Planet Mercury. 

Nicholas Danton     17 June 2002

 New Media Environment - Semester 2.

Fans and the Concept of Virtual Community.

 

 Throughout this assignment I will examine the topic of ‘virtual community’ by predominately looking at the notice board on the website www.queenzone.com, a site dedicated to the rock group Queen which began in 1996. I will look at postings on the site to see how a sense of community is created. Furthermore, I will refer to my own research to give my work an exciting and unique approach. To provide an interesting basis for my work, I will also refer to the theoretical comments which have been made about this topic.

 

 To begin I must first introduce the term ‘virtual community.’ One definition is “a virtual community is a community sharing common interests, ideas, and feelings over the Internet or other collaborative networks” (http://whatis.techtarget.com). If we compare this definition to that solely describing a ‘community,’ a strong difference is highlighted. The website http://www.yourdictionary.com defines a ‘community’ as “an interacting population of various kinds of individuals (as species) in a common location.” We can therefore see that communities are based on a common location, whereas virtual communities are based on a common interest over a communications network.

 

 Online communities are therefore based around a common interest rather than geographical location, the latter being what linked traditional communities together. Nehrlich (1997) suggests “though the members of a virtual community may live in diverse physical locations, they gather based on common interest in a virtual ‘space.’” Despite perhaps never seeing who you are communicating with, a common interest brings people together in a strong community which resembles the closeness of a family. Such an argument is reflected by my research. For my research I prompted Internet users to describe the feeling of community they experience from using the Queenzone and collected the responses. One response was:

 

    “Actually Queenzone is a dysfunctional family…consisting mostly of in-laws and out-laws” (MichaelVanMaldegiam).

 

 Just like a family therefore, you may get on with some people and not others.

 

 Rheingold (1993) also defines virtual communities in terms of their social qualities, he argues “virtual communities are social aggregations that emerge from the Net when enough people carry on…public discussions long enough, with sufficient human feeling, to form webs of personal relationships in cyberspace.” Rheingold (1993) therefore sees virtual communities in terms of personal relationships which are based on involved discussions in which human feelings are exposed.

 

 We can apply Rheingold’s view of virtual communities to my own research.

 

    “Not many of us actually know each other, so you can hide behind that, but it’s also a community because you can learn a lot about people from how they post, I think.” (Freddie-B).

 

 The above message seems to comment that human feelings and personalities are revealed via communication on the Internet which may form personal relationships in the way Rheingold mentioned.

 

 Virtual communities however are distinctly different from traditional communities as you never see who you are communicating with. Nevertheless, such an element of online communication is seen by some as extremely positive as it promotes a greater equality. Nehrlich (1997) argues:

 

    “When you are talking with somebody over the net, you have absolutely no idea what they look like, what race they are, where they are logged in from, and sometimes even what gender they are.”

 

 Communicating over the Internet means you cannot judge people on their physical attributes. Rheingold (1993) explains “people in virtual communities do just about everything people do in real life, but we leave our bodies behind.” The Queenzone illustrates this argument as when you communicate with others it is through text. You can insert a photo of yourself as part of your profile which others can view if they click beside your message, however the photo inclusion is optional. When communicating through the Queenzone what is firstly seen is text, whereas your appearance would firstly influence others through traditional visual communication.

 

 The blurring of identity on the Internet is illustrated once again by the way members of the Queenzone can choose a name for themselves which can eliminate their race and gender. Often this name has some reference to the band Queen which would promote a greater camaraderie and equality in terms of the blurring of your identity, some of the names used on the Queenzone include Cool Cat, Akindofmagic and Hitman. The band Queen therefore brings people together in a common focus, Nehrlich (1997) refers to such a situation as a ‘uniting factor’:

 

    “This uniting factor is one which is needed to form a community anywhere; however, it is even more important within cyberspace, since there are no attributes such as physical proximity to hold a group together.”

