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«Virtual Communities: The Social World of the Internet»

Paper presented at the first «Spring School» on STS in Switzerland
March, 1999, University of Zurich,Switzerland


Christoph MÜLLER,
Institute for Sociology,
University of Berne, Switzerland



Although Internet communication services such as USENET-newsgroups, chatgroups or "Multi User Dungeons" offer the possibility to establish multilateral relationships, it is not known, whether these services exert a binding force on their members, nor under what conditions such "virtual communites" are established and maintained. Some pilot studies show that in certain cases, some parts of the Internet are in fact used for cooperation and communication. However, these studies are based on an angloamerican cultural context, focussing mostly on the USA, and following ethnographical approaches. Until now, there are no empirically prooved sociological studies about Internet communities.

The research project "Virtual Communities"(*), tries to fill this gap, taking in account the different cultural context of Switzerland. Research methodology include an analysis of Social Networks, based on a survey with 101 users of chat and news services, as well as qualitative analyses of logfiles, and in-depht interviews with experts. Main research questions are: What forms do virtual relationships (online-networks) take and how do they differ from the structures of real life ties (offline-networks)? 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?

First results show significant differences between the different services as well as some remarkable contrasts to previous studies in the angloamerican context. In a further step, I will try to show how "community borders" are defined in an "open field" like the Internet, that is, how inclusions and exclusions are socially constructed. Following the "social shaping" approach, I will conclude with an analysis of the prerequisites for forming Internet groups: How do different technical settings of Internet communication services influence the process of establishing and maintaining "virtual communities"?


(*) The research project "Virtual Communities -- The Social World of the Internet" is part of the research group "Individualisation and Integration" of the social science Priority Programme "Switzerland: Towards the Future". The project is directed by Prof. Dr. Bettina Heintz (U. of Mainz) and partly funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation.

KEYWORDS="Internet, Social Networks, virtual communities, Computer-mediated communication, social integration, individualisation, social sciences, sociology"


Christoph Müller finished his studies in Sociology at the University of Zürich in 1995
and is working as a doctoral student at the University of Berne/Switzerland.


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