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Author: Ryan Johnson
Title: Howard Rheingold's The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier Revised Edition
Publication info: Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
September 2002

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Source: Howard Rheingold's The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier Revised Edition
Ryan Johnson

vol. 5, no. 2, September 2002
Article Type: Book Review

The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier Revised Edition

Howard Rheingold, The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier Revised Edition. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT University Press, 2000. $18.95

In 1995 or so, I read this book in its first incarnation and was captivated by it. Early on I had joined in the arena of computer mediated communication when I participated in what was know as the Forum Users Group based on the University of Georgia's VAX mainframe in the early 1980's. Looking back on my experiences, I really appreciated the views he expressed. The locally grown community operated in a rather convivial fashion with a fair amount of conflict and reconciliation like in any community. Rheingold captured that pre-WWW time when people began to see opportunities to share with others in a medium over which they could have some control. The greatest part of this type of communication was the unexpected personal connection that resulted from the asynchronous nature of the experience.

In the revised edition, Rheingold has added a chapter to bring the story up to date but has left the rest of the work untouched. In it, he vacillates from the personal to the profound. Many of his conclusions about CMC are based on his experiences as an early and active member of the WELL. While the WELL was and is a vibrant virtual community, it is still somewhat unique. As the author recounts his various attempts to create an on-going Web-based virtual community, he is left with the fact that none were really as successful as the WELL had been. While some were more successful than others were —the IBM sponsored discussion of the Big Blue vs. Gary Kasparov chess match, for example—the success was on a smaller scale than he seemed to be advocating. This might have to do with the differences between the Internet of the early 1990's and before and the World Wide Web. While there was accessible information on various gopher sites early on, most use seemed to be interactive before the advent of the graphical interface of the Web Browser. The cutting edge of that technology seemed to be the ability to participate in discussions with people from around the world, whether this was through some formally developed virtual community such as the one's Rheingold discusses or the much less formal arenas such as IRC or ISCA or the many and varied e-mail listservs. For historians and many other scholars, the H-Net was one of the first organized attempts to use the Internet to facilitate ongoing discussion between scholars from around the world. Successful web based virtual communities seem to have a more defined subject around which to develop.

What this book excels at is showing the incredible possibilities that people felt that the Internet had to change not only how people used computers or accessed information but to actually fundamentally change society. The early virtual communities that Rheingold chronicles were a new type of social organization that had never really existed previously and could not have existed without the technological interface. It is interesting though, that these communities all had more than just the technological interaction, but also had fairly regular gatherings for members to meet in person. These meetings often became important parts of the communal nature of the social organism.

In the chapter added in this edition, Rheingold could have given more attention to the fundamental differences between the Internet of the early 90's and before and the World Wide Web. Ever increasing volumes of information are being published on the World Wide Web either in addition to print or just electronically. Rather than depending on other members of a virtual community to respond with needed information, as Rheingold recounts on several occasions throughout the book, when someone is faced with some dilemma, there are dozens of authoritative sources for basic information available for use. The ever increasing use of the Internet as a publication format has changed how many use the Internet as a source for news and other information rather than as a communication tool.

This book is a wonderful snapshot of a particular time in the evolution of Internet as both a technological tool and as an important factor in society. Many people began using computers to access the Internet after 1995 and for them this book can show how the tools they now use have changed over time. The book is less successful as a predictor of social change. Changes in how the technology functions as well as how people use the technology have created many more options for users and thus have created a more chaotic environment that is much harder to describe.

Ryan Johnson, Washington State University