Recently, a 29-year-old female worker of NIS (National Intelligence Service) was accused of posting comments for the specific purpose of using various IDs on an online community site. There are two conflicting opinions about her reasons for doing this. One is that she was trying to influence public opinion against the opposing party. The other opinion is that she was just performing a mission for the national security defending it from North Korea’s psychological aggression.
This conflict grabbed lots of attentions of the people. The behavior on a single online community made them to stand on the side of pros and cons. This issue shows that online communities have a kind of power to the public. It is possible for someone to make their opinion influential to the public by using online communities.
If an effect of the online community did not exist, all the arguments related with activities on online community including the behavior of the female NIS worker would be worthless. Apparently we already know it has some power. Then, what function of the online community makes them influential?
Among several functions it fulfills, we can say that communication is the key point of the online community. As you can see, the major sites of the online communities that people use consist of ‘boards.’ Each board has its own theme such as universities, jobs, entertainers, hobbies, foods, and so on. “DC Inside” is the most famous community site among the various kinds of communities. DC Inside has hundreds of boards titled with their own themes. Every user chooses boards focusing on their own interests. If they want to locate a specific group of people who have interest in some subject, they can find someone in the online community boards. They can easily find people who want to talk about their interests or want to gossip.
However, people aslo expect informational contents from the communities. There are some community sites specializing in specific content, for example, “MLB Park,” specializes in Korean and American basketball games, “SLR Club,” focuses on various kinds of cameras and “Seeko,” on various kinds of audio gadgets. Those communities deal in very specialized fields and have much information about them. They have many boards categorized into each sports team or manufacture company. Offline, places comparable to these online community sites are rare. Modern people do not have enough time to get face to face information about their interests especially from far flung places on face.
People who need to share the information about specific gadgets or sports use those kinds of communities to transcend physical limits. This aspect will intensify as the mobile applications of those online communities are developed. “Online community sites have their own attractive points. They are slightly different from the Social Network Services. They are more suited to bilateral communications since they gather people interested in a specific theme, so community users can have more intensive communication,” said Shim Yeong-sup, a professor of HUFS who teaches the Media-communication major.
Anonymity, a key figure of the online community
A mask of confession
There is another aspect to communication online that community users want. It is communication of an emotional and personal nature rather than the communication of information. People can participate in this kind of communication due to the anonymity, which covers the sides they do not want to expose. The most evident example is the use of anonymous boards where community users share their personal worries or agonies with unspecified individuals. For example, “Women’s Generation,” a community site based on the Daum Cafe system has an anonymous board where women tell their personal concerns.
Additionally “Today Humor,” an independent humor community also has an anonymous board. People who upload their stories can tell their personal stories with anonymity. “In the offline world, people usually distinguish between what is public and what is private because there are several rules they have to follow. Taking those rules into consideration, they rarely tell their personal stories to anyone because they do not want to be responsible for the burdens their stories could bring to them,” said Kim Yeong-seon, a professor of HUFS who teaches a class of liberal arts, Understanding of Psychology.
Trigger of the expression
However, the online communities provide their users another kind of anonymity. Although the community does not guarantee “complete” anonymity, people feel a low-level anonymity since their personal data such as face, voice, age and real name are not directly exposed. Due to this specification, the users are encouraged to share their personal emotions and ideas much more than they would in the real world.
They are not reticent to express their ideas to the unspecified individuals on the community sites even though they would not do that in real world. The system of some kind of online community accelerates this phenomenon. The recommendation system of Today Humor is the right example to follow. If more than 10 people recommend a posting, that posting is moved to the specific board, “Best Postings”. When the number of recommended people exceeds 100, the posting is moved to the “Best of Best.”
This system is similar to the “Like” on Facebook, one of the most popular SNS(Social Network Service)s. This system makes people want to be recognized as bonding with the other people. Other communities also use this kind of system. Some people upload their postings just to attract people’s attention and recommends. The low-level of anonymity triggers users to express their innate desires. “This type of behavior, comment on or recommend of other people’s postings, is their way of showing and have recognized by others their ability to empathize emotionally with others.” said Kim.
Compensation for the unsatisfying reality
From a different viewpoint, the anonymity becomes a mirror which reflects the inequality of the real world. Users can feel like the gap of inequality between people is narrowed within the online community due to the anonymity. In real life, various standards are used to judge people irrespective of who they are. Academic background, ages, gender, and appearance can be the examples of the standards used. People can feel that those kinds of standards affect their personal lives even their relationships with others. Although they do not belong to overt criteria, they continuously influence. It is just like an atmosphere which surrounds the individual. So users of the online community feel as if they obtain a liberty in the online community. This kind of thinking is stronger in individuals who have more stress as a result of these inequalities. “This psychological tendency appears more often in those who lose satisfaction with real life. They want compensation from their avatar in online community,” said Kim.
As a response to those desires, the existence of a common name or slogan representing an online community strengthens the feeling of compensation. Examples such as “Ja-gayee,” a user of the free board, “Ilbe-in,” a user of Daily Best Storage (Korean name Ilgan Best), “ASKY,” which means you will not be able to meet girlfriend or boyfriend, and so on represent a specific community sites’ identity. Users accept those identities as part of their characteristics. This process gives them a sense of belonging, and it locates them within a common social region in the community. “This is seen as an expression of their desires to be accepted and raise their self awareness. Humans need opportunities to explore their identities, and they also need someone who shares the same social status,” said Shim.
The compass Captain Jack Sparrow carries in the movie “Pirates of the Caribbean” points to
what his heart most desires. Community users can lead the communities to where they want to go.
Rise and fall of the communities depends on the users’ will.
Innate danger of the anonymous
However, some dangerous aspects are innate in the community sites’ anonymous system. When the sense of belonging become stronger and a person accepts the identity as his or her own, the individual could lose some ability to filter out unwholesome thinking from among the numerous postings on the community boards. What is worse, as online communities operate unfettered free boards, people can post some bad ideas and contents without controls. This two-way interaction amplifies the significance of bad effects.
Someone who has lost their ability to distinguish the soundness of the content could easily be incited. If you look around the internet with a little care, you can discover some examples of people who assimilated with the communities’ characteristics. Looking at new comments in Naver, one of the popular portal sites of Korea, you will discover quite large numbers of the people expressing the same opinions using similar words especially on political matters. Some could be accepting the others’ opinion in community sites without asking any or a minimal number of questions.
The users holding all the cards
When this situation deteriorates, some users become accustomed to the extreme and violent actions such as humiliating someone or hacking someone’s personal information. These behaviors could hurt someone. ”Someone who does not feel satisfied could become provocative and an unsound user for attracting people’s attention,” said Shim. As you can see, the online community is founded upon people’s desire to share communication and emotion. It supports the attempts of minorities and concerned people to express their thoughts. It is clear that it enables more people to get help to overcome their burden, and that more ideas and thoughts can be exposed to the public.
However, if the number of people who do not keep an invisible limit grows, the possibility of the collapse of the community, the base of the communication, apparently gets high. It is a matter of degrees. “There is no overall controller of the online community. Some community sites do not want to regulate their users because they need high rate of traffic to cover the expensive advertisement charges. In short, the use of self-purification will be the most important role in that society. All community sites depend on their users,” said Shim.