Artykuł omawia historię pojęcia wspólnoty wirtualnej od lat dziewięćdziesiątych XX wieku aż do dziś. Powstałe jako wyrażenie potoczne, spopularyzowane przez dziennikarzy i entuzjastów nowego medium, w krótkim czasie stało się ono centralnym punktem naukowej refleksji nad kulturowymi aspektami internetu, szczególnie w ramach nauk społecznych, w których pojawiły się dziedziny cyberantropologii i cybersoscjologii. W ostatniej dekadzie dwudziestego wieku refleksja ta skoncentrowana była głównie na konflikcie między dwiema skrajnymi interpretacjami wspólnoty wirtualnej: nominalistyczną i realistyczną. Poprzez rekurs do klasycznych pojęć antropologii i socjologii autorka wykazuje bezprzedmiotowość tego sporu i proponuje odmienne ukierunkowanie badań nad społecznym wymiarem internetu.


The article discusses the history of the notion `virtual community` from 1990`s to this day . First appeared as a colloquial expression, it was quickly popularized by journalists and early enthusiasts of the new media and soon became the central point of scientific research on cultural aspects of the internet, especially in the field of social sciences, in which some new branches, as cybersociology and cyberanthropology, have appeared. In the last decade of the twentieth century, the research was focused on the conflict between two radical attitudes towards virtual community: nominalistic and realistic. Basing on the recourse to some classic anthropological and sociological categories, the author exposes the nonrepresentational nature of the controversy and proposes another direction of research on the social realm of the internet.

The notion of `virtual community`, alongside the consciousness of so named cultural and social phenomenon, appeared in the USA in the beginning of 1990`s. In this moment in history Internet – a new media creating a platform for the phenomenon discussed here – to many observers of social life seemed to be no more than just a momentarily popular toy for a few wealthy members of the most technologically advanced societies. In that time no one, except for several cyberenthusiasts, anticipated that connecting a number of Californian computers into a network will bring a global expansion of CMC (computer-mediated communication), which in a decade will change the face of the world and dominate the world cultures. It is typical that notion of virtual community was introduced into social sciences by not a scientist, or even journalist, but just one of the enthusiasts  – Howard Rheingold, who made it the title of his book – The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier (1993). It still remains the most influential monograph on cybersociology and cyberanthropology, despite of that it is not a typical scientific study employing hermetic language, but is rather a very personal –  yet autoreflexive and revealing – report of a pioneer.

From 1985 Rheingold had been a member of one of the first virtual communities of the world – WELL, which was physically located mostly around the shores of San Francisco Bay[1]. He had regularly participated in the group’s life, exploring and co-creating its rules and regulations, which was, as he would see, a resultant of real life`s social coexistence rules, requirements of the protocol and technical features of the media, modifying the rules. Rheingold was a member of many virtual communities and visited many virtual environments, but it was the legendary WELL, described in The Virtual Community, which was appreciated by him as a `true community` and as a model of virtual community in general, because it succeeded to be a part of physical lifeworld of the participants. Rheingold emphasizes that he participated both in WELL-weddings, WELL-births, and even WELL-funeral (as an influent WELL-ite John Perry Barlow used to say, the community is not real until it buries together one of its members). Such a cybergroup seemed to be an execution of a phenomenon, whose appearance was prognosticated in 1968 by J. C. R. Licklider and Robert Taylor from the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), the governmental-military organization that gave the technological impulse to Internet`s birth. Licklider and Taylor appreciated that computer network can give birth to a new type of community: not that of place, but of the interests.

