The impact of virtual communities on today’s societies

The concept of virtual communities – and their thorough investigation – are crucial for understanding the impact of language and social media on today’s technologically driven societies.

Public communication has changed over the last decade. It has become increasingly participatory due to social media. New communication models see the public not simply as consumers of pre-constructed messages, but as individuals who are shaping, sharing, reframing, remixing, and co-constructing media content. These individuals act not in isolation but within networks or communities which allow them to create and spread content well beyond their immediate geographic proximity. The difference between an online social network and a community has to do with degree of commitment in the relationship between members. I will come back to this later. Let me give you an example first.

#Aufschrei is a German hashtag which went viral on the social media platform ‘Twitter’ in 2013. The hashtag raised awareness about sexism in Germany after controversial remarks of a major politician. The campaign started with a tweet and evolved into an international debate. On the night of 24 January 2013, several German women began sharing their personal experiences of everyday sexual harassment and humiliation on Twitter in the wake of a report by the newsweekly Stern concerning the sexual advances of a politician towards a female journalist.

From a tweet to an international debate

On the first day following the message, more than 38,000 Tweets were sent. Within the first four days, roughly 17,000 different users were active on #aufschrei. Most tweets described personal experiences of everyday sexism. The broader public’s reaction to the #aufschrei debate was massive, especially after the topic was discussed on TV. Political blogs and the news media reported extensively on the Twitter discussions. In the following days, #aufschrei and everyday sexism were discussed by dozens of major commentators and were featured on prominent political TV shows; they even compelled politicians to discuss changing Germany’s sexual harassment laws. The debate very soon spread beyond national and linguistic boundaries: English, Italian and French speaking women were showing solidarity under the hashtags #gridala, #assez and #outcry. By the end of January, even the US media reported on #aufschrei. The term evolved into a symbol and catchword for a broad socio-political debate.

How did this all happen? Anne Wizorek, a media consultant in Berlin, started this consciousness-raising campaign against sexism by using #aufschrei and encouraging women to share their experiences. Their tweets showed a huge gap between the amount of sexism woman experienced in their everyday lives and the representation of this topic in public discourse.The emerging online network of people speaking out publicly reignited a new wave of discourse on feminism and gender in Germany and beyond. On- and Offline communities which had been discussing feminism for years suddenly reached people who had not been sensitive to this topic. Women and men started discussing sexism within their own networks; they attached meanings to formerly unnamed events and started to define terms related to sexism.

Each person taking part in the discourse around a hashtag becomes a part of a social network or a virtual community

A hashtag like #aufschrei works because people understand it in one way or another. People pick it up and use it in different contexts. The meanings of the hashtag evolve and multiply through recontextualisation. The use of the hashtag in relation to different meanings influences the ongoing public discourses. In the early phase of using the hashtag #aufschrei, the meanings attached to Sexism were negotiated by Twitter users. Comprehension questions, criticism, jokes and sexist remarks appeared under the same hashtag as explanations, links to blogs or journalistic articles, as well as self-reflections on female and male behaviour. More complex discussions and analyses were outsourced to blogs, which then were cited on Twitter again and taken up by mass media. All those texts together give meaning to a hashtag. By creating and sharing any type of content, each person taking part in the discourse around a hashtag becomes a part of a social network or a virtual community.

Virtual communities are social aggregations that emerge from the Net when enough people carry on those public discussions long enough, with sufficient human feeling, to form webs of personal relationships in cyberspace.” (Rheingold 1994: 413) “[…] The difference between an online social network and a community has to do with the quality, continuity, and degree of commitment in the relationship between members” Rheingold (2012: 163). While virtual communities are relatively stable and durable, social networks exist for a shorter time, often only as long as a certain topic is discussed.

The internet changes the structure of public communication

Public broadcasting and private conversation are bridged by social media. Like private citizens, journalists and media channels take part in social media conversations, extracting, reconfiguring and publishing information that is then retranslated into Twitter conversations. Discourses on social media portray social structures of societies; they reproduce those structures but can also alter them. One of the outcomes of the #aufschrei-debate, for example, was a law introducing gender quotas. Businesses in Germany are now required to have a certain number of seats in management positions reserved for women. If there is no “qualified woman” for the seat, it can just remain empty.

The concept of virtual communities is crucial for understanding the impact of social media on today’s technologically-driven societies. The exchange and discourse between members of communities can be seen as a constant co-construction process of meaning, which leads to a new perception of social realities. Activities on social media primarily consist of language use. Since language functions as a display of mental and social structures and processes as well as a means to construct and change social reality, the investigation of language use on social media enables researchers to draw conclusions about human acting, diverse aspects of social context and the interplay between these elements. That’s why in my research I combine ethnographic methods with sociological and linguistic frameworks to bridge the gap between micro and macro perspectives on language and media use, virtual communities, and their interplay with social realities.