Virtual Connections: Community Bonding on the Net
First Monday

Virtual Connections: Community Bonding on the Net by Stuart Glogoff

In the mid-1990s, Howard Rheingold and Sherry Turkle reported on the social interactions of people in chat rooms and on newsgroups. While chat rooms and newsgroups continue to play a role in computer-mediated communication, the Web has assumed a prominent place in forging relationships among people with common interests. A series of community-based Web exhibits focusing on ethnic groups in Tucson, Arizona, and the U.S. Southwest, serves as a case study in how the Web is building electronic communities and renewing social capital.

Contents

Introduction
Facilitating Social Capital
Broadening Social Capital
Conclusion

 

++++++++++

Introduction

Since 1995, I have been responsible for developing and maintaining Through Our Parents' Eyes: Tucson's Diverse Community, [1] a series of community-based Web exhibits focusing on different ethnic groups in Tucson, Arizona, and the U.S. Southwest. The current exhibits feature the Mexican American, Chinese American, African American, and Native American communities, the pioneer Jewish experience, and the ethnically rich historical Old Fort Lowell neighborhood. In addition, the exhibits incorporate a variety of digital objects, such as digital audio and video, and images from slides and photographs. Since its inception, I have been struck by how visitors to these Web sites volunteer personal and family experiences, ask for assistance, or initiate a dialogue with me, a total stranger. Visitors' suggestions and comments are deposited in my e-mail in-basket regularly. For example, the following message arrived recently.

I was born in San Diego, CA. I have a brother whom I've only seen once in my life when my father died. He was on Army leave when our father died. He told me he grew up on an Indian reservation in Douglas, AZ. I found [his name] for Mesa, AZ. I don't know if it's him. I'm too chicken to call. I was in the ... website looking at all the probate and pictures etc. Whew!!! I saw one picture that reminded me of my older son's expression, which really left me curious. I do have a picture of my father when he was in the service. I never got to see any of my relatives on my father's side not THANKS to my mother.

What is it about the Internet that precipitates such openness among strangers? What dynamics exist? Howard Rheingold, in The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier (1993), [2] and Sherry Turkle, in Life On the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet (1995), [3] addressed computer-mediated communication on the pre-Web Internet, focusing on newsgroups and chat rooms. Both reported on a variety of virtual social situations, from electronic communities rising in support of its citizenry to teenagers assuming false identities. William J. Mitchell, in his important forward looking book City of Bits: Space, Place, and the Infobahn (1995), predicted that "being online may soon become a more important mark of community membership than being in residence" [4]. This certainly has been the case with many of the Web exhibits in Through Our Parents' Eyes. They have attracted, for several years, people who self-identify with its content and seek out some degree of membership. Such behavior is consistent with the view that an essential element of building a climate of trust involves feeling secure in revealing vulnerable parts of ourselves to others [5]. When people share intimate details of their lives with a virtual stranger, it affirms that an implicit context of trust has been established. The Through Our Parents' Eyes Web exhibits illicit high levels of trust among its visitors. This trust may be engendered because (physical) community members write much of the content, and historians, sociologists, and information technologists write supporting resources. Objects like images of family photographs or audio clips of a person reminiscing about experiences from decades earlier draw visitors into a personal, trusting experience. Eric M. Uslaner noted how trust reflects an optimistic world view and belief that others share ones fundamental values. The Net, he wrote, "excels in bringing together people who already have something in common - family ties, friendship, working in the same office, political views, or needing the same kind of medical information or psychological support" [6]. Judging from the e-mail, Through Our Parents' Eyes offers visitors a safe environment to share personal details of their lives.

 

++++++++++

Facilitating Social Capital

Robert D. Putnam writes about social capital in a virtual community in Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (2000). Putnam describes social capital as the reward of communal activity and community sharing. To begin understanding how social capital relates to the Through Our Parents' Eyes Web exhibits, consider how they suit Putnam's explanation of bridging and bonding.

"Of all the dimensions along which forms of social capital vary, perhaps the most important is the distinction between bridging (or inclusive) and bonding (or exclusive). Some forms of social capital are, by choice or necessity, inward looking and tend to reinforce exclusive identities and homogeneous groups. Examples of bonding social capital include ethnic fraternal organizations, church-based women's reading groups, and fashionable country clubs. Other networks are outward looking and encompass people across diverse social cleavages. Examples of bridging social capital include the civil rights movement, many youth service groups, and ecumenical religious organizations" [7].

