From Cyberspace to Cityscape: Virtual Communities and The City

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Studio “From CIAM to Cyberspace”

The Berlage

Facebook World Map (2011) source:

Facebook World Map (2011) source:

“The shrinking of distance and the speed of movement that characterize the current era find one of its most extreme forms in electronically based communities of individuals or organizations interacting in real time and simultaneously” – Saskia Sassen, Globalization and Its Discontents


In his seminal 1993 book The Virtual Community; Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier, Howard Rheingold defined virtual communities as “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 relationship in cyberspace”1.  From his experience as the member of WELL (Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link), one of the pioneering virtual community, he wrote, “Norms were established, challenged, changed, reestablished, rechallenged, in a kind of speeded-up social evolution”2.  It is clear from Rhinegold’s observations that virtual communities are viewed as evolutionary form of the traditional communities, which is founded on assumptions about consensus, rationality and connectivity3.

A key distinction of virtual communities from the traditional one is that they are formed independently of physical confines, i.e. neighbourhoods or work places. The key infrastructures to the formation of communities in this virtual space are the speed and flexibility of the process of communication and collaboration. They enable a community which are spontaneous in construction, whose memberships are loose – you can join and leave as you please – and are always constantly redefining their identities. Another central discussion in virtual communities and the internet is the notion of choice. For what the internet provides, apart from the almost limitless possibilities of collaboration and exchange, are essentially choices. On the internet, you chose your community and you leave when you please.

In most cases, virtual communities are communities of interest, formed out of common needs or a sense of shared mission. They address both the need for an extension of existing connections into global networks and the need of escaping the confines and morality of the traditional physical community. The internet brings together individuals and groups who are ostracised from society because their interests might be considered as unacceptable to the accepted norms. For these people the internet is a liberating platform to indulge in, expand and share their interests with like-minded (often anonymous) peers from all parts of the world. Careful browsing on the internet can lead you to a community of people who are obsessed about chewing ice to something as criminal as a hard-core paedophile ring.



In her essay Cyberspace, Virtuality, and the Real: Some Architectural Reflections (2001), Elizabeth Grosz wrote that one of the “regulating assumptions” in the discussion of the impact of the virtual on the physical is “the belief that the technological development of virtual communities and networks surpasses, displaces, and problematizes the body and, with it, identity and community as we currently know them”4. Of course (as correctly pointed out by Grosz) the assumption ignores that the physical form of communities will continue to be relevant, albeit as “converted into a different order in which mind/will/desire are the ruling terms…The transformation of the real through the concept of the virtual”5.

Physical community endowed with the characteristics of the virtual. ©Nazmi, Kim, Tu

Physical community endowed with the characteristics of the virtual. ©Nazmi, Kim, Tu

Among of the key characteristics in the construct of virtual communities are: a set of common interests, non-hierarchical structure and organization, relative anonymity between the members and temporality of the community (due to the flexibility of joining and leaving). These characteristics could be observed in the phenomena of flash mobs, where the actions of a group of anonymous people could be organized through the internet to stage an event in physical space. It can be argued that the well known demonstrations and protest movements such as the Egyptian Revolution and the Occupy Wall Street were carefully coordinated flash-mob events with ideological leanings and political purposes. These two examples are a strong argument for the continuing relevance of the physical realm as the platform for expression despite the anti-geographical nature of the virtual realm.

Co-dependence between virtual and physical communities. ©Nazmi, Kim, Tu

Co-dependence between virtual and physical communities. ©Nazmi, Kim, Tu

General characteristics of online communities. ©Nazmi, Kim, Tu

General characteristics of online communities. ©Nazmi, Kim, Tu

From here we can see, how could the crystallization of virtual communities in the physical (urban) space affect the city? Does the ephemeral nature of virtual constructs prevent lasting and meaningful intervention on the urban landscape?  Or is there evidence of a virtual community inhabiting and actually shaping the character of a city? And if there is, what makes them successful and how can we define their relationship with the city? Could they possibly point the way for communities to inhabit cities in the future?

The truth as it turns out, is stranger than fiction.



The district of Akihabara is one of a series of subcentres6 of Tokyo. What makes Akihabara strangely different is that the aesthetic image of the whole district has been shaped by its association with the community of the Japanese subculture of otaku. In Learning from Akihabara:The Birth of a Personapolis architectural historian Kaichiro Morikawa wrote; “The exodus of the otakus into Akihabara is comparable to the formation of ethnic enclaves such as Chinatown or Little Italy, with a critical difference that the otaku is a tendency in personality and taste, unrelated to any ethnic race or social class”7.

