Twenty years ago this year, a guy named Howard Rheingold wrote a book called The Virtual Community (1993). The Web was yet to become a public phenomenon, but personal computer users had for years been using dial up modems to connect to BBS systems (Bulletin Board Systems run on computers). Forum software allowed users to join various discussions on a wide range of topics, as well as provide for shared software, often games, users of which created their own forums to discuss game strategy and share add-ons and plugins to the games. One particular system , The Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link (aka The Well) was set up and run by the publishers of the Whole Earth Catalog.
Howard Rheingold was one of those users. Anoher user, known to many of the other users, was diagnosed with cancer, and a support group developed in one of the discussion groups on The Well. Throughout an extended period of the cancer victim’s struggle , and then on after he passed away, the group became an example of the power of the computer mediated technology to connect people; to make possible a “Virtual Community”.
Today, that this is possible is considered everyday knowledge. The past 5 years have seen the explosive growth of Social Media, as the forums and then Blogs of earlier years expanded into “Social Media”, driven and accelerated by the spread of mobile technology beginning with the cell phone.
Rheingold wrote “The Virtual Community” in 1993, exploring the effects of this new form of community, and then wrote another book anticipating a new trend in communicative technology called “Smart Mobs” in 2002 (about the mobile phone and the technology of texting and emerging features that led to today’s “Smartphones”). This past year, Rheingold released his latest, Net Smart, exploring ways for people to manage their connectivity habits, not with an emphasis on cutting back, but on “using the media that have infiltrated, amplified, distracted, enriched, and complicated our lives”. Rheingold has given us two decades of anticipatory analysis of the growth of communication technologies, and they way they are shapping, HAVE shaped, and might yet shape us. He’s a “possibilities” envisioner.
I am charged with “Sciddy Social Media”, and a big reason for that is due to Mr. Rheingold. Not that I read his books, but having done so, I was, from 1993 on, captured by the possibilities of which he writes. I wrote, freestyle, on my website, until the advent of the blog allowed freestyle writing to become a social phenomenon. Once the blog established that people were immensely interested in sharing their ideas, the types of “Social Media” expanded. Now it is crystal clear that consumers are social; that they buy on recommendation, and on hearing the experiences of friends and trusted others.
Take a look at “The Virtual Community” , “Smart Mobs”, and “Net Smart” and see if you don’t see a compelling story. The Virtual Community is available to read free online at
http://www.rheingold.com/vc/book/, and a companion blog to the book “Smart Mobs”
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