Virtual Communities

Virtual Communities

As the world becomes increasingly immersed within a digital society, it is important to understand the relationship between varying digital concepts. Following this notion, this post argues that networks, Goffman’s presentation of self, and sousveillance are integral parts in comprehending virtual communities.

The academic works of community can be traced back to the discussion of Gemeinschaft (community) and Gesellschaft (society), introduced by Ferdinand Tönnies. According to Tönnies, a community refers to the positive and reciprocal relationship based on the interactions of will between members of a unified societal space (2001:17-18). Virtual communities, however, are defined as social aggregations that emerge online, specifically when people “form webs of personal relationships in cyberspace” (Rheingold, 1993: 5). The concept is fluid due to the dynamics of the social actors, which is thus open to reinvention. Researchers argue that virtual communities share characteristics such as bounds of interests and mind with Gemeinschaft (Rothaermel and Sugiyima, 2001; Etzioni and Etzioni, 1999).

One of the expectations of virtual communities is the establishment of egalitarian and democratic space as a result of the shift from Gemeinschaft to Gesellschaft. Tönnies writes that, “in Gemeinschaft [communities] stay together in spite of everything that separates them; in Gesellschaft [communities] remain separate in spite of everything that unites them” (2001: 19). This shift from Gemeinschaft to Gesellschaft, along with the subsequent clashing of communities and bonds, is compensated by the sphere of conviviality created online (Tönnies, 2001). Jones (1995) argues that the rapid expansion of computer-mediated communication and formations of virtual communities have significantly reshaped social relationships. He continues to write that users are motivated to participate in virtual communities in order to re-establish social bonds from Gemeinschaft to Gesellschaft, ultimately creating a new sense of community. Thus, digital technology serves to connect individuals. The ability to exchange information and the motive to seek collective experiences is what successfully binds isolated individuals into a community in the digital age (Jones, 1995: 11).



Virtual communities are comprised of networks, a concept that has a long lineage in the social sciences. Georg Simmel first presented the idea of network theory and viewed people as ‘networking individuals living within networked cities’ (Simmel, 1903). A key component within networks is the personal network, an internal view based on the centralized position of the individual user. This concept was developed by Wellman, Carrington and Hall, who first defined communities as networks instead of localized neighborhoods comprised of social groups (1988: 131). Afterwards, Wellman coined the term ‘networked individualism’ alongside Castells (2001) to describe connected individuals and their relationship with the digital. This term was expanded by Rainie and Wellman, describing networked individualism as an operating system (2012: 7). They state that networks grow with new technologies, offering individuals more freedom and connectivity (2012: 9). They argue the internet constitutes the new neighborhood because it is more participatory than ever before (2012: 13). As a result, networked individuals create more complex identities because the boundaries of networks are more “permeable” (2012: 34). It is through the establishment of these kinds of networks that allows virtual communities to thrive.


Presentation of Self

An additionally important theory that influences virtual communities is Goffman’s dramaturgical presentation of self. According to Goffman’s theory, people have multiple target audiences within their social networks (Goffman, 1990). Depending on the specific audience, the self they present may differ (Papacharissi, 2012). We give our performance on the front stage. There, we participate in impression management: the attempt to present an idealized self to manage other people’s perceptions of us. Performance of the self and impression management are quite important considering virtual communities because self-presentation is always changing based on the audience and network. Cyberspace allows people to experiment with flexible identities due to the permeable boundaries of space and time.

The emphasis on performance of self within virtual communities’ transitions from McLuhan’s famous aside “the medium is the message” into “media are extensions of man” (1964: 12, 13). He considers technology a translation of one knowledge type into another stating, “all media are active metaphors in their power to translate experience into new forms” (1964: 47). This quote resonates today given the prevalence of social media networks, virtual communities, and the translation of self-online. McLuhan adds, this translation emerges as a new form of information and expression within virtual communities which may result in the “technological extension of consciousness” (1964: 47).



Finally, the concept of sousveillance is important to consider when discussing virtual communities. Sousveillance was coined by the global dictionary as “the recording of an activity from the perspective of a participant in the activity” (Mann, 2013: 6). In contrast to surveillance, it refers to the observation and recording of others by an entity not in a position of power or authority over the subject. Sousveillance is particularly present in virtual communities given the nature of the presentation of self, impression management. Applying sousveillance within virtual communities is easily facilitated by technology. Consequently, sousveillance affects behaviors in virtual communities and is ever present within the structure of digital platforms.

The post has argued that networks, presentation of the self and sousveillance are all inherent parts of virtual communities. Networks bind virtual communities while presentation of self is how we engage within them. Finally, sousveillance ties these two together as it functions as a form of soft control. Thus, these three concepts cannot be expelled from an understanding of virtual communities.



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London: Oxford University Press.

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Mann, S., Nolan, J. and Wellman, B. (2003). Sousveillance: Inventing and using wearable            computing devices for data collection in surveillance environments. Surveillance &    society, 1(3), pp.331-355.

Papacharissi, Z. (2012). Without You, I’m Nothing: Performances of the Self on Twitter.

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Tönnies, F. (2001). Tönnies: Community and Civil Society. Edited by Harris, J. and Hollis, M.     Cambridge: University Press.

Wellman, B., Carrington, P. and Hall, A. (1988). Networks as personal communities. In:  Wellman, B. and Berkowitz, S.D., ed., Social Structures: A Network Approach. Volume            15 in Contemporary Studies in Sociology. London: Cambridge University Press. pp. 130  184.


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