Mark Wilson


J410 Position paper

Prof. Boeyink

Online Communities and their Effect On Culture

Historically, new mediums have transformed society. The printing press allowed the common man to read the Bible in common language, and helped separate religion from the control of the Latin-trained elite. Photography aided social activists, such as Jacob Riis, in spreading empathy about the conditions of the poor and homeless in city slums. Television brought the Vietnam War into America’s living rooms. The effects of past communications revolutions are virtually undeniable in hindsight.

However, the future of the Internet is unknown. In less than a decade, the invention of the World Wide Web has led to millions of web pages, and a web address in most newspaper, magazine and television advertisements. The argument has been made that the Web is merely a combination of the previous revolutionary mediums: text, photography and television. On the other hand, many believe the Internet is a new form of power. Unlike every other form of mass media, the Internet is bi-directional—publisher and reader can communicate equally and interactively. The Internet’s power to change culture lies in its ability to create likeminded communities out of previously isolated individuals. The way that these new groups exert real-life grassroots action will determine the Net’s net effect on culture.

The Internet’s most dramatic cultural effects may change groups that have been traditionally alienated from society. The homeless culture is one example of a group that is changing because of the Internet. In 1998, 73.3 percent of public libraries offered public access to the Internet, and 68.6 percent offered graphical access to the World Wide Web1. Indeed, 83.3 percent of libraries serving communities with poverty levels of more than 40 percent have an Internet connection; However, very few impoverished communities actually have a library to begin with. Nevertheless, many homeless individuals have found the Internet and, for many of them, it is their only means of communicating with distant family, friends and mainstream society.

According to the Mark Granovetter’s "Strength of Weak Ties" theory, even weak ties between acquaintances can lead to job opportunities. Free email gives the homeless a new connection to the outside world and the ability to maintain strong and weak ties to other people.2 The Homeless People’s Network, a discussion list for the homeless and formerly homeless, has had over 9000 posts since it was founded in 1997.3 Discussions on this list range from solutions to homelessness, to news, to how to find a decent shelter.

Another group that has been neglected by mainstream society is the knowledge worker. Knowledge workers and technology enthusiasts continue to be a steering cultural force on the Internet. In "Beyond the Information Revolution," Peter F. Drucker acknowledges that knowledge workers are currently being bribed by the technology industry and that progress will depend on these workers being upgraded from their mere "employee" status. When companies can no longer placate workers by "satisfying knowledge workers’ greed, as we are now trying to do, it will have to be done by satisfying their values, and by giving them social recognition and social power."4 There are many examples of workers trading their values for employment—for instance, many companies force future employees to sign non-competition contracts that either give all of the employee’s intellectual property rights on relevant inventions to the company, or prevent the employee from joining a competing company for a period of time after leaving their current job.5 However, technology enthusiasts are rewriting the standards for intellectual property by putting their inventions into the public domain. The Free Software Foundation is devoted to protecting software that free in all senses. Most proprietary software is available in a language that only machines can read and, therefore, how it works internally cannot be determined without timely, and often illegal, reverse engineering. However, the FSF believes that:

You have the freedom to run the program, for any purpose. You have the freedom to modify the program to suit your needs. (To make this freedom effective in practice, you must have access to the source code, …) You have the freedom to redistribute copies, either gratis or for a fee. You have the freedom to distribute modified versions of the program, so that the community can benefit from your improvements.6

One example of a successful open source program is Linux, which is an operating system that competes with Microsoft Windows. According to International Data Corperation, in 1998, 17.2 percent of all server operating systems that were shipped to customers were Linux based.7 The importance of copyright has also been challenged in the music industry due to the popularity of free music sharing programs such as Napster.

In "Cyberpolitics," it is argued that the Internet cannot change culture because people willingly segregate themselves into online groups that agree with each other, rather than compare opposing viewpoints.8 However, this does not necessarily have to be the case, since even likeminded groups will compare strategies and solutions internally. For instance, UCLA Associate Professor of Information Studies Phil Agre gives the example of a group of photocopy repairmen who socialized in a bar after work. "Having spent the day contending with difficult repair problems, they would entertain one another with ‘war stories’, and these stories often helped them with future repairs," wrote Agre. According to Agre, the Internet can successfully initiate change if people understand the interactions between the Internet and other social processes, and open social networking is encouraged. Furthermore, the Internet is still an unexploited avenue for political advertising, since 35.2 percent of all adult Internet users are not affiliated with either major political party.9

Although the Internet is a combination of existing mediums, it is still a powerful tool for change. The Internet gives isolated communities, such as the homeless, the ability to communicate and has fostered new ideas, such as open source software and the movement to redefine copyright restrictions. The Internet allows everyone to be a publisher. The danger is that people will flock only to the online opinions that they already support; however, even a collection of likeminded individuals can create change.




Appendix A: Footnotes

  1. U.S. National Commission on Libraries and Information Science
  2. Civille
  3. Ghosh
  4. Taking Sides, pg. 349
  5. e.g. "Making Sense Of An Employee IP Agreement
  6. Stallman
  8. Taking Sides
  9. Media Metrix; See appendix C for more information about political parties on the Internet


Appendix B: Bibliography


Phil Agre, "Building an Internet Culture," Telematics and Informatics, 15(3), 1998, pages 231-234.

Richard Civille, "Acquaintances, the Internet and the Job Market," The Internet and the Poor, gopher://

Sabitri Ghost, "Homeless People Reclaim their Power Online,"Los Angeles Independent Media Center,

Media Metrix, "CAMPAIGN 2000: Party Politics on the World Wide Web,", October 2000

Howard Rheingold, The virtual community : homesteading on the electronic frontier, Cambridge, Mass. : MIT Press, 2000.

Richard Stallman, "The GNU Project," Free Software Foundation,

U.S. National Commission on Libraries and Information Science. Moving toward more effective public Internet access: the 1998 national survey of public library outlet Internet connectivity; a report based on research sponsored by the U.S. National Commission on Libraries and Information Science and the American Library Association and conducted by John Carlo Bertot and Charles R. McClure. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1999.


Appendix C: Political parties on the web