How have the Web exhibits facilitated the type of bonding social capital that Putnam describes above? The Bloom Southwest Jewish Archives Web exhibit weaves several related threads around the major theme of the pioneer Jewish experience in the U.S. Southwest - Crypto-Jews, Synagogues of the Southwest, and Jewish religious objects. Crypto-Jews, referred to in different circles as conversos, marranos, or anusim, are descendants of Jews who were forcibly converted to Christianity. Within their families are people who secretly preserved Judaism while outwardly professing Christianity. Clandestine Jewish practices date back to the Inquisition in Spain (1492) and Portugal (1497). The Diaspora precipitated by the Inquisition drove Jews to many different regions of the world, and caused the influx of Crypto-Jews to the New World hundreds of years ago. Today, descendants report strange family rituals, such as lighting candles in a closet on Friday nights or not eating pork. Because of its geopolitical relationship to the former Spanish colonies extending from Mexico City to northern New Mexico, the U.S. Southwest has attracted an interest in the study of Crypto-Jews. People exploring a Crypto-Jewish lineage are searching the Internet for more information and discovering the Bloom Southwest Jewish Archives Web site as an important resource. There are a variety of interests exposed in the e-mail messages submitted via the Web site's comments link. Some senders treat the subject as a curiosity, while others are researching Crypto-Jews for a school project. Among others the topic has sparked an interest in family genealogy or hastened a deeply personal epiphany. The following e-mail messages are typical. Some were edited to assure anonymity and readability.


I was wondering where I might be able to find out more information about my ancestry. Several years ago my family received information about the "Carbajals", who were closet-Jews. I am presently a sophomore at [a major university] and strongly interested in doing research on my family, attempting to find out if they were in fact related to the Carbajals that are spoken of on your website. Please contact me as soon as possible.


I have converted to Judaism and after my conversion I discovered that my great-grandparents (on my mother's side) were practicing Jews. After conversion though, I realized that my mother passed on Jewish traditions that we always thought were Catholic. I respectfully seek more information, but do not know where to start. It is also difficult due to my family's strong Catholic background. I wish to get some sort of proof of my Jewish background, so that my children do not have to go through conversion too.


My family [...] from Albuquerque had been doing it's own family research when a newspaper article brought to light, the conversos. That immediately let us know where some of our strange family traditions came from. Grandmother and her generation as well as my mother for a time spoke with the lisp of Spain. And when they prayed, my mother remembers seeing the men praying with shawls on. Also, when someone died, they covered the saints and the mirrors of the house. My mother was the first one to graduate from high school. As far as we can tell, our family has been herding sheep, and using technology that wasn't too different from the middle ages (kitchen stoves, houses, etc.). After looking through numerous books about the Jews of Spain and such, I have found not one mention about Jews in the Southwest, other than the European emigration of the 1800's. It's good to know that we aren't alone. Thank you again.

 

++++++++++

Broadening Social Capital

In speaking of the impact of telecommunications and the Internet, in particular on bonding communities, Putnam states that the Internet's "net effect will be to enhance community, perhaps even dramatically" [8]. This is consistent with research that has portrayed online discussions as more frank and egalitarian than face-to-face meetings [9]. One role played by the Bloom Southwest Jewish Archives Web site is to channel these sorts of queries to homogeneous groups, thereby promoting social capital bonding. The Web pages for Crypto-Jewish studies contain information on the subject, links to unique resources, and links to articles found on the Web. When a local chapter of Kulanu "All of Us," an international group dedicated to Crypto-Jewish studies, sought a Web presence it was appropriate to extend them the resources of the Bloom Southwest Jewish Archives Web site.

Similar experiences have been found within other Through Our Parents' Eyes Web exhibits. Individuals surfing the Net for family histories, parents helping middle-school children with school assignments, and researchers who discover the Web exhibits, are touched in a way that draws them to share their feelings, raise questions, or offer to contribute new content to a site. Former marines from around the country have shared how much they identify with the experiences recounted in the oral histories of the Korean War veterans in the E-Company Marines Remembered Web exhibit. Mexican-Americans from Massachusetts to California have written e-mail in appreciation of the positive fashion that low riders have been presented in the Southern Arizona Folk Arts and La Cadena Que No Se Corta/The Unbroken Chain exhibits.

In addition, content from different sections of the Through Our Parents' Eyes Web exhibits have attracted the attention of individuals working in older media. Here are two cases where an older communications medium, in this instance television, promoted content derived from the newer. A Dallas, Texas, television station drew from In the Steps of Esteban: Tucson's African American Heritage images for a feature on African American aviators that aired during last year's Black History Month. A regional PBS production featured Esther Tang as a local program complementing Ken Burns' mini-series The West. Interestingly, the PBS program drew generously from the Web pages on Ms. Tang in The Promise of Gold Mountain: Tucson's Chinese Heritage Web site. An even more traditional media, print, accounts for additional examples. During Fall 2000, two separate authors who were developing their own books about multiculturalism in the United States contacted Mrs. Tang. They requested reprints of photographs and permission to include text contained on the Web site in their forthcoming books.