In his very famous book Rheingold tries to answer the question: how can people communicating via the Internet create social bonds similar, in their opinion, to bonds in real life? He appreciated that some communities based not on the `traditional` face-to-face interactions, but on CMC, deserve to be enfolded by the sociological notion of `community`, because: a) their members share strong emotional bonds, b) connections between them are based on shared beliefs, emotions and accepted values, c) production of the relationship allows to appease various needs of the group`s members (Olechnicki and Załęcki, 1997, 249). They are `social aggregations that emerge from the Net when enough people carry on public discussions long enough, with sufficient human feeling, to form webs of personal relationships in cyberspace`(Rheingold, 1993). As Rheingold affirms, based on his own WELL experiences, `in cyberspace, we chat and argue, engage in intellectual intercourse, perform acts of commerce, exchange knowledge, share emotional support, make plans, brainstorm, gossip, feud, fall in love, find friends and lose them, play games and metagames, flirt, create a little high art and a lot of idle talk. We do everything people do when they get together, but we do it with words on computer screens, leaving our bodies behind`(Rheingold, 1993). But in Rheingold`s opinion WELL was close to an ideal virtual community mostly because of its active extension in the, as Michael Heim called it, `primary world` – its members knew each other personally and got into face-to-face interactions.

However, the situation of sociology and anthropology of the Internet became more complicated in the 1990s as a result of incorporating more observations of other virtual aggregations, to which analogous extensions have never been connected. It appeared that there was a high probability that, on the basis of a given environment – despite of its high popularity among internauts – community based on personal acquaintance would never arise. Rheingold notes that such a purely virtual aggregation has to appear as a `battlefield`, despite of an elaboration of norms, codes and regulations of its own, as, for example, inviolability of one`s nickname. Author of The Virtual Community affirms that, thanks to normative regulations, `artificial, but stable identity` could mean that one can never be assured of identity of a person behind the nickname, but it means also, that person one can communicate with today under so-and-so nickname is the same person that one`s communicated with yesterday (Rheingold, 1993). Today the Rheingoldian virtual community is seen rather as an ideal type. There are additional forms of communities that are also called virtual communities, in spite of the rather big differences in their forms and goals. `Based on the types of the members (private individuals, professional individuals, organizations), on the goals of the community (private, social, business), the form of cooperation (free, formal), and on the type of participation (voluntary, voluntary organized, formally organized), three different basic types of virtual communities can be distinguished:

1. Community/network of independent intellectual workers (IIW): IIWs are independent advisers and consultants who form temporary groups based on their interests according to their actual work/project using different types of networks and media,

2. Virtual organizations – formalized cooperation of different remote business units (…)  (VO). VOs are organizations that can be faced with the dynamic and turbulent environment that requires flexible and fast responses to changing business needs. They have responded by adopting decentralized, team-based, and distributed structures variously described in the literature as virtual, networked, cluster, and resilient virtual organizations,

3. Voluntary virtual communities – random connection among individuals or group of people,

a. Working voluntary for a common goal of a community – working with commitment, taking responsibility, sometimes certain risks as well,

b. Collaborate in a certain field of hobby, discuss a topic without special responsibility` (Mezgár, 2006, 4-5).

One has to notice that the early debate on virtual community `has been split between those who argue that cyberspace re-enchants community (perceived as eroded in real life) on the one hand, and on the other those who argue that online community is damaging RL community, by encouraging a withdrawal from real life’. Today the way of thinking is evaluated rather as ‘Manichean, presentist, unscholarly, and parochial’, lacks a sense of the history of community, depends largely on anecdote and ‘travellers’ tales and forces a separation between online life and RL (Bell, 2001, 93).

