Creating Or Escaping Community?: an Exploratory Study of Internet Consumers' Behaviors

Eileen Fischer, York University
Julia Bristor, University of Houston
Brenda Gainer, York University
ABSTRACT - What, if any, kind of community can be formed through consumption? This paper offers a preliminary exploration of the types of communities formed around and through the consumption of one particular commodity, and internet news group. After identifying some of the most generic aspects of traditional communities, and reviewing some ideas in the popular literature on "virtual communities," it undertakes a hermeneutic analysis of texts formed by the users (and producers) of a particular newsgroup. It concludes with implications for research on consumption communities and some preliminary thoughts regarding social policy development.
[ to cite ]:
Eileen Fischer, Julia Bristor, and Brenda Gainer (1996) ,"Creating Or Escaping Community?: an Exploratory Study of Internet Consumers' Behaviors", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 23, eds. Kim P. Corfman and John G. Lynch Jr., Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 178-182.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 23, 1996      Pages 178-182

CREATING OR ESCAPING COMMUNITY?: AN EXPLORATORY STUDY OF INTERNET CONSUMERS' BEHAVIORS

Eileen Fischer, York University

Julia Bristor, University of Houston

Brenda Gainer, York University

ABSTRACT -

What, if any, kind of community can be formed through consumption? This paper offers a preliminary exploration of the types of communities formed around and through the consumption of one particular commodity, and internet news group. After identifying some of the most generic aspects of traditional communities, and reviewing some ideas in the popular literature on "virtual communities," it undertakes a hermeneutic analysis of texts formed by the users (and producers) of a particular newsgroup. It concludes with implications for research on consumption communities and some preliminary thoughts regarding social policy development.

Can consumption create communities? And if so, how do they compare with "traditional" communities such as neighborhoods? Many have argued that the individualistic pursuit of goods, promoted by marketing in general and advertising in particular, is partially responsible for the breakdown of traditional communities (e.g. Campbell 1987; Lasch 1979, 1991, 1994). Others have suggested that as traditional communities disintegrate, commonalities in consumption leads to the formation of certain types of communities (e.g. Boorstin 1973).

Understanding the types of communities formed through consumption is important given the many social commentators who argue that community is a vital human phenomenon that must be consciously preserved, promoted or protected in the contemporary world (e.g. Drucker 1994; Etzioni 1993; Lasch 1994).

To begin an exploration of this area, we have undertaken a preliminary study of the consumption of a commodity which has, in itself, attracted enormous attention: the internet. One of the primary reasons that we have chosen to study the consumption of internet services is that there is considerable interest, not only among consumer researchers, but also among the general public, about whether networks of people linked by computers are or are not real communities. One example is a recent issue of the Utne Reader, most of which was devoted to contrasting "cyberhoods" with neighborhoods. Another comes from the posthumously published work of Christopher Lasch (1994), where he argues that the information highway should be abandoned because it is splintering neighborhoods. A third comes from a volume by Howard Rheingold (1993) who asserts that the use of computer networks can help restore the community that has been lost in modern life.

A secondary reason we have chosen this particular consumption phenomenon for investigation is that it appears to involve multiple "layers" of consumer behaviors. That is, in studying the consumption of internet services, we will invariably study consumer behaviors related to an array of other (perhaps more tangible) consumer goods, since the internet is increasingly a marketplace where virtually anything could be virtually bought or sold. Thus, the internet is not merely a commodity around which consumption communities may form; it is also a means through which consumption communities centered on other goods and services may be established and developed.

To delimit the focus of this study, we wish to emphasize that we will focus here solely on a community maintained through the consumption of one particular aspect of the internet C a specific news group. The consumer behavior of interest is use of or participation in this newsgroup. We will not address the ways that traditional face-to-face communities (e.g. a network of friends) may affect or be affected by consumer behaviors or motivations. Thus we will not investigate directly the possibility that traditional communities are destroyed by individuals' materialistic pursuit of goods, or the equal possibility that such communities are fostered and maintained in part through consumption.

