Are Online Communities altruistic by ashrafp


									                                                                                                  K. MacLure
                                                                                                   MSC in IT

Group H: Is there a place for altruism in an electronic society…..

Are Online Communities altruistic?
Online, or virtual, communities are formed from groups of people communicating via the
internet. From simple email lists and Usenet in the early 1980s, these distributed electronic
society discussion networks have grown exponentially in complexity and participation into a
diverse virtual parallel world. Superficially, online communities appear to be based on
altruistic motives of knowledge sharing and support groups involving highly cooperative,
committed participants apparently expecting no financial or other return, but to what extent
has selfless concern for others driven this activity?

The Original Model
By the early 1980s, limited groups of people were able to connect via the internet and
exchange email. The correspondents were likely to have met personally, or have spoken on
the telephone, and exchanged email address. Email was an extension of an existing
relationship; the internet offered the potential for initiating long-distance, transitory, social
connections. Applications such as message boards, discussion forums, IRC (Instant Relay
Chat) and MUDs (Multi-User Dungeons) soon followed, driven by man’s need for social
interaction beyond exchange of information with known individuals, leading to
distinguishable online communities. Rheingold1 suggests a level of emotional and time
commitment is required from users to form a sustainable virtual community ‘when people carry
on public discussions long enough, with sufficient human feeling, to form webs of personal relationships.’ This
is true across the range of online communities today.

Styles Today
The virtual communities of today’s electronic society can be categorised by level of direct
participation – from individual Blog (Web log – online personal diary) to MMORPGs
(Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games) - with many alternatives completing the
spectrum; email, forums and instant chat persist and have been augmented by buddy lists,
wikis and social networking websites. So what do people contribute to these online
communities, what do they expect in return and is altruism evident?

Examples by Type
       According to Blogger.com4, ‘A blog is a personal diary. A daily pulpit. A collaborative
       space. A political soapbox. A breaking-news outlet. A collection of links. Your own private
       thoughts. Memos to the world.’ Their guide takes the potential blogger through the
       three step process of creating a free online diary.

           London ambulanceman Tom Reynolds, who has been blogging since December
           2003, has a following of thousands. Over the years his online diary has brought
           him into conflict with his employers, concerned at patient confidentiality and
           public perception of the London Ambulance Service11, but also led him to publish
           a book2. Reynolds portrays blogging as a cathartic and philosophical activity, ‘I
           believe that blogging self selects nice people… willing to listen to other people, to consider their

                                                                                            K. MacLure
                                                                                             MSC in IT

         viewpoints and to examine and challenge your own thoughts then, if not predisposed towards this
         before starting blogging then the process of blogging will teach you how to do this’.3

         Locally, Kai SedgwickB2 achieved some notoriety posting a blog34 from Craiginches
         Prison reporting his experiences while serving time for perjury. Sacked in 2002 by
         his employers, who were unhappy with the blog content, Kai felt sufficiently
         compelled to maintain his blog in prison circumventing rules by sending his
         posting out to a friend for uploading. The political and social nature of the
         content at times analyses the lives of inmates providing true insight into the drug
         issues, unfocussed nature of the penal system and hopelessness of circumstances.
         It could be argued that blogs provide a much needed outlet and platform on which
         to voice opinions previously gagged or marginalized.

         There are countless weblogs covering myriad topics created by people for
         numerous reasons. But a common thread binds them - they feel the urge to share
         their thoughts and feelings with an online community and invite their feedback in
         return. There is a sense of giving and of reciprocity but also an egotistical edge –
         the assumption that the writer has something to say worth reading. Personal blogs
         are rarely altruistic but they do contribute to the sense of community online.

      Forums are online discussion groups, like message or bulletin boards, where
      registered users start message threads and invite others to comment by adding to
      the thread. There are thousands of internet forum covering every topic
      imaginable. Users adopt pseudonyms and may post a profile. Discussions are
      overseen to varying degrees by moderators but often peer pressure is an effective
      censure. Exchanges may be heated or dull and netiquette becomes an issue in
      forums as manners in real life.

