When the Net and the Real World Collide

By Deane Barker on October 27, 2005

A friend and I were talking tonight about the perils of setting up a Web community to compliment a real-world community. For instance, a community Web site for your church, or for your neighborhood — so a group people that would interact with each other both online and off.

(And by “community,” I mean two-way interaction — a Web site where people can post things themselves: a newsgroup-ish type thing.)

Now, Web communities can go downhill in a hurry. There’s a bigger chance for misunderstandings, and people have a tendency to be bolder and more frank when they’re writing than when they’re talking. Thus, Web communities can fragment when someone pisses someone else off, a flame war starts, feelings get hurt, etc. We’ve all seen it happen, I’m sure.

With a purely Web-based community — like we have here, for instance — there’s not too much at stake. This Web site is the only way most of us “know” each other, and if we all got in a big fight, we could all just fade back into the Net. The Internet, after all, is a big place and we never have to “see” each other again.

But say me and Matt got in a huge, vicious flamewar, and it got really ugly. And now say that he and I go to the same church. And our kids are friends. And they go to the same daycare.

What if Fabian and I were assigned the same shift to work the concession stand at the local school fundraiser?

That said, is there a greater danger when your Web community is paralleled by a “real” community? The Web-based interaction is the one more prone to social disaster, and wouldn’t that leak over into the “real” interactions?

Thoughts, anyone? Examples?

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  1. Hmmmm, I don’t know. I think that the reason online communities are prone to going downhill is because people don’t really know each other. I think that if the members of the online community knew each other in real life, they might think twice before calling someone a clueless idiot or something.

  2. I agree with Matt. I think that the ‘bigger chance for misunderstandings’ and the ‘tendency to be bolder and more frank’ come in large part from writing to people you do not expect to see.

    If you actually know someone, I think you are less likely to get into a flame war with them.

  3. I also agree with Matt and cmadler. Our neighborhood has a mailing list that stays pretty civil even when it strays off into politics. Does it stay civil because we are all of like mind? Not in this case. Our neighborhood is pretty eclectic and has a number of vocal members with wide ranging opinions. I think the main reason that it does stay so civil is because we know that sooner or later, we might eventually run into the person two blocks over that we called a clueless idiot.

    On a side note, there are two different Matt’s posting comments on the site these days. Early on in my commenting (last year) I might have posted with just “Matt” with no link also. Now, all my posts are signed Matt Smith with a link back to my site. Just wanted to clarify in case anyone was confused.

  4. On a side note, there are two different Matt’s posting comments on the site these days
    Make that 3 different Matts, and I agree with them. :-)

  5. We had a similar problem at our church, where a group of women started a Yahoo! Group for nothing other than gossping. In the end, we lost several families and many people were injured. If you are building a “community” around a ministry for the benefit of ensuring cross-communication and disseminating information – wonderful!

    If, however, you are just doing it to replace face-to-face communication, keep in mind that there is no emotion conveyed via electronic words, and that there is a false sense of freedom to say whatever you want that you wouldn’t normally say to their face.

  6. Our rave community is hilarious, online

    “someone pisses someone else off, a flame war starts, feelings get hurt, etc”

    is pretty much its definition and everyone is as random on there as they are when you meet them at raves, but when you meet them at a rave they are the friendliest people in the world. maybe thats just because they are ravers though and are all peaking at a rave.

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