Community in the…Whatever Era This Is

The definition of community in the internet age has become increasingly blurry. This is due to the development of communities based entirely online. These digital communities have different characteristics than traditional communities based in the physical world. These characteristics have lead Turkle, Miller and other scholars to content that the term “community” is no longer applicable in settings which are based online. Communication mediums and the characteristics of interpersonal interaction have shaped community and how we define it since the inception of society.

In early human villages community was represented by a person’s family and friends. Additionally other members of the village and members of the group in the immediate geographic area where a part of the community in the tribal phase of human history.

When an elite group of people began to master the written world, the scribal phase of human history was born. In this era, people progressed from living in villages, to dwelling in newly developed city-states. These centers of economic and political power influenced the characteristics of human communities. Community was still largely a function of geography and group life, but additional elements where added. Community came to include individuals who fulfilled roles in city state, such as tradesman and those who help positions within the city-state government. In both the tribal and scribal phases of human history a strong sense of mutual interest and accountability underwrote the community ties of the time.

In the modern era competing influences worked to redefine the bounds of community. The rise of nations created a broader sense of mutual interest and identity on a macro scale. Nations had a dual influence on the macro scale of community, they served to unite people from a broad geographic area though language, culture, government and shared interests. Nations also served to separate people from one another on a large scale, with political borders and defined identities. Micro community also changed for people in this era. As individualism began to shape social and economic behavior the number of people included in a person’s immediate community began retracted to include the individual’s immediate and extended family, in addition to members of their respective social groups and organizations. Geography was still a shaping of element of community, but the increased awareness of the outside world enabled by modern communications technology produced broader awareness of other people who shared characteristics and views, in addition to defining differences between nations.

The Postmodern or Late Modern era is the period of time which is currently at hand. Scholars disagree on whether or not the current time represents the last throws of the modern era, or a postmodern era. Semantic labeling controversies aside, the current era has delivered technological and social changes which have upended the traditional definition of community. Online digital communities which connect users through the internet are the driving force behind the dialogue regarding the transformation of community. Online communities are not based in geography, social group membership, or national loyalties. Online communities can develop around any interest or characteristic. Online community members may share agendas or interests, but their critics point out that they lack a crucial aspects of traditional communities including mutual accountability and interdependency. Wellman notes that these network based communities are, “completely person centered and a-spatial.” Reddit, the Sub-Reddits within it, Facebook pages, online dating sites, messages boards and websites dedicated to specific interests are all examples of online communities.

Sherry Turkle is one of the most prominent critics of online “communities.” Turkle’s argument for community is based on the idea that in order for a group to be considered a community it must embody the characteristics of physical proximity, shared concerns, real consequences and common responsibilities.

Vincent Miller’s work also contends that the groups which develop online do not represent the characteristics which Turkle and others outline for communities. Miller identifies three types of online communities. Communities of fantasy, where users create avatars to explore, interact and participate in societies based in virtual worlds. Communities of interest bring users together who share an affinity for a given topic. In communities of relationship personal relationships develop to provide support to individuals.

All of these considerations lead Miller to propose the use of the term Networked Individualism in place of community. Miller states that, “Networks,-and not groups or communities- are increasingly the heart of social life.” Miller’s Networked Individualism describes and environment in which people are connected by strategically created and managed “weak ties” born both online and in the physical world. He also notes that the specialization of relationships is increasing based on the factors discussed above. Networks are a-spatial, based on choice and the relationships created are largely instrumental. These networks are open-ended, without limits on number, membership or content. In networks, the line between presence and absence has merged into a “connected presence” in which interactions are “quasi-continuous.”

Miller’s and Turkle’s observations on community in the late modern/postmodern era all expose the transformative nature of digital technology. In my view, community by technology is indeed a different type of group than the communities described in the earlier in this essay. I feel that Miller’s networked individualism view accurately describes the characteristics portrayed by digitally based “communities.” I predict that in the face of an increased number of weak ties between networked individuals, smaller more intimate real world communities will develop.

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