According to an original Rheingold`s definition, virtual communities are computer-mediated social groups; more strictly, they are some `social aggregations that emerge from the Net when enough people carry on those public discussions long enough, with sufficient human feeling to form webs of personal relationships in cyberspace (Rheingold, 1993). Throughout the next decade as media researchers as Christine Hine, Danah Boyd, Jenny Preece, Amy Jo Kim, Nick Yee, Barry Wellman or Ted Nelson made a big effort to precise the notion on its generic level and locate it in a field of social sciences` methodological taxonomy, formed in a world of face-to-face interactions. Nevertheless, thanks to an intriguing image of hypothetical virtual community emerging from Rheingold`s writings, today`s anthropologists, sociologists and other researchers, to whom theoretical and methodological perspective of social sciences can be close, are agreeing that `virtual world` lies in a field of their professional interests. However, if they have to describe their positions more precisely, a large difference of opinion appears among them to be developed into a spectrum of differing interpretations. The first and basic controversion arises from simple question: how Internet has to be seen in the mentioned branches of science? Has it appeared as a new space for social life, or just as a tool for communication, which appearance can only in a very low degree change global and local cultures and societies? Or is it a powerful Sprachmaschine, forming the language, ways of thinking and culture, and transmutating founded social, cultural and mental structures to adapt them to itself? Scholars trying to answer the question might accept three different cognitive attitudes.

In case of a `nominalistic` attitude one can enounce that human communities, raised and developed owing to computer-mediated communication, are only quasigroups and pseudocommunities, because their basis represents a false `sense of reality`, caused by illusionism of audiovisual media, that under a pretence of drawing people closer it pushes them apart, alienating them and phantasmagorizing their world`s image. As a consequence, it destroys interpersonal bounds, atomizing, individualizing and solipsizing advanced-modern social world (see: Krzysztofek, 2006, 34-35). However, in case of a `realistic` attitude one can assume that in cyberspace similar to real communities, societies, groups and even tribes can be formed. `Cyberrealists` consider, thereupon, that so-called virtual communities have to be examined by traditional social sciences` methods. Within the mentioned attitude one can distinguish moderate realism and extreme realism. They are characterized by different evaluation of the question, if virtual community can become a basis for closer acquaintance made face-to-face in offline world. Rheingold, one of the first and most influential, though moderate `realists`, considers participation in virtual communities, if treated as an ersatz of the traditionally established social ties, as alienating, and so anticommunitarian and antisocial. Rheingold interprets computer-mediated communication as an extension of the `traditional` social ties, helping to cross real life`s space-time limitations through technological achievements. From that point of view one can pronounce that in cyberspace two types of communities can be raised: `false` and `true`. In case of moderate realism, an extension of virtual community leads towards Michael Heim`s `primary world` (Heim, 1993) and thereby proves its functionality as social `integrating media`, is treated as ennoblement and implementation of the community status as potential object of research for social sciences. However, accepting attitude of realism, one can avoid the question: what kind of relation is established between `traditional` human community, built in primary world, and virtual community, formed online?

Many researchers, as for example Manuel Castells, Wojciech J. Burszta or Ignacy S. Fiut, tried to answer the question and alongside to settle an argument between `cybernominalists` and `cyberrealists`. They are proposing an intermediate approach. The phenomenon of virtual communities is treated by them as not an apparition of phenomenon identical or opposite, but in a complicated way complementary to communities known from real life. They described Internet as a new form of communication, forming new segment of symbolic culture, but also as supporting `traditional` social ties. Interactions established in virtual communities bring weak ties-type relations, but it may be translated to the `traditional`, more durable strong ties, and the translation is bilateral. I.S. Fiut  writes about a possibility of the appearance of mimetic convergence (primary world is adapting to virtual format) or mimicric convergence (virtual world overtakes the distinctives of primary world) among the two levels of interactions (Fiut, 2004, 315). In that way information society is formed as a result of hybridizing offline and online social interactions, projecting structures onto real life`s societies, and vice versa. However, if one wants to describe the mutual influence of the two, has to deliberate the general shape of correcting novum in the configuration. Influential descriptions were brought here by cybertribality concepts, to whom generic impulse was given by the writings of French sociologist Michel Maffesoli.

