From Chat to Civilization:

The Evolution of
Online Communities

Bob Rockwell, Ph.D.
Chief Scientist

Executive Summary

Community is more and more being seen as the long-sought "killer app" that will turn the Internet from an investment challenge into a profitable resource. Over the next year online communities will evolve beyond simple chat rooms to become complex interconnected environments where individuals can communicate and collaborate in ways not possible in the real world. That evolution will take today’s web sites through three identifiable stages: from digital Crowds Villages toward a digital Civilization.



The Evolution
of Online



Each of these stages will bring unique features that will increase the value of the online community to both its members and its owner/operators.


  Stage of Evolution Description  

HTML Web Site

No community support  


Simple anonymous text chat  


Personal, organized, and structured interactions.  


Seamless interconnection of communities and sharing of knowledge across communities  


blaxxun interactive is the first company to announce a line of community software that will meet the needs of each stage of online community evolution. The Community Client/Server community support system already facilitates the development of communities more advanced than today’s Digital Crowds. Throughout 1997, blaxxun will ship a series of enhanced clients and servers to meet the evolving needs of Digital Villages and lay the foundation for a Digital Civilization.


  Version Ship Date Evolution Stage Supported  
  CyberHub 1.0 Shipping since July 1996 Crowd and 50% of Village  
  CyberHub 2.0 February 15, 1997 100% of Village  
  Community Server 3.0 October 1997 50% of Civilization  
  Community Server 4.0 Fall 1998 100% of Civilization  


The Quest for Online Community

Online communities are the cherished goal of many web sites. Corporate site-owners have recognized that by creating a community around their products, they are able to greatly increase the value delivered to the consumer and at the same time increase the loyalty of the customer for their company. Entertainment sites understand that on-line communities foster one of the most entertaining aspects of movies, music, and games: the social value of enjoying and discussing those experiences with others. Membership associations see online communities as an opportunity to remove the logistical and informational barriers that have limited interactions between members and local chapters. In sum, community is more and more being seen as the long-sought "killer app" that will turn the nternet from an investment challenge into a profitable resource.

Unfortunately, creating an on-line community is not as easy as creating an HTML page. To raise the goal of fostering a community is to face many questions and challenges:

  • What do I need to do to create community?
  • Is it enough just to put up a place where people can chat?
  • How important is it to base the community on open standards?
  • What additional features will my community need as it grows?
  • How can I keep members in the community?
  • What sort of "programming" (special events, guest speakers) do I need to provide?
  • How can I get the members of my community to become its co-creators?
  • What will the average on-line community look like in three years?
  • What sort of community-support software will I need to get me there?

The mission of blaxxun interactive is to provide software that transforms web sites into on-line communities. This white paper outlines our vision for the evolution of such communities. It details three stages of that evolution: from Crowd to Village to Civilization. It identifies the benefits delivered by the characteristics of each evolutionary stage and shows how support for open standards will catalyze the transition from one stage to the next. Finally, it describes how the evolving blaxxun interactive product line will provide the technology needed to support each stage, with upgrade paths that will ensure an easy transition from stage to stage.


The development of an online community is a gradual and continuous process. A standard web site, which begins with little or no community, will evolve through three distinct stages as it moves toward an online community. We have termed these the Digital Crowd, the Digital Village, and Digital Civilization. As with other natural evolutionary processes, a web site must go through all phases: it takes a crowd to build a village, and a lot of villages to evolve a Civilization.



The Evolution
of Online


Let’s look at the different evolutionary stages as they might be achieved in the web site of an imaginary home supply store which we will call "Hardware Heaven."

The Digital Crowd

Hardware Heaven wants to improve its web site. Their goal is to develop an on-line community where their customers can get personal service and their management can get valuable market feedback. They decide to start by offering a simple chat space where customers and staff can meet. The chat application they install provides both an open public channel and private 1-to-1 chat channels. To keep their first step simple, they decide not to implement facilities for group moderation, logging, or other more advanced functionality available from the same supplier. Because the Hardware Heaven web site has a lot of traffic and because the chat solution is IRC compatible, many people start to enter the chat space.

