“Today, we speak of a global community, made possible by communications technologies, and our geographically-specific notions of community are disrupted by the possibilities of the digital, where disembodied and socially distant beings create what they – and we, as scholars – also call community. But are the features and affordances of digital community distinct from those we associate with embodied clanship and kinship?”The following is a draft of an essay, eventually for publication as part of the Digital Keywords project (Ben Peters, ed). This and other drafts will be circulated on Culture Digitally, and we invite anyone to provide comment, criticism, or suggestion in the comment space below. We ask that you please do honor that it is being offered in draft form — both in your comments, which we hope will be constructive in tone, and in any use of the document: you may share the link to this essay as widely as you like, but please do not quote from this draft without the author’s permission. (TLG)
Community — Rosemary Avance, University of Pennsylvania
The digital era poses new possibilities and challenges to our understanding of the nature and constitution of community. Hardly a techno buzzword, the term “community” has historic uses ranging from a general denotation of social organization, district, or state; to the holding of important things in common; to the existential togetherness and unity found in moments of communitas. Our English-language “community” originates from the Latin root communis, “common, public, general, shared by all or many,” which evolved into the 14th century Old French comunité meaning “commonness, everybody”. Originally the noun was affective, referencing a quality of fellowship, before it ever referred to an aggregation of souls. Traditionally the term has encompassed our neighborhoods, our religious centers, and our nation-states– historically, geographic and temporal birthrights, subjectivities unchosen by the individual. Today, we speak of a global community, made possible by communications technologies, and our geographically-specific notions of community are disrupted by the possibilities of the digital, where disembodied and socially distant beings create what they– and we, as scholars– also call community. But are the features and affordances of digital community distinct from those we associate with embodied clanship and kinship?
With shared etymological roots and many shared assumptions, the term “community” is of central importance to the field of Communication. Social scientific taxonomies have long placed the elusive notion of community at the apex of human association, as a utopian model of connection and cohesion, a place where human wills unite for the good of the group. We long to commune, as John Peters argues, yet our inability to ever truly connect with another soul keeps us grounded in sympathies and persistent in attempts. Perhaps this elusiveness is where our collective disciplinary preoccupation with the notion of community arises.
On- or offline, community is at best an idealized, imaginary structure, and that idealization obfuscates exploitation. Michel Foucault reminds us that pure community is at base a mechanism of control over social relations, a policing of our interactions. Benedict Anderson reaffirms, too, the imaginary nature of community, which we conceive of as a “deep, horizontal comradeship” in such a way that power differentials are jointly pretended away.
Victor Turner, of course, adopts the source of the word in his theories of liminality and communitas, arguing after van Gennep that ritual rites of passage move an individual from a state of social indeterminacy to a state of communal oneness and homogeneity. The outcome of an individual’s reincorporation into a group is a burdening, as the individual takes on obligation and responsibility toward defined others. This is the formation, the very root, of community– an ethical orientation outside oneself and toward others. Thus the community emerges as the social compact charged with policing the system. The implication of community, then, is citizenship-belonging. Community is an ideal, the result of individuals accepting and serving their obligations and responsibilities vis-à-vis the collective.
What do we make of Internet-based communities, united over shared interests from the mundane to the elysian, evading easy classification due to wide ranging differences in participation, influence, and affective connection? Moral panics accompany all new media technologies, and the pronounced fear associated with global connectivity via the Internet, with no little irony, reflects the fear of disconnection. In Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam notoriously gives voice to this fear, suggesting that declines in community commitment, manifest in low civic and political engagement, declining religious participation, increasing distrust, decreasing social ties, and waning altruism are at least in part attributable to technology and mass media, as entertainment and news are tailored to the individual and consumed alone. Putnam paints a bleak image of Americans in dark houses, television lights flickering and TV dinners mindlessly consumed.
Digital community seems to offer a panacea to both the problems of community as a mechanism of control, and the fear of disconnection in a new media age. Indeed, Fred Turner shows that digital community has roots in countercultural movements, as “virtual community… translated a countercultural vision of the proper relationship between technology and sociability into a resource for imagining and managing life in the network economy”. Coming, then, as a solution to the “problem” of modernity, that disembodied cyberspace somehow at once flattens and broadens our notions of self.
So what do we mean by digital community? Both features of Internet culture, scholars differentiate between “virtual” and “digital” communities, the former denoting a quasi-geographical location (e.g., a particular URL), whereas digital communities are ephemeral, united around a shared interest or identity rather than a particular virtual location. Thus virtual gaming communities, for instance, may be located at a particular website, while digital gaming communities are dispersed across social platforms and virtual spaces, united around a shared interest.
