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Which Part is Virtual? Which Part is Community?

By Howard Rheingold

I'd like to say something to those who deride the notion of virtual community, and something to those who believe in the idea. If you have never sat with a dying friend who you had known only through a computer bulletin board, or attended a funeral or a birth or marriage of people you know only through a computer network, what right do you have to philosophically dismiss the whole idea of virtual community? And those who use the term "virtual community," how often do you get out from behind that screen and get to know your online friends face to face, here in the world our bodies inhabit?

You better understand what a virtual community means to a group of Alzheimer's caregivers or AIDS patients who use their electronic affiliations to cut through their isolation before you critique it. And if you claim that you are a part of a virtual community, do you feel an obligation to make your ties with others more solid than data on a display screen?

When you claim to be skeptical of the authenticity of online socializing and advise enthusiasts to "get a life," who made you the authority on what a life ought to be? If someone can't leave their apartment or their chair, or is afraid to do so, or does not find it easy to find friends in the outside world, who are you to say that their electronic conversations and virtual friendships are less valuable than yours?

Those of you who, like myself, spend so much of your time behind computer screens, when was the last time you got out in the real world and took a walk with friends? It's easy for certain people to fall into a long-term trance in front of their keyboard and screen: Snap out of it! Repetitive stress injury can happen to your mind as well as your wrist.

Above all, let's stop mistaking the tool for the task.

Computer communication systems are tools. A community is what you can do with those tools, with a lot of work that doesn't involve computers. The way communication changes human hearts and minds, not the way digital data is shuffled, is what matters most. Very few of us know how words travel over telephone wires, but everybody knows how to call grandma or the fire department. It's the human connections, not the electronic ones, that make a community.

A virtual community is real only to the extent it resembles a physically situated community in the ways people help each other, work cooperatively, engage in peaceful trade . The only virtual part of it is the computer network that connects a grandmother and a teenager, a citizen of Singapore and resident of Helsinki. If they want to dig deep into what they mean by "virtual community," the people who meet each other through computer conversations need to take those relationships into the physical world, where people visit each other, have fun together, help each other out, fall in love.

New communication media means that new social phenomena are going to arise that differ in significant ways from everything we've known. We are going to have to get used to the idea that the word "community" is going to have to stretch to include groups of people who communicate socially and work together cooperatively and never meet in the real world.

Look around the Web at to find out what others are doing to build communities with the available tools. We're in new territory here. We shouldn't let our old maps blind us to the possibilities at hand.

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Copyright 1995, Howard Rheingold