With this first step, Hardware Heaven has entered the first stage of online community evolution. They have created a place for people to gather and interact, and attracted a large number of people to the space. The result is what we would call an on-line crowd. Like any crowd gathered on a real-world street corner, the crowd which meets at

  • consists of a changing group of people, who
  • gathers mostly by chance
  • in a mostly faceless setting, where they
  • sometimes talk in groups (if necessary, by shouting), and
  • sometimes prefer more intimate one-on-one interaction; they also
  • experience a certain anonymity (getting "lost in the crowd"), and so
  • may not to feel as responsible for what they do or say, which may be why
  • generally, people tend to "dumb down" in a crowd

The characteristics of a crowd, both positive and negative, are shaped by the happenstance nature of both the meeting place (online or on a street corner), and the participants (people passing by or calling in). Both lead to a starkly simplified mode of interaction ("do you come here often?"). This has both its charms and its limitations, as the following table suggests:

The Character of Digital Crowds





Communities grow where people gather. By implementing a chat space, Hardware Heaven has transformed its web site from a publication into a place: an address where people can expect to find each other.  


Sometimes its nice when no one knows your name. Anonymity lowers the barriers to joining in and asking questions. One of the key advantages of a crowd is that people feel more comfortable doing actions that they might not otherwise dare to do.  


Communities are made by communicating. Hardware Heaven has given its customers a chance to interact with each other – if only via keyboard. Add the ability to mix public expression and private tête-à-têtes, and the accident of place can turn into the act of community-building.  


But what exactly what has Hardware Heaven accomplished – beyond, so to speak, setting up a tent,?
The value of their fledgling community is not very high, neither to its visitors nor to HH. This sad fact
can be read from the responses they begin to receive. Some examples:


  • People have started to be rude in the chat room!
  • Nobody there seems to know anything very useful!
  • What is the point of the room? Nothing ever seems to happen there!
  • When I entered the room, nobody said hello or was friendly


These responses are typical for a simple chat room and they expose the issues such as community trust, quality of content, and importance of context. These issue also provide valuable information for how the online community needs to evolve in the Digital Village phase. Below is a table of the issues and features that will help to resolve them.

Issues with Digital Crowds



Problem / Solution  


It is difficult for members of a community to build up relationships based on mutual trust if they can’t identify each other. Anonymity
also makes it hard for communities to regulate themselves. In the
real world, we take action against troublemakers. Both trust and
self-correction require ...

Persistent Identities: Not necessarily real world identities;
but at least, nicknames consistently linked to real people.



Chat which isn’t about much of anything soon becomes boring.
People come to Hardware Heaven Online to learn more about fixing their homes, selecting building materials, etc. If there aren’t any knowledgeable people in the chat space, they might as well stay home. They need:

Planned Programs: events and guest speakers, with
demonstrations and lectures from expert craftspeople;

Shared knowledge: from the Hardware Heaven sales staff,
but also contributions from other customers, based on their experience with Hardware Heaven products.




If a place is filled with good things, but you don’t know what they are or where to find them, it might as well be empty. In the real-world store, if you want to find out about plywood, you look for the salesman in the plywood section. If you don’t know whether HH even sells plywood, you check at the Information Desk. If HH-Online is going to serve its customers similarly, it needs …

A recognizable model of its various content offerings: perhaps a 3D representation of a typical HH store, with Avatars representing the sales and support staff.



To resolve these issues, Hardware Heaven must evolve its chat site into a Digital Village

The Digital Village

Think of the real-world differences between joining a crowd and participating in village life. In a village, there is no anonymity – everyone you meet is someone with whom you have an extended personal history. What you share is the content of your life together: the daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly events that pace the community, re-affirming old ties and inserting new experiences at predictable intervals. The result is that all interactions take place in terms of a rich and continuously evolving social and intellectual context. Part of that context is the shared structure of social roles . One person is the mayor. Another is the chief of police. Mary runs the local PTA and George owns the corner grocery store. Each has certain rights that nobody else has (such as the ability to remove someone from the village). Everyone has property they call their own, from a house on a hill to a hat on their head, which they expect to have treated differently because it is theirs.

The Digital Village is the 2nd stage of online-community evolution. It is characterized by:

  • Persistent identities for all participants
  • A program of usable content: guest speakers, special events, games, meetings, etc.
  • A shared context based on a 3D virtual setting, which in turn provides structured access to the whole range of other WWW features (HTML pages, Java applets, etc).
  • The introduction of private property and the ability of users to create and insert private objects such as their 3D car into the space.
  • Individual rights within a community, e.g. the right to enter certain areas.
  • Social roles for members of the community, e.g. the group moderator, who temporarily acquires the special right to silence other participants or make them heard.
  • Community rules, e.g. the laws that govern the actions of all individuals in the community.

