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The digital society

Community: From Neighborhood to Network

Communities are networks of interpersonal ties that provide sociability, support, information, a sense of belonging, and social identity. Well into the 20th century, communities were equated with neighborhoods—bounded groups of people living near each other. This neighborhood-centered view of community made only partial sense because people have always had long-distance community ties either by traveling themselves or through connections with soldiers, artisans, peddlers, traders, marriage partners, shepherds, and the rich.

The neighborhood-centered definition of community still makes partial sense, even in these days of global Internet connectivity. Many communications—including online communications—are local, with concerns ranging from bringing home groceries to gossiping about current events to getting the job done right.

Yet, the proliferation of computer-supported social networks has afforded changes in the ways that people use community: "Community" is becoming defined socially and not spatially. By the 1970s (or earlier), neighborhoods rarely bounded communities in the developed world. Most community ties are with people who do not live within the same neighborhood. Many do not even live in the same metropolitan area. Interactions have moved inside private homes—where most entertaining, telephoning, and emailing takes place—and away from chatting in public spaces such as bars, street corners, and coffee shops. Physical places remain important, but auto, plane, Internet, and phone-based connectivity means there is less awareness of intervening spaces between homes.

Online relationships are filling empty spots in people's lives now that they no longer wander to the local pub or café to take up with their neighbors.

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From Door-to-Door to Place-to-Place

Once people stop seeing the same villagers every day, their communities are not groups but social networks. Most members of a person's community are not directly connected with each other, but are sparsely knit, specialized in role, varying in connectivity, and unbounded (like the Internet). Like the Internet, they are best characterized as a "network of networks"—a term I coined in 1973.

Operating as social networks has transformed community. Most community ties are now specialized, with different network members supplying emotional support, information, material aid, social identity, and a sense of belonging. Only a few ties are with neighbors, the rest are with friends, relatives, and work colleagues.

People move in multiple, partial social circles, with limited involvement in each. The ease of computer-mediated communication (CMC) with a large number of people facilitates ties that cut across group boundaries. Social circles tend to be sparsely knit (most participants are not directly linked), with limited control over participants' behavior and limited commitment to their well-being. Instead of isolated and tightly bounded groups, social circles are partial, permeable, and transitory, linked by cross-cutting ties. Maneuvering through networks provides opportunity, contingency, and uncertainty, with ties between different social circles being resources in themselves.

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The Computerization of Community

CMC reinforces stay-at-home, place-to-place connectivity. "Glocalization" occurs: extensive global and local interaction. CMC makes it easy to contact many neighbors; and fixed, wired Internet connections root people at their home and office desks. CMC fights against face-to-face contact less than it complements it. CMC is the media by which people arrange things and fill in the gaps between meetings. For example, the broadband-using residents of a Toronto suburb neighbor more actively than their fellow unwired residents.

Are online relationships as good as face-to-face relationships where people can see, hear, and touch someone? Probably not, but the question may have a utopian assumption that if people were not online they would be engaged in stimulating community activities. Yet, CMC basically displaces TV watching. Indeed, most people communicate with their friends, relatives, neighbors and work colleagues by any means available, online and offline. The stronger the tie, the more media used. Online relationships are filling empty spots in people's lives now that they no longer wander to the local pub or café to take up with their neighbors.

What of fears that the move into CMC would kill community? Dystopians warned in the mid-1990s that anything other than face-to-face contact is substandard. The evidence does not support this warning. As the digital divide narrows in the developed world and people become more experienced and comfortable, CMC is no longer special and potentially alienating. CMC has increased the frequency and intensity of overall contact. Rather than replacing face-to-face contact, CMC adds to it, filling gaps between the fuller range of information and emotion in interpersonal encounters.

Yet, CMC is more than an inadequate simulacrum for face-to-face communication. There already are unique online dynamics in community-building: the tendency for contact to be between two persons rather than within groups, folding-in of two disconnected friends into the same conversation, sending personal messages to participants in online discussion groups, typographical conventions of embedding interleaved responses inside original messages, using emoticons such as ";-)", and typing responses at the top of a series of messages rather than at the bottom.

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From Place-to-Place to Person-to-Person Community

CMC is fostering changes in the unit of connectivity for community—from the place-to-place community of 20th-century homes and offices to the person-to-person community of networked individuals. Internet accounts and mobile phone numbers are person-based and not place-based. The nature of community is changing: from being a social network of households to a social network of individuals.

Communities that interact extensively online often consist of like-minded people. Although this has the potential for engendering tunnel vision, in practice, the Internet has fostered diversity because of the multiplicity and overlap of most people's interests coupled with the ease of making new connections online. Friends forwarding messages to third parties provide indirect contact between unconnected people who can then make direct contact. In networked communities, weaker ties—online and offline—provide new information through their connections with other social circles. Thus, CMC extends the social range of networks: allowing people to maintain more ties and fostering more specialized relationships.

Mobile technologies reinforce person-to-person community because they foster contact without sociophysical context. Mobile phones, Net-connected PDAs, wireless computers, and personalized software foster liberation from place. Their use shifts community ties from linking people-in-places to linking people wherever they are. Wireless portability affords greater ease—and overload—of being available 24x7x52. The person has become the portal, with each person operating a unique personal community network.

The result is a dynamic contradiction. In the short term, households remain important as the physical bases of computer-supported social networks. That is where most non-work computers are. Yet, the shift to person-to-person community is contributing to the de-emphasis of domestic and local relations. And the still-growing use of the Internet and lowering telephone costs affords greater involvement in far-flung communities of shared interest. Many people use multiple media to connect—face-to-face, telephone, and computer mediated—whatever medium is most convenient and appropriate at the time. It is a situation of networked individualism where individual autonomy and agency are heightened. In such a world, social networking literacy is as vital as computer networking literacy for creating, sustaining, and using relationships, including friends of friends.

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Barry Wellman ( is a professor of sociology and the director of NetLab at the University of Toronto.

©2005 ACM  0001-0782/05/1000  $5.00

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