Online Communitites: Networking or Fragmenting?

Cover of _Online Communities_he ability to meet online, create an information network and establish a support group, has been used by diverse groups of people, for example, sufferers of rare diseases, scientists in specific fields, and ethnic minority groups. (Of course, it’s not all good news: hate groups, militia groups and assorted other negative "minority groups" can also gather online.) A person with a panic disorder syndrome living in a rural area can logon to a panic disorder web site, email and chat with other people with the same disorder, and read up on the medical facts, even though there may be no one suffering from the same disorder within a hundred miles of the person. Similarly, a homosexual teenager in a rural, conservative area can logon to learn more about his or her sexuality, a topic that would otherwise be taboo or not even mentionable in his/her geographic community. The Internet provides invaluable support for anyone with a computer who seeks help, something that has never before been possible with books, mail or telephone.

The dream of a global village, however, is tempered by the possibility of fragmentation and isolation. The newfound online support groups come at the expense of more personal, physical interactions, as more time spent online also means less time offline interacting with family and friends and attending fewer events outside the home, according to the SIQSS study.

All of the studies that asked about television watching found that people had increased their Internet usage at the expense of television time. This means that they had abandoned traditional media to read their own news, get their own entertainment, and search for information that is of interest to them. If users become too involved with their special interest groups only, their geographic identity will have no meaning to them, and they will also be less exposed to mainstream views. According to Kraut, social disengagement such as this "is associated with more corrupt, less efficient government and more crime. When citizens are involved in civic life, their schools run better, their politicians are more responsive, and their streets are safer. At the individual level, social disengagement is associated with poor quality of life and diminished physical and psychological health." Serious fragmentation and avoidance of mainstream culture currently mostly occurs with Internet addicts. But as society becomes more Internet-integrated, this model is a possible outcome of the Internet taking over other media combined with the need to filter such a huge mass of information by the user, which will of course be done according to his or her preferences.

Alstyne and Brynjolfsson at MIT call this fragmentation of Internet society "cyberbalkans." People online are no longer limited to their geographic neighborhoods so now their "neighbors can be chosen based on criteria other than geography… historical biases stand in for geographic barriers and limit integration just as effectively." Once members of a common group unite, the network they form can "further polarize their views or even ignite calls to action." At the same time, spending more time in an online community means spending less time in the real community, so as a user is more drawn to a group, he or she is less involved in the mainstream culture or geographic community. Although users are united on a virtual level in a minority group, they are isolated on a physical level from the mainstream culture. "This voluntary balkanization and the loss of shared experiences and values may be harmful to the structure of democratic societies as well as decentralized organizations" (MIT). Cyber-distopian Clifford Stoll, author of "Silicon Snake Oil," believes in the cyberbalkans future. He said that "the brave new world of cyber-glop will be an increasingly lonely, isolated and dehumanized word. It will be a place where you can order anything you want online, but you don’t know your neighbors, where your children and your parents will spend evening hours logged into the Net, talking to distant strangers rather than each other." Fortunately, the MIT researchers do not say that cyberbalkans is a necessary future of the Internet, only one of several possible scenarios.