A virtual community, e-community or online community is a group of people that primarily interact via communication media such as newsletters, telephone, email, internet social network service or instant messages rather than face to face, for social, professional, educational or other purposes. If the mechanism is a computer network, it is called an online community. Virtual and online communities have also become a supplemental form of communication between people who know each other primarily in real life. Many means are used in social software separately or in combination, including text-based chat rooms and forums that use voice, video text or avatars. Significant socio-technical change may have resulted from the proliferation of such Internet-based social networks.
Virtual communities, or online communities, are used for a variety of social and professional groups interacting via the Internet. It does not necessarily mean that there is a strong bond among the members, although Howard Rheingold, author of the book of the same name, mentions that virtual communities form "when people carry on public discussions long enough, with sufficient human feeling, to form webs of personal relationships". An email distribution list may have hundreds of members and the communication which takes place may be merely informational (questions and answers are posted), but members may remain relative strangers and the membership turnover rate could be high. This is in line with the liberal use of the term community.
Virtual communities may synthesize Web 2.0 technologies with the community, and therefore have been described as Community 2.0, although strong community bonds have been forged online since the early 1970's on timeshare systems like PLATO_(computer_system) and later on USENET. Online communities depend upon social interaction and exchange between users online. This emphasizes the reciprocity element of the unwritten social contract between community members. Some of the earliest forms of web 1.0 virtual community websites included TheGlobe.com (1994), GeoCities (1994), and Tripod.com (1995). These early communities focused on bringing people together to interact with each other through chat rooms, and share personal information and ideas around any topics via personal homepage publishing tools which were a precursor to the blogging and social networking phenomenon. The web 2.0 wave of online community arrived in the early 2000s and is essentially characterized by virtual communities such as Flickr, Facebook, and Del.icio.us. A similar trend is starting to emerge within businesses where online or virtual communities are taking hold. These communities can be organizational, regional or topical depending on the business. From a technical perspective, software tools abound to create and nurture these communities including BigTent, Yahoo! Groups, Google Groups, LISTSERV, Microsoft SharePoint and IBM Lotus Connections.
The explosive diffusion of the Internet since the mid-1990s has also fostered the proliferation of virtual communities. The nature of those communities is diverse, and the benefits that Rheingold envisioned are not necessarily realized, or pursued, by many. At the same time, it is rather commonplace to see anecdotes of someone in need of special help or in search of a community benefiting from the use of the Internet.
Different virtual communities have different levels of interaction and participation among their members. This ranges from adding comments or tags to a blog or message board post to competing against other people in online video games such as MMORPGs. Many communities that are operated by Homeowner Associations utilize homeowners association websites to facilitate all communications, business transactions, and social endeavors of any kind. Not unlike traditional social groups or clubs, virtual communities often divide into cliques or even separate to form new communities. Author Amy Jo Kim points out a potential difference between traditional structured online communities (message boards, chat rooms, etc), and more individual-centric, bottom-up social tools (blogs, instant messaging buddy lists), and suggests the latter are gaining in popularity.
The embedding of virtual community in the experiences of everyday life and its reflection of and influence on the communication practices and patterns of identity formation make online community a colossal research enterprise which requires continuous investigation and theorizing.