While past conceptions of community were generally outside one’s agential selection– you are born and die in your town, your religion is the faith of your parents– today’s diverse digital landscape means self-selection into communities of interest and affinity. But digital community does not entirely escape the deterministic, as availability still marks a very real digital divide between those with access to the technology and those without. Not only that, but the affordances of various platforms, both in intended and possible (read: disruptive) use, all inform what might be seen as a digital community’s blueprint. Online community formation relies on this peer-to-peer software architecture that pre-dates the community itself, so that communities evolve and adapt not in spite of but because of the affordances of the technological platform. These include format, space constraints, visuals, fixity vs. mutability, privacy vs. surveillance, peer feedback, report features/TOS, modality (cellular, tablet, desktop) — all features which inform what is possible in a given virtual community. Digital communities can evade some but not all of the fixity of these structural constraints, reaching across a variety of platforms and forums on both the light and dark web.
Both types of online community networks are dynamic and self-organizing. Many social networking sites like Facebook and Myspace are pure “intentional communities” wherein self-selection into the platform and mutual “friending” secure one’s place. Highly fragmented, niche communities redistribute power in both intangible and tangible ways — think only of the economic impact of peer-to-peer communities on the music industry, where file sharing challenges traditional conceptions of property rights and even our collective moral code. Indeed, content sharing is the basis of online community– from photos, to text, to files and links– and users themselves decide their own level of engagement in these participatory cultures. Within the communities themselves, the flattening dynamic of Internet culture, where everyone can have a platform and a voice, obfuscates the very real social hierarchies which are supported by social processes and norms– all of which evolve from platform affordances.
Some scholars and observers still express a reticence to accept Facebook, Twitter, blogs, or forums as true examples of community. They see these spaces as primarily narcissistic expressions of what Manuel Castells calls the “culture of individualism”, emphasizing consumerism, networked individualism, and autonomy; rather than the “culture of communalism”, rooted in history and geography. Ironically, perhaps, much of today’s “countercultural” vision involves little to no connectivity– refusing to participate in the exploitation and grand social experiment that is Facebook, for instance, one might opt out of forms of life available there.
Yet users, if we take them at their word, say that online community provides a space to be “real” — or somehow more authentic– in ways that embodied community might sanction. An overabundance of narrative visibility and social support on the Internet allow users to foster difference in ways that limited offline social networks simply cannot sustain. That is to say, in today’s world, it is not uncommon for youth to self-identify as queer and first “come out” in digital spaces or, to draw on my own ethnographic work, for Mormons to foster heterodox (e.g. liberal) identities in closed Facebook groups before what they too mark as a “coming out” to their conservative “real-world” family and friends. We might do well to remember the origin of our term “community”, which referenced a quality of fellowship before it ever referred to an aggregation of souls. It seems our term has come full circle, as disembodied souls unite in fellowship mediated by the digital.
1. Peters, John Durham. (1999). Speaking into the air: A history of the idea of communication. Chicago: U. of Chicago Press.
2. Foucault, Michel. (1977). Discipline and punish: The birth of the prison. New York: Random House.
3. Anderson, Benedict. (1983). Imagined communities: Reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism. London: Verso.
4. Turner, Victor. (1969). “Liminality and communitas.” in The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure, pp. 94-. New York: Aldine.
5. Putnam, Robert. (2000). Bowling alone: The collapse and revival of American community. New York: Simon & Schuster.
6. Turner, Fred. (2005, July). “Where the counterculture met the new economy: The WELL and the origins of virtual community.” Technology and Culture: 46, 491.
7. C.f. boyd, danah. (2006,4 December). “Friends, friendsters, and myspace top 8: Writing community into being on social network sites.” First Monday 11(12). Available at http://firstmonday.org/article/view/1418/1336
8. See Hughes, Jerald & Karl Reiner Lang. (2003). “If I had a song: The culture of digital community networks and its impact on the music industry.” International Journal on Media Management 5(3):180-189.
9. “Everyone”, that is, with access, equipment, technological savvy, and, presumably, an audience.
10. Castells, Manuel. (2007). “Communication, power, and counter-power in the network society.” International Journal of Communication 1:238-266.
11. Gray, Mary L. (2009, July). “Negotiating identities/queering desires: Coming out online and the remediation of the coming-out story.” Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 14(4):1162-1189.
12. Here I’m drawing on years of ethnographic work among Mormons on the Internet, with details forthcoming in my dissertation “Constructing Religion in the Digital Age: The Internet and Modern Mormon Identities”; for more on Mormon deconversion and online narratives see Avance, Rosemary. (2013). “Seeing the light: Mormon conversion and deconversion narratives in off- and online worlds.” Journal of Media and Religion 12(1):16-24.