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Professional Virtual Communities Reflect Modern Times
Part 1: Computers talking to computers - People talking to People
by Ann Shlapobersky

Language is about communicating. Language learning is about teaching people who speak different languages to communicate to each other. Computers have allowed these speakers of different languages to not only communicate, but also create communities of individuals whose need to communicate would surpass all physical barriers.

"In the 1960s and 1970s, the U.S. Department of Defense's Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) funded a small group of unorthodox computer programmers and electronic engineers who wanted to redesign the way computers were operated. With keyboards and screens and graphics, people could interact directly with computers instead of laboring through the time-consuming and arcane mediation of punched cards and printouts. Some young programmers felt their virtuosity required the kinds of computers that a good mind could play like a musical instrument, in real time. They called their crusade "interactive computing," and still speak in terms of the "conversion experience" that led their research. When the ARPA-funded crusaders succeeded in creating the computers they wanted, they discovered that they also wanted to use their computers as communication devices." (Rheingold, H. 1993)

How did this affect us, the 'need for instant communication' generation? After waiting another two decades for research, development and the telephone system to catch up with visions of a university 'Nerd's' modem, a network was invented that connected personal computers. Now, not only military and computer programmers could share information and communicate over long distances, but every man, woman and child too.

The introduction of CMC (computer mediated communication) in society and education, its immense growth over the last 20 years and the rise of communication through a variety of Internet-based environments has added another dimension to the definition of community. Since Howard Rheingold popularized the term virtual community in his 1993 book "The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier, many people have tried to find a proper definition for the phrase. According to Rheingold, "virtual communities are social aggregations that emerge from the Net (Internet) with enough people carry on those public discussions long enough, with sufficient human feeling, to form webs of personal relationships in cyberspace."

Jones (1997) distinguishes virtual communities between the cyber-place with which a virtual community operates, in other words the technological infrastructure and the community itself, its discourse and how this affects its community. He further notes that there are many different types of online discourse based on different types of virtual communities. Many studies have been done in recent years trying to identify and differentiate between these different types of online discourse. Other studies are trying to find out how much this new discourse has affected our everyday spoken language and cultural development. If this interests you, search Google for 'online discourse' and enjoy yourself. Of course the language of the computer and Internet has become so much part of our lexicon that it's hard to remember a time when we didn't talk on Skype, write emails or send by phone SMS shorthand.

What types of platforms allow people within virtual communities to talk? The first forms of network communication were through USENEST and BBS. Usenet is one of the oldest computer network communications systems. Articles posted on USENET could be accessed by almost anyone. They were filed on the network according to subject categories called newsgroups and in turn logically organized into hierarchies of sub-topics. This format led way to web forums, mail listings and weblogs. BBS allowed users with the correct program to download and upload software and data, listening to news and music, playing games, reading news, and exchange messages with other users who had the same software. Both of these types of communication required more than your average knowledge of computers.

Realizing that the personal home computer no longer limited physical boundaries, different types of virtual communications and networked communities have developed on the Internet.

  • Email - The earliest form and most used today. Email is instantaneous and has developed a writing style of its own.

  • Mailing list - Mailing lists are one of the fastest growing forms of community networking. All email sent to a mailing list is sent to and from a single address and distributed to all those registered with the list. There are three types of mailing lists: Open list - open to anyone and the messages are forwarded automatically with no human intervention such as those looking for updates and news about a certain product, Closed list - available to only certain people such as company employees; Moderated list - messages are screened by a person(s) who decides whether the message is according to guidelines of the list, for example ETNI.

  • Discussion forum - Discussion forums are not email based. They are online text-based conference. They can be public or private. Discussion forums allow members to post messages to specific interest-based discussions developing a thread of thought, which everyone in the forum can follow. An advantage of a discussion forum is that one can choose to join in certain discussion and avoid others. Have a look at Dave's Caf? Discussion Forum in Israel

  • MUD's and MOO's - As technology developed people started looking for ways to provide more traditional community platform and develop a more personal representation of themselves and their environment. In an attempt to combine physical place with text communication, MUDs (Multiple User Domains/Dungeons) also knows as MOO's (Multi-User Domain Object Oriented) created a virtual reality place by allowing members to build a virtual world. MUDS have established themselves as places where people can maintain personal contact and interact with each other via synchronous communication. Community members can move around the environment, decorate their virtual room using textual-based commands as well as meet and communicate with others with other MUD members. MUDS owners have complete control of their environment and can delegate their power in whole or in part to selected participants. (Kollect and Smith 1999) For further information about MOO's and their influence on language learning read, Dr. Jimmy Backer, a founding member of ETNI, formal dissertation proposal on Multi-User Domain Object Oriented (MOO) as a High School Procedure for Foreign Language Acquisition.

  • Text-Chats - As the need to communicate 'right now' developed synchronous communications text-chats such as IRC (Internet Relay Chat) or ICQ where people can communicate in real time. This is a great place to meet and discuss, though it can be difficult following all the different discussion threads. Today, almost all online environments, such as Google and Skype still offer text-chats.

  • Online Verbal Chats - The newest way to communicate is through online verbal chatting, vocally talking to each other through the computer, no typing involved. Deleting the need for long distance phone bills, programs such as Skype allow you to use earphones, a microphone and computer to really talk to your family and friends anywhere in the world for free. Skype offers virtual conference (up to three people is manageable) and video calls. A person can also purchase Skype credit where you can call a regular phone or mobile phone anywhere in the world at a local rate.

Though all the forms of modern communication mentioned above do contain some of these attributes, most do not have them all. Alone, none of them could be defined as a virtual community. According to Jones' (1997) a virtual community must have: minimum level of interactivity, variety of communicators, common-public-space where a significant portion of a community's interactive group-CMC occurs and a minimum level of sustained membership

Can ETNI be defined as a virtual community? How does ETNI function as a community?


Jones, Q. (1997, December) "Virtual-Communities, Virtual Settlements & Cyber Archeology: A Theoretical Outline" Journal for Computer Mediated Communications, 3(3)

Howard Rheingold : The Virtual Community - Chapter Three: Visionaries and Convergences: The Accidental History of the Net -

Bulletin board system, Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia,

USENET, Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia,

Backer, Dr. James A. (1998) Multi-User Domain Object Oriented (MOO)as a High School Procedure for Foreign Language Acquisition .

Kollack, P. and Smith, M. (1996) Managing the Virtual Commons: Cooperation and Conflict in Computer Communities Computer-Mediated Communication: Linguistic, Social, and Cross-Cultural Perspectives, p. 109-128

Further reading:

Coate, John (1992) Cyberspace Innkeeping: Building Online Community, Copyright 1992,93,98 by John

Pincas, Dr.Anita (1999) Online Discourse, Institute of Education, University of London,

Bregman, Jay & Koay, Leon (4/2/00) Deliberative Discourse Online Working Draft,

Free, Robert M. (1995) MUD - Multi-User Dungeon/Domain/Domicile/Dimension/Dialogue,

Fanderclai, Tari Lin (1995) MUDs in Education: New Environments, New Pedagogies Computer-Mediated Communication Magazine/ Volume 2, Number 1 / January 1, / p. 8.

Lorraine, Sherry (2000) The Nature and Purpose of Online Conversations: A Brief Synthesis of Current Research Senior Research Associate. RMC Research CorporationCopyright 2000 AACE.

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