 

 By looking at virtual communities we can therefore gain a greater understanding of traditional communities which can be different and similar to those online, as we can see by their shared possession of a ‘uniting factor.’

 

 The sense of community experienced by people on the Queenzone is enhanced by the fact that people can post their own information about events and can also ask others for information:

 

    “Does anyone know where I can get hold of the introduction made by Queen at the start of the tribute gig on Mp3” (KEVPAR).

 

 People can then reply to those requesting information, resembling the close-knit nature of idealised communities. People therefore have a greater control and access over the media which forms their community. Hauben (1996) suggests “the Net gives people a media they can control. This control of information is a great power that has not been available before to the common everyday person.” Queen fans can therefore contribute information which fulfils their needs, information which may not be provided by traditional media such as television or radio.

 

 Contributing information to the Queenzone and fulfilling someone’s needs may give some individuals the sense that they are less isolated in society. Some may therefore see the Internet as a positive tool which provides a certain ‘cure’ for their isolation. Heim (1995) argues “‘virtual community’ seems a cure-all for isolated people who won’t give up their isolation.”

 

 However, despite the Internet’s positive intentions and promotion of easy communication, some still do not use this medium. Watson (1997:105) refers to ‘lurkers’ and describes them as “those who read posts but do not post themselves, remaining effectively invisible to other members of the group.” Some users seem not to want to be part of a virtual community, like some prefer to keep away from community life in society. The Internet can therefore promote a community or be a distant medium depending on the user’s intention.

 

 The sense of community people experience using the Queenzone is illustrated by the sites name. The word ‘Queenzone’ for example implies a specific area to discuss Queen. Entering a new area may therefore be daunting to some:

 

    “Hi all. This is my first posting here, so…since I’m a ‘zone’ virgin, please be gentle to me” (Rainbow).

 

 Such a daunting feeling resembles the emotions you may feel offline. If a town person for example had to enter a country community and meet the locals in the public house, they too may feel a similar uncertainty.

 

 One could argue that traditional communities reinforce a sense of exclusion to outsiders something reinforced by virtual communities. To contribute information on the Queenzone you have to login as a member. Once you have done this a password is sent to you. Users then have to type in their password and their email address each time they want to post some information. One could suggest that this restricts ease of accessibility. Dedicated Queen fans may not mind following this long process as it will bring them nearer to their idols, however, non-Queen fans may find the login process rather tedious, discouraging them from joining the discussion.

 

 One could suggest that when online you therefore only meet a certain restricted group of people. Rheingold (1993) explains:

 

    “The places I visit in my mind, and the people I communicate with from one moment to the next, are entirely different from the content of my thoughts or the state of my circle of friends before I started dabbling in virtual communities.”

 

 Rheingold (1993) seems to be suggesting that online communities are part of another world which allows you to choose your thoughts and friends. Virtual communities are therefore based on a sense of exclusion. Hauben (1996) argues “on the Net, one can connect to others who have similar interests or whose thought processes they enjoy.” Such a quote seems to be suggesting that you can connect with others who interest you and exclude others that do not. However, in traditional communities based on physical location you may meet others with different views, increasing your knowledge and understanding. One could therefore suggest that interest based virtual communities, like the Queenzone, are limited in terms of those you meet and the views you engage with.

 

 The virtual community based around Queen fans is part of the fan and star relationship. One could argue that this is a particularly distant relationship as fans may never see or speak to the star they admire. This distant relationship is also mirrored in the relationships the fans share. Before the Internet fans may have communicated with others from around the world at conventions or through magazines based around a specific star and may have only briefly talked to them once a year for example. One could argue that as the fan community was based on distant relationships it particularly suited the distant form of communication promoted by the Internet. Now fans have use of the Internet they can meet more regularly, however, they will still never get to know the star they are admiring, in the same way that they will never know who they are communicating with.

