SAN FRANCISCO — While voting is declining and school board meetings are not the draw they once were, America's sense of community affiliation is exploding in the less conventional realm of the Internet. Indeed, a forum that may have once seemed reserved for trivial pursuits like chat-room gossip and interactive games is reshaping the nation's social fabric in important ways, experts say.
Groups that have traditionally formed around common interests - whether business, social, or political - can now do so without regard to geography, thanks to the Internet. And their potential speed and scope are unprecedented.
These attributes hold some minuses for society as a whole, say some, pointing to the proliferation of smut and hate groups on the Internet.
And the dynamism of community building on the Internet cannot replace the need for real-world institutions like chambers of commerce, city councils, or school boards.
But when Americans think about belonging these days, they increasingly think about joining groups and organizations that exist in the virtual world. The options are greater and the joining process just a mouse click away.
"For a lot of people, their identity has shifted to the kinds of communities that exist online," says Kevin Kelly, executive editor of Wired magazine. That doesn't mean traditional notions of community involvement are gone, he says, but rather that society is expanding how it defines "community," with the Internet adding a whole new dimension.
Californian Michael Berch, for instance, joined Salon Magazine's Table Talk online discussion group years ago to stay informed. But he soon discovered "it's really the community aspect, rather than the news and information, that draws me." In fact, he is part of a Table Talk splinter group that grew so close online, they now meet periodically in person.
While new social networks may be one of the most common results of online activity, it is by no means the only one. The Internet is rich with stories of medical support groups providing empathy and practical advice. Political and community Web sites have begun to marshal people and resources around civic affairs and causes. Even online commerce, one of the fastest growing Internet uses, is not without its "community" aspect.
EBay Inc. of San Jose, Calif., leads the rapidly expanding field of online auction sites. It characterized its users as a community from the get-go: "The single most important aspect of what's happening on the Internet is the community building," says Steve Westley, eBay vice president of marketing and business development. Drawing over 6 million visitors monthly, ebay may be hard to think of as an intimate community. As a whole, it may not be.
But many members hang out regularly in the online eBay Caf, trading stories about their antiques, their families, and their attitudes toward current affairs. And there are many cases of members of that community helping each other, in the real world, in times of need.
Scott Moore of Los Angeles spends about an hour a day on eBay hunting for the 1930s men's accessories he collects, everything from watches to fountain pens. He dismisses the notion that eBay is just an electronic flea market. "There is just a real camaraderie online. At flea markets, people are grabbing things and seem mostly concerned with themselves. Online, there is just a more supportive feeling."
Whatever the flavor, online communities start, fundamentally, with the same motivation as conventional communities, says Amy Jo Kim, who interviewed hundreds of online users for a coming book, "Community Building on the Web."
"Net communities, in terms of what they offer people, are almost identical to their counterparts in the real world," she says. They offer a vehicle for joining with others in a common purpose.
Cliff Figallo, an early director of The Well online discussion group, considered by many a pioneer Internet community, says debates often focused on how The Well should be governed. "It was the same kind of stuff that comes up at a town hall meeting."
Humanity's dance with technology through the years frequently reshapes how individuals define and participate with others toward like-minded goals, says Howard Rheingold, author of "The Virtual Community."
"The question of how a new communication technology changes the nature of community is really an old question," he says, citing the printing press, automobile, and alphabet as examples.
And while technology's advance has regularly alienated individuals from a simpler, purer sense of community, it also brings "many positive aspects," Mr. Rheingold adds. For example, in the health field, the Internet makes affiliations possible that can be "absolute lifelines" for those involved, he says.
Civic participation online
While core functions of civic governance seem unlikely to move online any time soon, Kim says "more functionality" is moving to the Internet all the time. And when there are adequate safeguards to allow voting, the nature of how real-world civic organizations function could shift dramatically, she says.
In the political realm, the Internet is already fast becoming a powerful strategic and organizing tool for electoral campaigns. That was evident in its use in Jesse Ventura's victory in Minnesota's gubernatorial race last November.
The online world's burgeoning sense of community is occurring at a time when many analysts worry about a general decline in civic engagement.
While evidence for a decline predates the popular use of the Internet, some worry the Web could exacerbate the problem by encouraging a sense of isolation and self-centeredness.
But the dynamic appears more complicated than that. While the Internet may encourage people to spend hours in front of their computer screens instead of at the board of supervisors meeting, from that computer, a person can be more connected to the outside world than ever before.
Some involved in real-world community building see the Web as a powerful aid.
The Appalachian Center for Economic Networks in Ohio is using Internet technology to link up specialty food businesses as part of an economic-development model being used in other low-income regions across the country.
"We think technology can support the building of healthy communities," says June Holly, president of the Appalachian network.
As with all new technology, access to computers and the Internet is not equally distributed in society. Women, the poor, and minorities are less likely to have computers and Internet access.
Spreading access is critical to achieving the Internet's community potential, say experts. It's the objective of a number of public agencies and nonprofits.
It's clear the reach of the Internet is extending, rapidly. Consumer use in the US skyrocketed from over 8 million in 1995 to 65 million this year, according to International Data Corp. In addition, recent surveys show it becoming more and more a mainstream tool.
As it does, the Internet's power in society expands exponentially. "The Internet is one piece of society that extends community voices that might not otherwise have a channel to be heard," says Richard Civille, executive director of the Center for Civic Networking.
The disabled, mothers with children with learning difficulties, immigrant groups, or those simply unable or uncomfortable involving themselves in civic affairs can do so with the Internet.
Rheingold says some of what comes with the Internet is disquieting. "There is also a new kind of superficial community of people just looking for cheap thrills. There's a lot of masking of who you are and a lot of vulgarity." But that's all part of what he calls the "powerful change" the Internet is bringing to society.
"Part of what we go to any community for is to define ourselves," Mr. Kelly says, and the Internet is giving people an almost unfathomable number of avenues for establishing networks, seeking to understand and influence events, and expressing personal interests. "It's a pretty impressive impact, particularly given that we're barely into the first 2,000 days of the Internet."