To frame and inform our study of the types of communities formed through the internet, we first review the literature on the nature of communities. We articulate, based on this review and our own experience, our prior expectations concerning the nature of internet communities. We then describe our empirical study. Next we present and interpret some of our findings. We conclude by linking these findings back to the broader questions regarding the ways that consumption may create or destroy communities, and discuss the implications for future research and for social policy development.

WHAT IS A COMMUNITY?

Much of the rhetoric regarding the loss of, need for, and virtues of community is unconcerned with defining the central construct of interest. Yet the term is susceptible to a wide variety of meanings in common parlance. For instance, one contemporary dictionary includes the following definitions (and many more): 1) a body of individuals organized into a unit or manifesting awareness of some unifying trait 2) the people living in a space or region and usually linked by common interests; 3) an interacting population of different kinds of individuals; 4) a group of people marked by a common characteristic but living within a larger society that does not share that same characteristic; 5) any group sharing interests or pursuits; 6) shared activity: social intercourse: fellowship, communion, especially social activity marked by a feeling of unity but also individual participation completely willing and not forced or coerced and without loss of individuality; (Webster's Unabridged Third New International Dictionary). Some scholars whose main area of study is community comment with frustration on the myriad common usages of the term; they complain that this causes "confusion" and "a lack of conceptual rigor" (Poplin 1979, p. 4). However, even scholars of community vary widely in their assumptions about what the core elements of community may be.

One key element of debate is the nature of the bond between community members. The early twentieth century scholars of community (e.g. Park 1926/1979) stressed common geographic locality as the starting point for defining community. Hillery (1955) reviewed diverse definitions of community and found that no author denied that the area in which people reside could be an element of what defines their community. But some sociologists try to inject scientific precision by insisting that an essential feature of community is that it refer to people in units of territorial or geographic organization (e.g. Parsons 1959).

Among those who focus on geography as the defining bond among members of a community, there has been a tendency to assume as an ideal type geographic communities which are small, homogenous, and have a strong sense of group solidarity, manifesting Tonnies' (1957) ideal type of gemeinschaft, i.e. relations of emotion, continuity and fulfillment (see, e.g., Redfield 1947). This characterization, however, is commonly regarded as the product of nostalgic wishful thinking and "blinker-like . . . fieldwork" (Bell and Newby 1971). Geographic communities of whatever size are just as likely to have strong elements of what Tonnies characterized as geselleschaft C impersonal, contractual, rational relationships C and to manifest considerable heterogeneity, individualism, and alienation (Pahl 1968; Wild 1981). Thus, although studies of spatially linked groups are still conducted, there is considerable agreement that "any attempt to tie particular patterns of social relationships to specific geographic milieux is a singularly fruitless exercise" (Pahl 1968: 293).

In response to the limitations of notions of community circumscribed by geography, many scholars have come to regard communities instead as sets of social relations among people (Hillery 1955). Social relationships may run the gamut from casual acquaintance to close friend to extended family, but are usually assumed to involve some degree of personal knowledge about those with whom one has a relationship. People embedded in social relations are assumed to feel some sense of belonging (Wild 1981).

Network analysts in particular have argued that communities must be perceived as sets of relationships to other people, whether these relationships exist within or beyond specified geographic or institutional boundaries (e.g. Wellman 1982). Relationships are viewed as critical because they are the sources of emotional support, social companionship and supportive resources that are believed to be at the heart of communities. An important variant feature of communities bound by social relationships is whether or to what extent the ties between community members are strong or weak (Wellman 1982). Granovetter's (1974, 1985) work has heightened awareness that the types of resources provided through weak ties tend to differ considerably from those provided through strong ties. Strong ties may provide greater emotional and material support, but weak ties may act as bridges for ideas or information to be transferred from one group to another (see also Frenzen and Nakamoto 1994; Ward and Reingen 1990).

