Imagined Electronic Community
First Monday

Imagined Electronic Community: Representations of Virtual Community in Contemporary Business Discourse

In contemporary business texts corporate sponsored online communities are described as central to the commercial development of the Internet. This paper presents a history of how online community has been represented in models of Internet commerce. It critically examines the arguments, narratives and rhetorical strategies drawn on within business texts to represent online community. The paper discusses why academics have an interest in involving themselves in helping organize alternative models of online community formation in the context of moves to corporatize and commodify higher education.


1. Early Internet Business Texts & "The Community That Isn't"
2. Community as Interactive Marketing
3. Online Community and the Future of Internet Commerce
4. A Critique of Contemporary Internet Business Models
5. Conclusion: Online Community and the University


This paper explores how the online community has been represented within the discourse of business texts, and in particular business texts that specialize in describing the dynamics of "Internet commerce". The paper examines some of the changes that occur between 1994 and 1999 with respect to how this community is represented, and the role assigned it in business models.

I suggest that one can identify three rough stages in this respect. The online community is first represented in business discourse as either peripheral to commercial goals, or as a minor impediment to them. By 1995, the online community has become a synonym for new strategies of interactive marketing, as dreams of online sales fade and advertising and marketing become the primary means of making money on the Internet. In 1997 and 1998, the online community begins to be depicted as central to models of commercial Internet development, as well as to the future of narrowcasting and mass customization in the wider world of marketing and advertising.

The paper discusses two business texts to illustrate the shift in representations of the online community: Canter & Siegel's How to Make a Fortune on the Information Superhighway, published in 1994, and Hagel & Armstrong's Net Gain: Expanding Markets Through Virtual Communities, published in 1997. The paper discusses why these shifts occur. It also provides a critique of some of the ways in which contemporary business models seek to commodify and privatize the online community, to police and regulate social interaction, and to control practices of online knowledge production. The paper ends by discussing why academics may have an interest in helping organize alternative modes of community formation and knowledge production in the context of moves to corporatize and commodify higher education.

1. Early Internet Business Texts & "The Community That Isn't"

"It is important to understand that the Cyberspace community is not a community at all."
Canter & Siegel, How to Make a Fortune on the Information Superhighway

Early business texts tend to have little to say about notions of culture or community on the Internet. Texts describing online business began to emerge in 1993 and 1994 as the Internet opened for commercial development [1]. The focus of these early books and journals is on how to establish a presence on the Internet, set up a Web site, virtual storefront or Web mall, get listed on a directory service, and access lists of e-mail addresses. The Web design that grows out of such business models tends to emphasize electronic product lists, online catalogues, order forms and static mall-like architectures. There is little attention to issues of culture or community in the business models advanced. The only point in these texts where community is sometimes considered is in a chapter toward the end on "netiquette". The general thrust of these books is nicely summarized in the title of a section from one of the most popular books on Internet commerce, Ellsworth's Internet Business Book. It reads: "If you build it they will come". Internet users are the anonymous "they" in this formulation, an undifferentiated mass, and Web commerce is primarily about setting up a shop in cyberspace to which "they" will naturally gravitate [2]. Precisely who "they" are and how they interact with each other is of little importance in these texts.

One of the first business texts to consider the online community in any detail is, ironically, Canter & Siegel's book How to Make a Fortune on the Information Superhighway. The irony of this stems from the fact that it was Canter and Siegel's actions that came to symbolize for many Net users that their community was under attack by commercial development [3]. Because of the enormous controversy they caused, Canter and Siegel display a self-consciousness about questions on the online community that is absent in previous business texts.

Canter and Siegel's account of the Internet and of doing business on it is organized around a very familiar trope, namely the Internet as frontier [4]. For example, in a chapter entitled "What it Means to be a Pioneer", they write:

In Cyberspace, the homesteading race is on. Hoards of anxious trailblazers are prospecting for the best locations in Cyberspace. At the moment, everything seems up for grabs. We've staked our own claim. We've explained to you how to do the same. While you may need some of the pioneer spirit to get involved in cyberselling, the good news is that you won't have to live in a tent and brave the elements to make your fortune. The worst you will have to deal with is some misguided electronic vandals and the foolishness of a few flames.

The frontier narrative pervades Canter and Siegel's writings, and is central to their understanding of the Internet, the people who use it, and the nature of online commerce. They begin their book by distinguishing between two populations that exist on the Internet: "natives" and "pioneers". "Natives" are those who have so far constituted the majority on the Internet, and include researchers, students, those working in government institutions and other non-commercial areas. "Pioneers", on the other hand, are those in business who are advancing the process of commercial "exploration". Canter and Siegel's deployment of the frontier trope works to define exploration as the expansion of commercial development into the "undeveloped" lands of cyberspace.

In this scenario, much as with Frederick Jackson Turner's original frontier thesis [5], the people who are already there exist largely at the margins of the narrative (Canter and Siegel argue that the only real cultural contact necessary is that pioneers must "learn a few words of the language you can converse with the natives"). The native population exists primarily to be explored and mapped by commercial pioneers. Natives are equated with the frontier itself, subsumed into the "natural" environment, incorporated into a progress narrative in which this environment is "developed". Canter and Siegel's text represents the Internet and the groups of people on it as part of nature, and both are seen as operating via certain immutable natural laws [6].

