Looks at online communities in the United States, Japan, England, and France, describes the types of interaction possible through computer networks, and looks at the threats posed by commercialization and government monitoring
The technology news is filled with money as corporate moguls from Hollywood, the cable business, the computer industry, and the telephone companies scramble to exploit America's much ballyhooed "Electronic Superhighway". Suddenly, the interlinked network for computerized communication that grew up quietly on its own is gushing "Infotainment" possibilities. Interactive is the buzz word today, alongside convergence, cyberspace, and digital future.In The Virtual Community, Howard Rheingold returns the focus of our attention to people, working back from this commercialized present to the very beginnings of computer-mediated communication, giving us the lay of the land before it was discovered by government and the corporate giants. What he reveals to us is a true electronic frontier of fiercely independent enthusiasts who have created closely knit communities and a rich culture on-line, exchanging everything from scientific data to sexual fantasies, child-rearing tips, and free-ranging political opinions.As Rheingold makes clear, this one of several possible "futures" already exists in very appealing form on-line. The question he poses is: Will these original homesteaders on the electronic frontier now be driven out by the "railroad and cattle barons" of the communications industry? Even more important, through censorship and commercialization, will we all lose the greatest resource ever for community-building and the free expression of ideas, even before most of us know of its existence?Howard Rheingold is the ultimate insider on networked communication, a key participant in the Bay Area "WELL" on-line community. Venturing out from his own neighborhood on the WELL, he gives us a tour of on-line culture in Japan, England, France, and on small and large bulletin boards and networks throughout the United States. He shows us the depth of human interaction made possible, ironically enough, by this seemingly faceless technology, as well as the power of true electronic democracy, and the positive educational force of this medium with which school children in Wyoming can download the greatest research libraries in the world onto their own desktop computers, or interact directly with the White House through electronic mail.But while The Virtual Community is filled with the promise of the ultimate in human development through the global network, Rheingold tempers his enthusiasm with warnings of darker possibilities. What could be the electronic Athens is in danger of becoming one more massive, worldwide opportunity for "amusing ourselves to death" with drivel as Geraldo and The Brady Bunch go interactive. Even more chilling are the Orwellian possibilities once we are all wired into the NET, and all our transactions - commercial, political, personal - are electronically mediated and recorded. "When Big Brother arrives," Rheingold warns us, "he may come in the form of a grocery clerk."Visionary, cautionary, hopeful, exciting - The Virtual Community is a must-read for anyone hoping to understand the next wave of human culture as it moves on-line.