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Some have stated that a VirtualCommunity is distinct from an OnlineCommunity. I'd like to see a definition of VirtualCommunity and I'd like to know what definition of "virtual" we're using here. --DaveJacoby

Not to put to fine point on it, but generally, when people say "virtual community" they mean a community built via ComputerMediatedCommunication, as opposed to a community in MeatSpace. -- MikePence

Sure, but isn't that an OnlineCommunity? And that leaves out the functional definition of Dictionary:virtual. The best definition I'd use is fandom; yes, there's a bunch of people who share appreciation of the same things, and if communication were ever started between them, they'd immediately have a basis for conversation based on that appreciation, but since the means for that communication isn't normally there, it's hard to call it a real community. --DaveJacoby

There are many people who use OnlineCommunity and VirtualCommunity as synonyms. Even if someone should be able to construct a difference, most people won't understand. I think it depends on how much hype you want to add to the facts. OnlineCommunity is down to the earth. VirtualCommunity is hype. Sometimes even CyberCommunity? and HyperCommunity? are used. -- HelmutLeitner

So, you believe it is futile to try to force a distinction between OnlineCommunity and VirtualCommunity. I agree, pretty much. I like the idea of a Virtual Community as a pseudocommunity, as in a group that shares some elements of community but doesn't have them all (Getting the KISS ARMY newsletter or the occasional SF movie magazine doesn't qualify you as part of a community), but that's another subject. SunirShah is the person here who was saying there's a distinction. I just wanna know what it is. --DaveJacoby

I merely asked if there was a distinction. Although I think that VirtualCommunity is a superset of OnlineCommunity. Online implies electronics, whereas virtual merely implies anything not real. I also think that CraigsList is not an OnlineCommunity, even if it is only accessible online, because it is really an arm of a RealWorld community. I also agree with Helmut that the distinction is incredibly confusing, but that doesn't mean it isn't interesting. -- SunirShah

Recently critics here in Graz said that even the term "OnlineCommunity" may be questionable, for a social scientist might ask for independence of persons and systems and might in no case agree with a sentence like "someone is creating a community". For such discussions we now use the term ProtoCommunity. A ProtoCommunity is something we expect to become a community (by whatever measures) in the future (between seeding and independent life). -- HelmutLeitner

"Online implies electronics, whereas virtual merely implies anything not real."

I'd like to do away with the definition of 'virtual' as 'not real', because something potential (i.e. not real), by definition, can't cause anything real. Obviously virtual communities do bring about real effects. I do agree VirtualCommunity is a superset of OnlineCommunity, so I offer the following definition:

"A community that has a real effect on our actions, but which is not real in the same way."

-- JohannesGijsbers

There is no such thing as VirtualCommunity, because there is no BodilyRisk?. --anon

Which is saying, I guess, that if there is no BodilyRisk?, there there's no "real" community. I find this sort of attempt to seize a sort of moral highground and bless certain communities as "real" and others as "fake" pretty annoying, myself. But whatever turns you on. From my point of view, there are interesting differences between communities that have different degrees of BodilyRisk? (including none); it's more interesting to think about those differences than to argue about whether a "real" vs. "fake" line should be drawn somewhere. -- DavidChess

The BodilyRisk? criteria is central to one point of view of what constitutes a community. This view does not consider Wikipedia a community because, to paraphrase, there is no shared threat. This is instructive, in part for its own sake, but to a greater degree for understanding the rationale of outliers who disregard community norms in virtual communities. It is true that, throughout history, the strongest communities are those that have formed in response to a shared threat, whether real or imagined; physical, economic, or ideological. Examples are so abundant I shall not cite any.

Whether a community can form in absence of a shared threat is another question and may boil down to a matter of definitions. It is clear that there are communities with strong bonds where a shared threat existed at one time but is no longer present -- this can be seen in any small rural town the world over. But can true communities exist when no shared threat exists ab inito? Is a shared goal, if powerful enough, a sufficient substitute? In MeatSpace, some of the best examples are fraternal organizations -- the Benevolent & Protective Order of Elk (www.elks.org) for one (no, I'm not a member), college fraternities for another. Labor unions are an example where a shared threat exists, though in most cases it is economic rather than physical. In all these cases ties can run deep. Traditional definitions of community are geographic---a community is a loose term for towns, cities, villages, and the like.

Regarding the distinction between "online" and "virtual" -- I see this mainly as a pointless semantic debate, as the terms are similar. However, it bears mention that the "virtual community" predates the Internet by a considerable time. For example, the 'zine era beginning roughly at the end of World War II fostered groups with community-like elements based on shared values, interests, and experiences. Amateur radio, with its popularity dating to roughly the same time, did the same, using a form of electronic communications we might now consider primitive. And there have been various topical groups in constant written communications, working through newsletters and so forth. Some of the non-mainstream religious groups fit this model to this day.


There are lots of communities in the world, and they use different sorts of media and technology and methods to communicate. Some of them make more use of electronic, of distant, of anonymous or pseudonymous, of computer-mediated, methods, and some of them make less use of those methods. It's plausible to use "online community" or "virtual community" to refer to a (fuzzy) set of communities that use that sort of method to a large degree. It's probably less useful to try to draw a hard (non-fuzzy) line, and try to break the set of communities up into those that are "really" virtual or "really" online, and those that aren't.

Identify the community or communities that you're interested in talking about, then look and at talk about the interesting things about them (the methods they use to communicate, the written and unwritten rules, the changes over time, whatever). Don't spend too much time worrying about the labels...


The notion of OnlineCommunity or VirtualCommunity are artifacts of an early stage of the use of computer networks for communication. Cyberspace was seen as a new frontier that allowed "netizens" to escape the boundaries of physical communities (references to JohnPerryBarlow, Turkle, Rheingold probably). This view is a reflection of an early stage of network communication, in which the network is perceived as "technology" and a "frontier", drawing on the techno-messianic myth in Western culture. As network communication becomes integrated into culture, there is an evolving set of cultural norms for integrating communication online and communication in person. Online communication will influence social patterns just as the telephone did, and will be as fully integrated into social patterns. There is no such thing as a VirtualCommunity, only real communities with people who meet more and less frequently in person.



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