The difference between online & real life community?

by Alison Michalk June 27, 2013

Guest post by Simone Inglis

Current definitions used in reference to the Internet are no longer applicable.  There is no longer a clear delineation between what is termed an “online or virtual community” and what is defined as a “real life community”. Defining community has become extremely mutable. Online communities versus ‘real life’ or offline communities – the two sides of the community coin.

Community boundaries are blurred to the extent that the Internet is nothing more than a conduit for communication. The Internet is now just another tool that we use to communicate within our various communities. The same as we use mail, telephone and even a car to keep in touch with our friends, family and colleagues. Our ‘real life communities’ are not mutually exclusive from our ‘online communities’ given that it all comes down to implied physical presence.

T.S. Eliot (1934) wrote “What life have you if you have not life together? There is no life that is not in community”. Community cannot be neatly labeled and filed away. Differentiating between types of community and compartmentalising them all with unique titles is a restrictive and ineffective way of defining something that is ostensibly indefinable by nature. Definitions are even more misleading in contemporary society where the term ‘online community’ is bandied about like it is an alternate reality full of illusory people.

In many circumstances it would be audacious to suggest that research not ten years old is out of date but the landscape of the Internet, social media and online community has had a pivotal shift in the last decade. With the 2004 launch of Facebook, now with over one billion active users and Twitter (2006) with over 500 million users, how can any resources that do not include these in a discussion of community have a valid point?

Howard Rheingold coined the term ‘virtual community’ in his article for Whole Earth Review in 1987. Yet two decades later said, “Lets just say the world of online sociality has become more complicated, empirical data is no longer non-existent and the picture or what it all means has become more nuanced” (Rheingold, 2008).

We could say nothing has changed in 400 years. “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main” (Donne, 1839). Our existence is community. All of our interactions with one other, regardless of the medium we use to communicate, are about community. Community must be looked upon “entire of itself”. How can we say we have online/virtual community and offline/real life community without implying that one is not based in reality?

The only contradistinction is Computer Mediated Communication (CMC). Communities are multifarious by nature. CMC does not change the architecture of the community; it creates a disencumbrance for communication.

Jen Mackenzie’s (2013) communities shows quite clearly that there is no clear delineation that can be drawn between her ‘online and offline communities’. Mackenzie has only two communities where the communication is conducted wholly on the Internet. Leaving seventeen to blur the lines of the current definitions of virtual community and real life community. It is interesting to note that Mackenzie has not shown a single community that is conducted solely in the ‘offline’. All Mackenzie’s offline communities are enmeshed within the Internet. Classifying them as offline communities is an erroneous definition as would be classifying them as online.  (Mackenzie, 2013)

Wellman asked in 1997- “Can people find community on-line in the Internet? Can relationships between people who never see, smell or hear each other be supportive and intimate?” (Wellman & Guilia, 1997).

The answer has been shown to be categorically “Yes”.

Members of Fairfax’s Essential Baby forum were asked, “Do you think Online Communities are real life?” Some of the replies include: “Very much a part of my real life, and there is overlap. It’s just a different medium for communication.”;“online and irl are kind of two sides of the same coin.”; “Online isn’t a ‘second life’… it is another facet of life full stop”. The replies show that forums, even ones that predated social networks are still considered an intrinsic part of people’s lives.

There is no definitive name for communicating and creating community via the Internet. Computer Mediated Communication within community appears to be the most clinically correct definition. However, this does not remove the underlying issue that community cannot be considered to sit on either side of the proverbial community coin as all suggested labeling attempts firmly do this. The use of virtual, online, real life, offline, appear to aggrandise the definition when in reality they do the exact opposite, narrowing the definition of what we must accept as simply expanded communities. No different to the communities of 400, 50 or even 20 years ago. It is simply how we communicate within these communities that has changed.

Communities continue to be as broad or as narrow as we want them to be. It is the ways we participate in them that have changed.

*This is an abridged version of a paper written for Internet Communities and Social Networks Online Conference, 2013 for Curtin University. The full version can be found here.

Donne, John. (1839). Meditation 17. The works of John Donne, 3, 574-575.
Eliot, Thomas Stearns. (1909). Choruses from” The rock”(1934). Collected poems, 1962.
EssentialBaby. (2013). Do you think online communities are real life?
Mackenzie, J (2013). [My Personal Communities].
Rheingold, Howard. (2008). Virtual Communities- exchanging ideas through computer bulletin boards.
Journal of Virtual Worlds Research, 1(1). Wellman, B, & Guilia, M. (1997).
Net Surfers Don’t Ride Alone: Virtual Communities as Communities.

Do you have questions about online communities, or need help? Reach out to the team at Quiip: