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date: 25 January 2020

Virtual Communities of Practice

Abstract and Keywords

Sociologists and social workers have long been invested in understanding the role of communities in shaping identities and influencing behavior; however, the study of virtual communities is still new despite the dramatic ways in which online social networks have replaced traditional, geographically bound conceptions of community. The present article briefly reviews some of the early theories of community that have influenced practically all scholars studying computer-mediated virtual communities. The focus then shifts toward an analysis of early, important theorists focusing on virtual communities. The article concludes by examining contemporary research and practices utilizing virtual communities in social work, with a particular emphasis on ways to integrate virtual communities into professional practice.

Keywords: virtual communities, social networking, computer-mediated communication, technology in social work, community psychology

Introduction

Since its popularization in the mid-1990s, the Internet has had a dramatic impact on social life. Where we once would mail a letter at a post office, we now send emails, texts, or Snapchats on our personal computers and smart phones; where we once relied on printed periodicals for information and current events, we now access much of our news from websites and through social media like Facebook, Myspace, Twitter, Pinterest, and Reddit. But how do these new forms of computer-mediated social life influence our development, our worldview, and our sense of self and other? How has the digital revolution altered our experiences of intimacy, friendship, and community? And why should the existence of “virtual communities” matter to social workers?

The purpose of this essay is to begin to answer some of these questions as they relate to theoretical and practical features of social work. Because so much of the research focused on virtual communities extends the work of community psychologists and sociologists, we begin with a brief review of important theoretical principles and historical contexts for community research (see “Community” for a more complete treatment). We then progress into a more extended discussion of important early theorists of social networks and virtual communities who have explored both the potentials and dangers of computer-mediated sociality. Finally, we conclude with sections focused on current research applying virtual communities to various fields of clinical social work, as well as more broad uses of “virtual communities of practice” in social work education and communication.

Theorizing Community

As sociologists and social workers know well, the communities to which we belong dramatically influence our identity development, our behavior, and our worldview. Yet prior to the digital revolution, sociologists exclusively defined a “community” as a geographically bound social formation responsible for group identification and cohesion based on some shared sense of belief or cultural identity. In other words, in the absence of communication technology, communities were largely restricted by space and were dependent on traditional systems of kinship bonds. This section briefly touches upon some of the important thinkers and ideas in community psychology, which leads to contemporary theorists’ engagement with virtual communities and the ways in which they have changed these traditional structures of intimacy and socialization.

As a formal theoretical principle in sociology, “community” studies can be traced back to Ferdinand Tönnies, whose “Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft” (1887)—commonly translated as “Community and Association” or “Community and Society”—is widely credited as the seminal text in community psychology. In his study, Tönnies distinguishes between the traditional bonds of family/kin (Gemeinschaft) and the more abstract bonds that form the relation of the individual within a larger society (Gesellschaft). Writing at the cusp of industrial modernity, Tönnies was particularly interested in ways in which technological innovations and resulting changes in social life were altering traditional community structures.

Expanding Tönnies’ work, Max Weber—the father of modern sociology—made a stronger case for the importance of community structures in individual development. By studying the impact of community traits (notably the role of religion in individual and community development), Weber provided a theoretical model that would continue to inspire sociologists and social workers, including those invested in studying the influences of modernity and technological advancements on contemporary communities and individuals therein. While Tönnies, Weber, and other early sociologists often focused on alienation as the primary effect of modernization, later theorists would extend their work to suggest that expanding community structures through communication technology would in fact create greater opportunities for gaining social capital, which Putnam defines as “the collective value of all social networks and species (who people know) and the inclinations that arise from these works to do things for each other (norms of reciprocity)” (p. 27). While a complete treatment of community psychology exceeds space constraints, it is important to acknowledge that early theorists questioned the costs and values of changing social structures resulting from communication technology, questions that would influence and inspire later virtual community theory and the subject of the following section.

Virtual Communities

As suggested above, modern technological advancements have dramatically influenced social life and development since the late 19th century, and ever since then, social scientists have been studying the effects of these influences. This is particularly true of online social networks. For 21st-century social workers whose clients are likely active on Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, and other online or virtual communities, understanding virtual communities’ history and the early research exploring their potentials and dangers will aid in promoting best practices. Herein, the formation of virtual communities and a number of important scholarly and theoretical texts concerned with how these communities influence social development are reviewed, both in positive and negative terms. We then progress into a more complete analysis of current research on virtual communities as they relate to specific fields of social work.

