Is this a community?

Barn raising in Lansing, by Alexander W. Galbraith. This image is available from the City of Toronto Archives, listed under the archival citation Fonds 1568, Item 177.

In the late-2000s I went to a workshop in Toronto. I was sitting at the periphery of a conference room when a young woman plopped down beside me. She leaned over and said, conspiratorially, “I’m your Facebook friend.” It was one of those moments you realize that there is a new kind of normal. Of course, today it would not at all be strange to have established a friendly relationship online before ever meeting face-to-face; indeed, I have several friends who met their spouses online. So much of our community happens online that many are attempting to reclaim the old-fashioned forms of community: from book clubs to bowling leagues to block parties. Certainly, for me, this was a turning point; it was a collision between my offline and online worlds at a time when that was less common.

More than a decade earlier I had started a graduate program with a keen interest in online community. What I didn’t realize was that I really didn’t know what that meant. Luckily, an astute professor at the University of Washington easily acquainted me with my own ignorance. Keith Stamm was charged with the unenviable task of bringing the wild ideas of new graduate students into frameworks that were exact, precise, and (ideally) measurable. When I told him I was interested in how community happens online, he quite reasonably suggested I figure out what a community was. When I came back a week later with a confused jumble of definitions and descriptions, I realized that it had been something of a snipe hunt. Professor Stamm was kindly steering me away from a morass that had trapped many other scholars, not least Stamm himself, who had written Newspaper Use and Community Ties.

But something kept drawing me back to the question of community, and I am certainly not alone in that. The importance of community to everything from health to marketing is being felt much more acutely as the idea of a “public” or “mass” becomes more complicated. And while it is true that titles are as ephemeral as rainbows in the realm of social media, the demand for community managers seems to be ever growing. Still, Professor Stamm was right: if you want to talk sensibly about something, you need to be able to say something reasonably definitive about your object of inquiry. In the next few pages, I want to come to terms with what is important to understanding community, and what is inessential. We begin with the origins of the term, and then try to tease out some of its more important dimensions and limits. That requires not only defining what constitutes “community” but what is outside of that expansive term.

Beyond the Meat

The conversation with Professor Stamm happened well before the turn of the millennium, and if you sought out definitions of community at the time, they were almost always put in terms of place (or of space, or of both, but that is a whole other can of worms). Likewise, if you search Monster.com for “community manager” without the word “online” or “web,” most of the listings will be for people to run apartment “communities,” retirement homes, and the like. The question then is whether physical proximity is an essential component of communities, or whether that physical proximity is just one way to create the stuff of community.

Nonetheless, the early days of online community — and of much of the study of online life more generally — drew a bright line between “real” and “virtual” community, sometimes phrased a “cyberspace / meatspace” divide. In this vision, the best kinds of community online were those that mimicked offline community as closely as possible. The ideal online community in this vision was rooted in virtual reality, where towns and cities could be built that were analogues to “real” communities, or at least a simulacra of the kind of Normal Rockwell town life people in America like to imagine as “real” community.

That much of the group interaction in the early internet and web tended to be via text was in many ways confounding to those not involved in them. Howard Rheingold, who popularized the idea of a “virtual community,” saw the proof in the pudding when people showed up to a funeral of one of the members; he quotes JP Barlow as saying, at the time “you aren’t a real community until you have a funeral” (p. 24).

This preoccupation with the virtual and the real bled into one of the most widely read popular pieces on textual communities, an article by Julian Dibble that appeared in the Village Voice entitled “A Rape in Cyberspace.” We will return to that particular example in a later article, but for now it is worth noting that the juxtaposition of a clearly real and visceral crime within a textually mediated networked space presents a problem throughout: who gets emotionally invested in a community of people they have never met in real life?

