Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 15. Nr. Juni 2004

1.2. Signs, Texts, Cultures. Conviviality from a Semiotic Point of View /
Zeichen, Texte, Kulturen. Konvivialität aus semiotischer Perspektive"

HerausgeberIn | Editor | Éditeur: Jeff Bernard (Wien)

Buch: Das Verbindende der Kulturen | Book: The Unifying Aspects of Cultures | Livre: Les points communs des cultures

Grundlagen/Fundamentals Teil 1/Part 1:
Moderation / Chair: Jeff Bernard
Teil 2/Part 2:
Teil 3/Part 3:
Teil 4/Part 4:
Nonverbale Zeichen/Non-verbal Signs

Virtual Communities and the Socio-semiotic Approach

Lella Mascio (Bologna)


Summary: Research on virtual communities represents a way to relate to the vast question of collective imaginary, considered as "shared narrative modalities", where interactivity and storytelling are, in some cases, confused and mixed up by the users. Space, along with the interactions that take place in it, have thus become new topics of research for disciplines like socio-semiotics, sociology, ethnography. To enjoy being part of a virtual community means to enter a sort of fantasy or game world, with its inhabitants (and their bodies), its language and its rules. Those are the elements that sometime exceed the boundaries of fantasies and game worlds to become part of the collective imaginary, of a shared set of representations, meanings and values. The paper will focus on the connections between what is built "in" and what gets "out" of the Net, starting from the virtual communities and the imaginary they provoke.


1. Introduction: defining virtual communities

One of the most interesting phenomena to arise from the internet are the social groups known as "virtual communities". Virtual communities express themselves through specific language and codes, and first appeared before the internet as we know it was fully evolved (think of the BBS - bulletin board system). Virtual communities are characterized by the formation of groups of people who share common interests and passions, meeting in the interstices of the web. These communities are beginning to fall under the analytical gaze of researchers from various disciplines: sociologists, psychologists, computer engineers, software developers and economists have all focused their attention on these social formations. The subsequent shift of the "theoretic role" (so to speak) of these formations is worth underlining here: originally seen as a simple, spontaneous and anarchic phenomenon of little interest both to those outside of the web and those working within the sector, the second half of the 1990s saw these communities become one of the most examined, analyzed and explored elements of the internet. In fact, the concept of the virtual community is now surrounded by a vast and heterogeneous literature, which includes articles of both technical and humanistic nature.

The communities can be studied as laboratories in which a series of dynamics referring to the exchange of signifieds, to the construction of meaning, and to the institution of a culture establish themselves: all problematics central to semiotic thinking, and which are to be investigated in this paper. Essentially, these groups are characterized through the use of a technical instrument, the computer, which enables the different participants to communicate across distance: the computer thus becomes the mediator of this communication. The fundamental difference from groups of people who meet in the fixed spaces of a city, a piazza or the headquarters of an association for example, is that these aggregations that take place thanks to CMC (computer mediated communication) occur in electronic, or "virtual", space. The "inhabited" space here is therefore resident in a server, and is accessible to members of the group through a connection to the web.

Despite an evident lack of actual physical space, these social groups do in fact experience a tangible sense of place. Therefore an actual meeting place, albeit with different qualities to concrete space, nevertheless exists for the members of these groups, who perceive and experience it as a communal space. Or, at least, as the possibility of sharing a common space. Meyrowitz describes the idea that the electronic media have considerably altered the significance of physical presence, so that it is now no longer necessary to actually experience social events in certain circumstances:

the evolution of media has decreased the significance of physical presence in the experience of people and events. [...] Where one is has less and less to do with what one knows and experiences. Electronic media have altered the significance of time and space for social interaction. (Meyrowitz 1985: I)

The role of space thus seems to be particularly important in the definition of these groups, and should be borne in mind in their study. The space which these social formations use is also the reason for their existence; for without the possibility of actually having a place (even if this is only electronic) in which to meet one another, interaction between individuals would be impossible. In my opinion, it is the nature of this space that is of greatest interest, for its very existence depends entirely on the internet medium itself, and thus it cannot but allow the possibility of a mediated interaction.