The added value of evolving your web site from a place which attracts a crowd to a living digital village can be summed up as follows:

The Value of a Village





Anonymity may attract people to join a crowd, but persistent identities allow people to develop the trust-based relationships that are essential to conducting business and regulating group behavior.  


Programmed events give community life something to be about.
Planning for, participating in and discussing What Happens in the village becomes itself one of the chief attractions of village life .


The shape of a village communicates a lot about its life: the style of its buildings and the way they are placed, the special structures for work, training and recreation, the facilities for linking to the outside world.
3D virtual structures do the same in a digital village: they give its various
functions a memorable focus: a place to happen in.


Part of the permanence of a village is that those who live and work there invest in it. Investment in property is protected by giving owners control over access to their online goods, and incentives to increase their investment.  

Roles & Rules

The key enabler of the digital village. Distributing work and responsibilities among members allows social structure to take root: from temporary tasks such as group moderator or tour leader to more permanent responsibilities such as Store Manager or Village Mayor: the beginnings of digital politics.  

What would a digital village for Hardware Heaven look like? When Harry goes to Hardware Heaven’s 3-D online virtual store, he is met at the door by a pleasant-looking figure with a smile on his face and an HH logo on his hat. "Hi, Harry – it’s good to have you back. At 11 am today we will have Bob Villa speaking about rebuilding your home’s foundation. Hope you can join us." Harry walks over to Isle 24 (maneuvering his avatar through the 3D world), the electrical section. He asks the HH staff member he finds there, "How long do these new energy-saving light bulbs really last?" Joe is an electrical specialist (that’s why he’s in this isle) who answers his question and gives Harry his electronic "business card," which not only includes Joe’s email address, but also direct links to an online multimedia presentation of new lighting technology available at HH.

As an HH staff member, Joe can re-arrange products on the shelf and call up the current inventory list – special rights that Harry doesn’t have. But as a valued customer, Harry has been given access to a "special sale" section which first-time shoppers will not see – the bargains there are a big reason why Harry shops so often at HH. At 11am, Harry goes to listen to Bob Villa, an expert in home repair. Bob does a multimedia demonstration, which is followed by a question/answer session moderated by the new HH Branch manager. The moderator collects questions from the viewers, automatically asking first the questions which were asked most often. While acting as moderator, the Branch Manager has the special ability to control the session, allowing only one person to speak at a time, and pre-viewing audience remarks to insure their appropriateness. After the talk, Harry chats with another community member who has fixed his own foundation and learns much from his experiences.

What type of feedback is The Hardware Heaven likely to get now? What are likely to be the issues that will cause the community to outgrow the village?

The feedback is likely to be quite positive. In fact there really won’t be any issues until users come back from vacation and begin to hear about all the neat things they missed, or when they want to travel down the street from their Hardware Heaven village to their Boy Scouts or Bank of America village. The driving forces behind the evolution of Digital Civilization will be the need to capitalize knowledge resources, and to interconnect a growing population of independently evolving villages.

The Limits of the Digital Village



Problem / Solution  

Memory of Past Times

If you miss an event or a conversation in the village, there is no way to catch it on "instant replay." What is needed:

Mechanisms that automatically record the flow of events in the village and organize those records for review and recall.

Techniques for "anonymizing" the transcripts of events, so that what was said can be retrieved without revealing the identity of the speaker.


Travel to Other Spaces

The conventions and constraints that develop during the history of a single community are not likely to match those developed in other communities. If people are to participate in multiple communities, some global conventions will be needed …

Support for such conventions will require the emergence of society-servers: technology that transcends village boundaries, providing a common framework for social, financial, even "physical" activity (so you can travel from a microscopic to a galactic village without getting lost, and return without bumping your head on the ceiling.)



The World Wide Web interconnected information with ease and speed not previously possible. Digital Civilization begins with the interconnection of multiple communities.

Digital Civilization

The vision of a Digital Civilization takes us fully onto the landscape sketched so tantalizingly by William Gibson (in the Neuromancer trilogy) and Marge Piercy (in Woman on the Edge of Time), and delineated in entrancing detail by Neil Stephanson (in Snow Crash). It is the vision of a 3D virtual universe linking thousands of local digital villages, themselves already linked at countless points into what we like to think of as the "real world." People will participate, with different degress of frequency, intensity and continuity, in dozens of such communities: at their jobs and in their hobbies, from the PTA to town meetings to the fundraiser for a local school or church, from the Backyard Swimming Pool club at Hardware Heaven to the New Technology Research Group at the Library of Congress (soon to be as open to a 7th grade schoolgirl in Montana as it is now to her Senator’s staff on Capitol Hill).

