Are Virtual Communities Different From Face-to-Face Communities?


A community has always been seen as a group of people that interact with each other, face-to-face. But since the rise of the digital age, a new phenomenon has occurred; digital communities. This blog post tries to give an overview of the original community and the virtual community and how they differ. The blogpost is based on the article “The Experienced “Sense” of a Virtual Community: Characteristics and Processes” by Blanchard and Markus (2002)

Original communities

Original communities are face-to-face communities. There are two types: geographic neighborhoods, so place-based communities and communities of interest. The communities of interest were groups of people that bonded over interests, rather than the geographical location. So, these types of communities were more widespread. Since the limited use of digital devices and or the internet, most of these communities included face-to-face contact and no such thing as chatting. Not all neighborhoods are also communities.

Virtual community

Virtual communities are built around digital devices using the internet. The people within the community are connected mostly digital. In some cases, they know each other in person and also interact face-to-face. But when it comes to the community as a whole, that is only digital. Like in original communities, there is a difference in virtual settlements and virtual communities. Virtual settlements exist when objective measures of computer-mediated interaction exceed some threshold levels. Not all virtual settlements are virtual communities.

Sense of community

So why don’t all neighborhoods count as communities? In order to really be a community, the concept ‘sense of community’ plays an important role. Without this ‘sense of community’, the group of people is just a group of people.

This phenomenon was found in the original communities, but studies showed that this concept was also applicable in the virtual communities.

The definition used in the article is: ” a characteristic of successful communities distinguished by members’ helping behaviors and members’ emotional attachment to the community and other members.” There are some behavioral processes that contribute to the sense of community, namely: exchanging support, creating identities and making identifications and the production of trust. These are quite the same for both type of communities.

Researchers are still in doubt if the sense of community is the reason for communities to exist, or that it is an effect caused by communities. It is mostly presumed that the sense of community is necessary for a community to exist rather than that it is treated as an effect by communities.

The ‘sense of community’ experienced in virtual communities is called ‘sense of virtual community’. When this is experienced, it is called a virtual community. There are also a number of social processes and behaviors that should be present in these communities, namely: providing support, developing and maintaining norms and boundaries, social control and some more.

Sense of community is not forever existing, it can decay or be extinguished. This can be caused by leaders dropping out or if new members with different values join, etcetera.

Active members vs lurkers.

There are different types of members that are involved in most communities. The active members are mostly the leaders of the community, they contribute a lot to the content and interactions within the community. There are also members that are not as involved but still contribute once in a while. The last type are the lurkers. These members are not active, but only present.

In the study, members believed that the newsgroup they were subscribed to, was a community. But their attachment to the community varied with their participation, and their perceived benefits from participating.

Original communities vs Virtual community: what are the differences and what is the same.

The article argues that because the communities have differences in characteristics, the feelings are a little bit different formulated, but are quite similar in meaning. Table 1 gives an overview of the main feelings experiences with sense of community in the two different types of communities.

Table 1: Comparison of SOC and SOVC

Dimensions of SOC Dimensions of SOVC
Feelings of membership Recognition of members
Feelings of influence Exchange of support
Integration and fulfillment of needs Attachment
Shared emotional connection Obligation
Identity (self) and identification (of others)
Relationship with specific members

So, overall the communities have a similar buildup and similar processes. But some differences exist because of using digital devices versus face-to-face interactions.

What are the benefits for companies?

Companies are creating a virtual meeting place or platform for their customers to interact on. The companies try to get (positive) feedback of their consumers. This method is also used to try to motivate people to buy their products or just get the name of the company or product out there. But this group of people that the companies are putting together in this way, does not make a community. In order to have a community, the sense of community is needed. The feelings of belonging and attachment need to develop. The result of the community is that the value is more than all individual people added together.

A community within an organization will among others effect in an increase in job satisfaction and organizational citizenship behavior-loyalty.

This article shows the potential value of creating communities, for commercial reasons as for organization reasons.

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