Walking through Akihabara and into the various different shops catering to the myriad of eccentric obsessions is akin to a journey through otaku culture. What was once virtual has gone physical. Like a stage set on an urban scale, the district of Akihabara became the platform for the transformation of a virtual subculture into a physical community, an otaku playground. But what exactly is an otaku?

An Otaku’s vision for Akihabara district (photo montage). Source:

An Otaku’s vision for Akihabara district (photo montage). Source:



Otaku is one of the most well known forms of Japanese youth subcultures, prevalent mainly among males. In Japanese, otaku is a polite and formal way of saying “you”, although if translated literally, it means “your house”, with connotations of impersonality and detachment8.

As a social phenomenon, the image of the otaku in Japanese media has been treated with both fear and fascination. Otaku were an underground subculture throughout the 80’s, largely unknown by the public and ignored when noticed. This ambivalence however, was shattered by the 1989 arrest of Miyazaki Tsutomu, a serial killer responsible for the murder and mutilation of four young girls in Tokyo.  Miyazaki became a poster boy, albeit a negative one, for otaku subculture after photos and footage of his bedroom – crammed to the ceiling with pornographic and paedophilic collection of anime videos and manga – was splashed in the mainstream press.  The ensuing media frenzy saw the otaku being vilified as social outcasts, eventually being pushed to the center of the debate surrounding the supposed moral decay among Japanese youth.

The 2000’s however, has seen an increasing acceptance of otaku culture in mainstream society. Part of this is due to the success of the 2004 book Densha Otoko (Train Man), which based on the true story of an otaku who relied on the support of an online community to win the love of a woman in real life. It was adapted into manga, stage play, television series and film.  Ito wrote: ‘by representing otaku as harmless and endearing, both dramas helped to remove the subculture’s historically more negative and sociopathic connotations and to recast it in a much more sympathetic light’9.  If Miyazaki had demonized otaku culture, Densha Otoko had Hello Kitty-ised them.

An Otaku’s daily routine. ©Nazmi, Kim, Tu

An Otaku’s daily routine. ©Nazmi, Kim, Tu




Akihabara’s growth as the center of otaku community gained momentum after the burst of Japan’s economic bubble in the late 1980’s. The otaku embrace of the internet in the early 1990’s, coinciding with the reinvention of Akihabara as the center of Japan’s IT industry led to the crystallization of a virtual community in physical space, a “Personapolis”. Capitalizing on the IT infrastructure of Akihabara, otakus began to emerge from their bedrooms and gather in the district in numbers. In turn, establishments related to otaku culture also began to take up space in the district, attracting even more otakus. These establishments range from conventional shops selling otaku paraphenilia (DVDs, manga comics,character figurines) to ‘rental showcases’ shops.

The aesthetics of these internal spaces and gradually of Akihabara streetscape also began to mimic the aesthetics of an otaku room. Morikawa added, “Akihabara has come to be more an extension of private space, an otaku rooms blown up into the city”11.  A prime example of this is the iconic Radio Kaikan building, the barometer for changing trends in Akihabara  with its seven floors dedicated to different aspects of otaku fetishes . Akihabara’s own (mini) version of Delirious New York’s Downtown Athletic Club12.

In his Venturi referencing Learning from Akihabara, Morikawa observed; “The facades became filled with otaku icons, as well as the skyline”13. He also referred to the architecture of Akihabara as “the architecture of otaku taste”14.  The growth of the otaku community was reflected in the aesthetics of the entire Akihabara district, leading to the whole area becoming “a veritable otaku theme park; plastered with posters of cute anime characters and dotted with maid cafés, where young women dress up as fantasy maid characters”15.

From the screen to the city. ©Nazmi, Kim, Tu

From the screen to the city. ©Nazmi, Kim, Tu

What essentially happened in Akihabara is a phenomenon where a subculture, linked through virtual communities, crystallized themselves in physical space, eventually shaping the character of a city district. The physical as the second life of the virtual.

Where a city in the traditional sense acquires character and identity through the accumulation of history, the identity of Akihabara is a literal representation of the tastes, fetishes and aesthetic preferences of its inhabitants, which gained momentum in virtual communities. The constant shifts in otaku tastes also means that the aesthetics of Akihabara is constantly evolving, like a stage set, perhaps in itself a fitting tribute to the spontaneous and ephemeral nature of a physical manifestation of a virtual community.




