5/29/2007

Online Communities: Culture and Economics

In her book "The Psychology of the Internet," Patricia Wallace argues that attachments formed online can be equally as close knit as those formed offline. Web communities can provide much of the same social fulfilment that other relationships do. The communities are founded on concepts such as respect, trust, identity, sense of belonging, and shared interests (Wallace, 1999).
Bagozzi makes a similar claim in his paper, "Intentional Social Action in virtual Communities." An online community may consist of individuals who are geographically close, or far-flung. The group may be emotionally close-knit, or not. However, individuals within the group are organized around a distinct interest, they feel a "consciousness of kin," and they use a shared language. The community develops through active member participation (Bagozzi, 2002).
As well as consciousness of kin and shared identity, community interactions hinge on interest, relationship, fantasy and transaction. The virtual community is uniquely able to satisfy each of these distinct needs, and provide a rich experience for community participants. (Hagel, Armstrong, 1997)
Trust is equally as important in the online community as it is offline. It is an essential part of human relationships and interactions within a society. It is the expectation that those we do not know are not intent on causing us harm. Trust develops in the online community exactly as it would offline. People communicate with each other, share information and develop their relationships (Rheingold, 1993, Govier, 1997, Wallace, 1999).
"Culture is based in detail" (Richard Taylor, WETA Workshops). It grows over time as individuals build on previous knowledge. A key element in the development of a culture is trust. Without trust, a society cannot have a viable culture (Govier, 1997), and in the online community, "the need for shared cultural objects lives on" (Brown, Duguid, 2002). Two examples of cultural objects are cult icons (individuals) and the development of a vocabulary that only has meaning to the community.
Sometimes, an online community will develop its own economic system. This was noted by economist Edward Castronova. He wrote an interesting and influential paper "Online gaming and real-world economics" on the economy of Everquest. He eventually calculated the Gross National Product of EverQuest, measured by how much wealth all the players together created in a single year inside the game. It turned was $2,266 per capita. By World Bank rankings at the time, EverQuest was richer than India, Bulgaria, or China, and nearly as wealthy as Russia. It was the seventy-seventh richest country in the world and it didn’t even exist. It would be interesting to compare the GNP of World of Warcraft with that of Everquest.

Bagozzi, R.P, Dholakia, U. M., "Intentional Social Interaction in Virtual Communities," copyright 2002, Journal of Interactive Marketing, Vol 16, Num. 2
Brown, J.S, Duguid, P., "The Social Life of Information," copyright 2002, Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation
Govier, T. "Social Trust and Human Communities," copyright 1997, McGill-Queen's University Press
Hagel, J., Armstrong, A., "Net Gain: Expanding Markets Through Virtual Communities," copyright 1997, McKinsey & Company Inc., Harvard Business School Press
Rheingold, H., "The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier," copyright 1993, Harper Collins
Thompson, Clive, Game Theories, Walrus Magazine, June 2004
Wallace, P. "The Psychology of The Internet," copyright 1999, Cambridge University Press

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