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The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier

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Howard Rheingold tours the "virtual community" of online networking. Howard Rheingold has been called the First Citizen of the Internet. In this book he tours the "virtual community" of online networking. He describes a community that is as real and as much a mixed bag as any physical community―one where people talk, argue, seek information, organize politically, fall in love, and dupe others. At the same time that he tells moving stories about people who have received online emotional support during devastating illnesses, he acknowledges a darker side to people's behavior in cyberspace. Indeed, contends Rheingold, people relate to each other online much the same as they do in physical communities. Originally published in 1993, The Virtual Community is more timely than ever. This edition contains a new chapter, in which the author revisits his ideas about online social communication now that so much more of the world's population is wired. It also contains an extended bibliography.

447 pages, Paperback

First published October 1, 1993

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About the author

Howard Rheingold

54 books103 followers
Aloha! I'm always excited to interact with readers. I'm new to Goodreads but will do my best to check in from time to time. A great deal of info and resources, articles, videos, can be found on my website, which I will list here.

I'm 65 and live in Marin County, California -- just north of the Golden Gate -- and when I'm not writing (and when weather permits, when I am writing) I'm usually to be found in my garden.

I've been a writer my entire adult life, starting at age 23, although I do a lot of other things, teaching at Stanford among them.

Judy and I have been together for 45 years! Married for 35 of those years. We have a grown daughter and two dogs that we pamper.

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Displaying 1 - 12 of 12 reviews
Profile Image for Tim Pendry.
985 reviews358 followers
August 12, 2016

Sometimes it is good to back in time and read an out-of-date book on a current issue to see just how much has changed since it was written - especially if it comes from a pioneer, as in this case.

This is a 1994 Edition (it was updated at the end of the decade) and so gives us a picture of what virtual communities implied and meant a full two decades ago - an eternity in internet history.

It remains valuable as a solid historical account of the early days of what would later become social media and of the ideology of participation that lead to the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Much of the book is now just of historical interest and Rheingold's communitarian liberalism might now seem more than a little naive in the aftermath of 2008 and the failures of the Arab Spring.

But Rheingold is no simple booster. He raises the threats to freedom in his last chapter in ways that have proved prescient ... the references to the interest of the NSA most noticeably.

He paints both a nightmare scenario and a scenario of hope but, in this respect, two decades on, we are no further forward. Neither one has won the war but the balance of power is shifting towards nightmare.

Social media have blossomed into a huge multinational medium in their own right, making Usenet groups and MUDs redundant and the Well a back water. Facebook Groups now serve as our virtual communities.

We see global dominance by Facebook, Google and Twitter but sharing is now not so much a conversation as an exercise in preening narcissism (as perhaps it always was)

Broadcasting has been democratised: everyone is an anchorman rather than a participant in public life. Only local activists in patchy localities or for single issues seem to meet the original vision.

We have all got wise to the politics of the internet and it has made us cynical. We are not quite what the hyper-realist school feared (we all know it is not real and we are) but we are not liberated either.

The issue is thus not so much our lack of privacy or that government agencies and marketeers track our every move as that we now know that we are powerless spectators of a flailing elite circus.

The internet and sharing have not created effective change but merely allowed change to be used as a trick to put favoured liberals into the Presidency or help NGOs raise funds and fix legislation.

'Be the change' meant little more than 'be the sap who legitimised a softer version of the system you voted against' while Occupy has turned out to be little more than a school for future lobbyists.

The public observes our elites make mistake after mistake after mistake and then learn not only that they are powerless but that democracy actually means very little, that the Emperor has no clothes.

Activism is also exhausting, only for the few whose over-enthusiastic personality types soon alienate those who just want a quiet life. Virtual groups require very demanding levels of moderation.

One of the great hopes of Rheingold's book - the rise of a countervailing civil society to Power - has turned to dust as NGOs have become integrated into the elite and learned to lie for funds.

The Jeffersonian Democratic hopes of the idealists probably collapsed because big commercial operations filched their mass base from under them. Big capital was simply better at meeting basic desires.

Yes, local activism can still make a mark. Things are certainly much more efficient amongst activists in our small town because of the internet but not much has really changed for the better.

If anything, lack of resources, bureaucratic inertia and exhaustion have resulted in a general cynicism to the effect that governance will always be a shoddy affair by the self-interested and barely competent.

Although the tools are still in place for Rheingold's rebirth of democracy, the truth is that few want to use them and their potential is next to useless against the prevailing hard power of the State.

Civil society activism on the internet needs an organisational real world structure but the ability to organise has been lost with our isolation into small family units and decentralised office functions.

With no industrial work place to rely on and most people developing more links outside immediate localities (very much encouraged by the internet), information is exchanged more effectively but not power.

Power ultimately does come out of the barrel of a gun. It is a material business of not accepting a writ or paying a tax or of seizing a building or shooting an official. It is ultimately very real.

We have been deluded into thinking that knowledge and information in themselves are the basis of power when it is control of information and of secret knowledge that are the tools of Power.

We are not more powerful by knowing more things. People with hard power become more or less powerful to the degree that they know more things that are useful than we do. And they always do ...

It is no accident that the EFF soon concentrated on traditional lobbying in DC rather than a strategy of mobilisation of the masses - the masses simply were not only not interested but not relevant.

The purpose for the political class of the internet is simply the emotional mobilisation of the masses in the competition for power and the acquisition of aggregated information to use against the masses.

Ten radicals in a squat could once have created the illusion of a mass movement in a couple of days. Many of us, including the powerful, were fooled by this for quite some time. They have got wise to this now.

Many of us have become cynical - or at least, while the majority may be fooled by the claims of activists to speak for history, the brightest and the best know that it is no more than rhetoric.

Many causes and claims have proved organisationally shallow. Although Twitter could get millions on to the street on occasions, the masses won not on their own force but on a loss of nerve by the authorities.

Once the authorities started to treat rights activists as so much flotsam, order could be restored or at least a straight fight might be organised with the extremists and gangsters who knew how to fire a gun.

We are now experiencing the greatest test of all - an association of Western States has admitted a massive intrusion into private lives in order to acquire big data for analysis, some of it clearly 'illegal'.

Does this illegality matter? Not a great deal. The system can simply sweep around objections because big data is as essential to governance and control in the future as it is to marketing.

Not all of it is bad - epidemiology might be well served by Big Data and it may be some tiny virus that proves our greatest existential challenge - but we can suspect that a lot of it is.

The best the little man can expect is that the need to believe in the private sector's guardianship of their data will force the State to construct some safeguards for normal times for average people.

What the little man does not understand is that sufficient reserve power will still have accrued to the State that, in abnormal times, he will be as much victim of its tyranny as he was in 1916 and 1941.

The civil society model of the internet is being crushed on the indifference and cynicism of the masses, the weight of desires being fulfilled by business and the appropriation of activism by the elite.

The model of Big Government, Big (Old) Business and Big Unions has simply been replaced by one of Big Government, Big (New) Business and Big NGOs. The lies and obfuscations continue ...

The sad truth is that very few people are interested or competent enough to engineer the internet into a tool for liberation other than at the personal or individual level. And personal freedom is key.

It is quite interesting that, despite some recent attempts to reimpose 'morality' by the back door, these attempts have been half-hearted and the State has become defensive about tampering with private life.

The one area where the internet has had a major cultural impact is in permitting the affiliation and association of interest groups, especially in matters of sexuality. Private life has been secured.

It is hard to see how sex workers, polyamorists, transgender people and gays could have protected themselves so fully without the binding force of the internet. Yet most of these remain on the defensive.

States have to use the most extreme of behaviours - paedophilia - to help impose controls and mount interference on the internet because of this presumption to a private life. Privacy still rhetorically matters.

Putin is back-tracking on the gay issue because of the force of gay activism making maximum use of the sharing function on social media to embarrass him before Sochi.

People can still be mobilised to defend lifestyle choices - what they cannot be mobilised to do so effectively is make economic or political claims that relate to older values like fairness or participation.