2.    Virtual communities: a study of some macro-typologies

In the internet, the umbrella-term communities defines social groups, that is those collectivities of people who meet each other in the spaces of the web and who are united by common interests and passions.

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 1993: 5)

The web actually hosts different forms of communities, which are subdivided into different typologies on the basis of their type of communication (synchronic or asynchronic), and the way in which they present themselves onscreen (in text only or graphic versions); cf. Fig. 1.

Beyond purely technical specificity, it should be noted that those differences discernible in the presentation of communities often coincide with different genres. This means, for example, that a discussion group which forms to discuss a theme of a political type generally chooses a text-based type of space (Fig. 1), rather than a 3-D space (Fig. 2) where, instead, one is most likely to find users whose form of interaction is of a recreational type.

Fig. 2

The "quality of being there" varies depending on the type of space used, and especially on the "experience" of the user; studies on these aspects confirm that maximum sensorial involvement is reached in those cases described in box 4 of the table above (community in synchrony, 3-D).

Fig. 3 (enlarge image)


3.    Text-based community in asynchrony

Having made this general introduction, I now want to pause to consider those so-called "text-based" communities which function in an asynchronic mode. These reflections are drawn from work-in-progress, my doctoral thesis, and from a workshop held on the study of virtual communities. I will discuss a few examples of text-based communities studied during the workshop:

the E-group of the DMB (Dave Matthews Band;;
the "Vivisezione" Forum on the website Animali nel mondo (;
the "Cuore e amore" Forum on the website Fuori di testa (

The cases examined during the workshop concern communities that have been spontaneously constituted, and which are linked to more or less defined interests (a community that anthropology defines as an "interest group"). Let us consider the three cases: in one we have a community which discusses the arguments inherent in a rock group, in another the treatment of animals, and the other advice on sentimental matters. The three communities are hosted on different websites (or portals), and the great differences between these will constitute a first interpretive frame.

Even a superficial comparison of the three examples shows that a significant difference between them is due to the different levels of participation of the communities, verifiable in the number of exchanges per week. This rhythm therefore becomes one of the determining factors in assessing the "good function", or otherwise, of a particular community. In some cases one can observe a "discursive flux", whilst in others only a series of monothematic postings, a kind of minimal exchange of questions and answers which involve only single users and not the whole community. The semiotic study of these variations helps us to make a distinction between the observed subjects which are truly recognizable as "communities" or "semiotic groups", and those which instead do not seem to belong to this category. By "semiotic group" we mean a collectivity of individuals constituted around common will and action.

De tels ensemble humains [...] dans la mesure où ils n'apparaissent que comme des collections de vouloirs ne sont pas ordonnés et correspondent en gros à l'idée que l'on se fait de la "foule". [...] Les faire individuels, bien que procédant d'un vouloir identique et ayant par conséquent un même objet, ne peuvent que se différencier, le programme virtuel du faire n'étant transmis par aucun destinateur. (Greimas 1976: 119)

Thus, the rhythm of the postings of the community (or better still, the existence of a rhythm), the presence of a series of actors (who are intentionally present), shared objects of value, and the occupation of a space, are those elements which should be considered fundamental to our recognition of a group of messages as a virtual community.

Studying these elements is effectively a form of "participant observation". Therefore, in the cases examined the analytical gaze was first fixed on the boundaries of the texts, and then moved on to ever deeper levels.

The question that we initially asked was, "why is it interesting to participate in these communities?", and we noted that the community would present itself to its users from one of two perspectives, both of them of analytical interest:

- the community as a meeting space;
-  the community as a space in which to find information.

3.1 The community as a meeting space

In this case the users who participate in the community must be considered as active subjects, that is subjects who intervene with actual messages. The messages and their replies bring about conversation between subjects. In these places meaning is constructed on the basis of this exchange between subjects. It is important to underline the fact that, in all of the cases examined, Landowski's study on situations and positions of communication appears relevant. We have in fact established that there are probably three principle regimes which function within this domain and which concern the objects of value which circulate within the community:

1. the pleasure of "being there";
2.  the pleasure of "exhibition";
3. the sharing of information.

