Andrew Walmsley on digital: Community spirit is a virtual reality

Every time disaster strikes an area, we hear about the 'sense of shock in the community' and the anger in the local community'. 'Community leaders', we hear, are pressing for action. So, what is this 'community'?

You may live in Albert Square or Coronation Street, and know all of the people who live around you, but I don't, and neither, I suspect, do most people. As such, I'm not really aware of a community.

Cynical, maybe, but I always suspected that this was just a part of the journalist's lexicon. They had, perhaps, spoken to a couple of people on the street, and somehow 'community feeling' sounds more authoritative and rigorously researched than 'a bloke in a nearby pub told me'.

People are brought together in their localities by economic factors and accidents of birth, and, it seems to me, are no more likely to share interests with one another than with those residing in a different area. However, this is not the case in internet communities, and that is precisely what makes them such an exciting phenomenon.

Hundreds of millions of people across the globe participate in real communities online. They may never have met the people they talk to, but these virtual communities are often more real and relevant to them than their local ones. Drawn together by interests, people of all ages are taking part.

Stardoll.com, a website I've written about before, is one such example. It is aimed at nine- to 13-year-olds and has 60m registered users, 8m of whom visit the site regularly. It allows them to own a virtual doll, for which they can buy clothes (using Star dollars, of course) to dress as they like, choosing from DKNY and Sephora ranges, as well as Stardoll's own lines.

Celebrities including Heidi Klum, Hilary Duff and Avril Lavigne all have lookalike dolls on the site, and fans can spend up to two hours a day on there.

This tends to be a solo activity among younger users, but those aged 10 and over often start to use the site to chat. As one puts it, 'You can have friends you don't know, but you're really close to them.'

Facebook is probably the best-known community site, with the Groups function allowing anyone to set up a special-interest group. Most of these are trivial 'I think someone should make Ghostbusters 3'-type groups, but many are serious and help people create and maintain real friendships based around hobbies, professional interests and occasional obsessions.

Facebook also extends this to charity fundraising, allowing any user to set up a means of donating and encouraging others to follow. Sixty thousand people have created groups dedicated to causes ranging from the support of presidential candidates to action on Darfur and global warming.

Such sites are not exclusive to the English-speaking world. Korean site Cyworld has more than 90% penetration of 16- to 24-year-olds, and Hi5 is the most popular social network in Thailand, Portugal and Mexico.

These sites have revolutionised the way we communicate, freeing us from geographical limitations. They have allowed us to make and maintain friendships with a closeness that has never before been feasible.

They have also changed the shape of conversations. Users report that when talking to people they know via social networks, there is no preamble or catch-up necessary; they already know what has been going on in one another's lives.

If community existed before, it was driven by constraint. Whether you lived in a Cotswold village or a town in Idaho, your neighbours were your community.

Online, you can choose. Whether your friends live next door or thousands of miles away, the internet has allowed us to know the people we like, as well as liking the people we know.

- Andrew Walmsley is co-founder of i-level

30 SECONDS ON ... STARDOLL.COM

- Stardoll.com began as a collection of drawings of dolls created by 'Liisa', the site's Scandinavian founder, and uploaded to a personal Geocities page. It evolved into the Paperdoll Heaven website, which was launched in 2004.

- Users can create their own 'me-dolls', or choose lookalikes of actors, models, singers and sports stars. Among the more unlikely stardolls are 50 Cent and Camilla Parker-Bowles.

- Creations can be shared via users' personal pages, which feature a guest book, a blog, a place to track friend connections and a design album.

- Clothes and accessories cost up to 35 'star dollars', and up to 180,000 items are sold a day. Once their initial 25 credits are spent, users can purchase more - $1 will buy 10 star dollars.

- The site's creator says she wanted to set up a safe, creative online environment for young users 'looking for an alternative to shoot-em-up games'.

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