VIRTUAL COMMUNITIES IN CYBERSPACE
NON-LINEAR SOCIO-DYNAMICS: Explications Implications Applications
A 4-Dimensional Bifurcation Map
VIRTUAL COMMUNITIES IN CYBERSPACE
SISWO - Netherlands Universities' Institute for Coordination of Research in Social Science
Amsterdam, the Netherlands
Just now, as I am setting down to write this piece in a bit of a hurry - I have four days to write it and get it to Wales in between an avalanche of other work - a TV program informs me that there are 600 million phones in the world now. This surely represents a communications revolution on a scale even Norbert Wiener would not have imagined. It may not be very long until the world will boast a similar number of PC's, all interconnected at a moment's notice.
This communications revolution, and the accelerating technological development behind it, forms the necessary substructure for the emergence of so-called virtual communities. They consist of people who interact - often frequently and intensively, though mostly on a temporary basis - in spite of not living in each other's neighborhood, not meeting at work or at play, sometimes even never seeing each other, yet often being very much involved in the tasks they cooperate on.
As the regular readers of Kybernetes will have noticed, one of my areas of interest is alienation theory and research, whereby alienation is conceived, in a cybernetic sense, as a generic term for different types of information processing problems in individuals, which are, more often than not, ultimately caused by developments in their social environment, and reflect back on that environment . In this respect, it is interesting to speculate whether individual alienation will increase or decrease as a result of the communications revolution. Are virtual communities more or less alienating than "normal" communities? Is at least intermittent face-to-face contact necessary for involvement? Is it perhaps the alienated, in one way or another, who seek refuge in virtual communities? Are people more inclined "to let everything hang out" on the Internet, because of its anonimity? Is that perhaps a drawback for some, and an advantage for others? Unfortunately, there exists as yet barely any research concentrating on questions like these. Speculating about the answers would not only take up too much space here, but would also be premature. I may return to this subject in a later article.
The emergence of virtual communities
Virtual communities are typically the product of the post-modern era, at least on their present massive scale. In the course of time, communication has become increasingly symbolic, and less "immediate". This process started already with the development of language: is is easier to misunderstand a sentence than to misunderstand a gesture, words can hide as much as they explain. Nevertheless, in a gradual and recently accelerating complexification process, symbolic communication has become increasingly important over the centuries, to the extent even that the famous sociologist and systems theorist Niklas Luhmann considers society to consist not of people, but of communications.
Departing from Luhmann's conception of society as consisting of communications, rather than actions of participating actors, and commenting on Giddens's structuration theory, Leydesdorff  cogently argues that the mutually conditioning relationship between structure and action can best be empirically studied by using the model of parallel distributed processing as employed in Artificial Intelligence. "The network networks, and the actor acts", i.e., the network performs its own self-referential loops, independent of the specific actors involved.
What can easily be demonstrated in computer simulations of neural networks goes for human networks as well: the more densely they are interconnected, the less likely they are to cycle through a limited number of states, or to ever repeat the same state. The more interdependence grows, the less likely it becomes that history will ever repeat itself, and can therefore be more or less forecasted on the basis of previous experience.
Growing interdependence implies increasing communication. As Leydesdorff  has stated, "Communication systems change by communicating information to related communication systems; co-variation among systems, if repeated over time, can lead to co-evolution (rather than evolution per se). Conditions for stabilization of higher-order systems are specifiable: segmentation, stratification, differentiation, reflection, and self-organization can be distinguished in terms of developmental stages of increasingly complex networks."
In such a complex and differentiated world, people who have learned to be open to its complexity tend to develop goals that are also complex. Consequently, such goals will not be easy to satisfy in interaction with the people in one's immediate environment, even though these may or may not have also quite complex goals - but, in all probability, dissimilar ones.
The communications revolution has opened new vistas in this respect. At least in principle, one can now start "surfing" on the Internet and engage in a worldwide search for the information one needs in order to further one's goals - in doing so often developing new goals - or for the people whose cooperation one needs in order to realize these goals. Whether one engages in such a search or not seems to depend, among others - as Hirsig's experiments with space ship simulators have indicated  - on a complex psychological variable, already evident in young children, and acquired in the course of socialization: namely, whether or not "arousal" by a new environment, with as yet unknown opportunities and dangers, wins out over the anxiety to leave behind the old environment, with all its security and, possibly, boredom.
Many people will indeed be discouraged from joining a virtual community by the information overload - including the overload of totally irrelevant information! - which the Internet provides. Others will find a sufficient amount of goal satisfaction in their more immediate environment. But many also will find it a stimulus of a magnitude that no other generation has ever experienced before - the information available can barely be measured in gigabytes.
The participants in virtual communities and, at a higher level or organization, the virtual communities themselves, should not merely be viewed as complex systems in isolation - such systems probably do not even exist - but as complex adaptive systems, interacting with an environment, and therefore subject to co-evolution rather than evolution. Such systems are everywhere one cares to look: brains, immune systems, ecologies, cells, developing embryos, but also sociocultural systems like political parties, economic systems, and even scientific communities. Holland,  who was one of the first to simulate neuronal networks in 1951, mentions the following characteristics, which might very well also characterize the participants in virtual communities, as well as these communities themselves :
1. They have many agents acting in parallel, and their control is highly dispersed, with any coherent behavior resulting from competition and cooperation among the agents themselves. This is certainly true for the virtual communities on the Internet: there is vey little centralized control, except in some cases of "list owners" determining acces, but such lists provide information, and are interactive only to a limited extent, thus not really qualifying as communities.