Discourses related to the place of the community in the city is more often than not tinted with a sense of nostalgia and loss as summarized by Harold DeRienzo in The Concepts of community: Lessons from the Bronx (2008); “There may be little room for community in this global political economy, where society values consumption, mobility, and the concentration of wealth, and where the rewards of society are geared towards individual achievement”.  What is implied by DeRienzo is the incompatibility between the climate and culture of consumerism in cities to the construct of communities. How then could we interpret the community of otaku in Akihabara as a form of community within the city?

By looking at the embrace of extreme consumption as one of the underlying trait of otaku subculture, the relationship between their community and the city could be established. The simple logic is that communities based on consumption (to whatever extent) would be able to form in and be a part of the consumerist landscape of cities. At the same time, the subcultural nature of the community provides a barrier against total assimilation with the larger mainstream consumer system. The virtual and physical is also not mutual, but interlinked and interdependent since the physical maintains its relevance as a platform for expression due to the ubiquity of the virtual.

The novelist William Gibson, who coined the term “cyberspace”, observed that “Japan is the global imagination’s default setting for the future” . If the curious case of Akihabara could be defined as such, it is interesting to imagine that through virtual communities, other subcultures, in other parts of the world would be able to mobilize and form physical communities within cities. For various economic reasons , cities would continue to benefit from the latest developments in IT infrastructure, making them the perfect platform for the crystallization of new forms of alternative communities, fostered in the virtual domain. What this could possibly lead to are a totally new ways in which the characteristics and identities of our cities are shaped in the future, by communities empowered through the Internet. While this projection would greatly benefit from further exploration of the subject matter, we can be assured that the second life of communities has only just begun.

A typical cross section through Akihabara. ©Nazmi, Kim, Tu

A typical cross section through Akihabara. ©Nazmi, Kim, Tu


1.  Howard Rheingold , The Virtual Community (Addison-Wesley, 1993):p.5.

2.  Ibid

3. Linda Carroli, “Virtual Encounters: Community or Collaboration on the Internet” Leonardo, Vol. 30, No. 5 (1997): p.359.

4. Elizabeth Grosz, “Cyberspace, Virtuality ans the Real Some Architectural Reflections” in Architecture from the Outside: Essays on Virtual and Real Space by Elizabeth Grosz (Cambridge: MIT Press,   2001):p.80.

5.  Ibid.,p.81.

6. Kaichiro Morikawa, “Learning from Akihabara: The Birth of A Personapolis” Wissenschaftliches Kolloquium, Volume 19 Number 22 (2007): p.123.

7.  Ibid., p.124.

8.  William M. Tsutsui, “Nerd Nation: Otaku and Youth Subcultures in Contemporary Japan” Education About Asia, Volume 13 Number 3 (2008): p.14.

9.  Ito, Fandom Unbound, p.xiv.

10.  Morikawa, “Learning from Akihabara: The Birth of A Personapolis”

11.  Ibid

12.  Rem Koolhaas “Definitive Instability: The Downtown Atheltic Club” in Rem Koolhaas, Delirious New York: A Retroactive Manifesto for Manhattan  New ed. (New York: Monacelli Press,1994):152-159

13.  Morikawa, “Learning from Akihabara”, p.124.

14.  Ito, Fandom Unbound, p.xxiv.

15.  Ibid

Nazmi Anuar
Nazmi Anuar runs the collaborative research and design office Normal Architecture and teaches at the School of Architecture, Building & Design, Taylor’s University, Kuala Lumpur. He believes that architecture should not be limited to the job of designing buildings but should be practiced as a discipline of knowledge and a process of cultural production. He holds a Bachelor of Architecture from UPM, Kuala Lumpur and a Masters in Architecture and Urban Design from The Berlage, Delft.
Ya Han Tu
She graduated from the architecture department of National Cheng Kung University, Tainan, Taiwan where she studied architectural design, history and theory . After working for two years, she joined the postgraduate program at The Berlage, Center for Advanced Studies in Architecture and Urban Design, TU Delft from which she graduated in the spring of 2014.
Dam Hee Kim
She graduated with a bachelor of Architecture from Kyonggi University and had completed an internship at Iroje KHM Architects participating in projects in Korea which had won the ARCASIA AWARDS 2007-2008. She graduated from The Berlage Center for Advanced Studies in Architecture and Urban Design, TU Delft in the spring of 2014.