Some scholars of community do not assume that the bonds between people within a community need even be as strong as weak ties. They argue that the bond may be an experience, idea or thing which people have in common, whether or not they know specific others in their community, have actual social relationships with them, or live in the same geographic region. Common bonds may provide for members of a community of this kind a sense of shared identity, but such bonds are unlikely to entail the emotion or provide a level of social and tangible resources comparable to that which flows across social relationships with known others. For instance, some anthropologists have referred to and studied as a community those people whose common bond was that they had attended or identified with the rock music festival held in Woodstock, New York in 1968 (e.g Myerhoff 1975). Such communities may be planned and intentional (like a kibbutz or a club) or relatively unplanned (like an academic community) (Falk Moore and Myerhoff 1975), but in either case are expected to provide the members with a sense of identification within a larger collectively similar to Belk's (1988) notion of the "community level of self."

This review suggests that communities may be characterized as groups linked by social relationships and a sense of belonging, or by common bonds and a sense of shared identity (the difference may be more one of degree than of kind). The former kind of community would seem to be most likely to occur when members of the community can interact on a face-to-face basis over an extended period of time and in diverse situations. The latter kind of community does not, by definition, require face-to-face interaction and would seem likely to occur under a wide variety of situations.

WHAT ARE SOME COMMON PREJUDGMENTS AND PERCEPTIONS OF INTERNET CONSUMPTION COMMUNITIES?

As noted above, many ideas have appeared in the popular press regarding internet communities. Before we attempt to summarize them, we will briefly describe the types of services available on the internet through or around which consumption communities may form. Note that we regard the internet as a set of services to be consumed, and that we consider users of these services consumers; thus we speak of communities formed on or supported by the internet as consumption communities. One type of service that consumers with internet access can use is electronic mail (e-mail), a facility well known to most academics. This service allows individuals to communicate with others who also have e-mail accounts by sending them a private mail message. It also allows the user to send the same message to a group of other users specified on a "mailing list." A related but distinct service is provided by "discussion groups." Individuals with an e-mail account can "join" or "subscribe to" discussion groups purportedly focused on particular topics. As the name implies, these are groups of individuals who believe they share an interest in the particular topic area which defines the discussion group. Messages sent by any member of the discussion group are received by all members of the group, who can decide whether or not to read them and/or reply to them. Distinct again from these are "newsgroups," which are also referred to as bulletin boards. Any individual with full internet access can browse through the postings or post a message to the newsgroup (without joining, as in the case of a discussion group; note however, that users without full internet access may elect to join specific new groups by dialling in specifically to them). Other services available on the internet include access to the information stored in the "pages" of the World Wide Web (WWW). Many of these WWW "pages" are promotional materials posted by corporations; others are the products of individual C or community C initiatives. Another major category of service is file transfer protocols which enable an internet user to move a copy of some "shareware" (free software) or other information from a remote computer to the user's local computer.

There is no consensus in the popular press regarding internet communities. Some believe that the consumers of internet newsgroups and discussion groups may derive both knowledge and communion from one another, though they acknowledge that internet groups also entail the conflict, factionalism, gossip, and envy that characterize human interactions in most contexts (e.g. Barlow 1995; Rheingold 1993; Smith 1992). Others argue that computer networks are not real communities because they are formed based on choice rather than on necessity, because they tend to consist of demographically similar and privileged members, and because they can easily be exited (e.g. Kadi 1995; Sanders 1995). While we do not dismiss these observations as incorrect, a reading of the academic literature on community reveals that the same observations can be and have been made of other groups considered to be communities. Based, then, on our own initial perceptions, and the review of the literatures on both communities and the internet, we developed a number of expectations prior to our empirical study. First, we anticipated that links exhibited between members of an internet group would vary considerably, ranging from common bond through to strong tie. Second, we anticipated that the resources shared would include both information and emotional support. Third we believed that there would be some evidence that members shared a sense of identity with and/or belonging to others who participated in the group.

