers is the importance of social context in influencing online behavior rather than how various technologies result in particular human actions. The behavior of CMC users has been shown to be influenced by social contexts [(Spears & Lea 1992)] such as: group norms and social learning [(Schmitz & Fulk 1991)]; social identity [(Lea & Spears 1991)]; the make up of the community of users [(Kling and Gerson 1977)]; structural, relational and physical proximity among groups [(Rice & Aydin 1991)]; work group cohesiveness [(Fulk, Schmitz, Schwartz 1992)]; and group size [(Poole & DeSanctis 1992)]. In other words, the particular form that an individual virtual community takes is not determined by technology but rather is dependent on its social context. From this we can conclude that we will not be able to accurately predict the exact form a virtual community will take without a detailed understanding of its social context. This has left virtual community researchers with a dilemma about how to relate technology to new social structures while avoiding technological determinism.

Prerequisites & Bounded Hierarchies

Archaeology has also been confronted with the issue of technological determinism. For example, how does one relate technological advancement to social structures throughout human history and prehistory without the use of technological determinism, especially when one does not have access to historical records that can provide clues as to social context of social change? The solution provided by Fletcher [(1995)] and others is to view various technologies as prerequisites for certain social formations rather than as their determinants. Certain technologies can be seen as prerequisites for particular outcomes but the existence of prerequisites does not determine the outcome. For example, the invention and use of the telephone may well be a prerequisite for high rise living [(Aronson 1971)], but that does not mean that the use of telephones by a society will automatically result in the creation of such structures. Rather, where such structures do exist, it should be possible to find an assemblage of prerequisites such as the telephone. Similarly, cities with a sustainable population density of greater than 100 persons per hectare and a population of greater than a million individuals may require an assemblage of prerequisites such as mass transport in the form of trains or automobiles, a telephone system etc. This does not mean that the know-how automatically results in such cities, rather that the forms that human settlements can take are bounded by available technology.

The notion of communication prerequisites is not new to media research although its impact has not been examined in any great detail. As early as the 1950s Innis argued that cultures with portable information storage (e.g. writing on papyrus or clay) could produce empires although they do not necessarily do so [(Innis 1964, 1972)]. In CMC, it is logical to predict that various features of CMC-tools will be prerequisites for the stable existence of certain social structures in cyberspace. Such features are likely to relate to message storage, message filtering and media richness. For example, listserv-based virtual settlements are likely to have a more stable membership (in terms of time unrelated to density of postings) than IRC based virtual settlements because of the superior ability of currently available email software to store and filter messages.

If we view technologies as prerequisites rather than determinants then it is possible to construct a hierarchy of explanation for human behavior. Evolutionary theory is successful in biology because it is conceptualized by a collection of theories [(Trigger 1984)] rather than by a single theory [(Gould 1982)]. To be more precise, it is a ‘hierarchical theory of selection independent at several levels with complex interactions across all levels' [(Gould 1986, p. 60)]. Associated with each operational level of the hierarchy, e.g. ecology, are critical parameters such as viable predator-prey ratio that have a selective effect on the persistence of characteristics generated at a smaller scale and functioning over shorter time spans. What happens at each level, e.g. at the level of genetic replication, is not predetermined by a larger-scale context. External boundary conditions or parameters, such as the net balance between energy input and output in resource supply, delimit the degree to which the characteristics of the next step down in a hierarchy can persist but they do not determine them. The segregation of levels of explanation can also be seen in the development of many scientific theories. Natural selection was envisaged by Darwin without the knowledge of the micro-scale level of genetics. A hierarchy divides inquiry into manageable parts. It is this notion of bounded hierarchies that Fletcher [(1995)] suggests be part of any scientific theory that aims to explain phenomena that results from complex interactions operating over a variety of levels such as virtual communities.

Within the boundaries that form a particular hierarchy of explanation, forms taken by the system under study can vary enormously because they are not determined at that level. Therefore it will not be possible to determine from a higher level in the hierarchy the forms that will occur at a lower level of analysis. From the vantage-point of a particular level in the hierarchy, lower level events are indeterminate. A prediction of this approach is that within the boundaries imposed on virtual settlements by technological and cognitive processing limits, the forms that virtual socializing can take are likely to vary substantially. As noted above this hypothesis is supported by the fact that a variety of studies have demonstrated a relationship between CMC behavior and the social context of the behavior.

Archaeology, like biology, is concerned with patterns of differing magnitude over differing time-depths. As a result a spectrum of explanations is employed to explain events that occur over different time spans. Assessing the role of material on active behavior requires a longer-term perspective than the day-to-day functioning of communities. Likewise, if explanations are to be provided about the relationship between technology and online behavior a longer term perspective needs to be taken. Through an examination of Fletcher's material behavior approach it will be shown how cyber-archaeologists can research virtual communities from such a perspective.