Maffesoli uses several notions on hypothetical virtual communities: a crowd, a horde, a swarm and, preferentially, tribus (a tribe). Using the last notion with regard to contemporary, metropolital choice groups may be seen as overuse. However, after an investigation of the methodological problems with specifying the notion one has to come to a conclusion that use of the notion `tribe` in this context is well grounded. As Wojciech Dohnal indicates, definition of tribe in upgrowth of sociology and anthropology was changed without acquiring full scientific precision until today. The state of matter is a consequence of the fact that, as Ernest Gellner assumed, birth of the definitions and the disciplines was accompanied by a sense of radical social change. That is why a radically dychotomic language of description was imposed on the scholars and left as a legacy for the next generations of sociologists and anthropologists. They still remember Tönniesian cathegories of Gemeinschaft (community) and Gesellschaft (association or society), even though today they are well aware of the fact that models of Gemeinschaft-type societies were only hypothetical counter-examples for industrialization of the modern society of the West (Dohnal, 2001, 17). It was an amplification of Rousseaunian idealization of `happy` and `noble` savage or peasant and assigned to them, equally `happy` and `noble` social organizations, being rather an image of modern Western utopia, than a reflection of whatsoever real society. Because of counter-cultural past of the first `cyberidealists`, references to dichotomy of contractual, modern Gesellschaft and premodern, in a deepest sense affectual Gemeinschaft, appeared in the earliest descriptions of virtual communities. Then, tribe was understood as one of the exemplifications of Gemeinschaft.

In spite of ambiguities still accompanying to fluent, shaping on the border of sociology and anthropology definition of tribe, one can separate in it some constant elements. They are: common territory, ethnos, kinship connections, system of beliefs and social organization (Olechnicki and Załęcki, 1997, 154). However, as Dohnal is relating, interdependence between the defining elements was denominated in many various ways. Today the biggest explicational power is accredited to modelling the tribe as an open field of dynamic social connections, on which conflicting values and interests are battling, and all the balance is temporal and impermanent, not as in the static systemic-structural model (Dohnal, 2001, 175). However, anthropology got to the concept gradually and not without difficulties. As an example of a correction that led to revision of the traditional Western-European image of tribe, one can indicate the resignation from stressing the importance of kinship in the definition. It was done by British researchers, who in 1950`s investigated some African tribes, which often counted several hundreds of thousands persons and were structurally highly complicated. For purpose of description, structures of kinship appeared to be insufficient here. Then, the definitional importance of territorial community and politics components was perceived, and seen as less important than lineage (Dohnal, 2001, 107-117). Likewise, based on field research, anthropologists arrived at the conclusion that `community of blood`, expressed through social relations of kinship, wandering in numerous groups or scattered throughout the territory could play the role of an instance of appeal that protects community from crisis, but it does not have to be dominating in social practice. It led to a significant correction in the general definition of the tribe notion, which did not appear definitive.

One has to notice that accenting the priority of empirically noticeable components of the definition of tribe, like common geographic territory or kinship connections, is a heritage of an outdated structural-functional paradigm, and is in conflict with the original Tönniesian notion of Gemeinschaft. Its important components – aside from parentage and neighbourhood – was friendship, community of spirit and mind, work, appointment, belief (see: Mikołajewska, 1999, 71). An importance of the components of the social world`s image was stressed also by Durkheim, according to whom what really unites human communities are sharing beliefs and sentiments (Mikołajewska, 1999, 80). Similar concepts were proposed by Charles H. Cooley, who demoted the possibility of coming into being of not only nations – i.e., means, from sociological perspective, imagined communities – but also primary groups without face-to-face interactions among their members, what emphasises again the importance of psychomental consensus among them (Mikołajewska, 1999, 113). Appearance of such diagnosis in Gesellschaft-type societies had, of course, much in common with the progressing process of urbanization – in consequence `blood and soil` components were gradually losing their basis. Tracing the process, sociologists and anthropologists noticed the necessity of reshaping the definition through unearthing and underlining of such its components as solidarity and community of participation arising from cumulativity of interactions. For the purposes of analysing the connections notion of `social network` was created, allowing the decline of the traditional understanding of relations between individual and community, giving a possibility of adequate description and analysis of the open and dynamic continua.

