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Last Updated: Thursday, 29 May, 2003, 08:42 GMT 09:42 UK
Online communities get real
Students using computers
Virtual world firmly rooted in reality, say experts
Weblogs, e-mail and instant messaging are enabling people to maintain relationships and pass information in unexpected ways, say researchers.

A study of online communities by UK think-tank The Work Foundation has found that the web is much more localised, more honest and less chaotic than original predictions thought.

So-called social software - e-mail, messaging systems, weblogs and shared online diaries - is allowing people to make the net work for them and bring the virtual world home.

New phenomena such as weblogs have allowed people to share their interest and passions with a wider audience but often provide a quite mundane and honest view of life.

"Increasingly technologies allow people to find out about others in the real world and keep in touch with their day-to-day lives," said the report's author Will Davies.

Rooted in reality

The notion that virtual communities would allow people to unite in a global village, creating false online personas and moving rapidly from one internet community to another are not being borne out.

People might not want to socialise with their neighbours but instead circulate information about crime or recommend a good plumber
Will Davies, The Work Foundation
"The idea of a virtual life makes no sense to most people in Britain," said Mr Davies.

"They don't really want to get married, meet new people, or make money entirely on the internet. Instead they want to make the internet work for them," he said.

Sites such as UpMyStreet.com, which allows people to keep in touch online with their own neighbours, are gaining popularity.

People simply enter their postcode to find out what is going on in their local area, from community events to how to get hold of a reliable builder.

"People might not want to socialise with their neighbours but instead circulate information about crime or recommend a good plumber. It is very local and very real," said Mr Davies.

Fears that the online world would limit the amount of time people spend interacting with each other may be over-hyped, the report suggested.

"Social software is being used to support real world interaction and is enhancing face-to-face contact rather than departing from it," said Mr Davies.

Making connections

Amateur clubs and local associations are using the internet to broadcast their existence and to co-ordinate activities.

And people power is also being helped by online communities such as epinions.com, a site which allows consumers to give their views on any products they have bought.

"As knowledge management and access to information have become central to all of our social and economic well being, so it has happened that social networks have grown in power," said Will Hutton, Chief Executive of The Work Foundation.

This is an idea the BBC is eager to build on with its iCan project, which aims to link people with shared civic interests in an attempt to increase political awareness.

Even business people are complementing traditional networking events with visits to websites such as ecademy.com which aims to develop online business networks.

"People are finally ditching the two-worlds view, which separates the internet from everyday life and now realise the two are part of one picture," said Mr Davies.

The report, called You don't know me but ... Social Capital and Social Software, is part of The Work Foundation's i-Society project which looks at how technologies such as the net and mobile phones are affecting the lives of people in the UK.

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