The term “virtual community” entered our critical lexicon through Howard Rheingold in The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier (1993). Importantly, Rheingold makes clear that not just any online forum qualifies; a virtual community must involve a sense of common purpose and active participation by members, often leading to strong interpersonal relationships between members and thus mirroring the affective bonds found in traditionally defined communities. The book centers upon Rheingold recounting his experience as a formative member of the Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link (the WELL), which opened in February 1985 and remains one of the oldest virtual communities still in existence. Combining personal reflection with sociological theory to explore themes like psychological well-being and civic engagement through online networking sites, Rheingold’s work has inspired scholars in various fields concerned with how participation in virtual communities impacts identity development, social capital, and other factors about which social workers of various disciplines are expressly concerned.

Additionally, Rheingold situates his text in response to researchers and theorists who have suggested that digitally mediated virtual communities have exacerbated the trend toward social fragmentation and alienation—a view expressed by the majority of social scientists prior to the 1990s. Without dismissing legitimate concerns about participation in virtual communities as a substitute for face-to-face human bonds, one of Rheingold’s most important contributions comes from his focus on the ways in which virtual communities possess potential for human bonding and social development:

Those who critique [virtual communities] because some people use [them] obsessively hit an important target, but miss a great deal more when they don't take into consideration people who use the medium for genuine human interaction. Those who find virtual communities cold places point at the limits of the technology, its most dangerous pitfalls, and we need to pay attention to those boundaries. But these critiques don't tell us how [so many people] could have found the community of support and information we found in the WELL when we needed it. And those of us who do find communion in cyberspace might do well to pay attention to the way the medium we love can be abused.

(p. 8)

Put differently, Rheingold acknowledges the existing scholarly discussion connecting industrial modernity with individual alienation and the breakdown of traditional community structures, but views virtual communities as a medium for human bonding capable of replacing (in part) those traditional relationship structures that have evolved in contemporary times.

Here, we see Rheingold channeling Ray Oldenburg’s The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons, and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community (1989), which suggests that individuals need a “third place” outside of “home” and “work” for healthy social growth and psychological well-being. For Oldenburg, the “home” accounts for “strong tie” relationships which maintain our sense of identity as well as our emotional well-being, while “work” provides material sustenance and a sense of meaning, accomplishment, and self-esteem—each important for maintaining psychological, emotional, and psychical health. The “third place,” which represents a space for friendship and leisure, provides a forum for intercommunity interaction as well as emotional release, making it an equally important feature of social life. However, for Oldenburg, contemporary life has limited our access to these “third places,” and Rheingold’s work suggests that virtual communities can provide greater access to these “third places” and the “weak tie” relationships that tend to define such interactions.

The Ties that Bind Us

As social workers, we are familiar with the importance of “strong ties” (loosely related to Tönnies’ Gemeinschaft) in community development and identification. Strong ties describe interpersonal bonds which link intimate relationships, most commonly those between family members, mates, and close friends. As such, “communities” are traditionally defined as “strong tie” relationships, as this assumes some level of familial or cultural relation for an individual and others within the individual’s identity group.

Historically, sociological theorists have prioritized these “strong ties” in exploring human behavior and social development. However, Mark Granovetter’s seminal study “The Strength of Weak Ties” (1973) has demonstrated the importance of less intimate acquaintances in creating “bridges” between communities, which provide greater opportunities for collective activism, empathetic development, and other positive features of social networking. Granovetter also suggests that

a strong tie can be a bridge… only if neither party to it has any other strong ties, unlikely in a social network of any size (though possible in a small group). Weak ties suffer no such restriction, though they are certainly not automatically bridges. What is important, rather, is that all bridges are weak ties.

(p. 1364, emphasis in original)

This is very important for social workers to acknowledge because without a greater understanding of how weak ties influence social development, we risk understating the value of cross-community interaction. “The fewer weak ties one has,” Granovetter continues, “the more encapsulated he will be in terms of knowledge of the world beyond his own friendship circle” (p. 1371). Granovetter’s work is thus particularly important in its suggestion that weak ties—which describe most interpersonal bonds in virtual communities—are essential for positive emotional and social development, points that we investigate later. For now, we must acknowledge that because virtual communities are mostly based on “weak ties,” online networking provide opportunities for building bridges across communities, allowing greater opportunities for trans-community interaction, empathy, and understanding.

Weak ties—particularly those in the digital age—are also responsible for allowing individuals to establish “social capital,” a series of social and material benefits afforded to individuals and groups within a given social system. Traditionally, social capital has been acquired through education, civic participation, and other forms of assimilation into traditional social structures which expand an individual’s or a community’s relationship networks. While theorists like Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone (1995) have suggested that technological innovations like online communication are responsible for decreasing civic participation and “legitimate” social networks, his later work Better Together: Restoring the American Community (2003) reversed this opinion. Instead, Putnam suggests that certain forms of virtual communities in fact promote “bridging capital,” a term which combines Granovetter’s faith in intracommunity bonding through weak ties with evidence showing an increase in civic participation and other positive developments in social capital associated with the digital communication revolution.

