Case Study

Real-life Communities Online

Although examples abound of online communities which exist only in cyberspace, more and more real-world organizations and communities have begun to make their presence felt online. This section is intended as an overview of preexisting communities manifesting themselves on the Internet. Some questions addressed: What types of extant groups are developing online dimensions? What is the goal of their online presence?

Generally speaking, the communities in question have means of communication outside the Internet; they have a basis in the real world. Many predate the Internet themselves. In a sense, the online portion of a group can be seen as no more or less than its digital locus. In many cases, members' primary communication will take place outside the bounds of the online community, through older, more traditional channels. In order to serve its members, the online element must fill a need not met through other means.

In certain cases, however, the digital medium can serve as the primary means of communication for a community. For example, the CopsOnline forum on Delphi serves to informally unite a nationwide police community which was previously fragmented locally. Created and maintained by policemen, the forum offers a place for law enforcement officers from across the country to congregate and exchange ideas without dealing with the traditional hierarchy. It is difficult to imagine another means of accomplishing such a feat.

Another purpose which can be served by a community's online presence is to provide information to outsiders. For example, according to a survey by Alaina Kanfer, the majority of geographical community web sites are targeted primarily at tourists rather than residents. While this undoubtedly serves a useful purpose for the community, and can be seen as a sort of digital extension of the community, it is difficult to see such a web site as a community in itself.

Examples of online communities

On the Internet of today, groups making the leap to cyberspace are as diverse as the people which form them. Online communities span the same range as their real-world counterparts. A selection of examples illustrates some of the wide variety of communities found on the World Wide Web today.

Geographic distribution of community web sites

There is a clearly uneven distribution of online communities across the United States. Not surprisingly, California has by far the most, followed by Texas and Florida.