Saturday, November 1, 2008

The Kingdom of Macaria -- Are virtual communities egalitarian?

The Kingdom of Macaria (Gabriel Plattes 1641) describes a mythical kingdom where the king is wise and noble and the inhabitants live in great prosperity, health and happiness. Where all good men are respected, vice is punished and virtue is rewarded.

The prevailing wisdom in many discussions defining online community illustrates that these communities are egalitarian by nature. The great leveling tendencies of the net serve to hide distinctions in economic status or individualized traits. Thus, Plattes' Kingdom should be easily achieved. An essential component is that the anonymity granted to each user serves to reduce social and economic barriers to the point they no longer matter. On the surface this paradigm is based on common sense: the user controlled visibility intrinsic to net communications serves as the leveling force. As long as the individual is able to navigate the interface and contribute to the dialogue, personal issues such as disability, economics, education, age, gender or ethnicity should have little or no effect on communication.

However, personal differences quickly become apparent during the exchanges as unique competencies come to the fore. In addition, both the access to computers and technological knowledge deepens the rift as those with up-to-date equipment and fast connections find it easier to navigate the complexities of the web. This often leads to a special type of elitism where technological expertise is granted more credibility than social interaction.

Finally, long term communities create another partition between the old garde and the new comers. New arrivals are often hesitant to participate in an active community for fear of ridicule or rejection. Established members may be wary of change. One of the most compelling problems we face is how to deal with the elitism and subsequent cliques that arise within the online environment. Factors such as specialized knowledge, member longevity and access to resources do indeed make a difference in the user experience.

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