While the Internet has been in existence and utilized by researchers world-wide for at least the last dozen years, within the last two years the Internet has seen explosive growth due to the hype and popularity of the World Wide Web (WWW). The Web is that feature of the Internet that is graphical and most easily accessed by the lay population. The Web uses the networking capabilities of the Internet to link together computers all over the world with an easy to use and visually pleasing multi-media interface.
The Web and the Internet are often considered part of cyberspace. Cyberspace is a term often used to conceptualize the "space where words, human relationships, data, wealth, and power are manifested" and made possible by networked computers (Rheingold, 1993).
"Cyberspace: A new universe, a parallel universe created and sustained by the world's computers and communication lines. A world in which the global traffic of knowledge, secrets, measurements, indicators, entertainments, and alter-human agency takes on form: sights, sounds, presences never seen on the surface of the earth blossoming in a vast electronic night" (Benedikt, 1991).The networked computers used to create these parallel worlds and facilitate communication between human beings constitute the technical foundations of computer-mediated communication (CMC) (Rheingold, 1993). The Internet then, enables computer-mediated communication systems "to link people around the world into public discussions" (Rheingold, 1993). While CMC can exist solely between two people or one person and an anonymous group, increasingly, virtual communities of many people are being formed. In fact, in his research Howard Rheingold concludes "that whenever CMC technology becomes available to people anywhere, they inevitably build virtual communities with it... Virtual communities are social aggregations that emerge from the Net when enough people carry on those public discussions long enough, with sufficient human feeling, to form webs of personal relationships in cyberspace" (Rheingold, 1993).
Examples of virtual communities are found on Bulletin Board Systems (BBS), Internet Relay Chat (IRC), Multi-User Dimensions (MUD), and the World Wide Web (WWW). Each of these systems enables people from all over the world to connect together in the virtual spaces created by each respective system and communicate, have public discussion, and form virtual communities.
BBSs first appeared in the mid seventies and are essentially "a personal computer, not necessarily an expensive one, running inexpensive BBS software, plugged into an ordinary telephone line via a small electronic device called a modem" (Rheingold, 1993). By making the phone number for a BBS publicly known, people can call up the BBS number and leave private messages or public information.
IRC, created by Jarkko Qikarinen at the University of Oulu, Finland, in 1988, "is a multi-user synchronous communication facility that is available all over the world to people with access to the Internet" (Reid, 1991). IRC is divided into 'channels' which people can 'join' or 'leave' at any time. New channels can also be created at any time and have a very diverse range of topics.
MUDs, first seen in the late seventies, are "network-accessible, multi-participant, user-extensible virtual realities whose user interface is entirely textual" (Curtis, 1992). MUDs are a sort of virtual reality it that users have the "appearance of being situated in an artificially-constructed place" in which they can 'see' the objects and users that are located in the same area as themselves and can 'move' from room to room (Curtis, 1992).
"bianca" is an example of a virtual community within the medium of the Web. Though the Web is not technically ideal for a virtual community and has some inherent constraints not experienced by BBS, IRC, or MUDs, the easy interface and ubiquitous nature of the Web has greatly contributed to bianca's evolution and present success as a virtual community.
Over the course of time, bianca has evolved into a thriving community by giving users the freedom to explore the boundaries of Web technology and social collaboration, and by adapting to user's needs. Through creative use of custom Common Gateway Interface (CGI) software, bianca was the first World Wide Web site to enable users to chat and communicate together through the usually static, but highly accessible, format of a Web page. By enabling users to communicate with each other through the Web, the first Web-based virtual community was born. Users have been able to make new friends, develop new relationships, explore new identities, and push social boundaries. A virtual community was formed with many of the social situations and social mechanisms seen in real life. However, certain aspects of the community have had significant effect on its dynamics, which have lead to forms of interaction and modes of behavior not usually seen in real life.
The development, growth and evolution of bianca's virtual community over the past 2 years in response to user reaction and user feedback is the basis of this case study. First we will discuss aspects of the web as a communication medium. In Chapters three, four, and five we will examine the particulars of the bianca Web site. In the remaining chapters we will explore common issues of computer-meditated communication systems such as identity, behavior, and community and their relation to and affect on bianca's design and development.
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