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.
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).
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, 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.