A virtual community turns the idea of a physical community that shares experiences upside down and inside out. On the one hand, it remains a community, since it represents a group of individuals brought together by a common bond, that of a virtual space, a chat session, a certain interest, or even the reading of a particular hypertext. On the other hand, these bonds serve to ensure that the members of the community will never have the same experiences as one another.
Consider the most extreme example: That of a group of people who have read the same hypertext. On the face of it, they seem to have shared an experience, that of reading a specific work by a particular author. However, if one interviews the members of said community, one will find that they agree on little about their supposedly shared experience. When brought together to discuss this work, some of these people may even object, claiming that they feel they have read a completely different work than the others and do not, therefore, feel part of this community.
Any on-line community also suffers from a lack of common experience. Without a way to visually authenticate the identity of a person, one would be unable to affirm that one is communicating with the same person simply because the person happens to use the same nickname, or sends a message from the same email address. Semantic continuity is doubtful at best, and when one cannot attribute specific identities to one's surroundings, one cannot speak of a well-defined experience. After all, a chat session with Pamela Anderson, or with Saddam Hussein, or with Harvey Dwight from the Brown University class of 2001, would be three completely different experiences. In such a context, one can only speak of the infrastructure, the sketch, the outline, or the seed of an experience; the details will always remain fuzzy.
This brings us to the fundamental difference between real and virtual communities. Real communities provide the individual with specific experiences and an associated well-defined identity. They provide a full quantum branch out of the infintely many that reach out from the Big Bang, they command the three sisters of fate to weave a very specific pattern, they shape one's life. Virtual communities, however, provide one with the promise of a variety of experiences and the associated freedom of identity. They offer a quantum seed which gives rise to an infinitude of somewhat related possible quantum branches; however each branch is unique unto itself. The three sisters of fate give up when they are confronted with a virtual community -- certainty is made for reality, in virtual communities only approximations can be shared, and even then, only doubtfully. Virtual communities thrive on one's dreams; when one is provided simply with vague outlines of experiences, imagination must step in to fill in the blanks.
In short, real communities, which are based on Newtonian physics, dictate deterministic existences. Virtual communities, however, which are probably associated with quantum physics in some vague aspect, offer what would be, what could be, and what just might have been.
Last modified 27 January 2005