Virtual: Community, Democracy, Public Sphere


Building community is the central task for any virtual organization [VO] that a) needs to rely on an expert community to develop/deploy technology, or b) is looking to spread new technology among the wider (and thus more diverse) population. the cybersocialstructure effort is designed to bring together best theories and practices to help cyberinfrastructure [CI] projects know when, how, how much, and what kind of community building to pursue. Community is often the “undesignated” group that shows up in the proposal (or the RFP) as the larger target  developer or user cohort. But turning a cohort into a community, and a weak community into a strong community (when this is necessary) needs time, effort, budget, and skill.
There is no reason to build community for community’s sake. What your VO gets along with community is commitment, leadership, and communication. Volunteers can identify with the goals of the community and the other members of the group. Those with initiative can step up in the organization. Communication is member-to-member, peer-to-peer: with implied obligations to respond in timely fashion. Criticism is enabled and so is praise. Other management efforts become more effective and cost less (in effort and time).  This is fortunate because running the community is neither easy or inexpensive. At the end the total cost is likely to be the same, but the impact and broader outreach of a sustainable community of volunteers becomes another deliverable for the project.

Governing a virtual organization is  no less problematic than governing any large, non-virtual volunteer-led group. Subtending all of the project management tasks of any large VO is the need to build sufficient social networking and identity resources to feed  the amount of non-paid work (volunteer efforts) required to a) complete the actual project and b) sustain the community. Democracy, as this can be applied within virtual organizations, is one way a VO can create real communication among peers and real ownership by the community over the outcomes of the VO.
While community building is a more subtle social practice that happens as well (or better) in cafes and bars during meeting breaks than it does in plenary sessions, democracy is a noisy, visible practice that everyone in the organization does (to some extent) intentionally and explicitly. Democracy in a VO announces itself through public practices that involve all the members or their delegates. In part, democracy in a VO might resemble what you find in your nation-state: meetings, voting, constitutions and by-laws, and protests. The ability to voice disagreement is perhaps the most precious outcome of democracy in a VO: this is what will save the organization more often than any other management practice.
Democracy in a VO offers unique challenges and opportunities. Since the interactions are normally mediated and the records digital, democracy can become embedded into the digital communication services to where this becomes ubiquitous. By activating the voices of all of the community members, the VO energizes its community and can legitimately harvest real value from them in return.

Public Sphere:
With community as its destination, the virtual organization uses democracy as its vehicle and the virtual “public sphere” as its pathway to sustainability. The virtual public sphere (VPS) is made from the cyberarchitectural structures (the services and netware) that connect the peers, enable democratic participation, and assemble the means to build community.  The feedback forms on the website, an electronic voting service, chat, email, and WIKIs: all of these and more serve to connect volunteers into a peer network.
In any VO working in, through, or toward cyberinfrastructure (CI), a part of that infrastructure will be dedicated to the communication needs of the CI team effort. When these communication infrastructure services and nodes are also made available to support democratic community building, then they form the basis for a VPS.
In a democratic nation-state, the public sphere is the precious arena within which the discussions of its citizens are meant to inform public policy. The Public Sphere (capital “P”) is a space (discursively and mostly physically) distinct from that of religion, home, or the workplace. And the Public Sphere is the ongoing conversation that happens in this space. The strength or weakness of the space or the conversation in the space impacts the qualities of the available democracy in the nation-state.
In a democratic virtual organization, the public sphere is the space created by the cyberinfrastructure and the conversations enabled by the governance of the VO. Examining the “cyberarchitecture” allows us to predict how much democracy is available within the VO.

PHoto Credit: Timothy Vollmer

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