Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Exit133 and Virtual Community

One of the books that inspired me early on in my World Wide Web work was written in 1993 by Howard Rheingold and was called The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier. In it he helped to define for me what a "virtual community'' might be. Both like minded and diverse people gather online, collaborate, argue, problem-solve and form lasted emotional relationships.

There is a sense of place and boundary without any real physical counterpart and frequently little or no physical contact. The community he discussed most often was his own, “The Well” which was a BBS system in 1985. He describes how communities can bond over personal matters, with the example catalyst being his son’s contracting leukemia. Interestingly, an illness in the family and the need to share information and request insight from family and friends has been the catalyst for several blogs I know, some local, and is also the subject of a previous blog entry about CaringBridge and a little girl named Jayna Bean.

Online communities have come a long way in just a bit more than a decade. Fully formed virtual worlds like Second Life exist and continue to provide examples of how it is possible to move real world systems like real estate, guided tours and job interviewing into a universe of bits and bytes.

But what makes a community? A feeling of place, a selection of individuals with a broad common interest but diverse experiences and opinions, venues for sharing, discussing a collaborating, rules and laws, an opportunity to contribute and even stake a claim for some of the land (virtual of course).

These attributes are part of several strong communities on the web such as Triggerstreet (which even has a Hall of Justice and citizen rankings), MousePlanet (which also plans physical meet ups) and our own Exit133.

Derek Young and Erik Hanberg stopped in to give a tour of the site and to discuss its inception and growth, as well as the strong local community of readers and contributors.

Exit133.com is about Tacoma, Washington, (and sometimes the surrounding Pierce County) so it has a definite sense of place. Derek launched the blog in its current form in May 2005 and it has grown into a valuable local resource for information, conversation (both in the comments section and the forum) community (whether it be bocce or otherwise).

Size of a community matters and the citizens who frequent Exit133 have grown in number to a degree that the site is treated on occasion as a media outlet. Not only have the number of readers/viewers grown, but so have the number of those commenting on the blog posts and the forums. As noted by Derek, the people who comment are often experts in their fields, making their insights all the more valuable to those participating in the discussions or utilizing those discussions as an information resource. This Consumer Generated Media (CGM) is the fuel that fires up the community engine. Civil participation without value is a mob; valuable participation with civility is society. (Does that sound like something the Sphinx from Mystery Men would say?).

Other attributes of the site include an events calendar, managed by the site operators and videos of events, artists and activities downtown, all with a Tacoma focus.

Exit133 works because it maintains a common topical interest with contributions metered by a small dose of editorial control and a strong community standard. When someone gets out of line online, they are generally reeled in by other patrons of the site.

That area of interest can expand however, as is the case with Exit133b. Erik Hanberg, who also blogs at www.erikemery.com, is helping to grow this off ramp to arts and entertainment discussion with an intent to provide a resource similar to the main exit but for the arts community. I have written some theater reviews myself for this portion of the site. Known as the lighter side of the web site, Erik has attributed the “B” designation as not only an extension of the freeway sign metaphor, but also the “B” side of a single or even “B” for Beta, as they are still tinkering with the concept.

Perhaps when the "C" side launches, it will stand for community, something that already exists within the virtual boundaries just off of this exit.

2 comments:

intacoma said...

Yeah, I like reading e-133 when I need to get the latest info about development, Tacomamamma on food, TacomaGnome when I'm really bored, Holistic Forge when I need a laugh, KtotheF if I want to see some cool photos, and the list goes on :)

Erik said...

Great article.

I finally broke down and start my own blog.

Feed Tacoma now has a system and a Tacoma Blog template that feeds right into the reader.

I expect the number of Tacoma related blogs to greatly expad over the next year.