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Research Group "Individualisation and Integration"

Virtual Communities:
The Social World of the Internet

The project studies the question of whether "virtual" communities exert a binding force on their members. Do discussion groups within the communication services of the Internet have an integrative function? Empirically the project is mainly based on an investigation of the personal networks of frequent users of the Internet communication services.

Research questions

Internet communication groups such as USENET-newsgroups, chatgroups or MUD groups offer for the first time the possibility to establish multilateral relationships that are independent of spatial and (in the case of asynchronous communication services) temporal copresence. Whether and how this actually happens is the focus of this exploration. Four questions are central:

What forms do virtual relationships (online-networks) take and how do they differ from the structures of real life ties (offline-networks)? Relevant dimensions include: stability, density, extent of functional specification (uniplexity vs multiplexity), social composition and homogeneity or heterogeneity of networks.

What is the connection between virtual and real life ties? Are they mutually exclusive or does participation in virtual communication strengthen real life networks and vice versa?

Can we find dense and stable networks within communication groups? Do the online ties of individual users concentrate on one communication group or do they usually span several groups? Are network boundaries congruent with the technically defined group boundaries of a chat- or newsgroup? If not, the group is not considered a virtual community.

Computer-mediated communication is unidimensional, depending on only one communication channel and excluding all forms of non-verbal cues (e.g. voice, gestures, glances etc.). This, as well as the easy access to and exit from Internet groups, suggests that virtual relations tend to be unstable. What are the prerequisites for forming stable groups out of casual interactions - groups with rules distinguishing members from non-members and with a specific group culture?


Empirically the project is mainly based on the analysis of the personal networks of appr. 100 persons. The sample contains two groups: (1) Users of four Swiss-based usenet- and chat groups. Analysis of log in frequencies is used to select interviewees (frequent vs infrequent users). (2) A snowball sample of individuals occupying central positions within communication services without necessarily being frequent users themselves (promoters of chat groups, providers, web-designers, etc.). In addition, we conduct about 10 expert and 20 qualitative user interviews to prepare and supplement the network analysis.


Expert and qualitative interviews take place during the first phase of the project (July 1997 to January 1998). Network interviews will be conducted from April to June 1998 (in collaboration with the project "Civil Communities").


Project director: Prof. Dr. Bettina Heintz, University of Mainz, Institut for Sociology,
Colonel-Kleinmann-Weg 2, D-55099 Mainz, (in german),
e-mail:, Tel: 0049 6131 39 40 42, Fax: 0049 6131 39 40 43.
Collaborator: Christoph Müller, lic.phil.I, University of Berne, Institut for Sociology (in german),
(for email see the Disclaimer.)

last updated 26.2.98 by Christoph Müller

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