2. They have many levels of organization, with agents at one level serving as building blocks for the agents at the next higher level.
3. These building blocks are constantly rearranged as a result of what one might call either learning, experience, evolution, or adaptation.
4. They all anticipate the future to some degree, making "predictions" on the basis of "mental" models of their environment that act like computer subroutines under certain triggering conditions and then execute certain behaviors - no matter how simple, as in the case of bacteria.
5. They all have many niches they can exploit - as is clearly demonstrated by the proliferation of all conceivable kinds of groups on the Internet, together covering a staggering variety of subjects. Filling one niche often opens up new ones that can be filled; complex adaptive systems, in other words, always create new opportunities.
6. As a consequence, it is meaningless to talk about complex adaptive systems being in equilibrium: they can never get there, but are always in transition. If they would get there, they would be dead. Virtual communities may often be short-lived; when their goal is accomplished, or sometimes even before, they tend to desintegrate.
7. Likewise, the agents in complex adaptive systems cannot optimize their fitness, utility, etc.: the space of possibilities is simply too vast in an environment which is also complex and rapidly changing; they can at best improve on some dimensions, but never optimize. Consequently, virtual communities often have a high turnover of members; they may quickly loose interest, develop different goals, and move on elsewhere.
It should be clear from the above that not every group on the Internet is a virtual community: although virtual, it does not have to be a community. The Internet offers basically four possibilities:
1. one-way information, like news bulletins and bulletin boards in all conceivable areas of human interest;
2. discussion lists, with more or less restricted possibilities to interact, depending on whether or not there is a list owner who restricts access, by employing selection criteria either for admitting persons who are allowed to react, or by screening these reactions themselves before passing them on to the subscribers;
3. entertainment, more often than not of a low-brow and obviously vicarious nature, but with recently expanding interaction possibilities: with the rapidly progressing technological development of the Internet, for example, especially the sex industry has pounced on its possibilities, and offers pornographic movies for those who are titillated by pixels rather than reality - and are prepared to buy the necessary extra equipment, which then indeed gives an extremely "cheap thrill";
4. virtual communities are distinguished from the above three possibilities by the fact that their participants have more or less specific, complex, and common goals, which they feel they can best further by electronic communication. The speed of such communication is a prerequisite for pursuing such goals in the first place. Rapid communication is absolutely essential when:
a) the goal is relatively complex, but
b) nevertheless needs to be accomplished within a reasonably short time,
c) while the group members are spread all over the world, and - coming from different cultures -
d) need more time than otherwise to reach a consensus about a specification of the goal, plus
e) an agreement about the best means to further it.
An Example of a Virtual Community: The Thematic Group on Sociocybernetics and Social
One of the virtual communities I am actively involved in myself, as a secretary, is a group within the International Sociological Association (ISA), the Thematic Group on Sociocybernetics and Social Systems, TG02 for short . It is cybernetic in a double sense: it is a virtual community, in that it is a child of the cybernetic revolution; and it also deals with cybernetics, or more specifically: with applications of both first-order and second-order cybernetics to the social sciences and to society.
The majority of the members does not know each other, but nevertheless cooperates intensively on a few projects - presently, for example, organizing a Sociocybernetics Section at the 10th International Congress of Systems and Cybernetics in Bucharest (August, 1996). While barely a decade ago fax was still a very modern communication device, most comunication among members is now by email. In the first 50 days of this year, for example, over 400 e-mails were exchanged with the TG02 members, while perhaps at most half a dozen letters and a dozen faxes were received. An answer from Uzbekistan may be back in less than five minutes, if the other person is on-line, while a one-way letter may take two months, if it ever arrives.
As stated above, it should be clear that, if a highly international and interdisciplinary group of people is to cooperate on relatively complex projects within a rather tight time frame, extremely fast communication is indeed a prerequisite. Papers are made available on the World Wide Web, comments are flashed back by electronic mail. Paper proposals are received by email as well, and passed on again to all the different session organizers concerned at the push of a button.
There is another, very practical advantage of virtual communities that has to do with
the worldwide budget tightening in academia: a task like the above, if not performed
within a virtual community context, could not be performed at all, certainly not in
between other duties, without the help of at least one full-time secretary: to type and
mail all these letters, to retype all these faxes with abstracts and abridged papers, to
keep mailing lists up to date, etc.
Did Wiener foresee the emergence of virtual communities?