In Mitchell's words, "the Net is ambient - nowhere in particular but everywhere at once" [10]. One of my favorite virtual connections attests to how the Net permeates people's lives more and more. Last year an e-mail arrived from a man in Alaska, who explained that he had seen a photograph of S.H. Drachman's cigar store on the wall of a Tony Roma's restaurant in Anchorage. He was intrigued by the photograph, which appeared to be from the early 1900s, went online and searched for links to "Drachman." The search results provided a link to the electronic text version of Just Memories, a reflective local history written by a Tucson businessman who is now in his nineties. He read the electronic text and we exchanged e-mail discussing the photograph. When I asked for the restaurant's name so I could contact the manager, he volunteered to return to it and capture a few images of the photograph using a friend's digital camera (the frame is attached to a restaurant wall). Once accomplished, he attached the images to an e-mail message. A local archivist examined the printouts to identify the photographer and establish the photograph's historical significance. I shared a copy with Mr. Drachman who reported that S.H. Drachman was his uncle. He recalled that the last time he saw S.H. was outside the cigar store during a walk with his mother, nearly ninety years earlier. The Net is certainly responsible for introducing numerous serendipitous encounters.

Putnam wrote that when comparing face-to-face and computer-mediated communication, the richer the medium of communication, the more sociable, personal, trusting, and friendly the encounter [11]. This was certainly the case when one of the premier Western music groups, Riders in the Sky, visited a University of Arizona undergraduate ethnomusicology class and performed for nearly an hour. Two UA faculty members, with research interests in textiles and cotton, had visited the course's Web site [12] and forwarded the URL to a textile researcher in North Carolina who they knew because of mutual research interests. The physical connection was that the researcher was coming to Tucson the next week to attend the Western Music Association annual festival. He contacted the music professor and arranged for Riders in the Sky to visit her class, where they performed and fielded questions from fifty-five attentive undergraduates. Had it not been for the virtual connection, these students would never have been exposed to this special learning experience. Another dividend is the social bond that was created between the University and local Western music performers. This entree affords new opportunities for interviews, recording sessions, and oral histories that can be shared with future ethnomusicology students.

 

++++++++++

Conclusion

Beginning with participation in newsgroups and chat rooms in the early 1990s, building communities on the Internet has been observed and researched as an important social dynamic. As shown in the experiences related in this essay, the Web serves as an important technological vehicle for harvesting personal experiences, and plays an important role in reviving community and broadening social capital. What is next? Watch for this phenomena to become more pervasive as ubiquitous computing extends access to currently remote physical communities and as new digital telephone networks bring virtual communities to the attention of more people than ever. End of article

 

About the Author

Stuart Glogoff is with the University of Arizona's Office of Distributed Learning. This assignment, which began in January 2000, is multifaceted and draws upon his 25-year experience with information technology, knowledge management, digital libraries, and data warehousing. His responsibilities include leading the University of Arizona's Southwest Project, coordinating campus-wide academic data, creating interdisciplinary digital libraries, developing high quality online modules for distributed learning, advancing academic computing objectives, and improving the campus' capacity to deliver multimedia.

Prior to joining the Office of Distributed Learning, Stuart led the University of Arizona Library as its Assistant Dean for information systems and technology. Under his leadership, the U of A Library moved from last among Association of Research Library (ARL) members in its application of information technology to rank among ARL leaders. He has been responsible for the highly regarded Through Our Parents' Eyes: Tucson's Diverse Community Web sites, acknowledged as the largest community-based Web project on the Web. He has held numerous regional and national positions, has regularly contributed to the professional literature, is a frequent invited speaker at professional meetings, and has taught graduate and undergraduate courses for the University of Arizona and Pima Community College.
E-mail: stuartg@u.arizona.edu
Web: http://www.library.arizona.edu/sglogoff

 

Notes

1. Through Our Parents' Eyes: Tucson's Diverse Community, at http://www.library.arizona.edu/parents/. From this page, links are available to many of the Web sites mentioned in this article.

2. Howard Rheingold, 1993. The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley.

3. Sherry Turkle, 1995. Life On the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet. New York: Simon and Schuster.

4. William J. Mitchell, 1995. City of Bits: Space, Place, and the Infobahn. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

5. Batya Friedman, Peter H. Kahn, Jr., and Daniel C. Howe, 2000. "Trust Online," Communications of the ACM, volume 43, p. 34. http://dx.doi.org/10.1145/355112.355120

6. Eric M. Uslaner, 2000. "Social Capital and the Net," Communications of the ACM, volume 43, p. 62. http://dx.doi.org/10.1145/355112.355125

7. Robert D. Putnam, 2000. Bowling Alone. New York: Simon and Schuster, p. 22.

8. Ibid., p. 172.

9. Ibid., p. 173.

10. Mitchell, p. 8.

11. Putnam, p. 174.

12. Cowboy Songs and Singers: Of Lifeways and Legends, at http://www.library.arizona.edu/cowboysongs/


Editorial history

Paper received 26 January 2001; accepted 1 March 2001.


Contents Index

Copyright ©2001, First Monday

Virtual Connections: Community Bonding on the Net by Stuart Glogoff
First Monday, volume 6, number 3 (March 2001),
URL: http://firstmonday.org/issues/issue6_3/glogoff/index.html





A Great Cities Initiative of the University of Illinois at Chicago University Library.

© First Monday, 1995-2017. ISSN 1396-0466.