Expanding these discussions into the globalized, digital age, Carolyn Haythornthwaite (2005) has suggested that computer-mediated networks are particularly useful in creating “latent ties,” which prior to the popularization of virtual communities could never have been bridged. Of course, both “strong ties” (such as between family members) and “weak ties” (such as between work acquaintances) existed long before virtual communities, but virtual communities join individuals who would otherwise never have found a forum to meet and create bridges. Extending Haythornthwaite’s work, Chambers (2008) claims that these “latent ties” are ultimately leading toward “a democratization of interpersonal relationships”:

Familial and friendship associations are being combined to form personal networks that have the potential to foster social cohesion and support and characterize today’s modes of interaction. It is characterized by the desire for informal, non-hierarchical sets of relationships, offering individuals the potential to reinvent narratives of self… . These new ways of thinking are prompting academic speculations that social ties are becoming more intimate, private, and personal yet fluctuating and transient.

(p. 45)

Put differently, Chambers and other theorists locate within virtual communities “a historical shift in the value of social ties from the emphasis on a sense of ‘community’ to a sense of ‘intimacy’ occurred during modernity” (p. 42), leading to a variety of alterations in identity formation, interpersonal relationships, and the social networks that influence them.

In positive terms, these shifts have provided individuals greater agency in defining interpersonal relationships and gaining access to broader social networks, yet many theorists have identified potential risks in computer-mediated social bonds, such as entirely new phenomena like internet addiction (Young, 1998; Yellowlees & Marks, 2007) and issues that online networking exacerbates like gambling (Young, 2009; Griffiths, 2003; Gainsbury et al., 2013). Furthermore, theorists have demonstrated that the prominence of online social networking has accentuated the divide between classes, benefiting primarily those affluent enough to utilize computer-mediated networks at the expense of those lacking access (Maton, 2008). Keeping both the potentials and dangers in mind, we now examine some of the important research critical of the many pitfalls associated with virtual communities before progressing into a more focused discussion of theoretical and practical applications of virtual communities in social work.

The Pitfalls of Virtual Communities

As we have seen, sociologists have been studying technology’s role in human development since the field’s inception. Extending this study into the 21st century, many recent scholars have studied virtual communication’s potential for emotional and psychological development while providing much needed community spaces in an increasingly digitized world. Others, as shown in the following section, have specifically demonstrated valuable uses of virtual communities in various fields of social work. However, not all theorists are optimistic about the overall benefits of online social networking, or at least they approach the topic with healthy skepticism. At the most basic level, many scholars reject the very idea of a “virtual community” as a misnomer. Because a “community” is defined as a geographically bound social system built upon shared values and strong interpersonal bonds, computer-mediated networks may lack these characteristics because they are usually geographically dispersed, often do not hinge on collective identities or belief systems, and typically promote mostly shallow bonds, not deeply affectionate relationships.

For instance, Bauman (2001) has claimed that social networking sites promote “liquid relationships,” characterized by “fleeting social attachments” motivated by self-interest and ultimately leading to increased feelings of emotional alienation, a lack of social responsibility and cohesion, and even larger breakdowns of traditional community structures. In a later work, Bauman (2003) suggests that virtual communities promote “affective fragility” in human relationships. Compared to traditional, face-to-face forums for meeting a partner, virtual communities are far more accessible, offering 24-hour availability while also expanding opportunities to date outside of one’s hometown. However, noting that most emotional cues are communicated nonverbally, Internet-mediated relationships often create uneven levels of affection, allowing partners to misinterpret one another’s written words in the absence of facial expressions, vocal intonations, and body language, at least in the absence of video chatting. And being relatively easy to begin, online relationships are also easy to sever, which can lead to greater or more frequent feelings of isolation and rejection compared to face-to-face relationships, which occur less frequently and tend to involve more reliable communication of emotional cues.

Beyond this example of ways in which relationships in virtual communities can create negative social responses like isolation, rejection and depression, research suggests that participation in virtual communities can aggravate existing emotional and psychological issues. For instance, Buffardi and Campbell (2008) have found that in regard to narcissism,

Online communities may be an especially fertile ground for narcissists to self-regulate via social connections for two reasons. First, narcissists function well in the context of shallow (as opposed to emotionally deep and committed) relationships.… Second, social networking web pages are highly controlled environments.… [o]ne can use personal web pages to select attractive photographs of oneself or write self-descriptions that are self-promoting.

