Many online sites are referred to as “online communities,” and are a central area of computer-mediated communiction (CMC) and social networking site (SNS) investigations, with researchers maintaining these sites are in fact online communities (Ess & Sudweeks, 2005; Herring & Martinson, 2004; Tyma, 2011). According to Jones (1997) four conditions must be met for online spaces to be considered a virtual community: (1) an array of communicators adequate enough to generate a variety of opinions; (2) a minimum degree of participant interaction; (3) a mutual public space for occupation and interaction; and (4) a minimum level of continuous membership.
Likewise, some researchers depict these sites as a new form of community, using Oldenberg’s (1999) third place as a framework (Kendall, 2002; Steinkuehler & Williams, 2006). A third place makes relief available from the demanding life of work (the second place) and home (the first place) life. Third places provide a sense of belonging, togetherness, and participation in the activities of a particular social group. From a larger community perspective, third places bolster ties through communication and interaction, create localized shared meanings, cultivate commitment, public discourse, safety, and security. Oldenburg (1999) suggests main streets, pubs, cafés, post offices, and other third places are the heart of a community’s social vitality and the foundation of a functioning democracy.
Describing SNS as third places, however, is fraught with dilemmas (Beer, 2008; Soukup, 2006). It alters Oldenberg’s term, which is specifically situated in the local community and does not consider SNS. While SNS share some commonalities with traditional third places, the interaction online is indeed ‘virtual,’ and as such transcend space and time, something offline third places cannot do (Houran, 2006). From a practical standpoint, for an SNS to be a virtual third place it must meet three interrelated conditions: localization, accessibility, and presence (Soukup, 2006). Each of these is problematic. Localization presents a particular problem, as it entails civic responsibility and the revitalization of a local or neighborhood community. While such spaces exist online, most online spaces breach geographic location.
Regarding accessibility, the digital divide impacts availability to SNS, limiting the diversity of the population (Talukdar & Gauri, 2011). Presence, the third necessity, is “the condition of being in an environment” (Steuer, 1995, p. 35) for members to converse, dialogue, and openly and honestly argue. As such an online third place needs to be contextually and culturally relevant to members that enhances social commitment, reciprocity, and trust. Each of these is problematized in an “online” third place (Benbasat, Gefen, & Pavlou, 2010). Lastly, from a media richness standpoint, there are inherent technological limitations in considering an SNS a third place not applicable to a real world third place (Kaplan & Haenlein, 2010).
The concept of SNS as community is not unproblematic, beyond those that question third place concepts. “The community metaphor placed on virtual social relations is inadequate and inappropriate. The metaphor is one of fellowship, respect and tolerance, but those qualities describe only a fraction of our culturally understood ideas about community” (Fernback, 2007, p. 62). Likewise, cyberbulling, sexual harrassment, intimidation, as well as gender, ethnic, and other forms of discrimination proliferate online (Barak, 2005; Heirman & Walrave, 2008; Herrmann, 2007a, Pittaro, 2007). Finally, members often have lower loyalties to their SNS and often decrease in their participation over time or stop participating altogether (Brandtzeag & Heim, 2008). Unlike living in a true physical community, online participants can simply quit.
The mataphor of online community also disguises corporate ownership. The economics of technology companies problemitizes the study of individuals participating on an SNS, and the concept of online community. “Scholars of communication technology need to begin attending critically to questions of ownership, a topic we have generally avoided” (Baym, 2009, p. 722). SNS, whether publicly or privately owned, are corporations or subsidiaries thereof, and are subject to the auspices of the free market. Although “the decay of an online social space cannot always be pinned on corporate ownership” (Connelly, 2009) corporate ownership plays an important role in and is sometimes the deciding factor whether a SNS will continue to exist. For example, in 2010, AOL sold Bebo (Goldman, 2010). News Corp. purchased MySpace and then resold it when it became financially burdonsome (Adegoke, 2011). Classmates.com changed its name to MemoryLane.com to become a one-stop shop for nostalgic baby-boomers (Chan, 2011). Shuttered “online communities” include the once popular Geocities, Sixdegrees, Soundbreak, Mugshot, Bahu, Capazoo, Riplounge, Pounce, and Y!360.
The owners of SNS also change their terms of service, often finding themselves in public relations nightmares, forcing them to retract the terms until they have more input from members, users, and participants (Tyma, 2007). As Baym (2009) reminds us, “increasingly people are conducting their online social activities within proprietary systems such as social networking sites, virtual worlds, and massively multiplayer games” wherein they “have few rights and limited, if any, ownership of their contributions” (p. 722). Whether stand-alone companies or subsidiaries of larger organizations, the reality of capitalism problematizes SNS as communities and how we study them. Despite all these caveats, resarchers and participants continue to use the metaphor of community to describe online inteactions and participation (Blood, 2004; Huffaker, 2010; Zhou, 2011).