background image
Finding the WELL was like discovering a cosy little world
that had been flourishing without me, hidden within the
walls of my house; an entire cast of characters welcomed me
to the troupe with great merriment as soon as I found the
secret door. Like others who fell into the WELL, I soon
discovered that I was audience, performer, and scriptwriter,
along with my companions, in an ongoing improvisation.
A full-scale subculture was growing on the other side of
my telephone jack, and they invited me to help create
something new.
Howard Rheingold, from the Intro-
duction to The Virtual Community.
hat makes people devote their time
online in a virtual community? What is
the net gain for participants for such an
activity and how can the museum, library and archive
community extend their horizons to accommodate
this kind of online activity and should they? This
brief paper explores a number of online communi-
ties, the technologies and strategies they employ, and
considers their potential for the heritage community.
he cosy little world such as the one that
Rheingold describes hidden away on the
other side of his telephone jack has engaged
audiences/performers for nearly two decades but
not all communities instil such moments of
merriment. Professional organisations extend their
bricks and mortar activities across institutional
intranets, accessible only via the company gateway.
These asynchronous conversations usually take place
through e-mail and online Web-based postings and
are often vital extensions to the shared pool of
knowledge and information of the physical work-
space.The exchange of information and corporate
knowledge across sister institutions enables networks
to extend the exclusive space for the exchange of
specialised knowledge across other organisations and
other knowledge pools.Together these networks
share resources and flourish as veritable knowledge-
enriched, gated gardens. Digital marketplaces for
DigiCULT 7
By Susan Hazan
business-to-business communication foster their own
community loyalties, as learning communities come
together to enable teachers and students to meet in
a shared electronic arena and to access pooled resour-
ces on the topic or course they have all signed up for.
The social interaction that takes place across other
communities evolves to satisfy a specific cultural or
social goal, such as the WELL online community
Unlike the professionally structured
intranets, these Web-based activities perhaps fall into
the same category as a hobby an activity you are
prepared to invest in because it fulfils a social or
cultural need, not because you have to.These kinds
of gatherings resemble a town square or marketplace,
but instead of exchanging traditional goods or
services people barter knowledge, ideas, news, gossip
and personal narratives.These are intrinsically social
spaces where people are drawn together with a
common sense of purpose, a shared value system
and a tacit understanding of the group dynamic.
Online communities can be compared to em-
bodied or real life communities, but, instead of the
daily gathering around the water cooler for a chat or
dropping into the pub, you can join a community at
the click of a mouse from the comfort of your own
armchair.They already span the globe, slip silently
across geographical and cultural boundaries, and
reaffirm trans-national and diasporic connections
through a common language and shared experiences.
At the same time, other communities connect people
across cyberspace from different cultural backgrounds
enabling them to exchange ideas and stories and to
indulge in their mutual passion - may it be flint
arrowheads,Van Gogh sunflowers, or woodlice.
he invisible crossing of national or cultural
borders of virtual communities opens up new
opportunities for memory institutions.Through Web-
based discussions around the (digital) artefact, i.e.
photographs, audio files or short movies and narra-
tives, new threads are woven around the collections
giving voice to new interpretations of the objects.
These evolving social clusters can give rise to what
Rheingold, H.:The
Virtual Community:
Finding Connection in a
Computerized World.
Ebury:Vintage, 1994, see
The Whole Earth
'Lectronic Link (WELL)
was founded by
Stewart Brand and
Larry Brilliant in 1985,
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