Material Behavior

The impact of the relationship between material and interpersonal behavior is termed material behavior by Fletcher [(1977, 1986, 1991, 1995)]. The effects of material behavior on the viability and growth of a community may be both advantageous and disadvantageous. This is because material acts as a non-verbal message-system with rules that provide some degree of predictability which manages human interaction. Clay tablets with script written on them assist signal transmissions: they carry information. By doing so they can also help to reduce the amount of interpersonal interaction required by individuals to obtain necessary information. Thus the effective transfer of information is linked to the underlying rule structure of the interaction in question. At the same time a society dependent on clay tablets for communication may be constrained by a technology which is not easily reproduced and requires physical presence for message transfer.

The notion of rule structures being linked to information transfer is well known to CMC. Since the early seventies it has been known that it is possible to find an empirical relationship between linguistic measures, such as the number of messages, words per message per sentence etc., and linguistic performance in a CMC context [(Chapanis 1971, 1972)]. While the reproduction of CMC messages is not difficult, there are technological and cognitive constraints to CMC. As a result the material behavior approach can be applied to the study of virtual communities. For example, normal interactive messages on a listserv discussion are the essence of listserv communities. On the other hand, significant number of spams on a listserv could lead to a virtual settlement's destruction because of the extra effort required by subscribers to manage their subscription. Similarly, an over abundance of messages may in theory also lead to a virtual settlement's destruction. Therefore the degree to which communications produced by a community can be effectively processed by members has consequences for the size, viability and duration of a community's existence.

From the above one would expect that a virtual settlement's message system will to some extent contain non-verbal rules that provide some degree of predictability to its CMC. This conjecture is also in-line with the application of information theory to interpersonal communication where the transfer of information is considered to be linked to the underlying rule structure of the interaction [(Thomas & Soldow 1990; Lin 1973)]. Further, a number of studies into virtual settlements suggest that virtual-communities often follow rules that provide some degree of predictability to their CMC messages. For example, McLaughlin et al. [(1995)] noted the commonplace phenomena of Usenet standards of conduct. Two conclusions can be drawn from this. Firstly, the variability that can be tolerated within a virtual community will relate to the message code system used by that community. Therefore, the impact of a message can be considered independently of its maker's intent. Secondly, technology can also delimit the shape of virtual settlements because of the relationship between CMC technology and cognitive processing effort.

Cognitive Processing Limits

The degree to which information technologies can effectively control or aid virtual communities is delimited by the finite capacity of human cognition. This is because only a finite amount of information processing can be effectively undertaken by humans during a given period of time [(Miller 1956; Kramer & Spinks 1991)]. Therefore the aggregate amount of interactive communication humans can manage is also limited [(see Berger et al., 1996 for evidence of this relationship)]. Such constraints are inherent to any biological mechanism for perceiving and processing information. Humans can think about almost anything, but they cannot deal with everything at once.

Despite general agreement that human cognitive processing capacity is limited [(Kramer & Spinks 1991)] there is no universally agreed upon definition of processing capacity. A review of the research regarding human information processing capacity shows that our understanding of cognitive limits is in its infancy. The notion of capacity has usually been treated as a hypothetical construct accounting for variation in the efficiency of processing, particularly in the case of several tasks being performed concurrently [(Gopher and Donchin 1986; Schneider 1985; Sarno & Wickens 1995)]. The limited nature of processing capacity is often said to account for changes in performance efficiency. Thus, if a number of concurrently performed tasks demand more capacity than is available in the system, performance on one or more of the tasks will decline. The flexibility of processing capacity demonstrates that humans may strategically allocate capacity to tasks, thereby protecting performance on one task to the detriment of performance on another task. Learning theorists have often invoked the concept of capacity when describing changes in information processing that accompany practice [(Schneider 1985; Schneider & Detweiler 1988)]. The conditioning process is thought to be dependent upon available cognitive capacity [(Dawson et al. 1985)]. Although it is widely accepted that there is a relationship between processing capacity and learning, this relationship is complex and not well understood. Learning is not the only factor associated with variance in human processing capacity. Studies have also suggested individual, sex and age differences are associated with processing capacity [(North & Gopher 1976; Halford et al. 1988; Halford et. al. 1994; Driscoll & Corpolongo 1980)].

Despite the complexity of the models associated with cognitive processing capacity, they can clearly only provide a partial picture of the human information processing system. Structural models of cognitive processing focus on explicating the mechanisms responsible for the transformation of information as it flows through the processing system [(McClelland 1979; Miller 1956; Sternberg 1969)]. Capacity and structural models are not mutually exclusive and can be used in conjunction to explain human information processing systems.

In a similar fashion to Rheingold's popularization of the idea of virtual community, Shenk [(1997)] in his recent journalistic book, Data Smog: Surviving the Information Glut has done much to popularize the idea that there is simply too much information out there for people to cope with. Shenk also suggests that people's inability to cope with the vast amount of material available results in their specializing in areas that they find of particular relevance. As a result, Shenk suggests, virtual communities are microcultures where like meet like. Alstyne and Brynjolfsson [(1996)] similarly note that our limited capacity to process information is likely to result in cyberbalkanization, where user preferences lead to measurable hyper-specialization. The Alstyne and Brynjolfsson [(1996)] model is an excellent example of how cognitive constraints can impact on formations in cyber-space. However, their model is at a higher level of analysis than cyber-archaeology, which focuses on the relationship between material and inter-personal behavior.