METHODOLOGY

Since this is a very preliminary examination, we limited our empirical study to an hermeneutic analysis (Arnold and Fischer 1994) of the listing and interchanges which occurred on a single newsgroup service over a one month period. We selected<bit.listserv.down-syn>, a group focused on Down's Syndrome, for three reasons. First, we believed that this would have the possibility for sharing a range of types of bonds. Second, we believed that this group would have certain "consumption interests" in common in addition to their principal concern and that we might learn about consumption communities in two ways through examining the text created by this group. That is, we would learn about the community made possible through internet consumption for people interested in the topic of Down's Syndrome and we would learn about the potential community among consumers of particular products (e.g. vitamins and drugs taken by people with Down's Syndrome) and services (e.g medical services for people with Down's Syndrome). Finally, one member of the research team had recently become interested in the topic area of Down's Syndrome because of the birth of a nephew with this condition.

As outlined by Arnold and Fischer (1994), to conduct our analysis, we began by specifying the "problem" of interest, which is described above. To try to identify our own preunderstandings, the research team spent considerable time identifying the communities of which they felt themselves to be members and their perceptions of what those communities were and did. We then compared those perceptions with what we thought we might encounter in internet newsgroups, which none of us had accessed prior to the commencement of this study (one of us was an active member of a discussion group prior to beginning the study, and all of us were steady users of e-mail for several years). We supplemented our initial understandings with our review of the academic literature on community and the popular literature on internet- based communities, and formulated these understandings as the "prior expectations" listed above. We then undertook a semiotic-structural analysis of the texts, resolving contradictions among elements of the texts through the process of hermeneutic circling. Below we describe the observations and the (self and other-related) understandings we developed and provide some textual evidence to support these understandings.

SELECTED TEXT AND INTERPRETATIONS

We begin by quoting excerpts from perhaps the most striking piece of text we encountered:

I got a request from someone on the list to tell you a little more about my son. I thought I would post it here [accessible to everyone] instead of e-mailing privately in case anyone is curious, because I have seen a lot of new names here since I started following this newsgroup last fall. My son, Karl was born last February 13. . . . It was quite a shock to all of us when he . . . turned out to have Down Syndrome and a severe heart defect! After letting me hold him for a few minutes, they whisked him off to the NICU. . . . He was born at eleven p.m. and about midnight they told me they thought he had DS and a tetralogy . . . . [F]inally at 3:00 a.m. . . . I asked if I could go hold him again. I held my sweet, peaceful baby with an oxygen tube stretched to his nose and decided that he was such a beautiful sweet baby that it was going to O.K. It turned out that my son had AV Canal . . . and Hirschsprung's Disease also, which is a bowel defect. He had to have a colostomy done . . . . As you can see my son's life was filled with an awful lot of medical problems. As though to compensate for them though, he had a real zest for life, and all of his therapists commented on how alert he was. . . . At five months of age, he had his open heart surgery. . . . [H]e didn't do as well as expected . . . and when we were finally able to take him home it was with oxygen, a feeding tube, and with pulmonary hypertension. [After that] things settled down, and except for his eating he was acting like a pretty normal kid. He learned to roll over, played with toys, babbled . . . he just hated to eat. In December we had the bowel surgery and when he fell asleep in the hospital, his heart was really slow and there were a few other complications but we weren't that worried . . . . [J]ust a few weeks after his surgery he started to act really sick, and I was in the car to take him to an appointment . . . when he fell asleep and went into cardiac arrest. They tried for half an hour to resuscitate him. . . . [I]t was a real shock for us. I was really looking forward to watching Karl grow, and learn to eat, and sit alone, and talk, and do the things that babies and kids do. . . . Karl was 11 months old when he died. . . . I'm sorry if' I've taken up too much space. If there is anything else anyone would like to know, I'm always happy to talk about the little boy I was privileged to have, even for so short a time.

Some of the responses to this text included the following:

(1) "You did not take up too much space. You are a very brave and kindred woman to have told us about your son Karl. Thank you for reminding us how precious and short life is.