(p. 1304)

Most readers are likely familiar with this second reason that virtual communities attract narcissists and perhaps even promote more narcissistic behaviors: our ability to essentially shape the way the world sees us through selection of pictures (which can be edited), the details in our profiles, the customization of web spaces, and our list of “likes,” “retweets,” “followers,” etc. While Buffardi and Campbell’s research does not conclusively show an increase in narcissistic behavior through participation in online social networks, their work does suggest that the combined capacity for selective self-promotion and large numbers of shallow acquaintances make virtual communities ripe for narcissism and other problematic behaviors.

More broadly, Internet addiction is perhaps the best known and most widely studied negative implication of computer-mediated social life (Young, 1999; Moreno, Jelenchick, & Christakis, 2013; Yellowlees & Marks, 2007). Generally defined as the excessive use of various forms of online sociality, theorists within this field note the extent to which virtual communities open new forums for self-destructive behaviors. Of course, theorists continue to debate whether “Internet addiction” should be treated as an addiction in itself or as a symptom or enabler of other disorders, but most agree that excessive Internet use and an overreliance on mediated intimacies and friendships can create a series of issues.

For instance, gambling addiction has a long history of being treated by self-help groups, social workers, and other allied professionals. However, with the advent of virtual gaming communities like Pokerstars, Draft Kings, and Magic: The Gathering Online, toxic behaviors that were once restricted to the casino or social night can be accessed “on demand” from the comfort of home, potentially increasing the rate of addictive gambling (Young, 2009; Griffiths, 2003; Gainsbury et al., 2013). Beyond these self-destructive behaviors, online social networks can also provide the means of causing pain to others. Among the most visible example of this is cyberbullying, which is discussed later, which includes various forms of hate speech such as racism, sexism, homophobia, and religious and ethnic bigotry perpetuated by the many “trolls” and other micro-aggressors that populate the web. Further, the Internet also opens opportunities for pedophiles to seek out young people and disseminate child pornography, often through virtual communities.

While this discussion only scratches the surface of the problems associated with online social networking, the point here is that virtual communities are both valuable tools as well as potentially dangerous weapons. Social workers must approach virtual communities with optimism tempered by caution as they seek to understand the intricacies of how virtual communities influence human behavior and development while designing communities and implementing strategies that utilize them for the benefit of ourselves and our clients.

Virtual Communities in Social Work Practice

Up to this point, background context for the study of communities, a brief review of early studies of virtual communities, and a series of concerns surrounding social work applications of virtual communities have been outlined. Next, a more sustained analysis of the many ways in which social workers of various specialties and fields of practice are utilizing virtual communities is presented. Divided into individual topics and concentrations within social work, each section provides a brief review of major areas of research relating to these subfields, as well as a discussion of best practices and adaptations for social workers seeking to utilize virtual communities in the service of both clients and their own profession development.

Mental Health and Substance Abuse

As previously discussed, virtual communities provide opportunities to develop strong affective bonds, but also pose particular dangers for mental well-being. Many theorists suggest that online social networking increases alienation, decreases interaction, and contributes to emotional and psychological issues, a position supported by numerous studies (Bauman, 2001, 2003; Baym, 2000; Beck & Beck-Gernsheim, 1995; Buffardi & Campbell, 2008; Putnam, 2000). Other studies, like a recent one by Jelenchick, Eickhoff, and Moreno (2013), found no significant correspondence between participation in virtual communities and depression in general samples, yet it may put certain individuals at greater risk when they use Internet networks in problematic ways. While the value of virtual communities in mental health practice is hotly debated, we focus here on proactive research supporting the efficacy of virtual communities in clinical applications while keeping firmly in mind the potential dangers.

Despite the previously mentioned questions about the risks of social media, many rehabilitation and efficacy groups like Alcoholic Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, and Overeaters Anonymous have successfully begun to utilize virtual communities as replacements or supplements for face-to-face support groups, thereby making these support groups accessible for geographically remote populations and those with time constraints (Masson, Balfe, Hackett, & Phillips, 2013). Another promising application of virtual communities is reported by Schoech (2007), who found that SubstanceAbusePrevention.org, a government-sponsored virtual community designed to rehabilitate teens with a history of substance abuse, was effective in providing interactive, multimedia exercises and information as well as mentors, counselors, and other support personnel. Yet as Schoech suggests, many institutions and individual social workers lack the resources to create effective virtual communities, and a lack of funding for follow-up research makes it difficult to assess the effectiveness of such communities in facilitating real change. While we address practical concerns with planning and implementing virtual communities as support groups and information centers in later sections, preliminary research suggests that such groups are promising in their accessibility and interactive qualities, even though conclusive evidence of their ultimate success has yet to be found.