Digital Civilization will emerge from the interpenetration of all these communities, often in ways not possible in the real world. It will be enabled by three crucial new technologies:

  • universal navigation from one community to the next, including an "aerial" view of the entire Civilization, in any desired degree of detail;
  • translators for local conventions & capabilities, bridging the differences between different communities and imperfectly compatible technologies;
  • shared knowledge bases to capture the experience of each community, so that it can be shared with newcomers, or used as capital for trade with other communities.

Already available in their first primitive forms, these three essential enabling technologies will continue to evolve as part of today’s virtual villages. As they reach increasing levels of completeness and reliability, they will be able to provide larger and larger populations of villages with their benefits:

The Dawn of Digital Civilization




Universal Navigation

Any village can be located in the context of a single continuous 3D world. The user is immersed in meta-community, moving seamlessly from village to village.  

Matching Conventions,

The infrastructure will automatically select the best media for local communication (use this Viewer to access the video library, but only at VGA resolution). When you enter a new community, you will know both what to expect and how to behave (e.g. do we walk or fly or "beam" to Barbara’s house?)  

Knowledge Capture

Locate other people, no matter what community they are currently visiting; access transcripts of prior conversations or other information relevant to your current conversation or topic  


What will this mean for Hardware Heaven? Its new location will be on a busy 3D boulevard, just a quick hop away from the local bank and real estate offices. The boulevard connects dozens of village neighborhoods into a lively city, which is in turn the capital of a wide-ranging Nation, one of many spread across the face of the expanding Digital Planet. All these spaces are seamlessly connected. People travel from one community as naturally as (and more quickly than) they cross the hall to another office. Hardware Heaven is now doing a booming business in Digital Tools, and half its customers have never seen its real-world emporium. Customers who ask sales agents how to build a carport are not only given HH’s trademark competent and friendly advice, they also receive links to transcripts of past HH lectures and other library resources. In addition, the current conversation will be captured, organized and stored for others to use. This auto-presentation of information will come from mining large knowledge databases that are shared by related communities. As online communities begin to merge into a Digital Civilization, their coming together will increase the size and richness of the resources available to all.

Open Standards

Crucial to the entire evolutionary process will be the ability of communities to draw on products from multiple suppliers, and for suppliers to integrate their offerings into a single workable foundation.

During the Digital Crowd and Digital Village stages, support for open standards such as Inter Relay Chat (IRC), Hypertext Markup Language (HTML), and the Virtual Reality Modeling Language (VRML) were critical, allowing:

  • access to any community via standard browsers and tools
  • the development and presentation of consistent content and context

Digital Civilization will require the establishment of a new layer of open standards, to unify such things as the information content of your personal online representation (avatar), support for the Living Worlds standard and for standards that haven’t even been developed yet. The support for open standards is what enables, on a technical level, the interconnection of online communities. Below is a list of important for each phase:

The Need for Open Standards





IRC, H.323 for voice  


HTML, VRML, RSA authentication  


Living Worlds, Universal Avatars, VRML-Database  

blaxxun interactive’s Product Vision

blaxxun interactive aims to deliver, in the Product Line of community servers and clients, a platform that will serve community needs from Crowd to Civilization. The product line allows organizations to purchase one community server with the ability to grow and evolve along with their community. This "Evolving Server" will have significant advantages including:

  • A web site online community can seamlessly transition from one phase to the next without any interruption.
  • The online community can be in two phases simultaneously. Users in the community’s 3-D VRML world can still talk to users who are access the community from 2-D HTML clients.
  • Web site owners will not have to re-integrate additional services such as billing into a new system as the web site evolves
  • The community servers can be interconnected for almost infinite scaleability.
  • Users will not have to download and install a new client that supports the new features for each phase. Automatic upgrades to their existing Community Client software will give them new features seamlessly.


blaxxun interactive’s vision is to provide software that will enable the development of a global Digital Civilization. The road to this vision begins with the crowds known today as chat rooms. As these chat rooms evolve into complex villages, companies and organizations all over the Internet will begin to see he collaborative potential of the medium. Once all these villages are interconnected into a civilization we will see an explosion in the number, type, and complexity of online communities. blaxxun intends to facilitate this transformation of the Internet by creating an evolutionary product line: CyberHub Community
© 2001 blaxxun interactive. All rights reserved.