Computer network can be understood as a communicational and cultural network. Manuel Castells opts for connecting the two phenomena in one signification chain. As he wrote in Internet Galaxy, the main feature of the new pattern of interpersonal connections in our societies is network individualism. According to Castells, Internet plays the main role in popularization of this pattern, defending weak ties which would be disrupted without it; thanks to the mediation also new bonds can appear. Castells indicates that network individualism is a social pattern, not a collection of individualisms of socially alienated entities (Castells, 2003, 149). This assumption allows to agree with Maffesoli`s thesis: still appreciating a high position of individualism on the scale of values accepted in contemporary Western society, one can concurrently detect its tendency to restitution of collectivism based on affects (sentiments, emotions); what is more, both tendencies are mutually conditioned. This is the interpretation line developed by cyberpsychology.

As Maffesoli assumes, CMC can produce `space` of virtual reality, in which some groups guided by different goals can appear, grow and die based on a sequential time schema, which Castells later named `timeless time`. In reference to Marshall McLuhan`s concept, the French sociologist indicates that they would be the tribes of a `global village` (Maffesoli, 1996, 139). The groups would be very numerous, acefalic and rivalizing, according to principle of polytheism of values (Maffesoli, 1996, 95). Similarly to unwired new tribes, communities based on CMC will coexist in state of `scattered union`, grounded on tactile relation, without necessity of full presence of the Other (Maffesoli, 1996, 73). It would be ephemerically present microgoups, connecting and scattering again as a segments of nomadic masses, especially apparent in specific space of today`s Megalopolises (Maffesoli, 1996, 95). The main difference seen by Maffesoli between the old and the new model of tribe is the possibility of dislocation among the groups. In a case of the new tribi it is more essential than just a possibility of enrolling. Contemporary masses don’t a need stabilization of identity, quite the contrary, its relativization, `fluidization`. Then, considering changeability and fluency of the `tribe` notion, in which case the rule of contextuality of anthropological cognition must be obliged, one can aright named both `new affectual communities` and `new CMC-based affectual communities` as tribes, guided by not a sense of Gemeinschaft basing on `soil and blood`, but by association of knowledge and interests. In this way computer-mediated communication, and more strictly, a specific immaterial space of meeting, which is produced by it, starts to play the role of socially important agora.

And here one has to go back to Rheingold`s idea again. Author of Virtual Community invokes the anthropologist Ray Oldenburg and his notion of `good great place`, `public neighbourhood` becoming an axis and centre of community. `Good great places` of the traditional type, based on face-to-face interactions, are disappearing with advancement of urbanization. Many researchers, as for example world`s first cyberpsychologist Sherry Turkle, have to assume that in a world of `anonymous, interactive space of shopping malls, Disneyland and television` necessity of that place does not disappear. For some contemporary individuals and communities Internet started to play the role of `good great place`. Rheingold gives similar conclusion: today`s lifestyle practically excluded neighbourhood space from the space of everyday life, but humans, as a social beings, still feel an absence of it and try to recompense it. In spite of this, naming the Internet an `electronic agora` par excellence has to be an exaggeration, because in the Internet none of the order, status, role or function can be once and for all solidified. In this fact lies extraordinariness of the media; here is the source of the truistic assumption that Internet became a challenge to all humanity and its every member on his own way: scholars, philosophers, children, politicians, artists, management of international corporations, clergymen of all religions, hackers, surgeons, policemen and thieves.