 

 To provide a more accurate picture of those who are part of virtual communities, I asked the users of the Queenzone for their gender, age and nationality. My research indicated that there was a higher proportion of males to females engaging with the Queenzone (figure 1). Such results reinforce the findings of Hauben (1996) who suggested “there is a relatively large male to female population on the Net.” I also discovered that most users were from Western countries (figure 2) reinforcing the research on http://mysiteinc.com/taxfreedom/demographics.html, users were also mainly in their teenage years (figure 3).

 

 The characteristics of those who use the Queenzone inform our understanding of  Internet users in general. One could therefore suggest that it is mostly males using the Internet who are stereotypically more technologically aware. The teenage group are also stereotypically more interested in music, the basis of the Queenzone and would have unlimited time access to the Internet at School, College or University. The Western origins of the users also reinforces the idea that more Internet users are from developed countries with technologically advanced societies.

 

 We can therefore see that those who use the Queenzone have similar characteristics reinforcing a strong community. However, we could again say such a community is limited as it predominantly revolves around a certain young, male and Western group, the group traditionally treated with the most status in society. Although the Queenzone is just one example of a virtual community it does make us wonder whether other virtual communities are limited to members with such characteristics.

 

 Despite the limited nature of virtual communities, some have still stressed the sense of liberation attached to them. Rheingold (1993) suggests that the Internet can reinforce what Habermas (1991) referred to as the public sphere, he argues “we temporarily have access to a tool that could bring conviviality and understanding into our lives and might help revitalize the public sphere.” The public sphere is a place where people can talk and argue about different issues for the good of society. Such sense of varied public discussion prompted by virtual communities is illustrated by a quote by Hauben (1996), “Net society differs from off-line society by welcoming intellectual activity. People are encouraged to have things on their mind and to present those ideas to the Net.” Users of the Queenzone for example are encouraged to post new topics about various issues in an effort to stimulate discussion with others, an example could be a topic started about the song Imagine which Queen performed:

 

    “I have heard that it was only played live once, and I have also heard that they played it from the day Lennon was shot (or whatever show they had right after) until the end of the tour. So what really happened?” (Mr. Bad Guy).

 

 The way in which people can post new topics illustrates how the Internet can be a participatory intellectual area. However, virtual communities are based around a shared interest so what they discuss reinforces similar views and is not an overall reflective public discussion. One could therefore suggest that you only learn about one issue which in this case is the band Queen.

 

 However, one could still argue that virtual communities are more liberating than traditional communities due to the control users access over their virtual space. A member of the Queenzone feedback team commented:

 

    “Queenzone isn’t really regulated. If you start deleting/editing posts cries of ‘free speech’ abound (and rightly so). I guess it is just self regulation, with people arguing out any differences they may have” (richard@thinkingwebsites.com.au).

 

 In this case the virtual community is not controlled by rules and regulations in the manner of traditional communities. Participants can say what they wish which defines virtual communities as distinctly different areas of communication.

 

 The fan community could therefore be classed as untraditional as it is based around a star and not geographical location as is a traditional community. One could therefore argue that this non-traditional community has repositioned itself on the Internet as it serves its needs more conveniently than traditional media like magazines. Such a situation has raised concerns from the Queen fan club magazine. The editorial of The Official International Queen Fan Club magazine (Winter 2002) states:

 

    “Due to the huge popularity of the Internet and particularly Queenonline and the fan club website, we have had to have a re-think on the content of the fan club magazines. It’s obvious that any ‘news’ that we print in the magazines is, to those with Internet access, ‘old’ news by the time you get the magazine due to the speed it gets on the websites.”

 

 One could argue that fan club magazines have a great deal to worry about. Some fan websites have developed from being purely textual like the Queenzone, to being fully interactive. The band Aerosmith have teamed up with Worlds.com and have produced Aerosmith Worlds Player. Once fans have downloaded this software from www.worlds.net they can walk around Aerosmith World as different characters and talk to other fans in a 3D virtual reality world (appendix one). In the World you also have the chance to watch Aerosmith play live and can download other interactive rooms to enhance your experience.