(2) Please accept my condolences on the death of your son. As I recall Karl left to live with God the same week that [another user's] baby did. I'm sure they are best friends in heaven. God bless you for having the strength to stay with the group and still be interested in our kids. You will always be a part of this group. If you ever get [near me] I'd love to share [my son] with you for a while.

One reply from the first writer was: "I got a lot of wonderful, very touching e-mail regarding my post about my son Karl. Thanks guys. This is a great group." A second revealed even more strikingly the personal nature of the contacts she had made with other members of the news group:

I'm not ready to have more kids yet, but I will certainly love any other ones I have, DS or no, and I've thought about adopting a disabled baby someday too. It's too bad that it takes something like having one of these babies yourself to realize that all people are wonderful, disabled or not.

This interchange seems to indicate reasonably strong ties, emotional sharing and a sense of belonging among these members of an internet community. Examples of seemingly less close bonds and of more purely informational sharing were also abundant. For example, one topic which attracted many postings was vitamins and nutritional supplements. One writer asked about the link between deficiency of some essential nutrient and dry skin, and for advice regarding a pending appointment with a paediatrician for metabolic testing. Another replied:

Vitamin A deficiency. . . can cause dry skin. Problems with the metabolism and/or absorption of essential fatty acids could also be contributing factors. . . . You may want to do some basic nutritional assessments of tissue vitamin levels, tissue trace mineral levels, and oxidation stress tests. . . . But there are a few issues that you may need to know in dealing with your doctor. First, vitamins and minerals need to be measured at the tissue level. Blood tests are not ideal. Doctors may not know about recent advances in testing tissue vitamin levels and may try to tell you that vitamin tests are a waste of money. Maybe blood tests are, but measuring cellular nutritional reserves are a very accurate assessment of biological nutritional deficiencies. . . . Bottom line, don't let your doctor steam roll you into not doing these state-of-the-art tests for your children. Stick to your guns and insist that they order the tests. If they refuse and won't discuss the matter, fire them and find a new doctor.

As our framing of this study indicates, we did not anticipate labelling internet based communities as "false." We believed that they could and would manifest the theoretical properties of communities: links between members ranging from common bonds to strong ties, sharing of information and emotional support resources, and an evident sense of shared identity or belonging. This consumption community, at least, seems as "real" (and as varied) as face- to-face communities may be. Perhaps a more difficult question is how this consumption community might be distinct from face-to-face communities. We address this below.

One observation we had not anticipated stemmed from our own experience as "voyeurs" or "eaves-droppers" of the conversations in the newsgroup (please note, though, that permission was obtained from those quoted in this paper). Anyone with access to internet service can monitor the newsgroup and take whatever information they seek without revealing themselves, or reciprocating with either information or emotional support. Though greater benefits may stem from fuller participation, the possibility for deriving benefits without contributing is large because of the public nature of the resources.

A second, related observation concerns the public posting of letters such as that excerpted above. The contents of this letter might be regarded as highly intimate, and in face-to-face communities might be shared only with the closest of friends and family. At the same time, in face-to-face communities, the potential is greatest for deriving emotional support from those who are closest. In this newsgroup, the relationship between the strength of a tie and the resources which might be derived from it appears modest. Relative strangers can share intense emotions.

A third observation relates to not infrequent comments about well-meaning but unhelpful friends and relatives (presumably members of the writers' face-to-face networks). For example, one writer noted that her son didn't cry much as a newborn. She then states:

My husband and I were comfortable with his behavior but sometimes our relatives made us nervous with repeated comments about lack of crying. Believe me, when you are trying to cope with the news of DS AND falling in love with your baby it doesn't help to have people point out the differences between your baby and "normal" kids.

Taking these three observations together, we formed an understanding of internet communities as liberating, in that they freed people from the obligations and the constraints that are often part of face-to-face networks. In internet communities, users are free not to talk, they are free to be emotional with those they do not know well, and they are free to distance themselves momentarily from those they normally have great allegiance to. It is almost as though internet communities can provide a relief from face-to-face communities. This does not mean that users will transfer allegiances away from one to the other, but rather that they may derive benefit from the opposing properties of each.

