Is physical presence necessary for community?

Tom Coates has thought a lot about moderating and facilitating online communities:

A few months ago I responded to a site that claimed The Internet is Shit with a reposte designed to illustrate that although our networks might contain difficult and unpleasant material, they also contain enough of value and facilitate enough legitimate and real communities to be able to state pretty conclusively that The Internet is not Shit. Note – not that it’s perfect, not that it doesn’t have flaws, not that bad things don’t go on in it, but that pound-for-pound it’s more useful and valuable and community-generating than it is useless or damaging or culture-destroying.

Over the last few days, the post has turned into a bit of an argumentative arena, with various posters weighing with positions on what constitutes utopian rhetoric versus what constitutes a reasonable and rational position about the possibilities of (among other things) online communities. Throughout this article various people – myself included – have stumbled in our logic, presented clumsy opinions and misunderstood each other. Nonetheless, I want to pick up one particular fragment of these arguments – a fragment that I feel strongly about and am prepared to fight vigorously about. It’s about the authenticity or otherwise of online ‘communities’. At a certain point in the debate, my sparring partner posts:

“We’re not talking about abstract information – which is expedited magnificently over the internet – we’re talking about flesh and blood people. An actual meeting is far more meaningful than tapping on a keyboard. It is substantially different. Physically congregating with other folk is the same as being on the internet as is reading a book about Tibet compared to actually going there. Or reading a menu and eating the food. You can’t reduce and flatten the physical, sensory, emotional, kinaesthetic and social world in that way.”

Now I’m going to agree with the premise that the particulars of the medium through which people communicate can add a timbre to a community and that they can faciliate certain parts of the exchange more effectively than others. On the other hand, I’d also argue that the qualities of the community space are supprted by the software that they run on, and that quite possibly that software hasn’t yet – in the ten/twenty years that it’s been being developed – quite achieved the elegance and sophistication that we take for granted in some other social spaces. But the one thing I will not stand for is this sense that online communities are somehow inauthentic because they are unphysical – or that the truncation in social ‘signal’ somehow reduces them down to a point of uselessness or redundancy. So excerpts from my reply follow:

Your analogies are hideously flawed for a start – if I communicate on the internet or by phone with someone, it’s not like a transcript of that person or a decription of that person. You’re talking as if whenever you talked to people who weren’t present physically (say via the telephone), that what you were actually doing was listening passively to bloody recordings! Of course they’re not – it’s not bloody radio! People are talking to each other!

Now obviously there are things that you can do in person that you can’t do physically online. It’s harder to guage someone’s mood, it’s harder to have sex with them, it’s harder to get intonation or a tone of voice. But it’s still communication! And the possibility of community still exists! I mean, there are many circumstances in which certain elements of the experience an interaction can be truncated – if you’re on a phone for example and can’t see the person concerned, or if they’re wearing sunglasses so you can’t see their eyes, or if you’re actually bloody deaf and are forced to lip-read, for Christ’s sake! But none of these things stop the possibilities of communication, and none of them stop people being supportive, helpful, useful, friendly or even forming communities through them. I work on the internet, and often my first experience of people is online. Sometimes my only experience of them is online. And yet we can be friends! Most of them have helped me out in some ways in the past, and I’ve helped most of them out in the past as well. Those I haven’t met, I’d like to and those I have I see regularly. But that our relationships have moved sometimes from purely online to a mix of both online and off doesn’t mean they weren’t real to begin with.

You talk about ‘tapping on a keyboard’ as if touching keys was the entire point. You’re confusing the method of communication with the communication itself. It would be like me saying, “There’s a substantial difference between communicating with someone (online) and just causing air to vibrate with your vocal chords”. It’s trivialising, innaccurate, clumsy and – frankly – stupid.

[I should apologise at this point for resorting to name calling in the final line – put it down to frustration.]

There’s a lot more to the argument that’s worth reading and talking abotu on the post itself, but I just thought I’d ask do people still think that the term ‘online community’ is necessarily an oxymoron? Do you really think that the fact you’re interacting through your fingers dramatically limits the strength of the relationships you can make?

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2 responses to “Is physical presence necessary for community?”

  1. Pete G Avatar
    Pete G

    Coates’ original “not shit!” post (linked in the body of the entry) concentrates on support groups for its supporting evidence, but all his links are to Yahoo info subcategories, not to the groups themselves. A little bell is going off in my head: perhaps the belief that groups are meeting as a result of online connection has some urban-legendness to it, and he’s reporting what he has heard, not what he knows first-hand (as perhaps I’ve been doing also).

  2. Pete Avatar

    Coates also links to a PDF presentation ( on how virtual community is dead; looks like a think-tank or academic study distilled into a (bad) sales pitch, but that presentation asks a great question: “Where does computer-mediated communication produce *better* social outcomes than face-to-face communication?” For our purposes, we want to know where the computer produces real-life outcomes *at least as good* as FTF, or outcomes *better* than it ever has in the past.