Despite the limited evidence supporting the efficacy of virtual communities in adult and teen substance abuse rehabilitation, research conducted by Schwarzer and Satow (2012) finds that participation in virtual communities predicts the cessation of tobacco dependency, particularly for individuals actively engaged in community activities like message boards and chat rooms. Additionally, their work suggests the benefits of emphasizing behavioral process over personality traits in treatment practice. Other research, such as that by Pahwa and Schoech (2008), has suggested similar benefits, yet only if individuals form meaningful social bonds and support systems through virtual communities. This draws our attention to the importance of practical applications facilitated by virtual community designers and social workers to ensure the success of such programs.

Even though virtual communities possess “certain risks … of which mental health professionals and potential users need to be cognizant,” studies suggest that

participants also perceived certain benefits from computer group use not found in traditional face-to-face groups.… The findings indicated that computer groups provided a unique context in which new beliefs and ideas about problems can be constructed.

(Eaglesham, 1996)

Despite the various issues associated with social networking, a growing body of literature suggests that virtual communities possess a unique capacity for providing accessible, “on demand” support systems for diverse client groups with various mental health and substance abuse issues, support systems that were inaccessible prior to online networking.

Children, Teens, and Schools

Perhaps more than any demographic of clients, children and teens increasingly rely on online activities and virtual communities as a forum for developing individual identities, interpersonal relationships, and independence (Reich, Black, & Korobkova, 2014; Reich, Subrahmanyam, & Espinoza, 2012; Subrahmanyam, Smahel, & Greenfield, 2006). While scholars like Baym (2007) have claimed that children’s participation in virtual communities potentially hinders face-to-face communication and engenders other negative social developments, Reich, Black, & Korobkova (2014) suggest that virtual communities instead provide “a mixed modality that combines… face-to-face, symbolic, and written communication,” which, “used in tandem… provide a rich foundation for interaction” that potentially benefits social growth and identity development (p. 264). Further, Varnhagen (2007) demonstrates that teens who communicate with closer acquaintances and strangers through unified virtual communities do not show poor social skills, but rather the opposite (p. 41). These and other studies suggest that when virtual communities are well designed and implemented, they promote self-esteem, self-empowerment, and other positive features of healthy social growth for children and teens.

Virtual communities for children and teens also fulfill important needs for leisure and friendship, much like they do for adults. Children in the 21st century have relatively fewer traditional forums for play and other social interactions. Some theorists like Wellman (2002) suggest that these online interactions introduce children to “networked individualism” more than “community networks.” In other words, while “community networks” promote empathy, understanding, and close emotional bonds, “networked individualism” limits children’s understanding of community bonds while leading them toward self-serving behaviors, and may expose them to forms of aggression, bullying, and exclusion that many children and teens experience in computer-mediated social forums.

Perhaps the most salient issue for social workers concerned with children and teens’ mental and emotional health is cyberbullying, the use of social networks to harass, torment, and shame others. While perhaps less visceral than physical and emotional violence associated with traditional, face-to-face bullying, cyberbullying can be even more damaging, as it is conducted in a public forum accessible to peers and is available all hours of the day, leaving victims no escape from their tormentors and the taunting or indifference of peers.

While cyberbullying is a problem among all children and teens, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) youth have been found to be disproportionately targeted by aggressors. As has been documented by Evans and Herriott (2004), Rankin (2005) and Evans and Herriott (2004), LGBT youth face various social and psychological difficulties in high school and college, largely due to their relatively high risk of discrimination, homophobia, and violence in the form of cyberbullying and face-to-face mistreatment. Yet significant research also suggests that supportive virtual communities for LGBT youth have been found effective in promoting positive self-identification and coping skills, as well as mentorship forums from older members of the LGBT community. Perhaps the most well-known example is the It Gets Better Project, an online community and content archive designed as a support system and mentorship forum for LGBT youth. Recent research by Wright and McKinley (2010) also found that LGBT youth benefitted from similar communities designed by university counseling centers, further suggesting the value of virtual communities aimed at supporting vulnerable populations and thus potentially preventing mental health issues related to cyberbullying and other forms of shaming and discrimination.

Many schools and universities have also utilized virtual communities as a means of providing information and counseling services for students experiencing a wide range of issues, such as mental health, substance abuse, and stress management. For instance, a recent study by Horgan and Sweeney (2010) clearly found that “young people attending University are active users of the Internet and are willing to use the Internet for mental health information and support,” yet many students also indicated “that they would prefer to use face-to-face support instead of Internet support,” at least in part due to design features (p. 121). Many theorists acknowledge the importance of design and accessibility, but Maton (2008) perhaps offers the most concise definition and set of criteria for an “empowering community,” which describes

A group-based, participatory, developmental process through which marginalized or oppressed individuals and groups gain greater control over their lives and environment, acquire valued resources and basic rights, and achieve important life goals and reduced societal marginalization.