A second observation concerning the potentially unique nature of internet communities relates to the way that power or control may be redistributed through the copious, immediate, and easy sharing of information they facilitate. In particular, the community of consumers of particular commodities C for instance, the medical services referred to in the second interchange above C acquire power by recognizing their common interests and sharing information regarding products and services. Many of the exchanges regarding products and services of mutual interest to the users of this newsgroup had a tone of defiance of authority. The quote above regarding "sticking to your guns" with doctors is typical. Another example is the following advice regarding obtaining services from local recreation facilities: "Do not supplicate. Your child has a right to be there, and the rec department has a legal obligation to accommodate. Don't ask for favors; assert your rights." Based on this observation, we developed an understanding of internet-based consumption communities as distinctively empowering, not simply because of they access to information they provide but because of the sense of collective identity forged with other consumers.

CONCLUSIONS

If there seems any main message to be drawn from this preliminary empirical investigation of the use of the internet, it is that communities may be created through consumption of this technology, and that they may be uniquely liberating and empowering. At the same time, they are (as critics complain) self-selective, voluntary in nature, and easy to enter and exit. It is hazardous to generalize, but it is possible that some of the communities which might be built around or through the common consumption of other offerings might share similar properties. [This is not to say that consumption can only help to create self-selected, easily entered and exited communities. There is evidence that consumer behaviors such as gift giving are essential to establishment and reinforcement of "traditional" communities which are less self-selected and which are very difficult to enter and exit (e.g. Cheal 1988; Stack 1974).] Consider, for example, the community which Arnould and Price (1993) discovered emerging among co-consumers of a river-rafting service. Like the internet users we "observed," these consumers self selected the opportunity to enter the community and could voluntarily opt out of it. Also like the internet community, consumers of the river rafting service tended to find the experience liberating and empowering. Much more research on consumption communities is needed before we will understand more completely their nature and variety.

If, however, communities built around the common consumption of a good or service tend to share the properties suggested above what might the implications be? Bell and Newby (1974) have noted that sociologists tend to confuse what community is and what community should be. The same appears to hold true for contemporary critics of the community derived from internet use in particular and (perhaps) consumption in general. It is a falsely nostalgic ideal to expect communities of any kind to conform completely to Tonnies' ideal gemeinschaft type wherein relations are characterized by emotion, continuity and fulfillment. Internet consumption can lead to the formation and maintenance of many diverse forms of community. Some, but not all, of these will inevitably be closer to Tonnies' alternate geselleschaft . Still it would appear that communities founded upon the common bond of interest in a particular topic C or product C can evolve into communities that provide the resources that we might (often vainly) seek from geographically local or face-to-face communities. [We acknowledge, of course, that such the internet technology like any other can be sued in diverse ways for quite opposite ends, and that it is possible that internet use will ultimately be dominantly isolationist and antithetical to community (cf Loughlin 1993; Talbot 1994).]

One social policy implication of this work would appear to be that providing wider access to the consumption communities formed around and through the internet could be beneficial. At present, access to the internet is largely restricted to those who can afford the service, though efforts to provide wide-spread access through "free-net" links is underway in some centers. Even if the barrier of income is reduced, however, there are likely to be remaining obstacles of a more socially constructed nature. Internet critics and enthusiasts alike (e.g. Barlow 1995; Lasch 1994) fear that users tend to be disproportionably privileged and highly educated. It seems likely that there are systemic factors that discourage access to internet-based communities for those who are most in need of the resources such communities might provide. In summary we believe that consumption communities, particularly internet-based communities, should be neither sanctified or demonized: however, to increase whatever value they may offer, we believe that attention must be paid to increasing access to such communities among those groups systematically less likely to enter them. At present C and perhaps inevitably C internet communities may reinforce existing power and privilege structures.

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