 

 The fan community have therefore embraced the new medium of the Internet and this medium has responded and enhanced their desires to get closer to the stars they admire. The fan community’s embracement of the Internet has therefore had an effect on other mediums such as print which maybe declining as illustrated by the Queen fan club magazine.

 

 When researching this topic I also gained a greater understanding of the Internet as a research tool. I found that it was almost impossible to find information on virtual communities with relation to fans. Many of the sites dedicated to virtual communities which the search engines highlighted were business sites interested in advertising and marketing companies to profitable virtual communities (http://home.teleport.com/~smithjd/lern/IPN_ovv.htm). Smith (1997) argues that the Internet has become a marketing and advertising tool so it is advisable to look at the motivation of Internet sites, a factor I also had to consider.

 

 I was looking for solely academic sites, however, the search engines did not recognise this. Such a disadvantage is highlighted by Edwards (1998) “be careful of what you find via search engines – remember that they are mindless robots which cannot distinguish the good from the bad.” In terms of my research it would have been useful if the search engines could have been programmed to solely find academic sites, however this was not an option.

 

 The research I engaged in also highlighted the ethics of using the Internet as a research tool. Although I highlighted to the users of the Queenzone that I was looking for comments on the issue of ‘virtual community’ for an assignment, I did not explicitly say I would transcribe them in my research. Discussing such studies King (1996) states “these studies often involve the lack of informed consent, where the group members under study are unaware they are being monitored.” One could therefore argue that my research was unethical to some extent, however, it highlighted to me an issue I had not previously considered.

 

 My research may have therefore seemed limited by predominantly looking at one website, however, I have gained a great insight into the ethos of virtual communities. One could argue that virtual fan communities revolve around certain individuals with particular characteristics, who converse about a common interest. Such communities are very participatory often allowing users to contribute information and engage with the site. Users also have the chance to expose their feelings but this seems optional as such communities have been particularly embraced by those who prefer distant communication with others. Such individuals have left older media behind, in favour of new technology. Such technology however seems to have brought them closer to the distant stars they admire and further away from physical interaction and the society they live in, a situation this community may prefer.    

 

 

Word count = 2,947.

 

 

 

 

 

Bibliography.

 

Edwards J (1998) The Good, The Bad And The Useless: Evaluating Internet Resources http://www.ariadne.ac.uk/issue16/digital/

 

Habermas J (1991) The Structural Transformation Of The Public Sphere The MIT Press.

 

Hauben M (1996) The Net And Netizenshttp://www.columbia.edu/~rh120/ch106.x01

 

Heim M (1995) The Nerd In The Noospherehttp://www.ibiblio.org/cmc/mag/1995/jan/heim.html

 

King S A (1996) Researching Internet Communities http://www.concentric.net/~astorm/eth-abs.html

 

Nehrlich E (1997) Forming Communities In Cyberspacehttp://www.nehrlich.com/cyber/cyberessay.html

 

Rheingold H (1993) The Virtual Community: Introduction - http://www.well.com/user/hlr/vcbook/vcbookintro.html

 

Smith A (1997) Criteria For Evaluation Of Internet Information Resources http://www.vuw.ac.nz/~agsmith/evaln/index.htm

 

Watson N (1997) Why We Argue About Virtual Community: A Case Study Of The Phish.Net Fan Community In Jones S G (ed) Virtual Culture. Identity And Communication In Cybersociety Sage Publications.

 

Appendixes.

 

Appendix One From http://www-static.us.worlds.net/cgi-bin/download/download.cgi?action=min&bundle=Aerosmith1WCurrentVer

   

Michael Jackson & Freddie Mercury comparisons.

Rare Queen videos.

Rare Freddie Mercury photos.

Michael Jackson & Freddie Mercury dissertation.

Watch a rare Queen video.

Tribute to Freddie Mercury 2001.

Queen book reviews.

Queen zone essay.

Rare David Bowie videos.

Rare Boy George videos.

Links.

Home.

 

 

 

Nicholas Danton 2010:

 

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