One might argue that it is an unfortunate sign of our fragmented and anomie-wracked society that we are driven to try to find a way out of our loneliness through virtual communities. But the reverse argument can also be made, and that is the position taken up in this paper, that virtual communities are not a pale substitute for "real" ones but do in fact provide the kind of organic solidarity that was an essential part of traditional societies. The particular on-line community that will be examined to argue this claim is a listserv called Dorothy-L, which is dedicated to readers and writers of mysteries.
One of the most interesting aspects of being a member of this community is the way in which the concept of "off-topic" issues is handled. The members of this virtual community are bound together by their liking (in many cases life-log passion) for mysteries but are otherwise a very diverse group, ranging from high school students to retired engineers to district attorneys to stay-at-home parents.
Because the individual experiences of the members are so diverse, the discussions (whether over a particular poison would in fact act the way it does in a novel to whether the depictions of children in fiction are realistic) are wide-ranging and usually fascinating.
The list (and the moderators - who generally have a fairly light hand although have periods during which they tend toward the authoritarian) is generally fairly lax in allowing what might well be considered to be "off-topic" comments - or issues that have only the slightest connection to the world of mysteries. For example, one member of the list asked what "spotted dick" is - since this pudding was mentioned in a mystery that she was reading. This led to a long discussion of foods with silly...