There are several aspects of Canter and Siegels' representation of the Internet community that are worth focusing on. Firstly, the population of Internet users, when not merely a territory to be mapped, constitutes a potential threat to the operation of Internet commerce. Canter and Siegel state that like the Old West with which analogies are often drawn, "Cyberspace is going to take some taming before it is a completely fit place for people like you and me to spend time" (p. 187). The many negative characteristics attributed to natives reinforce the idea that they cannot be left to control the Internet. They are described as incapable of self-government, as having the wrong attitude to private property, as prone to committing criminal acts, and as consisting of significant numbers of "electronic sociopaths" [7]. In a chapter entitled "Crimes in Cyberspace: Why the Net Needs You", Canter and Siegel describe the threat that groups of Internet users pose to online commercial practices, and how this population ought to be policed and disciplined in ways that safeguard business interests.

Secondly, Canter and Siegel's definition of the native population is constructed so as to deny the legitimacy of their claims for control or ownership of cyberspace. Canter and Siegel stress that unlike pioneers, whose work transforms the landscape in productive and worthwhile ways, natives produce nothing of value. Their resistance to commercial development is defined as aggression, and their attitude to private property is deemed so backward that claims to ownership or control carry no weight. One of the most striking aspects of the rhetoric of How to Make a Fortune on the Information Superhighway is the way it reproduces some of the language and arguments used by Locke in the "property" sections of the Second Treatise. There Locke asserts that land belongs primarily to those who engage in productive labor to develop it. Land in the Americas does not belong to native peoples, since they do not, for the most part, have the correct concept of property relations and do not develop it in properly sanctioned ways. Indigenous people who resist European development can thus be defined in certain contexts as "aggressors" [8]. Canter and Siegel's text works similarly in defining opposition to commercial development as illegitimate hostility by a population with only limited claims to ownership and control of the "lands" they inhabit. Canter and Siegel argue that the deficiencies evidenced by natives stem from the fact that the Internet was for so long populated by academics and researchers, who made volunteerism and a "gift economy" the norm [9].

However, the most distinctive aspect of Canter & Siegel's text is the way it is organized in consistent opposition to the notion that cyberspace is characterized by authentic social or community relations. The people who inhabit the internet are described as "users", "readers", "individuals", and "consumers", but never in terms that connote community or sociality. Canter and Siegel go to great pains to dismiss the idea that the "natives" who populate the Internet constitute any kind of community. They describe the Internet as 'the community that isn't', (p. 187) and write:

Some starry-eyed individuals who access the Net think of Cyberspace as a community, with rules, regulations and codes of behavior. Don't you believe it! There is no community ... Along your way, someone may try to tell you that in order to be a good Net "citizen", you must follow the rules of the cyberspace community. Don't listen. (p. 12)

Canter and Siegel argue that the Internet consists solely of "individuals and inert messages", and that just as owning a phone does not make one a member of "phonesville", communicating and interacting online does not make one part of an online community [10]. Canter and Siegel's notion of the Internet, and of how commercial development is to proceed, is predicated on the notion that the online community does not exist. In this way they can argue that no social or community relations exist that could be encroached upon by the spread of advertising and commercial activity. While How to Make a Fortune on the Information Superhighway is almost hysterical in its attitude to the online community, it is nonetheless symptomatic of business texts produced at the time, in that it presents community as largely at odds with commercial development of the Internet. In Canter and Siegel's text, as with most others written in the same period, the online community is at best irrelevant to models of Net commerce, and at worst an impediment.

2. Community as Interactive Marketing

"The successful marketspace will invite consumers into a communal experience and let them meet people as well as buy will make shopping a transaction involving not just goods and services but also experience. It will not forsake community for commerce."
Rayport and Sviokla, Harvard Business Review, 1995.

Less than two years after Canter and Siegel's book was published an explosion of interest in the online community is identifiable in texts about Net commerce. Almost every journal, magazine or guide starts mentioning community. "Making your on-line business a site that fosters community", is described by Internet World magazine as one of the "5 Keys to Successful Net Sales" (March, 1995 issue). The editors write that "even though a store resides in cyberspace, it should build a community - a place where it feels good to shop." A particularly influential article in this regard is Rayport and Sviokla's "Exploiting the virtual value chain", which appeared in the December 1995 issue of the Harvard Business Review. This paper was discussed in newspapers such as the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and leading industry journals, and became one of the most cited texts in e-commerce literature. It makes the case for the centrality of community to online business models. The authors describe the dynamics of what they term the emerging "marketspace" (the Internet and related networks). Rayport and Sviokla describe in some detail how marketing, advertising, and general commercial development is to be integrated into concern for and analysis of community dynamics. Rayport and Sviokla's article marks the beginning of a new focus within business discourse on the importance of the online community to electronic commerce.

There are several primary reasons why this sudden interest in the online community emerges in 1995 and 1996. Firstly, the virtual mall model proved a disaster. The motto "if you build it they will come" became a grim joke, a slogan that would haunt early business texts. Few people came to such sites, and fewer still bought anything. In a 1997 survey of Internet business models, Christopher Anderson of The Economist argued that "the virtual malls that have sprung up in their thousands over the last 2 years have been an abject failure", and added that "the industry has defined electronic commerce too narrowly". According to Anderson, a successful alternative model could be found in "the few businesses that begin grouping themselves by theme, joining or creating communities with shared interests".

