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Only a few persons (and it would be interesting to identify who) come to appreciate the conference as a social environment, where they acquire friends and enemies and build their own unique on-line identities. There has been little discussion of the assumption, for example, that an electronic survey among the users of a given system could provide a cheap and fast way to draw connections between on-line behavior and traditional socio-demographic variables (age, gender, level of education, family income, etc.
). But what is the real meaning of socio-demographic data obtained through, say, a structured on-line questionnaire? What is really happening, for example, when SweetBabe, a regular participant in IRC channel #netsex and one of the hypothetical cases from our survey sample, tells us that her real name is Mary, she’s thirty years old and she works as a secretary?
It is wise to suppose that, more than providing us some (if any) actual information about Mary’s real life, such an answer could help to understand better SweetBabe’s symbolic universe, her on-line self-representation, her social values and relationships. In a perspective of ethnographic research on virtual communities the on-line world has its own dignity: after all, from a phenomenological standpoint, SweetBabe and her social world are for us much more real than this supposed Mary about whom we actually know absolutely nothing.
Even when the design of research does expect some data referring to the real world, it is never correct to accept these data without keeping in mind that obtaining information about someone’s off-line life through on-line means of communication – although seemingly easy and convenient – is always a hazardous, uncertain procedure, not simply because of the risk of being deliberately deceived but also because in such cases the medium itself increases the lack of ethnographic context discussed above and it may also produce misunderstandings due to different communication codes.
More social-oriented ethnographic studies on CMC have appropriately identified the existence of strategies of visibility of the actors which make up for the lack of traditional interpersonal cues and which indeed permit the development of a status differentiation9. Another example where the complexity and richness of on-line social worlds have often been underestimated is in the analysis of power and status relationships.
Well-known laboratory experiments comparing face-to-face communication with electronic mail found that computer networks have a status equalization effect10; a few field studies confirmed that organizational electronic mail reduces social differences and increases communication across social boundaries11. Finally, it could be useful to note that many of the most interesting virtual communities are also very proud of their exclusive culture. A stranger is sometime seen as an unwelcome arbitrary intrusion.
Things then become similar to being in difficult environments such as extremist political groups, and specific precautions have to be taken. The newcomers to a computer conference or a MOO are immediately recognised as such and the same holds true for the leaders. Both acquire and use symbols that make them different one from the other even if they are all apparently hidden beyond the keyboard of one’s own computer. Such a status differentiation, of course, may not match a pre-existing differentiation in the off-line life.
“People create their own reality through an iterative process where man is at the same time producer and product of the social. “12 While the goals of many early studies on CMC were related to the impact of new communication technologies in the efficiency of office work, a constructivist interpretation of virtual communities could come closer to the study of everyday life. Through the understanding of on-line social interaction we can also hope to be able to understand better the complexity of our daily social experience.