From the point of view of syntax the subjects who participate in the experience of the virtual community can be grouped, according to their role, into those who wish to see, and those who wish to be seen. Therefore, if we consider the regime of visibility and the regime of being there of which Landowski wrote, we can observe that:

1. the pleasure of "being there" corresponds to a desire to be, which also implies a desire to be with others;
2. the pleasure of "exhibition" corresponds to a desire to be seen;

whilst in the last case, the sharing of information corresponds to a modalization of the subject based on knowledge, that is, an acquisition of competence:

3. sharing of information (acquisition of competence), (desire to give and receive information).

3.2       The forum as a readable text

In the second case, however, we consider the users who participate in the forum as passive subjects, due to the fact that they do not intervene with actual messages, but use the forum as a means of becoming informed about particular issues. The totality of messages, along with their chronological sequence, in fact represent a macro-narrative, inside which is a series of micro-narratives adhering in varying degrees to the principle topic of the community.

In this case the principle systems are two and concern:

1. the acquisition of information (acquisition of competence), (desire to know);
2. control over reality and society (desire to see).

We should note that both perspectives share the object of value "acquisition of competence".

What is immediately evident is that these forms of textuality (the forums and the e-group) generally give birth to at least two narratives, which superimpose themselves and are intertwined with one another: that which is spoken of (the actual information, and thus the level of information which we find within the messages) and that of who is speaking (which instead concerns the level of the construction of the roles and systems inside the community; that is, the level of inter-subject conversation).

Thus, the importance of grasping the principle theme through the information that the community furnishes becomes, as we noted above, the central and probably one of the most important elements to keep in mind when considering the analysis of these things, whether one studies them for the form of sociality which they host, or instead as a text formed by the group of messages.

The forum and the e-group can therefore be seen as "pools" which host various narrative nuclei and strategies of relationship which move around them. The intersubjective relationships and the narratives which are constructed in these spaces form one whole: that is, they are part of a single fabric, or text, in which the principle topic is generally described in the "title", the "denomination" of the community. All of the cases under consideration are examples of this, and it is enough to recall their titles: "vivisezione" (vivisection), "cuore e amore" (heart and love), and "Dave Matthews Band". These names tend to provide information on the principle argument around which discussion turns. However, this does not mean that the only object of value is to get hold of information concerning this or that argument. In reality the level of relations between users reveals other regimes of value which implant themselves in the community, and these shift the principle topic of discussion. In some cases, for example, the principle object of value is exactly that of entering into contact with other users with whom they share a priori various specific objects of value.

It is frequently the case, therefore, that a community forms on the basis of a search for the same on the part of individual users; consequently it is possible to associate the concept of community with this search and "acknowledgement" of other subjects with whom one has something in common.

This "acknowledgement" between users often determines the formation of virtual communities and of their culture: that is, the totality of all the contents given value. As Greimas emphasizes,

de même notre société moderne trouve son plaisir non à décoder des informations nouvelles ou à acquérir un savoir supplémentaire, mais à se reconnaître elle - même dans les textes qui se déroulent devant ses yeux et qu'elle déchiffre sans peine. [Donc] le plaisir des retrouvailles [...]. Cette redondance des contenus, goûtés parce qu'ils hous renvoient une image valorisée de nous - même, se trouve complétée par la récurrence des formes. (Greimas 1976: 59)


4. The contract of trust

The "life" of the communities turns around the circulation of Objects of Value. In virtual communities, even though the object circulates between different subjects, nobody actually remains without it, or voluntarily renounces it. This is so-called participatory communication. As Maria Pia Pozzato says,

this occurs above all when an object is of an immaterial type: for example, the passing on of knowledge doesn't imply that the person who informs another actually stops possessing that information. (Pozzato 2001: 44; author's transl.)