Secondly, as with traditional mass media, advertising became where money was made online. Or as a number of industry commentators put it, the focus switched from talk of sales, to talk of "capturing eyeballs". Marketing analysts discovered that while people might not buy very much online, they did make purchasing decisions based on what they read on the Net. It thus became important to bring people back to a site, and "community" became a kind of synonym for this imperative. This is exemplified in Sean Wolfe's statement in "The Community Conundrum" that

"most sites we see claiming to build community are really just trying to get their users to interact in order to develop a repeat audience."

Thirdly, from 1995 onward a significant amount of demographic information had been gathered, and a number of key market segments identified. 'Community' became a polite way of talking about audience, consumer demographics, and market segmentation while seeming sensitive to Internet users, their culture and community [11].

In practice, what this new found interest in "community" often meant when translated into Web design was that commercial sites began to add chatlines, bulletin boards and games, forms for people to enter personal information, and celebrity guests to host discussions. In 1995 and 1996 one can identify a movement away from the Internet mall design that dominates early business texts. There is instead an attempt to build sites that enable interactivity, allow users to communicate with each other and with site sponsors, and which bring people back. Many commercial Web sites began to graft interactivity and various forms of "communityware" with advertising and marketing strategies. Cybersight, a design company that has worked on some of the most prominent corporate Web sites on the Internet, described their approach to building community in the following terms:

"We're looking for applications that give users the freedom to talk to one another, but also keep people focused on promotion. The trick is to get interactivity that keeps the product always on the top of the user's mind" (FromInternet World (1997), p. 7).

An example of the rather strange hybrid of "community" and marketing imperatives that emerges in Web design during this period can be seen in the Café Herpé site , shown below [12]:

Sponsored by the pharmaceutical company SmithKline Beecham, Café Herpé promotes itself as "the genital herpes resource information spot for U.S. audiences". The site is designed to simulate a café, complete with reading lounge, espresso bar, terrace and buffet. Café Herpé strives valiantly to make genital herpes a topic of relaxed conversation and fun. The site has games, a "gallery of romantic art", a guestbook, links to online support groups and Web sites, as well as information about genital herpes and SmithKline Beecham products [13]. Café Herpé is paradigmatic of the first wave of Web sites to make an online community a central part of their business model. In this model "community" functions largely as a synonym for new strategies of interactive marketing, and signals a shift in Net commerce from a focus on product sales to a focus on advertising, promotion and the collection of demographic information.

3. Online Community and the Future of Internet Commerce

"Community is one of the biggest buzzwords in the Internet business, with nearly every site trying to incorporate some kind of bulletin board or chat room."
"Must AOL Pay "Community Leaders"?" Janelle Brown, Salon.

"In electronic markets...your creativity and ability to leverage the communal etho of the marketspace dictate whether you win or lose."
Hagel & Armstrong, NetGain: Expanding Markets through Virtual Communities.

In contemporary business discourse, the online community is no longer seen as an impediment to online commerce. No longer is it thought of as just a useful add-on to Web sites, or as merely a synonym for strategies of interactive marketing. Instead, community is frequently described as central to the commercial development of the Internet, and to the imagined future of narrowcasting and mass customization in the wider world of marketing and advertising. In the last few years business texts with titles like "Expanding Markets through Virtual Community", "Creating Compelling Commerce Sites Via Community", and "Hosting Web Communities: Building Relationships, Increasing Relationships and Maintaining a Competitive Edge" have become widespread. Furthermore, statements like the following are now commonplace in the business press:

Many electronic commerce sites have fallen short of expectations because they failed to create compelling reasons for customers to change their buying behavior. The missing element: community. By using interactive discussions, businesses can infuse electronic commerce sites with community, thereby delivering value in addition to convenience, enhancing perceived trustworthiness, and creating online experiences conducive to shopping instead of simple browsing or buying. "Virtual communities", built around products can increase sales, reduce marketing and customer acquisition costs, foster brand loyalty, and provide cost-effective market research and focus is the fourth evolution of the Internet, and commerce sites that don't harness it will miss out (Wilson, 1999).

Such claims about online community have been accompanied by heavy investment in commercial community software, by the sale of large Web-based community sites to major media corporations and Internet portals, [14] and by sky-high stock market valuations for community sites such as Geocities, iVillage, Talkcity and AOL (which collectively boast around 25 million members).  As the full-page advertisements for corporate sponsored online communities appearing in the New York Times suggest, virtual community has become big business [15].

One of the most influential business texts to theorize commercial community development is Hagel and Armstrong's Net Gain: Expanding Markets Through Virtual Communities [16]. I will discuss some of the main arguments, figures and narratives used by Hagel and Armstrong to represent the online community, since their text has been important in shaping the way community is talked about in business discourse and has influenced corporate Web design. As I shall describe in the next section, it has an interesting status in the context of recent charges made concerning the exploitation of online community members.

