Community Redefined

Writer: 
August 1, 2004

People who post on the Duke Basketball Report site say they return again and again because they become part of a community where people feel not only connected but also, in some odd way, obligated to other people on the site. They don't just post comments for themselves, but often because someone else asks a question and they have the answer.

It's a good example of what has been called an Internet "culture of reciprocity." Nan Lin, a Duke professor of sociology, teaches a class, Cybernetworks and Global Villages, in which he asks his students to consider "whether the so-called virtual communities are different from the real ones we live in."

According to Lin, the idea of an online community started with America Online. "AOL was initially built for its chat rooms for gays and lesbians to meet in the early Nineties, when it was still a taboo topic. It was a place you could go and share your problems with someone anonymously. And now, of course, there's a chat room for everything. In the case of the DBR, it's Duke basketball, and that pulls people in from all over the world."

In Lin's sociology class last semester, a student gave a presentation on a case study titled "Japanese Mothers and the Internet Effect on Social Well-Being."

"The more feedback the mothers received from someone on the Internet, the more likely they were to help someone else--even in real life," the student reported.

"This is called social capital," says Lin. "We go to chat rooms because there are certain things we need to know. We invest social capital--time, energy, emotion--and we hope to get something in return--knowledge, emotional improvement, respect, maybe just acceptance. Sometimes, these can only be provided by people who are far away."

"In the real world a community is restricted to geographic space. But with the Internet, you can transcend distance," he says. "Maybe it's time to think about this differently. Community. Maybe we should redefine that one."