The Benefit of Online Communities

Submitted by smeh on November 7, 2012 - 10:59pm


In my opinion, communities are spaces for people to grow. When humans interact with each other, they are developing character. Communities take shape from individuals collaborating with each other through exchanging information, emotions, ideas, and experiences. Experience on a personal level within a community is a complex mixture of projecting your self, receiving the projection of others, comparing these factors, and reassessing yourself, with the result being personal growth. Any community as a whole runs off many small interactions such as the one I just described. Furthermore, the parts of a community are usually present and participating because they have a common point of interest. Communities form around particular subjects related to content, and can develop a deeper level of texture for that content.

A community of interest for me is the one that takes place on the internet. Online communities are accessed through a variety of interfaces, have varying directions of information flow, and come in almost any flavor (topic of content) you can imagine. There is a community and discussion for almost anything you can imagine, and it's all happening on the internet right now. A community can find shape around a website interface, a theme of a site, a question, a series of statements (blog), video or audio media, and the list goes on.

Anonymity is a crucial factor in discussing online communities. Due to the interface of this medium, there is no way to hold any user accountable for what they do or say on the internet. Signing up means, for the most part, leaving your preexisting personal features such as gender, age, nationality, and sometimes manners, at the door. Signing up to become “users” of an online community allows everyone to either project their real life personality through this medium, or to design an “alter ego” to project into the community, depending on their intent. Anonymity empowers users who want to protect their identity to an extent, explore radical “abnormal” subjects, and construct a completely new identity for themselves.

Participating in online communities connects users to a whole new range of strangers, so there is a potential threat to your personal safety if caution is not exercised. To counteract potential threats, users have the ability to control what content they release about themselves. In personal encounter communities, the ones taking place in real life, we usually have little power to keep ourselves anonymous. Unless you go around lying all day every day, your close encounters will leave the public with a semi-accurate picture of who you really are. On the internet, you're allowed, and almost encouraged, to keep your real self a secret. Depending on how trustworthy an online community may seem, users may share real information. The net simply allows community members to filter what they want to share.

Anonymity is a positive feature of online communities because it provides comfort for many users in the exploration of radical interests and content. There are some topics within each culture that fall into the taboo category. The anonymity provided by the internet allows users to approach content they might feel uncomfortable exploring in a personal setting. This could apply to teenagers, for example, who are nervous about sex and don't feel well asking their parents or teachers for advice. The net could help people who are living in a restrictive conservative cultural/ religious context, who want to explore ideals that are perceived as “contradictory” to their lifestyle. Communities on the internet allow safety in discussing awkward, radical, obscure, or illegal topics. By shuttling users past some real-world constraints, and connecting many anonymous contributors, online communities are enlightening us with new knowledge to enhance our lives.

There is always room to debate if the means, practices, and content of the internet are appropriate for everyone, but I'll stand by my claim that communities are places for people to grow. Users are bound to encounter web content and communities that challenge their beliefs and values. These challenges posed by content are valuable because they can bring new perspective to the universe, human beings and our cultures. Although the information may not all be completely true or even partially true, online communities are great for expanding the mind. The countless databases, links, and information freeways are connecting us at a reach, impact and speed to which no community has ever achieved.


Is anonymity a good thing?

Hi Amo, thanks for the blog, I agree that community is definitely a place to grow.  As for the anonymity piece, I am still not sure if I think it is a good thing or not.  Yes I agree it allows people to explore topics and ideas that are taboo in their community, but I get frustrated because I feel that people are all excited about the positives and they don't pay attention to the negatives, and there are many and they are big.


Problem 1: A lack of genuine humanity.

Yes I know there is an argument that you could make to the point that people are free to be more themselves without having to worry about social and cultural constraints.  But I think this is only true in the rare case.  So much of the internet is fake and not true.  You have to admit that you have to swim through a lot of crap and phishing to find an interesting and potentially genuine person on a forum or chat room space.

It is great to use our imagination to explore all sorts of possibilities and to try out new ideas and identities but we can’t lose sight of who we really are.  It is the difference between living in fantasy and reality.  I think there is a danger as more and more people prefer their online fantasy to reality.


Problem 2: A lack of accountability

When people are anonymous they no longer have any accountability for their actions.  They can say and do whatever they want.  They can slander and be disrespectful, racist, sexist ect. They even have a name for it, “trolling.”  Accountability is important, it keeps us honest, it makes us realize that what we say and do has consequences; it can have major implications on those around us.  Yes I know they can be removed from an online community, but it is easy to create a new account or join a new forum.  Another great example is cyber bullying.  The internet creates disconnect from the human impact of our actions that does not exist on the same level in face to face interactions.


I believe strongly that with freedoms come responsibility and accountability and anonymity remove’s the need for responsibility and accountability.  This scares me.

What are your thoughts Amo, how do we get the perks of anonymity while still maintaining a level of accountability and responsibility?