Hagel and Armstrong talk about the online community in a way that differs significantly from Canter and Siegel. Hagel and Armstrong not only acknowledge the existence of "community", but consider in almost ethnographic detail the different kinds of community possible. Hagel and Armstrong believe that commercial development of the Internet centers on organizing and exploiting the potential of virtual communities. They write:

"We suspect that the skills required to organize a community will be as important as any initial advantage a company might appear to have based on its assets....The keys to becoming a successful organizer over time will be the abilities to aggregate members, retain them, and encourage them to make transactions."

The text provides a detailed description of how to build or take over online communities. For example, it describes how to train "community architects" whose job it is to "acquire members, stimulate usage, and extract value from the community". Hagel and Armstrong describe how to identify community members who can be paid to manage sub-communities, and volunteers who can be encouraged to build parts of a site.

In contrast to Canter and Siegel, who represent the user environment as something to be controlled, dominated and planned, a landscape to be re-territorialized and re-populated with people who engage in or are receptive to commercial development, Hagel and Armstrong do not consider online space as something one can design or organize the way one would a mall. Hagel and Armstrong's discussion of community is organized around metaphors of the organic and of the ecosystem. For example, at the center of Hagel and Armstrong's model is what they term an "organic management style" (p. 155). They argue that with an online community a radically different approach to management must be followed in which a high degree of autonomy is ceded to members, and managers display a "a gardener's touch" (p. 158). They write that "seeding, weeding and feeding are the best metaphors for online organization and evolution." The figure of a dynamic, partially "self-organizing" ecosystem is perhaps the most pervasive means of representing virtual communities, a result of the fact that member-generated content and interaction is of prime importance in models of commercial online community, and this cannot be controlled too directly. An organic management style involves such practices as "planting" conversations and provocative ideas, allowing a high degree of self organization, and carefully balancing factors such as size, intimacy, continuity and growth.

In contrast to Canter and Siegel, there is little sense of conflict either between the "native" population and commercial developers, or within "native" populations. The figure of the community as "self-organizing" ecosystem helps to promote the idea that community interaction is essentially conflict free. The community will naturally contain a mix of four types of people: "builders", "browsers", "users", and "buyers", and since these groups differ in value, one must try to encourage the correct ratio between them. The metaphor of community as ecosystem is used to promote the idea that if left to themselves, communities will evolve in ways that are rational, suit commercial development, do not require coercion, and which will fit traditional patterns of ownership and control. For example, Hagel and Armstrong argue that virtual communities will 'naturally' be organized less by volunteer and non-commercial groups, and more by corporations and professionals. When it comes to ownership, there exist what they term "natural owners": businesses and groups that have related interests and who are specifically suited to the task of building virtual community. Thus they suggest that Johnson & Johnson, ToysRus, HMOs and other such groups would be naturally suited to constructing and managing a community devoted to parenting. One might say that the invisible hand of the marketplace is driven more by the paradigm of a self-organizing system, rather than a Darwinian arena of struggle and conflict.

Hagel and Armstrong's central argument is that the knowledge, content, and resources produced by online communities are extremely valuable commodities. They write:

The distinctive value of on-line environments is their ability to capture and accumulate member generated content; virtual communities aggregate an enormous collective expertise that could not possibly be matched by any individual expert.

Unlike Canter & Siegel, they believe that the "gift economy" and tradition of volunteerism that exists on the Internet are assets. They assert that "in electronic markets...your creativity and ability to leverage the communal ethos of the marketspace dictate whether you win or lose." However they argue that up till now, such potential resources have been highly disorganized. They propose that community architects could organize, structure and archive community knowledges and resources so that they are searchable and accessible in ways that that are profitable to both the community, and to vendors, advertisers, and marketers.

Member-generated content is seen by Hagel and Armstrong as particularly valuable for several reasons:

  • It attracts new members

  • The investments people make in their writings and relationships foster strong member loyalty. This inhibits what the authors call "churning" (or to use the terms commonly employed in business texts, it raises "switching costs" and enables "lock-in".)

  • It enables more subtle ways of interweaving marketing and advertising, media form and content, communication and community formation than exist in traditional mass media.

  • It allows for sophisticated forms of customization, which in turn creates another barrier to people switching to a different virtual community.

  • It provides detailed and inexpensive demographic information on interests, habits, and buying practices, and reduces vendor search costs [17].

In general, an online community is seen as a means of intensifying and advancing existing trends in mass customization and narrowcasting. Thus in describing the evolutionary paths of online community development, they argue that the highest stage of development is the 'infomediary', where there is perfect symmetry between user interests, profiles, and the interests of vendors. This is where the most sophisticated mass customization can exist, where transaction costs are negligable, geography is insignificant, intermediaries disappear, where consumers are fully informed and can maximize the value of their personal information. In short, this is the "frictionless capitalism" described by Bill Gates in The Road Ahead. At this point, we stand at the threshold of the perfect market and the fully realized individual who is a "market segment of one" [18]. The interpenetration of community, communication, commerce and marketing is so perfect that they are practically indistinguishable. Or as Hagel and Armstrong put it, 'at this point the community redefines the market by becoming it.' In essence, virtual communities have the potential to enable the formation of a subject closer to the ideal, fully informed customer of traditional economic theory, and enable market efficiency to leave the realm of heavenly theory and descend to earth [19].

