Because there are so many, and most only comprise a few people at any one time (most have only a few regulars). Being able to influence them is very time consuming and costly.
In addition they take many forms. There are the obvious types such as the newsgroups and chat sites. In addition there are the usergroups and bulleting boards. Furthermore there are the people whose primary interest is in a single site and interaction takes the form of e-mail exchanges with the site owner (nice if they are consumers).
Most people are active in a variety of groups and many will be involved with more than one discussion, chat or Web site.
There are Web site based communities such as the company Web site, a small part of the Internet. Members of Internet communities have a commonality of interest which is the glue that holds them together.
In his contribution to the BBC's on-line Communities day in June 1999, Internet guru, Howard Rhingold said: 'Structurally, the Internet has inverted the few-to-many architecture of the broadcast age, in which a small number of people were able to influence and shape the perceptions and beliefs of entire nations. In the many-to-many environment of the Net, every desktop is a printing press, a broadcasting station, and place of assembly. Mass-media will continue to exist, and so will journalism, but
these institutions will no longer monopolise attention and access to the attention of others.'
For some, notably John Hagel and Arthur Armstrong, the two McKinsey consultants who published a book in 1997 called "Net.Gain" there is a commercial opportunity to be gained from these so called virtual communities. They postulated that there were hundreds of millions of dollars are to be made in aggregating virtual communities.
That is in creating corporate virtual communities. In a sense they are right in that 'sticky' sites (that is Web sites that bring netzines back to the corporate site time and again) create Internet communities. The investment needed to create 'stickiness' is massive and for some, often in commercial terms fleetingly, is real. A not-for-profit example (albeit with massive broadcast promotion) is the BBC. The reason the Armstrong Hagel hypothesis is flawed is the range of communities that exist and will continue to exist in the Internet Society.
Thus the neighbourhoods near the factory and office, employees, vendors, customers, shareholders, governments, politicians and so forth are communities in the traditional and, potentially, the Internet Community sense.
These are people with common interests that may have an effect on the corporation. Interests may be in a profession, hobby, life interest or religion. In addition the relationship a company may have through affiliation such as a trade organisation, pressure group or market place may be influenced by the Internet Society and in turn the organisation.
The relationship can be even more tenuous in that an Internet community may have a loose, permanent or, frequently, temporary coalition with virtual communities with different agendas. Frequently, members of one group will carry information from group to group and will also empower members to form a third, mutually interesting groups where the interest, or agenda, is common.
In society at large and throughout time this dynamic was possible before the Internet but today it is more potent, powerful and bigger. Interest of individuals, hitherto of a very personal nature can now be shared with others in communities of scattered enthusiasts round the world.
The nature of Internet communities is change with groups forming and fading like boiling clouds on a summers day.
Internet community relations management is now a bigger and more pervasive form of community relationship affairs than before. It affects the company more than ever before and communities are better informed and able to communicate more effectively. The extent to which the Internet aids democracy and infringes on the value of copyright are important maters for consideration and the effective Internet Reputation Manager will at least visit the significant discussions on the matter. They are important for all companies.
Virtual communities, born from common interests and aspirations of their members can be very closely associated with a corporate site. However, if, as part of the Internet presence, a company incorporates a discussion group or chat rooms there is a cost in planning effort, attention and time. The extent to which there is affinity with netzines , the rules to use, means for moderating (such as what topics can be touched on, what behaviour is acceptable and so forth), need careful planning and the means to continually bring new people and new interest to the community.
The relative anonymity of communities (chat, newsgroup, bulletin board etc) means people tend to say things they would normally not articulate. Rheingold expresses it well: 'As the Net has grown, the original norms of netiquette and collaborative, co-operative, maintenance of an information commons that enriches everyone have been assaulted by waves of clueless newbies and sociopaths, spammers and charlatans and loudmouths. Maintaining civility in the midst of the very conflicts we must solve together as citizens, isn't easy.'
Thus, the means by which a company may want to enhance its reputation by including discussion and discourse on its site can backfire dramatically. A guide to how to host a community on line is published by Rheingard.
So what do these virtual communities look like?