That day the woman sat down next to me marked out not just a personal collapse of the virtual and the real, but signified a similar collapse in scholarly discussion around online sociality generally. Despite the salience of a IRL (In Real Life) funeral, JP Barlow’s “Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace” remains the statement par excellence of cyber-sociality as inherently separate. (Interestingly, even that initialism — IRL — has given way to the alternative AFK, or Away From Keyboard, since the former reduces the idea that real life cannot happen online. This too has become anachronistic as keyboards have given way to mobile devices and realtime interaction.) Especially for those for whom embodied relationships were in some way fraught, “meatless” interaction could be liberating. For others, the idea of a society absent human contact sounded like a dystopia — one imagined more than a century ago in a short story by E.M. Forster called “The Machine Stops.”

That extreme — the absolute division between meatspace and cyberspace — seems a bit silly at this point. But there was a time when such ideas were commonplace. Wired Magazine took as its “patron saint” the media critic and theorist Marshall McLuhan. His work is somehow particularly appropriate to this period because it was elliptical enough to signify a great deal to a great number of people. Perhaps the only way to know what he really intended was to ask him directly, as Woody Allen famously did in Annie Hall.

A number of factors have rapidly eroded the distinctions between meatspace and cyberspace, even as a larger amount of our social connectedness is mediated through digital platforms and interactions. That division has always been primarily notional. A number of scholars have noted that geography still matters: that physical proximity is echoed to a great extend in our online interactions. Indeed, such a conclusion is so obvious that it seems like it hardly needs to be stated, but in the face of hyperbole around the “end of the national state” and limitless interactions among a global community, it did need to be said. As it turns out, the WWW wasn’t actually worldwide: links tended to be to sites hosted nearby. Likewise, the people we email and phone most often are not just close to our hearts, but also close to home. But particularly as mobile devices come to dominate our online access, online and offline is a very thin line indeed.

Networked Community

Barry Wellman and his research group at the University of Toronto have written on the new nature of community. Working with a local neighborhood, they identified many of the patterns of communication among the neighbors, and charted how they came to use new communication technologies. They realized that the new network is a “personal community.” In other words, it’s not quite true that we are all free floating individuals with ties to other free floaters. Largely, we have a broad and consistent set of connections, both to intimate friends and to acquaintances we know in passing (Duncan Watts’s famous “weak ties”).

In large part, this maps what Georg Simmel called the “web of group affiliation” more than a century before there was The Web. Simmel noted that there were two kinds of relationships: those that were formed for you and those you chose. You didn’t really have much choice as to who your sister was, who your fellow villager was, or often who you did business with or who your religious leader was. Once people began moving to the city, they began to pick out their connections. They could more-or-less choose their own boss, their own landlord, their own church, their own labor union, and the like. As a result, the overall networks changed. If you grew up in a small town (one without a stoplight), you probably went to school with the same people you went to church with, you married, you met at the bar, you bought groceries from, and the like. So your social network probably looked a lot like your sister’s and your grocer’s. If you drew circles around people’s group of friends and associates, they would all coincide to a great degree. You might have a great-aunt Edna in Chicago that no one else in town knew, but these were anomalies.

If you left your small town and moved to the Big City, you probably didn’t know anyone at first. Eventually, you would have a growing set of friends and associates. Some of those people (like those at your work or at the bar where everyone knows your name) know each other and form a small cluster. But generally, if you took two New Yorkers and drew circles around their connections, no two would look the same. And that map, rather than a broad circle that encompassed everyone, it would look like a flower, with just one person at the center. This structure, which Wellman refers to as “networked individualism,” is in some ways the exact opposite of what we usually call a “community.” It is, in the usual translation of Tönnies’s Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft “society.”

This image is from a proposal that would eventually yield Google+.

In particular, it referred to urban society. The massive urbanization at the end of the 19th century ended up forming the core of what would become sociology, especially because it turned out the life of the modern cosmopolitan was fraught — people felt disconnected, institutions dissolved, and children spent dinner staring into their mobile phones. While the last of these is a more recent lament, it probably would not have been, in spirit, all that unfamiliar to the theorists of the city. Indeed, there are interesting continuities between the architecture and technologies of the city and what eventually became cyberspace, what Lewis Mumford called the “etherealization” of the city.