         A randomly selected GOOGLE Group alt.religion.islam5 has a thread entitled
         ‘ISLAM - THE SOLUTION OF MODERN PROBLEMS’. A clearly contentious
         issue but the online community forum allows contributors to speak openly but
         anonymously suggesting societal benefits through social interaction and exchange
         without the threat of face-to-face confrontation. If netiquette is not maintained
         the initiator risks loss of the thread but the flamer feels shielded through
         anonymity. There is no obvious altruism on this type of forum except perhaps the
         moderator if he/she works voluntarily.

         Other styles of forum focus on support and advice. For example,
         and uk.d-i-y freely exchange information inviting reciprocity and building status
         and reputation for the advisor. People contribute freely of their time and expertise.
         There are elements of altruism in the giving of free help and advice but motivation
         is open to debate. Online postings carry an air of authority,12 authenticity and
         veracity13 which often goes unquestioned by the user, in the same way some people
         accept newspaper content. If electronic society mirrors real society there will be
         people online who deliberately mislead for their own gratification. Marketers have
         latched on to the global reach of online communities and the research and
         advertising benefits of running product based forum such as Sony Online

                                                                                           K. MacLure
                                                                                            MSC in IT

        Entertainment.14 Despite this skepticism, few would argue against the greater
        good inherent in the freedom of information online used advisedly.
        Epinions.com20 is a service of Shopping.com21 which in turn is a company of The stated aim of Epinions is to provide ‘a reliable source for valuable
        consumer insight, unbiased advice, in-depth product evaluations and personalized
        recommendations’ based on their ‘proprietary Web of Trust technology.’ The ethos sounds
        laudable and altruistic but is in fact a vehicle for eCommerce based on reward and
        incentive driven contributors. Epinions uses a system called Income Share23 to
        build Eroyalties credits24 for reviewers, countering any possible selfless intention.
        Epinions ‘helps people make informed buying decisions’ but it also provides income to
        forum contributors and directs users to

        Wiki software empowers the online community to freely create and edit ‘the simplest
        online database that could possibly work’6 using any web browser. This collaborative
        peer review medium has been adopted as a powerful tool for social networking.
        Contributors are motivated by a strong sense of belonging and a sense of efficacy;
        benefiting their own self esteem and users of the information.

        An example of a highly regarded wiki is WIKIPEDIA7 - ‘an online encyclopedia and,
        as a means to that end, an online community of people interested in building a high-quality
        encyclopedia in a spirit of mutual respect’. It could be argued that the likes of Wikipedia
        are founded and sustained on altruism but for many contributors this is contrived
        reciprocity or ‘mutual respect’ as cited. Many wikis are established for collaborative
        authoring of academic projects or software documentation, as exampled by
        Aberdeen University Electronic Society Wiki15.


        These computer mediated communities (CMC) have become hugely popular as a
        means to meet up (sic) with existing and new contacts. Part forum, part blog, part
        chat it seems no self respecting teenager could now exist without access to
        MySpace8 or Bebo9. The virtual community has extended reality for a wide
        section of society enabling them to chat, exchange music and tags, promote events,
        bands, books and more, often linking to YouTube10 for video content. MySpace
        ‘is an online community that lets you meet your friends' friends.
        Create a private community on MySpace and you can share photos, journals and interests with
        your growing network of mutual friends!’ The Timesonline carries an article16 by J.
        Weber comparing the appeal of social networking on MySpace, FaceBook17 and
        del.icio.us18 across the generational divide in search of motivation, ‘…on the
        "social" side, well, my problem is finding time for the social relationships I already have, not
        finding ways to develop new ones.’ Is it possible that altruism also holds different
        connotations for different generations? Might social networkers feel a buzz of
        worthiness as they issue or accept invites to friends? Sharing contacts, music,
        video et al may be considered a selfless act by the donor, regardless of legality
        issues,19 which may lend an allure to the activity.

                                                                                                   K. MacLure
                                                                                                    MSC in IT


           Massively, Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games are an enormously popular
           online community activity with the leading game, World of Warcraft, attracting
           over 6 million27 subscribers. Players assume an avatar (character persona) and
           compete in a persistent virtual world, generating predicted total online gaming
           revenue28 of $4 billion by 2008. Gamers tend to be highly committed and loyal to
           their adopted format. There is no identifiable altruistic motivation for gaming
           although players may act collaboratively for mutual advancement.