If all is permitted on paper, the one or two things that are not permitted are quite sufficient to allow States outside the land of the First Amendment (like the UK) to seek some control of the internet.

The technique of creating fear amongst 'abnormals' of any kind that their private communications are being monitored for the greater good dampens the very instinct for freedom that created the internet.

The US is different because of the Constitution but even here Rheingold's account of the first tragi-comical dabbling of the FBI in policing the internet suggests a mentality that dislikes its freedom.

The prospect now is of a feint. On the one side, a global clash of ideologies where liberal internationalism represents little more than a rhetorical flourish designed to open up markets and remove threats.

On the other, States of all types are looking for cracks in the building in order to find an excuse to send in the inspectors and have it rebuilt as a prison.

These things are being fought over our heads. We can write and share and argue on social media but big data will merely treat this as a massive opinion poll. Most politicians have no other interest.

And the more we engage with the internet, then the more the system can manipulate us - through behavioural sciences and spin, the continued control of broadcasting and ultimate censorship in a crisis.

We never stood a chance ... this book helps us to understand how idealism and enthusiasm once made an attempt to turn the internet into the tool of the people. We should thank the activists for the effort.
Profile Image for Kathleen.
276 reviews14 followers
November 12, 2014
I would give the book 3.5 stars, and, had I read it fifteen years ago I would have given it 4 or 5. I guess I was hoping for more theory and analysis than the story of the Internet. But, I am sure that puts me in the minority of readers.
Profile Image for Laurel.
613 reviews13 followers
January 22, 2013
I decided to read this book as inspiration for a course I am preparing for the Spring of 2011: "Living out loud- the evolution of life online". The book is almost 20 years old, and for me was a trip down memory lane. The number of ideas that Rheingold shares, as he envisions the future of CMC that have come to pass are amazing. In his final chapter he ponders the future and writes: "The prospect of the technical capabilities of a near-ubiquitous high-bandwidth Net in the hands of a small number of commercial interests has dire political implications" (p. 278). WOW!
Profile Image for Kevin Fulton.
194 reviews2 followers
February 24, 2023
A very interesting book that takes a look at how online communities developed in the early days of the internet.
My key takeaway is this, meaningful online communities are possible. But, they are always enhanced by physical prescence.
Profile Image for Rodd Halstead.
3 reviews1 follower
June 27, 2014
From the epigraph:

"We know the rules of community; we know the healing effect of community in terms of individual lives. If we could somehow find a way across the bridge of our knowledge, would not these same rules have a healing effect upon our world? We human beings have often been referred to as social animals. But we are not yet community creatures. We are impelled to relate with each other for our survival. But we do not yet relate with the inclusivity, realism, self-awareness, vulnerability, commitment, openness, freedom, equality, and love of genuine community. It is clearly no longer enough to be simply social animals, babbling together at cocktail parties and brawling with each other in business and over boundaries. It is our task--our essential, central, crucial task - to transform ourselves from mere social creatures into community creatures. It is the only way that human evolution will be able to proceed."

M. Scott Peck
The Different Drum: Community Making and Peace
Profile Image for Gail.
70 reviews
October 17, 2011
It was an interesting premise for a book, but the edition I read was a bit out of date for today. It was written when the internet was just taking off, so it has nothing in it regarding today's social networking or how people being even more plugged in via smart phones has impacted society.
Profile Image for John Carter McKnight.
470 reviews74 followers
May 4, 2010
Surprisingly provocative and useful for an older work, with an absolutely outstanding bibliography. Excellent for both firsthand observations and a broad-ranging lit review.
120 reviews
September 13, 2018
Fascinating background on the development of the various components of the “net”. Deals well with the advantages and disadvantages of this form of communication. Although an enthusiastic traveler through cyberspace, the author is clearly concerned, and rightly so, about the potential for damage stemming from loss of privacy.
N.B I read this 24 years ago...wonder how its predictions would hold up today.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Displaying 1 - 12 of 12 reviews

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