(p. 5)

Most importantly here, school social workers aiming to utilize virtual communities as a means of supporting students requires that “a multifunctional role structure concurrently provides opportunities for skill development, skill utilization, and the exercise of responsibility, voice, and influence” (p. 12); it also requires designers and practitioners to establish common “belief systems in empowering settings [which] encourage members to look beyond themselves, incorporating a shared vision and larger purpose shared by members of the setting” (p. 8). It therefore follows that school social workers and other who are invested in supporting children and teens must design and support virtual communities which provide for such an “empowering community” setting instead of a simply rehabilitative one.

Based on this brief review of the scholarly literature, virtual communities have been widely deployed in social work as a way of serving children, adolescent, and school populations—groups that are already active in social networking and thus stand to benefit from online support groups. Social workers—particularly social workers in schools or others specializing in services to children and adolescents—must familiarize themselves with the risks and rewards of online social networking to better identify problematic uses, direct students toward supportive environments, and even design and implement supportive virtual communities ourselves.

Counseling and Mentoring

Computer-mediated social networking has revolutionized the ways in which we communicate in our personal and professional lives. It has also changed the dynamics of counseling and mentorship. While counseling describes the supportive relationship between a social worker or another allied professionals and their client, mentoring relates more to a professional relationship between mentor and protégé. While these are both very different practices, they are alike in that computer-mediated applications tend to use similar communication strategies and strive toward similar outcomes—to utilize one’s social network as a source of strength and support. This section reviews some significant research surrounding the use of virtual communities in counseling and mentoring, both as a way of offering insights into using virtual communities in daily practice as well as in expanding social workers’ knowledge bases and professional networks.

In the counseling field, scholars and practitioners have long understood the importance of an individual’s social network, whether as a means of introducing him or her to toxic behaviors or of rehabilitation from toxic behaviors. As Garrison and Werfel (1977) report, counselors often perform what is called “Network Session”—now commonly known as “interventions” thanks to the popular television show of the same name. The use of these “Network Sessions” is “based on the assumption that the solution to a variety of human dilemmas lies within the collective resources of the individual's social network” (p. 108), and therefore counselors utilize these networks and the emotional bonds between members to influence positive change for individuals struggling with various addictions and disorders. In more complete terms, Garrison and Werfel explain that

[t]he goals of the intervention are (a) to modify the network of emotional influence (affective resources) of the individual client with the intent of promoting active reality-based coping with the problem, and (b) when necessary to articulate the needed instrumental resources represented by family, friends, professional care-givers, community agencies, and other significant resources.

(p. 110)

These network sessions are extremely common in counseling, yet only recently have theorists and practitioners begun to utilize virtual communities as a resource. For instance, Masson et al. (2013) found that the use of virtual communities as a means of delivering counseling and support was particularly useful for rural, hard-to-reach populations lacking local support systems (p. 27). Similarly, Leibert et al. (2006) found that that the use of computer-mediated counseling was also profoundly beneficial for introverted clients and those suffering from emotional traumas and disorders:

People who are especially sensitive to the presence of others, who have experienced emotional trauma, social marginalization, or judgment from others may need to communicate without fear of a listener’s first reaction. An expression of incredulity, skepticism, or disapproval may prove too risky to overcome the desire for human contact of face-to-face counseling. The availability of mental health counseling online may help reach a clientele that would otherwise feel alone with their problems.

(p. 81)

While they acknowledge that face-to-face counseling will often be more beneficial for many clients, the use of virtual communities has allowed far greater access to counseling and other support systems, particularly for individual suffering from issues that may be negatively impacted by more traditional forms of counseling.

On a practical level, however, social workers and allied mental health professionals must be aware of the ethical and moral implications and adapt their practices accordingly. As reported by Kaplan et al. (2011), different states have different legal perspectives on the use of social media and other forms of computer-mediated communication for social workers and other service professionals, ranging from no regulations, limitations regulating certain practices, and all-out legal bans; but regardless of state-by-state regulations, all social workers and other service providers must be aware that certain breaches in confidentiality and privacy that are common on social media sites can violate the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPPA) (p. 4). Further, they describe various ethical issues related to the use of virtual communities, such as the practice of discussing cases on listservs and other forums or issues surrounding maintaining professional boundaries. While maintaining optimism in the practical application of virtual communities in counseling, the authors suggest the need for a variety of procedures like gaining consent forms and clarifying acceptable uses to utilize promising technology without compromising professional integrity and legal/ethical norms.