Hagel and Armstrong's representations of online community and strategies for developing it have been echoed in the business plans and press releases of many present-day corporate sponsored sites. Consider, for example, the case of Talkcity. Talkcity has become a pioneer in the field of commercial community development, has built a substantial network of sponsorship and cross-promotion deals, and builds customized online communities for Fortune 500 companies [20]. Compare some of Hagel and Armstrong's arguments about the commercial value of an online community with these press releases from Talkcity:

"Thanks for coming to learn more about Talk City--the Internet's leading community site. We offer our advertisers and sponsors an integrated portfolio of effective and innovative online marketing opportunities that deliver what Web marketers are looking for: real interactivity with your customers. Tighter, real-time relationships with your customers. And exceptional targeting. All at very affordable prices. We're pleased (and even a little bit flattered!) that some of the most influential brands in the world have chosen Talk City as their online community advertising destination. The list includes Procter & Gamble, Mattel, Columbia-TriStar, Intel, The Discover Card, Sears, Toyota, Microsoft and many others......As you're probably aware, community sites are one of the fastest-growing and most envied categories on the Internet today. Why? Because community sites deliver real customer loyalty and tremendous usage patterns. People who join community sites have decided to put down a stake in a cyberneighborhood, which means they'll come back and stay for long periods of time."
From the Talkcity Media Kit, May 1999,

"In addition to Intermercials, Talk City offers a variety of unique advertising and marketing vehicles which are based on its enhanced-chat Community environment. These include sponsorships, Infochats (the chat equivalent of Infomercials), online market research, and custom Community programming for advertisers who wish to build Community around their product." "Talk City, the Chat Network, Rolls Out New Advertising Medium for the Web."

In Talkcity, member-generated content is tightly integrated into marketing and advertising strategies, as in the selection of "Cool Home Pages" by members that are about television shows and films. Bulletin board topics ("What Interests You?") are clearly influenced by demographic and marketing considerations. "Interaction" between members and the community organizers is heavily inflected by product testing and market research, as in the "Speak Up Poll" that enables people to "vote" on their marshmallow consumption. The topics selected for chatline discussions provide a similar mix of promotion, advertising and market research (as in the "Fashion Chat" sponsored by Sears, in which members are urged to "tell us all about YOUR personal style").

4. A Critique of Contemporary Internet Business Models

To those committed to the project of democratizing media, and to producing what one might loosely call an oppositional public sphere, the techniques of community formation discussed in Expanding Markets Through Virtual Communities, and embodied in sites such as Talkcity are hardly encouraging. In this section I will adumbrate a critique of some of the ways in which contemporary business models seek to commodify community, to organize and regulate social interaction, and to control practices of online knowledge production.

Online community is frequently described in the popular press as a kind of "media from below". Yet in spite of the rhetoric of democracy, accessibility, participation, and utility surrounding virtual communities, real control is often very limited. Corporate-sponsored online communities are characterized by many of the same limited constructions of the "popular", the same forms of creative ventriloquism identifiable in mainstream media genres such as talk shows, "reality tv", docudramas, etc. Moreover the power of members is defined largely in terms of consumption rather than production or control of community resources. Much of the framework for conversation and interaction is constructed around the imperatives of advertising, sales and market testing. Where member opinions are sought, it is almost always in the form of surveys and polls. Which is to say a "consumer" model of power, politics and participation is being preferred over a "citizen" model that requires deliberative interaction. While members obviously use corporate sponsored community sites in creative ways for a variety of ends, it is important to note that real power is in the hands of site owners. This is evident in the closings of a number of community sites. AOL has abruptly shut down big community areas without any warning on a number of occasions. And as Brown writes in "Netscape to Community: You're Evicted", when the community area of the Netscape Netcenter Web site was closed in April 1999, members were neither consulted nor given advance notice: "No warning - canceled, the hosts let go, the community members left to consider what, exactly, happened to their home." Such acts of "weeding", to use Hagel and Armstrong's terms, have begun to occur more often as community sites come under pressure to organize member content in ways that are commercially profitable, or to get rid of them.

The strategies described in Internet commerce texts, and implemented in corporate sponsored community sites are also exploitative. Watchdog groups such as the Center for Media Education charge that community Web sites for children are being used to gather personal information and conduct market research without proper disclosure (Horowitz). A more pervasive problem exists in the way that contemporary models of Internet commerce advocate exploiting the volunteerism and "gift economy" traditions that prevail on the Net [21]. As Hagel and Armstrong note, community members produce knowledges, information and resources that are commercially valuable. Furthermore, much of the work carried out on community sites has, for many years now, been done by volunteers. For example AOL employs 12,000 workers, 10,000 of whom are volunteers. However the practice of using volunteers is coming under scrutiny, with AOL currently under investigation by the U.S. Labor Department. Unpaid AOL volunteers have been required to work specific shifts and file time cards, which may be a violation of labor laws. As community has become more central to Internet commerce, volunteers have been put under increasing pressure to engage in community building activities that are profitable. It is in part due to this tendency that volunteers were moved to complain to the Labor Department about AOL. Zaret cites the comments of a former AOL employee, who says:

"When it gets to 'We want to keep this fresh so people buy things,' you're not doing this for fun anymore - you're doing this for the company. And when you're doing it for the company you're not a volunteer anymore. There is a place for volunteers online, but not in a for-profit company. That's getting real close to exploitation."