The diversity of online communities reflects a range of perceived altruistic behaviour online.
Blogs have clear egotistical foundations but writers give selflessly of their personal thoughts
and time; their outpourings may be received as altruistic gifts by the reader sufficiently
motivated to follow their digital diary.

Forums are so wide ranging in themselves, and the communities so diverse, that every angle
is covered; truly reflecting the range of real world communities. Of course, there will be
messages posted for personal gratification; messages posted endorsing criminal, immoral or
unethical behaviour; messages posted misleading unwary readers and directing them for the
commercial benefit of others. But against what objective benchmark are the cultural and
motivational values of an uncensored globally distributed message board scored? Surely
altruism is itself measured subjectively. Are altruistic traits totally negated by eCommerce?
Why shouldn’t profit be made from helping people, especially when the information is freely
available? Many discussion forums are started and/or moderated by volunteers – if they
experience intangible gains are their efforts adjudged less altruistic? Perhaps a fairer measure
of altruism is the freely given benefit gained by the receiver with no expected return.

It is difficult to argue altruism in private wikis beyond the initial empowerment of the
software as the content is collaborative in a reciprocal consensual arrangement. Larger scale
wikis however, such as Wikipedia, benefit online society through resource provision.
Statistics from Alexa.com35 show a Wikipedia reach of over sixty five thousand per million
users (based on Alexa toolbar users) and a ranking of twelfth, indicating a high degree of
impact, reliance and return. With 6,519,561 pages36 the intangible benefits of sense of
efficacy and belonging gained by contributors to the online community are far outweighed
by the greater good to electronic society as a whole.

Current statistics from Compete.com30 indicate two-thirds of online users in the US access
social networking sites. These figures show an increase of 109% over 27 months, mainly
due to the popularity of MySpace, and close to matching the traffic of Google or Yahoo. itself offers an altruistic mission statement - ‘ helps you personally
benefit from click-sharing. Whether it's protecting you from a dangerous site, profiling each website you visit,
or showing you promo codes that will save you money at check out, Compete wants to help create a more
trusted, transparent, and valuable Internet.’ This statement recognises the less savoury aspects of
online communities where subscribers adopt pseudonyms and an online persona which may
be at great variance from reality. A whole area of safety online has exploded to counter
stealthy misuse, some of it altruistically given away for personal PC use e.g. SpyBot, 37
Adaware38 suggesting once more that the good and bad of the real world is mirrored online.

                                                                                           K. MacLure
                                                                                            MSC in IT

In Netizens, Hauben and HaubenB1 talk of the empowerment of online communities giving
the man in the street a long deserved platform to voice his opinion - ‘The Net has only developed
because of the hard work and voluntary dedication of many people.’26 Their altruistic review, expressed
in 1998, is a utopian prediction wantonly ignoring the frailty of the human condition. There
is a basic technical know-how and cost inherent in participation, which lends an exclusivity
and elitism to online communities contrary to any altruistic foundations and dreams.

In conclusion, each online community may have the potential to be a vehicle for altruism -
‘These technologies allow a person to help make the world a better place by making his or her unique
contribution available to the rest of the world’26but it will take more than a digital medium to alter
the egotistical human condition. The internet may have been founded on altruistic ideals but
the identifiable altruism of online communities is, in the main, contrived reciprocity for
sustaining electronic society.

                                                                                (Word Count 1935)

                                                                                             K. MacLure
                                                                                              MSC in IT

(B1) Hauben & Hauben, Netizens: On the History and Impact of Usenet and the Internet (1998),
(Accessed online26 25/11/2006)

(B2) Press & Journal, page 27 Saturday 25th November 2006

    (1) Rheingold Virtual Communities
    (2) Reynolds, T. Blood, Sweat and Tea: Real Life Adventures in an Inner-city Ambulance
    (3) blog date Sun 08 Oct 2006


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