The objective of this paper is to explore questions of human agency and democratic process in the technical sphere through the example of "virtual community." The formation of relatively stable long term group associations - community in the broad sense of the term - is the scene on which a large share of human development occurs. As such it is a fundamental human value mobilizing diverse ideologies and sensitivities. The promise of realizing this value in a new domain naturally stirs up much excitement among optimistic observers of the Internet. At the same time, the eagerness to place hopes for community in a technical system flies in the face of an influential intellectual tradition of technology criticism. This eagerness seems even more naive in the light of the recent commercialization of so much Internet activity. Despite the widespread skepticism, we believe the growth of virtual community is significant for an inquiry into the democratization of technology. We show that conflicting answers to the central question of the present theoretical debate--Is community possible on computer networks?-generalize from particular features of systems and software prevalent at different stages in the development of computer networking. We conclude that research should focus instead on how to design computer networks to better support community activities and values.