When the question of exploitation is raised, commercial community sites typically defend themselves by echoing Hagel and Armstrong's description of online community as "organic" and an "ecosystem". Consider for example these statements by spokespersons for iVillage and AOL in defence of their use of volunteers:

" community leaders are true volunteers and not employees. Our community leaders typify the organic, member-driven nature that drives Internet community development in general ... Volunteerism is one of the central attributes of the Internet. Our hope is that the Internet's participatory nature is not what's at issue here."

AOL denies that the volunteers are that critical to developing the communities. According to AOL spokeswoman Ann Brackbill, the volunteers don't build the communities, they simply emerge out of them.

"It's less about whether [volunteerism] is critical or not critical, but is it organic to the Net and will it just happen. We think natural leaders who participate arise in both the online world or the offline world" [22].

Such representations of an online community as an organism naturalize the work done by community members. They suggest that growth, maintenance, and reproduction are qualities inherent to the system, and happen automatically. While the metaphors and narratives used to describe an online community differ from Canter and Siegel's, they still naturalize the Internet population, subsume it into the natural environment in a way that denies both the legitimacy of work done and the potential for claiming ownership rights.

The online community is frequently described as an alternative to traditional mass media, yet it is being rapidly integrated into existing networks of corporate commodification. In texts such as Hagel and Armstrong's, and in the press releases of community developers, the online community is described primarily as a means of advancing existing techniques of market segmentation, mass customization and narrowcasting. The online community is touted as a more sophisticated way of inscribing commercial imperatives into communication and interaction. Many of the same mass media genres that interweave marketing, advertising, media form and content, have been produced for online communities. Online equivalents to product placement, complementary copy, and advertorials abound, and companies such as Talkcity have pioneered new genres such as "infochats" and "intermercials" (the CEO of Talkcity states that their aim is to develop "Internet advertising [that] will draw upon the Net's unique real-time and social interactive qualities" [23].). The Internet greatly extends the ways in which content, marketing and sales can be fused. For example, many online news sites collect a commission for books sold via the links in their news stories with booksellers such as Barnes & Noble. As Hansell notes, "never before have publications had such a direct interest in sales directly tied to their news reports" [24].

Similar tendencies have taken shape in online communities. Content which supports links to commercial sites and can generate sales commissions is exerting a gravitational force on community formation. Community members on Geocities are encouraged to create links to company Web sites, and are paid a commission on sales that result, or for traffic generated [25]. The development of corporate sponsored community sites is becoming influenced at a number of different levels by such practices of multi-level marketing. This tends to skew community formation and the production of online resources in ways that are aligned with corporate interests, rather than public or community interests. It makes alternative forms of community formation difficult, and makes community knowledge production that responds to a variety of social interests and needs harder to attain.

Lastly, what is often downplayed in Internet commerce texts and sites is the various ways that communities are organized, regulated, and policed. Commercial online communities are organized via systems of rewards, disincentives and punishment, and the normalization of particular modes of behavior. This can be seen explicitly in the rules that members must sign when joining, in the training volunteers are given, and in the policing functions volunteers and other workers are assigned. Control and regulation is also identifiable in less explicit areas, such as in how member content is categorized, links are organized, and search facilities ordered. These modes of organization delimit the kinds of communication, interaction and exchange that are possible, and do not encourage a fully open, participatory, democratic context for community formation.

5. Conclusion: Online Community and the University

The uses of online communities in contemporary models of Internet commerce suggest the need for critical work by academics investigating the complex specifics of discourses, practices, institutions, and economics that shape the Internet. Too much academic work ignores the most important forces shaping online culture, leaves large areas of debate uncontested and doesn't really speak to groups actively involved in new media who could constitute potential allies. I would like to conclude by suggesting several possible strategic responses to the commercial development of online communities. I believe that corporate sponsored communities and their representation in models of e-commerce open up a number of challenges and opportunities for academics as teachers, knowledge producers and "specific intellectuals".

The commercial exploitation of online communities foregrounds the importance of both safeguarding and expanding spaces for community formation that are not entirely dominated by the market, that are open, participatory, diverse, and democratic. It also suggests the need to think about strategies for organizing existing online community resources in ways that keep them in the hands of the communities that produce them. In this we may be able to learn from the alternative models of online community formation experimented with by those in the technical community who are involved in the Linux, Emacs, and other "freeware" projects. We might also look to the example of community "freenets" such as the Seattle community network, and the Blacksburg Electronic village in Virginia. However models for the organization of community knowledges also exist within academia, as for example in the Linguist site, which enables communication, coordinates activities, and acts as a repository for the large amounts of electronic text produced by members of the American linguistic community.

I would also like to suggest that in our teaching practices we could attempt to produce our own "community architects". This would entail re-situating courses that deal with online information as part of an expanded project of critical practice in which students are seen not just as technical problem solvers, but as critics who actively intervene in situations in which issues of value, power, and social organization are negotiated. Such classes might promote the idea that it is important that those who are engaged in the design and publication of electronic texts, interfaces, databases, and tools for the formation of online community think about the cultural, political and social implications of their work. Training community architects could involve looking at how competing "discourses of community", and competing information architectures represent the possibilities for organizing community space, activity, access, assembly, public use, control and ownership.  However it should also involve consideration of how such knowledge can be made politically and technologically operative. This would entail working on producing alternative models of community, alternative systems of "communityware", and alternative modes for building, storing, indexing, sharing and searching community knowledges [26].

