Friday, June 20, 2008

Craft Communities Online

It seems that there are online communities for almost everything from new mothers, to political activists, but how would a craft community, so focussed on an activity that is done physically, translate online?

Helen McLean runs a quilting website from her home in Victoria; after her husband passed away she wanted a project and something to bring in a bit of income. Her son and daughter both, who are web designers, set her up a quilting website. Helen’s site offers a whole range of resources and a place for quilters from around the world to come. Helen told me she has people from all over accessing her site

“Old, young, I had quite a big order from a shop in Norway, in almost all countries. One of my very first customers lives in Cloncurry, way out back in Queensland; a lot of ladies say ‘there’s nowhere near me’”.

The ability of online communities to break down geographical barriers is one of their main advantages, Greg Wadley, associate academic and researcher in the Interaction Design Group at the University of Melbourne is researching online communities and he says one of their advantages is that they can create community for people who would otherwise be isolated from a physical one.

“In your local neighbourhood there may not simply be enough people to form a community who share that interest, but the internet means a much larger group of people who can get together and discuss the interest and share resources of various kinds. Another advantage of online communities is you don’t have to be at a meeting place at a particular time, you can just log in when it’s convenient to you, and take turns in a conversation that might spread out over days or weeks.”

Education and the transfer of skills online is something Greg has been exploring and is something craft communities are often trying to do, I asked him what major difficulties he had come across in transferring practical skills online?

“The problem is that social information doesn’t get broadcast through the internet, by that I mean; if you’re sitting in a room with your social group then there’s much more information flashing back and forth between the people, there’s a lot more communication going on than we’re even consciously aware of. Online there’s far less information getting through.” Greg said.

So with all these communities going online is it likely that we’ll see what has traditionally been serviced by physical communities be taken over by online ones? Both Greg and Helen are doubtful.

“There have been researchers arguing a dystopian view of online community, saying that people will spend all their time sitting at a computer and the more time they spend online the less time they’re communing with others offline, but I don’t know that our experience is baring that out. There’ll always be a small number of people who will do anything to an extreme way, but most people aren’t affected by it at all. Most people find a way to utilise online and offline communities in the most appropriate way and make them work together.” Greg Said

Helen said online communities could never replace offline one’s for quilters.

“I don’ think they would replace them at all, because women just love to get together and swap patterns person to person, see what each other are doing, and I don’t know why it is but as quilters we love to feel things, I see a fabric the first thing I want to do is touch it and I don’t know why cause they pretty much all feel the same. I really don’t think it would stop (physical) groups, but if you were really isolated and you didn’t know where there was a group then yes maybe”

While it seems online communities can never completely replace physical communities, it is clear they can broaden them. In an era where people find physical communities can be difficult to coordinate, online communities are offering the opportunity to people with all kind of interests to find each other. So whether you like quilting, scrap booking, model train making or hobbytex there’s likely to be an online community for you.