Mediated Interpersonal Communication

By Elly A. Konijn; Sonja Utz et al. | Go to book overview

Chapter 13
Social identification with
virtual communities

Sonja Utz

Interpersonal communication often takes place in groups: groups of friends, family members, sport teams, or work teams. The same holds true for mediated interpersonal communication—a great deal of it takes place in virtual groups or virtual communities. Horrigan et al. (2001) report that 84 percent of American internet users have contacted an online group at least once. This chapter focuses on virtual communities—on the wellestablished ones as well as on new trends.

Virtual communities have been studied since the early 1990s. In the beginning, the central research questions were: (a) whether virtual communities were indeed communities; and (b) what the societal consequences of participation in virtual communities were. Some authors saw mediated relationships as inferior to face-to-face (ftf) relationships, and virtual communities were consequently seen as pseudo-communities (Beniger, 1987). Skeptics worried that virtual communities destroyed “real” communities—that is, they assumed that engagement in virtual communities would lead to disengagement in offline communities (Fox, 1995; Kraut et al., 1998; Slouka, 1995). Other people were overly enthusiastic and thought that virtual communities would create new forms of communities which would unite people across different races and classes (Barlow, 1995; Rheingold, 1993).

Research has meanwhile shown that virtual communities can be real communities rather than pseudo-communities (e.g., Baym, 1995; Bruckman, 1992; Utz, 1999). Neither skeptics nor enthusiasts turned out to be entirely right. People continue to meet each other ftf; and although some forms of social capital have declined (Putnam, 1995), new forms have emerged (for example bottom-up internet projects; Horrigan, 2001). Therefore, the current chapter does not focus on the question whether virtual communities can be “real” communities. Instead, it will focus on how group formation takes place in virtual communities. According to the social identity approach (Haslam, 2001; Tajfel, 1978; Tajfel & Turner, 1986), group identity formation can occur via a top-down process, categorization, or a bottom-up process, inter-

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