The problem we have to address then, is how one can study the impact of cognitive processing on the structure of virtual communities when cognitive processing itself is not well understood? One way is via laboratory experiments where to some extent individual and situational factors affecting processing capacity can be controlled. However, this approach is likely to be of limited use, because of the scale of analysis required to study the impact of cognitive processing limits on many popular forms of CMC technology (e.g., Usenet news groups, listserv discussion forums) which often have thousands of users. A second method is via cyber-archaeology where the impact of cognitive processing limits on the boundaries of virtual settlements can be examined via the creation of an interactive communication stress model.

Modeling Interactive-Communication Stress Boundaries

Fletcher [(1995)] has produced an interaction-communication stress model for human settlement based on archaeological evidence. His model was created by mapping human settlements over the last fifteen thousand years by their type, population density and total population. The result of this archaeological research was the demonstration of boundaries within which communities with a particular set of technologies are constrained. Fletcher's stress matrix summarizes the proposed behavioral constraints on the growth of various types of human communities and the current indications of the position of various limits. The boundaries described are stress zones, as opposed to rigid, deterministic, instantaneous halt lines, because they indicate a range within which the behavioral limitations become severe. The model also makes predictions about the shapes that current settlements can take and future scenarios. This approach provides us with a modeling technique that can be used to explore the boundaries of virtual settlements.

Virtual settlements will be constrained by the willingness and ability of a virtual community's members to process its virtual settlement's messages. The characteristics of virtual settlements such as the density of topics and the degree of interactivity of postings will impact on the cognitive effort required by a virtual community's members to process messages flowing through a virtual settlement. Therefore the boundaries of virtual settlements can be determined by mapping virtual settlement type (IRC, listserv and other variations) against various functions characterizing the sustained communication pattern of virtual settlements, and against the number of virtual settlement communicators. This is because a communication pattern cannot be sustained if it cannot be adequately processed by the community. Sustained communication is a relative measure that relates to the historical densities of that community's communication.

It is beyond the scope of this paper to present details of how a virtual interaction-stress model can be produced or what such modeling might look like (such details will be presented in a later paper). However, the need for such a model is clear.

Summary: Exploring Virtual-Tells

Scattered throughout the Middle-East are Tells, large mounds resulting from the accumulation of human settlement debris over long periods of human habitation. Likewise many server administrators and users of the Internet have the material remains of the CMCs produced by virtual communities piling up on their computers. If these virtual tells are to enlighten us, their exploration must be systematic and scientific. However, systematic exploration can not proceed without adequate linguistic tools that allow for taxonomy. The first step in the creation of such a taxonomy is to distinguish between virtual communities and their cyber-place, the virtual settlement. The second, is to define and operationalize the term virtual settlement so that they can be systematically characterized and modeled.

For a cyber-place to be labeled as a virtual settlement it is necessary for it to meet the following minimum set of conditions: (1) a minimum level of interactivity; (2) a variety of communicators; (3) a minimum level of sustained membership; and (4) a virtual common-public-space where a significant portion of interactive group-CMCs occur. The existence of a virtual settlement is proof of the existence of a related virtual community.

The new terminology defined in this paper makes it possible to conduct cyber-archaeology. Cyber-archaeology is the systematic exploration of cyber-space at the level where cyber-material impacts on online behavior. Of course this impact will only be noticable over in cyber-terms an archaeological time-span. Cyber-archaeology allows for the examination of virtual community one step removed from social theory, where human intent is not of particular importance and larger scale cultural changes can be assessed. Cyber-archaeology also allows for the replacement of technological determinism with the notion of bounded hierarchies and production of communication stress models that map the boundaries for virtual settlements. The research program of the cyber-archaeologist allows for the exploration of the basic building blocks of communication via empirical research into CMC. The understanding that can be derived from modeling the boundaries of current virtual settlements will be applicable to a wide range of current and future virtual communities and the tools upon which they are based.

  • [1]

    The Californian Ideology is a label for the ideological position taken by a loose alliance of writers, hackers, capitalists and artists from the West Coast of the USA in regards to the coming of the information age.

  • [2]

    Spamming is posting the same article to many electronic forums, usually it used as a form of advertising.

  • [3]

    More formally, this is the dilemma of the so-called public goods [(Rafaeli & LaRose 1993)].

  • [4]

    While there is great debate about the precise nature of scientific explanation (well beyond the scope of this essay) it is generally agreed by non-relativists that science is about explaining phenomena, therefore scientific explanations cannot be the result of vicious circles induced by teleological accounts [(see Passmore 1984, Chalmers 1982)].


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Section 1 – Coming to Terms with Virtual-Communities
  5. Section 2 – Defining & Characterizing Virtual Settlements
  6. Cyber-Archaeology
  7. References
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