As Rheingold indicates, the vision of `electronic agora` as a global communications network controlled and designed by citizens is a new version of technological utopia. `In the original democracy, Athens, the agora was the marketplace, and more – it was where citizens met to talk, gossip, argue, size each other up, find the weak spots in political ideas by debating about them`. But it is not the only adequate metaphor of the Internet as a space of definite type. It can be easily transformed from a friendly agora into a horrific Benthamian panopticon. It could happen if major corporations, politicians and police took control over it and started using it to infiltrate and invigilate citizens. Characteristic structure of many-to-many-type communication makes it difficult, but Rheingold warns that colonization of the `civil medium` by antidemocratic powers has already started. In defence of democratic powers of the Internet, Rheingold cites such as personalities of Western thought as John Locke and his concept of civil society – it could not be controlled by either the government, nor the market, but should be guided by production of social movements and non-profit organizations – or Jürgen Habermas and his notion of public sphere. It should be a domain of social life in which public opinion is shaped, but access to it has to be guaranteed for every citizen. Public sphere is formed in every public interaction between private individuals, gathered without constraint in cases applying to everyone. Their comments cannot be censored, and freedom limited. As Rheingold assumes, according to Habermas, public sphere bounded with public space, non-commercial and freedom of speech have the same source as contemporary democracy. Both ideas were born in the 18th century and all points to that they cannot function without each other. Internet seems to be an ideal media for that kind of communication.

Human beings are often described as `social animals`. In spite of this, Rheingold writes, humans are not communitarian beings in a strict sense, because they are forced to bond mutual relations for just utilitarian aims – to survive. Relations based on CMC seem to be more generous. They are – and they should stay – unselfish, grounded on goodwill and aiming to an ideal of pure gift. Relations `sublimed` this way one can interpret, as author of The Virtual Community assumes, as a highest stadium of human evolution. He probably goes a bit too far in his prophetic optimism. Undoubtedly, that new kind of communitarism – a hypothetical virtual community – also has some dark sides. It is much easier to show the configuration on the example of concept of tribe, as it goes beyond the opposition of individualism and collectivism (it is Castells` networked individualism). Known tribes `are often narrow, exclusionary, undemocratic, and antagonistic to open debate. Tribes are homogenous and autonomous with common speech, culture, and territory. Tribes involve extensive hierarchies of status, power, gender, age, fears, taboos. Tribalism may involve fragmentation, struggles, competition, and hostility. Alternatively, tribes may encourage individual identity; there may be only a little formal structuring, and that based primarily on frequency of interaction. Tribe members are empowered within the tribe, through collective responses and through projecting identities into the tribal network. Tribalism may reduce hierarchy and inequality. Tribes have fluid boundaries externally, and heterarchies (webs, networks) instead of hierarchies (strict vertical subsets) internally. Tribes are not amenable to centralized control and persuasion` (Rice, 2008, VIII).

The virtual tribes have a lot more in common with their physical equivalent. `These online communities are all subsets and sub-subsets of physical communities, rather like communities within communities. For this reason, they are commonly referred to as “communities of practice”. They consist of people from any place who share a concern, a set of problems or a passion about a topic who are using computers and the Internet as an additional medium of engagement. They form their own social structures and establish their own rules of discourse, while deepening their experience, knowledge and expertise as they participate (…). Individual members can and do participate in more than one of these online communities of practice at the same time. With familiarity and frequency of participation, the need to make a distinction between physical and virtual, between off-line and online, disappears` (Albert, Flournoy, LeBrasseur, 2009, 205).

Human home can take many various shapes, but it is always built where other people are living: it needs a common space, community, shared sense of identity. If only people can treat cyberspace as a common space, one can be sure that they will start to build their homes there.  According to Rheingold`s concept of `homesteading on electronic frontier`, they already do.


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Magdalena Kamińska, doktor nauk humanistycznych w zakresie nauk o poznaniu i komunikacji społecznej. Autorka dwóch monografii z dziedziny badań nad internetem: Rzeczywistość wirtualna jakoponowne zaczarowanie świata. Pytanie o status poznawczy koncepcji (2007) oraz Niecne memy. Dwanaście wykładów o kulturze internetu (2011). Adiunkt w Zakładzie Badań nad Kulturą Filmową i Audiowizualną Instytutu Kulturoznawstwa na Uniwersytecie im. A. Mickiewicza w Poznaniu.

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