By Lee Purcell
What defines a community is more than its geographic boundaries; it’s the element of people gathering together for a common cause, supporting each other’s well-being and interests, and advancing goals that strengthen both the community and its members.
Since the advent of the personal computer in the early ’80s, new kinds of communities have taken shape. Their members first exchanged messages in bulletin-board systems, painstakingly stringing sentences together on Osborne  or Kaypro  computers and launching them over pre-cyberspace phone lines using 300-bps modems.
In 1985, one of the landmark events was the founding of the WELL , a new computer service by the San Francisco gang that had published the Whole Earth Catalog. In his influential book The Virtual Community  , Howard Rheingold described how people took to this new communication medium enthusiastically, forging friendships and relationships that spanned a wide range of common interests -- on both a professional and personal level.
Today, the online landscape is profoundly richer, deeper and more readily available to digital media artists. As bandwidths increase, processing platforms improve while becoming less expensive, Internet access becomes more affordable, and software applications create new tools for communication, collaboration and play.
Here, we explore the ways in which Internet communities are born and thrive -- from competitions that build knowledge and skills to creative projects that push digital media production in new directions.
Building Communities Through Spirited Competition
One of the best ways to learn something new is to turn the process into a game. This thinking has been the rationale behind a series of competitive events in the software world meant to bring new programmers into the fold, introduce new technologies, identify developing talent and shine a spotlight on the games, graphics advances and programming techniques that will drive the next-generation products.
Crowdsourcing as a Creative Catalyst
Technology -- in the form of a hardware platform and a Facebook  collaboration site -- provided the underpinnings for the production of an innovative animated work that tested the limits of how effectively a group of strangers could come together in roughly two months and complete a studio-quality film. Backed by a retinue of corporate sponsors (including Autodesk, Reel FX and Dell), a small army of animators, orchestrated by Yair Landau  , gathered on Facebook and produced a high-quality animated short, “Live Music.”
Steve Vai  , who was drawn into the animation project through a friend, brought in his friend, Ann Marie Calhoun  , and they played characters named Riff and Vanessa. “You have to find musicians who are interested in stretching their boundaries,” says Vai, “and challenging their potential. Then you, as a bandleader, have to be able to see their potential -- even more clearly than they do. Then you have to give them the opportunity to exercise that potential by creating an environment that nurtures it.”
In online communities like these, many artists are creating such an environment.
Lee Purcell survived the frenetic energy of Silicon Valley in its heyday, and now writes about high-tech and alternative energy topics from a rural outpost in the Green Mountain State. Purcell blogs about alternative-energy topics on LightSpeedPub.blogspot.com .