The information (Object of value), has to not only be pertinent to the theme of the forum, but must contain novel elements with respect to that which is already known. It must also be believable, and efficient in its being authentic. In other words, the semblance of reality has to be active, and this is normally actualized through the installation of the Contrat de Véridiction. The construction of a discourse between users of the community is thus a way of doing things which functions to make things seem real. Two types of discursive manipulation are used: "objectifying masking" and "subjectifying masking". In the first case we find ourselves faced with a discourse which makes use of citations from authoritative and accredited sources, such as national and foreign media (Rolling Stone for example, or certain websites). The second type of manipulation is instead evident in the community through a particular type of rôle actorial, which in the course of this analysis we have defined as "the correspondent". This role represents the simulacra of all those users who have a direct experience of the events discussed in the actual spaces where they occurred (for example "the correspondent" of a concert). Through this active deployment of know-how, this type of message tends to emphasize a knowledge of events. The correspondents act as "bridges" between the two spaces. In the case of the e-group dedicated to the band, one of the spaces is identifiable as that of the performance; the other, that of the e-group, represents a sort of interface between the "outside", the place in which things occur, and the "inside", the place in which things are discussed. "Outside" and "within" are nothing more than discursive effects within the discourse itself which contribute in a concrete way to the effect of spatial movement within the text; nothing more than spatial debrayage.


5. Conclusions

Space is of fundamental importance in the life and dynamics of virtual communities, above all because its users live it as a "meeting space". We know that in semiotics space is not only "a visual experience, but also a relationship and a valorisation" (Cavicchioli 1996 : 153; author's transl.); for this reason it is interesting to study

"how those phrases significant to content, but which do not specifically concern it" (Cavicchioli 1996), have instead much to do with the social processes and systems from which they arise [...T]his social space is continually transformed on the basis of the communicative needs of a given moment. There is never just one, and only one space [...] but different species of space. (Marrone 2003: 215-219; author's transl.)

This procedure in the construction of spatiality thus gives life to a typology which Marrone identifies, and uses to study information within the televisual medium. It seems that, at least in part, this can be appropriated and applied also to the spaces of communities. This typology includes

As Thompson affirms, the media are the "spinning-wheels" of the modern world (cf. Thompson 1995); for this reason we cannot avoid taking note of the existence of a thick web of connections which encircle us, brought into being thanks to the means of communication, of which the communities are but one example.

© Lella Mascio (Bologna)


Cavicchioli, Sandra (1996 ). "Spazialità e semiotica percorsi per una mappa". Versus. Quaderni di studi semiotici Numero doppio 73/74, a cura di S. Cavicchioli [Milano: Bompiani]

Greimas, Algirdas Julien (1976 ). Sémiotique et sciences sociales. Paris: Seuil

Landowski, Eric (1989 ). La société réfléchie. Paris: Seuil

Marrone, Gianfranco (2003). "Il mondo guarda il mondo". In: Semprini, Andrea (a cura di). Lo sguardo sociosemiotico. Milano: Angeli

Meyrowitz, Joshua (1985). No Sense of Place. The Impact of Electronic Media on Social Behavior. New York: Oxford University Press

Pozzato, Maria Pia (2001). Semiotica del testo. Roma: Carocci

Rheingold, Howard (1993). The Virtual Community. Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier. Reading, MA: Addison-Welsey

Thompson, John B. (1995). The Media and Modernity. A Social Theory of the Media. Cambridge: Polity Press

Grundlagen/Fundamentals Teil 1/Part 1:
Moderation / Chair: Jeff Bernard
Teil 2/Part 2:
Teil 3/Part 3:
Teil 4/Part 4:
Nonverbale Zeichen/Non-verbal Signs

1.2. Signs, Texts, Cultures. Conviviality from a Semiotic Point of View /
Zeichen, Texte, Kulturen. Konvivialität aus semiotischer Perspektive"

Sektionsgruppen | Section Groups | Groupes de sections

TRANS       Inhalt | Table of Contents | Contenu  15 Nr.

For quotation purposes:
Lella Mascio (Bologna): Virtual Communities and the Socio-semiotic Approach. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 15/2003. WWW:

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