Finally, the uses of online communities in contemporary models of Internet commerce suggest the need for constructing strategic alliances between academics and community groups as a way of keeping both community's resources in the public domain. Contemporary models of Internet commerce seek to commodify social interaction and community knowledge production in ways that have certain parallels with processes identifiable in the university. The higher education sector in North America is increasingly shaped by corporatization, commercialization and digitalization. On this trend, Tim Luke sees the development of "thin, for-profit, and/or skill competency versions of virtual universities being designed by corporate consultants and some state planners". Similarly, David Noble has argued that as teaching materials and knowledge production go online, the ability of the corporatized university to automate, commodify, reproduce and claim ownership rights over academic work expands. He describes how this tendency has intensified as universities and corporations join forces to market online instructional products. Interestingly, one of the most prominent of these alliances is between UC Berkeley and AOL, the world's largest online community developer. UC Berkeley has granted AOL the worldwide rights to market, license, distribute, and promote a number of the university's online courses. Such an arrangement requires that two conditions exist: 1) that the university asserts control and ownership over the materials and teaching resources produced by teachers, and 2) that computer technologies for automation and commodification of the interactive component of education be developed. America On-line is thus a good partner in such an enterprise since, as I have argued, commercial online community development is all about organizing and exploiting the resources and knowledges produced within communities, and commodifying interaction. The commercial "courseware" being sold by some universities no doubt has quite a bit in common with the "communityware" developed by companies such as AOL.

If resistance by academics to such trends takes the form of claims that education and academics are somehow "special", exempt from conditions that so many others must work under, then we run the risk of being represented as backward, obstructionist and selfish. Instead, opposition to the commercialization of teaching ought to proceed via commitment to an expanded project of public service. Polster's notion of "knowledge collectives", in which pools of intellectual capital are organized so that usage entails a concomitant requirement to share knowledge with the collective is interesting, as is the notion of vesting with the public rights to the knowledge academics produce [27]. Another component of such a project could be a commitment to constructing information technologies that democratize online community formation and knowledge production both inside and outside the university, and which seek means of bridging the resources produced by both groups. After all, the World Wide Web, along with many other Internet protocols, was created by academics who needed tools for collaboration and communication within dispersed disciplinary communities. It seems fitting that academics should work to develop these technologies in ways that benefit a broader constituency of people.

About the Author

Chris Werry is a graduate student in the English Department at Carnegie Mellon University.
E-mail: Mail:


1. Some examples from 1994 are: The Internet Business Guide: Riding the Information Superhighway to Profit by Rosalind Resnick and Dave Taylor; Doing Business on the Internet by Mary J. Cronin; The Internet Business Book by Jill Ellsworth and Matthew Ellsworth. Many of these early books and articles go into considerable detail on how to design a site or mall, locate "anchor" stores, advertise on newsgroups and listservers, etc.

2. For example Canter & Siegel could write in 1995 that "the most popular marketing idea in Cyberspace today is the virtual mall" - Canter & Siegel, p. 118. Such a philosophy is also evident in this statement in Business Week:

There's no good road map for the net - no spatial or even conceptual plan to rely on...The answer is to create a "there" there. Build useful and interesting virtual spaces to draw potential shoppers en masse (Verity and Hof).

It is assumed that all that needs to be done to develop Web commerce is to construct Web malls and show people the way to them.

3. Canter & Siegel are immigration lawyers from Phoenix who became notorious for spamming advertisements for their services all across the internet in 1993 (this became known as the "green card incident"). Their actions led to mass protest in cyberspace, to the charge that cultural and community norms had been violated, and resulted in some quite creative acts of electronic retaliation.

4. Slotkin, a historian who has written extensively on the various uses of the idea of the "frontier" in historical and political discourse argues that the frontier narrative continues to be a myth of great importance in contemporary America:

The myth of the frontier is arguably the longest-lived of American myths, with origins in the colonial period and a powerful continuing presence in contemporary culture (Slotkin, p. 15).

Although I would question Slotkin's positing of an uninterrupted line of descent in the use of frontier mythology, current appropriations and reworkings of the idea of the frontier in writings about the Internet confirm its contemporary significance.

5. Frederick Jackson Turner's highly influential treatise "The Significance of the Frontier in American History", written in 1893, defined the roots of American identity as growing out of the experience of invading and settling the West. According to Turner, the frontier was a geographical force that profoundly shaped the character and institutions of American life, as well as the nature of American democracy and individualism. As many critics have pointed out, Turner's thesis both naturalizes and backgrounds the colonization and depopulation of native peoples by assimilating this into the development of the land by European settlers.

6. The ideological force of this, as with many previous uses of the frontier narrative in American history, is to legitimize a narrow set of interpretations of the landscape, who has the authority to own and shape it, and what its future will look like. Furthermore, this adaptation of the frontier narrative suggests "exploration" and "discovery" of an already existing space. Such "nostalgic progressivism" implies that what will be found is in a sense already there, and that what will emerge in the future is already prefigured in an idealized past of commercial and colonial conquest. The frontier narrative is thus at odds with the idea what will emerge on the Internet is open, contestable, yet to be invented by the activities of a range of different groups.

7. pp. 187-208.