Outside of their use for clinical and professional support in counseling, virtual communities also possess vast potentials for online mentoring, or as it is often called, “E-Mentoring.” As Pender Greene (2015) notes,

Mentorship works best when there are clear benefits for mentors and protégés and also for their organizations and their professions as a whole… . Mentoring helps to cultivate confidence, build and expand professional networks, and increase professional value. Mentors also contribute to and expand on the knowledge base of their profession as a whole for the benefit of future generations.

(p. 3)

Kram (1985) originally proposed that mentoring relationships facilitate an individual’s professional development by providing two types of mentoring functions: career functions and psychosocial functions. Career functions include sponsorship, exposure and visibility, coaching, protection, and providing challenging assignments; psychosocial functions include role-modeling, acceptance and confirmation, counseling, and friendship.

In our increasingly digitized world, developing these computer-mediated forms of mentorship is exceedingly important. As explained by Higgins and Kram (2001) in their seminal article “Reconceptualizing Mentoring at Work: A Developmental Network Perspective,” there are several important reasons for this, including changing employment patterns which have decreased job security and increased the chances that professionals will change jobs and responsibilities many times. Also, technological advancements have changed the form and function of career patterns, changing organizational structures have limited access to traditional mentoring, and a diversification of the workforce has changed, calling for different resources in terms of career training and support systems. Given all these changes in professional settings, it follows that the mentor–protégé relationship has changed as well, and social workers can no longer rely on working in close proximity with mentors and colleagues.

For this reason, Pender Greene (2015) has recently suggested that social workers and other professionals establish a “Virtual Personal Board of Directors” (VPBOD) that nurtures and supports an individual’s professional development in the same way that actual Board of Directors does for a business. Establishing a VPBOD not only provides an accessible forum for building mentor relationships; it also provides ways to strengthen existing professional relationships and establish new ones. A VPBOD responds to the obstacles to traditional mentor-protégé relationships discussed above while harnessing the power of weak ties, providing opportunities for individuals to create communicative bridges—or “bridging capital.” Recalling that weak ties are responsible for building bridges between communities, establishing a VPBOD and harnessing it as a form of e-mentorship can allow individuals to diversify their social networks and establish professional relationships with mentors outside of their own discipline and immediate circle. This process allows for greater flexibility and more comprehensive resources for personal and professional development. A VPBOD thus increases social capital by harnessing the power of weak ties, which thereby provides important advantages and professional connections in an increasingly digitized world.

As we have seen, the prominence of virtual communities has changed the dynamics of traditional face-to-face support systems like clinical counseling and professional mentoring. For social workers, harnessing the benefits of computer mediated weak ties not only improves clients’ access and enthusiasm for support groups in many cases, but also enhances our professional lives through greater channels of influence and resources. The following section more directly connects the use of virtual communities with professional development and daily practice, focusing specifically on the ways virtual communities are being integrated into social work education and professional development programs.

Virtual Communities and Social Work Education

Up to this point we have focused primarily on topics associated with the theoretical approaches and practical applications of virtual communities in social work. But outside of clinical applications and professional mentorships, significant research suggests the benefits of virtual communities as learning communities and communities of practice for future and current social workers. However, as O’Looney (2005) has noted, social work has been surprising slow to adopt computer-mediated communication technologies, due to both the ethnical consideration discussed above as well as the cost associated with implementing and training in frequently under-funded social services programs (p. 11).

Yet despite these financial issues, many theorists have studied existing uses of virtual communities as learning and support environments for social workers. For instance, Cooner (2014) has recently suggested that Facebook aids in professionalization as a forum for sharing best practices, addressing issues of personal/professional boundaries, engaging with hands-on learning opportunities, and otherwise prompting both practicing social workers and students to “thoughtfully build on positive examples of social networking” while applying these in clinical settings (p. 1067). Cooner also demonstrates the importance of social work programs incorporating such issues into their training, as contemporary social workers need at least a basic awareness of the ethical and practical considerations that social workers and clients face when using virtual communities in both clinical and personal settings.