Finally, what does all of this have to do with Norbert Wiener? Very little, I am afraid, in the sense that, while Wiener was certainly aware of the potential effects of the computer revolution he helped to create, he described its probable effects especially in the direction of the increasing automation of production we are all now accustomed to. Nevertheless, he was certainly also aware of the growing importance of man-machine interaction, though perhaps less of the amplifying role it was going to play in facilitating human communication:
"It is the thesis of this book that society can only be understood through a study of the messages and the communication facilities which belong to it; and that in the future development of these messages and communication facilities, messages between man and machines, between machines and man, and between machine and machine, are destined to play an ever increasing part" .
"It is my thesis that the physical functioning of the living individual and the operation of some of the newer communication machines are precisely parallel in their analogous attempts to control entropy through feedback. Both of them have sensory receptors as one stage in their cycle of operation: that is, in both of them there exists a special apparatus for collecting information from the outer world at low energy levels, and for making it available in the operation of the individual or of the machine. In both cases these external messages are not taken neat, but through the internal transforming powers of the apparatus, whether it be alive or dead. The information is then turned into a new form available for the further stages of performance. In both the animal and the machine this performance is made to be effective on the outer world. In both of them, their performed action on the outer world, and not merely their intended action, is reported back to the central regulatory apparatus. This complex of behavior is ignored by the average man, and in particular does not play the role that it should in our habitual analysis of society; for just as individual physical responses may be seen from this point of view, so may the organic responses of society itself. I do not mean that the sociologist is unaware of the existence and complex nature of communications in society, but until recently he has tended to overlook the extent to which they are the cement which binds its fabric together" .
Here, Wiener comes close to Luhmann's position, mentioned earlier, that society consists of communications, rather than of individuals, or even actions. While Wiener may not actually have foreseen the emergence of virtual communities - the term did not even exist in his time - he came very close. His comprehensive insight in one aspect of societal development, the interrelated effects on education, job market, alienation, the economy, etc. of a progressively more machine-driven and information-oriented society, is generally acknowledged. Contradicting those social scientists who believed him naive, it should be stated that nearly half a century ago, he already presented a brilliant analysis of many aspects of the emerging information society. He not merely stood at its cradle, but was one of those who delivered the baby. Thus, while Wiener's influence on the social sciences so far has been relatively minor, his influence on the society which social scientists try to analyze has been enormous, because he was instrumental in changing one of its "meta-parameters": its rate of change.
The virtual communities now proliferating are just one consequence of this accelerated and still accelerating rate of change - bemoaned by some, as in much postmodern theory, but embraced by others as a unique opportunity for the by now oldfashioned "self-realization' of the 1950s, which Wiener still lived to see.
1. The author's previous (co)publications in Kybernetes on applications of
cybernetics/GST to the social sciences, especially to alienation theory:
Geyer, Felix (1990), Political alienation and environmental complexity reduction, Kybernetes, 19(2):11-31.
(1991), "Modern Forms of Alienation in High-complexity Environments: A Systems Approach", Kybernetes, 20(2):10-28.
, and Johannes Van der Zouwen (1991), "Cybernetics and Social Science: Theories and Research in Sociocybernetics", Kybernetes 20(6):81-92
(1992), "Alienation in Community and Society: Effects of Increasing Environmental Complexity", Kybernetes, 21(2):33-49
(1994), "Alienation, Participation, and Increasing Societal Complexity", Kybernetes, 23(2):10-34
, and Johannes van der Zouwen (1994), "Norbert Wiener and the Social Sciences", Kybernetes, 23(6/7):46-61
(1995), "The Challenge of Sociocybernetics", Kybernetes, 24(4):6-32
2. Leydesdorff, Loet, " 'Structure'/'Action' Contingencies and the Model of Parallel Distributed Processing", Journal for the Theory of Social Behavior, 23(1):47-77, 1993
3. Leydesdorff, Loet, "The Evolution of Communication Systems", International Journal for Systems Research and Communication, 6:219-230, 1994
4. Hirsig, René, S. Rauber, C. Marchand, and U. Mattle (1990), "Interactive Computer Games: An Instrument in Experimental Psychological Research", pp. 141-151 in Self-referencing in Social Systems (R.F. Geyer and J. van der Zouwen (eds.), Salinas, CA: Intersystems Publications, 1990 (201 p.). This experiment is described in more detail in Geyer, 1992.
5. Holland, John H., Adaptation in Natural and Artificial Systems. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1975. Holland, John H., Holyoak, K.J., Nisbett, R.E., and Thagard, P.R., Induction: Processes of Inference, Learning, and Discovery. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1986
6. Waldrop, M. Mitchell, Complexity - The Emerging Science at the Edge of
Order and Chaos. New York: Simon and Schuster (Touchstone), 1992; see pp. 145-147
7. A Newsletter of this group, as well as further information on the sessions of the Sociocybernetics Section at the 10th International Congress of Systems and Cybernetics - August 26-31, 1996 in Bucharest, Romania - is available from the author on request, either by email ("geyer@SISWO.UVA.NL"), or mail (Felix Geyer, SISWO, Plantage MUidergracht 4, 1018 TV Amsterdam, The Netherlands; fax: 31 20 622 9430.
8. Wiener, N., The Human Use of Human Beings; Cybernetics and Society, Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 1950/1954; second edition Da Capo, New York, 1988, p. 16
9. Ibid., pp. 26-27.