8. This interpretation of the Second Treatise is outlined in Glausser. Glausser describes Locke as holding the position that: "people occupying (or claiming as property) land that they either cannot or will not develop may become aggressors against those who can and would develop that land" (Glausser, p. 208).

9. Canter & Siegel, p. 192.

10. Cantor & Siegel, p. 188. The notion that community does not exist is repeated throughout How to Make a Fortune on the Information Superhighway. The excess with which this is claimed sometimes suggests more a plea to the reader not to believe that community exists, rather than a statement of fact. For example, they write "those who buy into the myth that cyberspace is a real place also believe this illusory locale houses a community with a set of laws, rules and ethics all its own" (p. 6). They stress that this is not the case:

"It is important to understand that the Cyberspace community is not a community at all. It is simply a huge and heterogeneous group of people accessing the Internet for an endless variety of reasons" (p. 187).

Community thus appears to function as something of a specter in How to Make a Fortune on the Information Superhighway. Canter and Siegel claim community does not exist, yet it's presence continually haunts the text.

11. Numerous examples of this can be found in the sections of commercial Web sites where companies describe for advertisers how attractive their Web site users are. Since this information is usually public, available to both site users as well as prospective advertisers, the word "community" functions to signal demographic desirability while appearing sensitive to the groups of people who frequent the site. Thus several of the best known online brokerage firms invite advertisers to "reach our community" of demographically desirable members. Or as the E*TRADE Web site puts it, "Advertise with Us: Reach our community of tech-savvy investors" (

12. This illustration represents a 1997 version of the site. See Café Herpé at

13. Interestingly, evalutations of online health information seem to indicate that the best sites are offered by the federal government and academic sites. Commercial Web sites are, as one reviewer put it, "a mix of excellence and exploitation, equally capable of help or harm" (Brink, p. 48). A study of commercial online sites published in the British Medical Journal indicated only four out of 41 sites provided information on how to treat a child with a fever that adhered to standard pediatric guidelines.

14. Internet World observed in August 1998 that "Web communities were the acquisition target of the moment in winter and early spring as top Internet sites eyed them as a way to turn surfers into residents and develop site loyalty" (Internet World (August 10), at

In 1999 this trend appears to have intensified.

15. has been buying three full pages of advertisements in the New York Times. See, for example, pp. A15, A17 and A19 in the June 1, 1999 issue.

16. Hagel and Armstrong work for the most influential management consultancy firm on Wall Street - McKinsey and Company. They have served a range of Wall Street clients on commercial online community intitiatives.

17. Hagel & Armstrong, pp. 8-12.

18. At times, as Hagel and Armstrong imagine this future utopia, they sound a little like old style Marxists describing how a future socialism will banish alienation and allow the emergence of an authentic, complete individual. In Hagel and Armstrong's imagination, this takes place as the individual becomes a "market segment of one", and his or her consumption is so finely tunes that desires are fully met.

19. It's woth noting that Hagel and Armstrong believe that virtual communities do not just benefit corporations and marketers. They argue that virtual communities balance the interests of all parties. In fact they believe that virtual communities shift power from "producers", vendors and corporations to consumers, customers and members. Members are empowered by getting access to value-added resources; they can use the weight of their collective numbers to demand lower prices and discounts; they gain access to the combined information and reactions of other members, particularly consumer advice and experiences (members can share information, trade experiences, and offer personal testimony about products); they can access and extract optimal value from their own demographic information, and can actively trade it; they benefit from the best fit between their needs and what vendors have to offer.

20. For example, the booksellers Barnes & Noble hired Talkcity to build community resources for the Barnes & Noble Web site, and to promote Barnes & Noble books on Talkcity communities, in an attempt to make up some of the ground lost to

21. Barbrook discusses the genealogy of this tradition, in "The High Tech Gift Economy," First Monday at

22. Brown, "Must AOL Pay "Community Leaders"?" at

23. Talkcity press release, "Talk City, the Chat Network, Rolls Out New Advertising Medium for the Web," at

24. Such connections between information, articles and reviews, and links in which sales commissions exist have resulted in a number of scandals, as for example when the New York Times revealed that lists of book recommendations with names like "What We're Reading", and "Destined for Greatness" on were bought by publishers. See Elizabeth Gardner, 1999. "Cautionary Tale, Courtesy of Amazon: You Can't Tell a Book by its Cover," Internet World (February 15), pp. 1 & 40.

25. Guernsey, "Geocities Encourages Members to Make Their Web Pages Pay," New York Times (March 18).

26. Instructive models for such projects already exist. For example, the English server, a cooperatively run student site that publishes humanities texts, journals, collections, and other scholarly resources at Carnegie Mellon University, has developed an extensive collection of community building resources. These include easy to use, Web-based tools for integrating listservs, mailing lists, text libraries, scheduling software and other collaborative devices into community sites ( The server houses many different community groups and knowledges, and has enabled a wide variety of collaborative projects between the university and community groups in Pittsburgh.

27. Polster, p. 26.


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Contents Index

Copyright © 1999, First Monday

Imagined Electronic Community: Representations of Virtual Community in Contemporary Business Discourse by Chris Werry

A Great Cities Initiative of the University of Illinois at Chicago University Library.

© First Monday, 1995-2019. ISSN 1396-0466.