Cook-Craig and Sabah (2009) make similar claims about the benefits of “virtual communities of practice” (VCoPs) for social workers operating in circumstances where exchange and collaboration between social workers is limited or inaccessible. “When this actionable knowledge is not available or is not conclusive,” they write, “[social workers] have to collaborate to develop innovations that can be evaluated in practice” (p. 727). It thus follows that VCoPs can be “effective mechanism[s] for balancing the shortage of available evidence and the development of actionable knowledge or practice” (pp. 728–729). In a later case study examining the success of VCoPs in Israeli social work institutions (2010), the authors found that “preliminary data and evaluation suggest that adopting an organizational learning model and launching VCoPs has promise as a means of encouraging learning, the use of evidence, and the development of practical innovations,” all of which being increasingly difficult in the sometimes isolating field of social work (p. 443).

There is also the increasing trend toward delivering entire courses and degrees through virtual communities. For instance, Vernon, Lewis, and Lynch (2009) demonstrate the promising application of “Second Life,” a “virtual world” that is increasingly being used in social work education as a means of delivering experiential learning as well as traditional classroom content. Further, the authors note the extent to which professional relationships are formed and sustained through virtual communities like “Second Life,” increasing resources and support systems for social workers and directing them toward like-minded individuals and mentors (p. 181). While the use of such programs is relatively new and lacks validation from careful research, the authors demonstrate how such programs can be utilized to fulfill a variety of accreditation criteria, standards, and objectives in ways that traditional classroom education cannot.

As such, much preliminary research demonstrates potential benefits of using virtual communities in social work education. While this field of study is relatively new, just as the implementation of virtual communities in educational settings is new, initial results are promising. Moving forward, educators should further explore the use of virtual communities in terms of both their potential for interactive training for future social workers as well as their promise in utilizing the dynamics of virtual spaces for practical and professional development.

Legacies

As we have tried to demonstrate, the value of virtual communities in social work is widely debated, with some theorists suggesting that computer-mediated social networks harm social development while other view them as a much-needed source of community in a digitally-fragmented world. But while there remains a healthy skepticism, virtual communities in social work education and practice are gaining more support and development. When virtual communities were first introduced, most social workers viewed them as too indirect and non-local to be effective tools in daily practice, also citing issues of confidentiality and the often volatile nature of online support systems. Over time, however, professional organizations like the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) have increasingly adapted them for the benefit of the field, including their highly successful and informative chatrooms and blogs as well as their educational programs that center upon participating in virtual communities of practice.

Such organizations and increasing numbers of professionals now see within virtual communities vast potential for the expansion of knowledge bases, greater forms of support and collaboration between social workers and educators, and more inclusive ways of serving clients—particularly clients who are less likely to be served through traditional forums of social work. Where social workers used to be bound by geographical space, their services can now reach hard-to-reach and international clients. Where social workers were once relatively isolated from other practitioners, virtual communities now allow a broadening of disciplinary knowledge, greater collaboration, and stronger, more supportive professional networks. Proceeding farther into the 21st century, more theorists are exploring the uses of virtual communities, and more professional and educational institutions are developing digital forums for a wide range of services and training procedures. Still very much in its infancy, the use of virtual communities in social work continues to expand and develop, dramatically reshaping our profession to be more inclusive and more supportive for practitioners and clients alike.

Ultimately, the study of virtual communities and their influence on human development is still relatively new, meaning that there are tremendous opportunities for future social work research focused on the topics covered above, as well as the continuing innovations which will provide new forms of and forums for online social networking.

Further Reading

Barab, S. A., Kling, R., & Gray, J. H. (2004). Designing for virtual communities in the service of learning. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:

A collection of essays designed for practitioners designing virtual communities in educational settings, including but not limited virtual communities of practice for social work education.

Falk, J. K., & Drayton, B. (2009). Creating and sustaining online professional learning communities. New York: Teachers College Press.Find this resource:

Designed specifically for educators invested in creating productive and supportive virtual communities in the service of learning, Falk and Drayton’s collection of essays provides valuable insights into design and implementation strategies that also apply to social work.

Flynn, N. (2012). The social media handbook. Pfeiffer.Find this resource:

A comprehensive guide of policies and best practices for organizing social networks. Particularly useful in its coverage of legal and ethical considerations, the text will be essential for those interested in designing and implementing virtual communities.

Gackenbach, J. (2007). Psychology and the internet: Intrapersonal, interpersonal, and transpersonal implications. Burlington, MA: Elsevier.Find this resource:

An expansive and far-reaching collection of essays focused on a variety of important issues related to psychology and intimacy, ranging from chapters discussing impacts on identity formation, mental health, childhood development, and other important topics for social workers interested in virtual communities.

Jones, S. G. (1998e). Cybersociety 2.0: Revisiting computer-mediated communication and community. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.Find this resource:

A seminal text in the study of computer-mediated communication and the development of virtual communities, Jones’ collection offers many important essays for students and scholars interested in the scholarly issues associated with internet networking and interpersonal bonds.

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