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The Rheingold Test

April 29, 2016 50 comments

In 1993, Howard Rheingold explained the new phenomenon of online communities to a skeptical public. To convince people that online communities are really communities, he told powerful stories of members of the California BBS The WELL supporting one another not just with words, but with their time and money. For example, WELL members sent books to a bibliophile who lost his library in a fire, and helped with medical evacuation for a member who became seriously ill while traveling.

I offer this definition:
An online group where members offer one another material support passes “the Rheingold Test.”

I’ve written before that it’s silly to argue about what “is a community.” We have different mental models for “community,” and online interaction can be like and unlike face-to-face groups in nuanced ways. But I will argue that when a group passes The Rheingold Test, something special is happening.

Each spring when I teach CS 6470 Design of Online Communities, I’m surprised by the groups my students discover that pass the Rheingold Test. Years ago, master’s student Vanessa Rood Weatherly observed members of the Mini Cooper brand community sending flowers to a member whose daughter had a miscarriage. It’s not what you’d immediately expect from a group of people brought together by a car brand. In our increasingly secular society, people are looking for a sense of belonging—and finding it in affinity groups.

This term, my students’ research projects found two more sites that pass the test when I wouldn’t have expected it. The first is Vampire Freaks, a site for Goth enthusiasts. In the press, Vampire Freaks is notorious for a few incidents where members have posted about violent acts and then gone ahead and committed them. But those incidents don’t characterize daily activity on the large and active site. Just like the Goth kids at your high school stuck together and would do anything for one another, the members of Vampire Freaks support one another in times of trouble. One member comments:

“I’ve helped quite a few of my friends [on Vampire Freaks] through a lot of hard times… family issues, losing parents, losing children, drug problems even. And just being there as someone that’s supportive, instead of putting them down. Even offering a place for people to come stay if they needed somewhere… I’ve had friends off this website that have actually stayed at my house… because they were traveling and didn’t have money for a hotel. So I’d known them for a few years and figured, it’s a weekend, I’ll be up anyways. Let them stay there and hang out.”

Grad students Drew Carrington, John Dugan, and Lauren Winston were so moved by the support they saw on the site that they called their paper “VampireFreaks: Prepare to be Assimilated into a Loving and Supportive Community.”

The second surprising example from this term is the subreddit Kotaku in Action (KIA), a place for supporters of GamerGate. Although the popular press portrays GamerGate as a movement of misogynist internet trolls, the truth is that the group is made up of a complex combination of members.  KIA includes many sincere (and polite) civil libertarians, people tired of excesses of political correctness, and people tired of the deteriorating quality of journalism and angry about the real-world impact of biased reporting. People who identify as GamerGaters also include people who dox people they disagree with (posting personal information online), send anonymous death and rape threats, and worse. (Those things are not allowed on the KIA subreddit, and moderation rules prevent them.) It’s a complicated new kind of social movement with its own internal dynamics. I’ll be writing a lot about them, but for now I just want to note that they have a strong sense of group identity, and help one another when in need. Posts on KIA show members donating money to a member in financial crisis, and one who needed unexpected major dental work. They also banded together to raise money for a charity that helps male abuse survivors. They are not a viper’s nest (though there are some vipers in the nest). And they care about one another in the classic way.

When a site passes The Rheingold Test, it means there is something interesting happening there—that the whole is more than the sum of its parts. Do you know a site that passes the test? Leave me a comment.

 

Notes/Clarifications:

  • “GamerGate” is a social movement centered around a Twitter hash tag among other things. GamerGate and the KIA subreddit are not the same thing.
  • Doxxing and threats have definitely occurred, but were sent by anonymous people. Whether or not those were “by people who affiliate with GamerGate” is disputable.
Categories: social computing
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