It seems as though social media may be ushering in a reversal of the kind of cosmopolitanism and rationalism at the core of the great urban migration. Certainly recent concerns over filter bubbles and fake news — i.e., superstition — seems to suggest this. Any while Wired celebrated McLuhan’s idea of the “global village,” McLuhan himself was less than sanguine about the move from the textual city to a new orality. And certainly among social media platforms, it seems as though we are more drawn to images and video — text is getting short (sometimes 140 character) shrift.

But the internet-mediated village is not the village of your great-great-grandmother (or perhaps not even the village in which you were brought up). Some have suggested that “tribes” better describes our new social groupings. But instead, the word community seems, despite its inherent vagueness, a reasonable appropriation. These communities still feel like cities in many ways. We often see very constructed versions of our friends and acquaintances online. The question of money pervades such exchanges, monetizing popularity and good will. Novelty is celebrated. There is easy access to arts, culture, education, and conversation. All of these are traits of the urban dweller. But in several ways there is a shift back to communal affiliation. One of the most striking of these is the act of sharing.

Community Gifts

The word “community” shares a common root with the word “common” or “commons.” Sharing is an essential element of community. It is also one that tends to befuddle economists who see people giving of themselves as some kind of an irrational externality. But the truth is that the commons and community sharing has existed long before markets, money, and profit. And the idea of sharing nicely is central to the ethos of the internet.

There are a lot of potential reasons for that. Part may be the influence the San Francisco Bay area has had on the development of network culture. Fred Turner has charted the convoluted path that led from the Free Speech Movement and hippie communes through to utopian visions that are often far more friendly to the free market. While a great deal of the actual work on the internet may have happened in the Silicon Alley or the Silicon Forest or in Cambridge or the Research Triangle, the internet still calls northern California its cultural home. I’ve written elsewhere about how the blogosphere finds its roots in the Free Store, a kind of potlatch created by the Diggers in San Francisco. The internet picks up and goes to Burning Man, it cares about local food, it likes hoodies. It also favors consensus driven decision-making over bureaucratic voting and hierarchical structure. The unofficial motto of the Internet Engineering Task Force is “Rough consensus and running code,” which seems an oddly anarchic organizing principle for the group that makes sure the internet keeps working.

A related piece of this is the idea of free and open source software. Computing and the internet were very tied up with academia and the principles of sharing ideas and resources. Indeed, the reason the internet came to exist was so that universities could share computing resources with one another. As a part of this, it was often considered essential to share the code you produced — it just made sense. So not only was the first video game, Spacewar, free to acquire and alter to your liking, the source code was published (in part) in the Rolling Stone. Because it was federally funded, the early internet forbade selling anything online, or advertising anything for sale, and while by the end of the 90s that notion seemed quaint, there is still part of that floating around in the background. In fact, the most popular web server, the operating system it runs on, and the content management system that helps deliver the majority of websites are all free and open source.

It isn’t just programmers giving away their hard work for free. Wikipedia is remarkable not just in its scope, but by the fact that this enormous piece of literature — if printed as a book Wikipedia would run to many thousand volumes — was produced without anyone being paid to do the work is remarkable. If you go to YouTube, you can find people teaching you how to do the Dougie or play the banjo or how to do math — thousands of hours of video content provided for free every day. And while there is something special about intellectual property (it is a “non-alienable good”: if I give you my idea or my MP3, I still have it as well), people also give away real, physical stuff, like Pizza. The “Random Acts of Pizza” subreddit allows people to request a pizza, and someone on the site might have one delivered. Another subreddit does something similar for teachers.

Yochai Benkler, among others, has tried to understand what it means to have a sharing economy. In his Wealth of Networks, he suggests that peer-production is more than an interesting set of practices online, that it marks a significant shift in our economic structures from one that was focused on mass production, since productivity required scale, to one that it less capital-intensive and that expects what was formerly known as the audience to be active contributors to the commons.

This idea of the commons is deeply rooted in what we think of as community. The example that often comes up is that of the barn-raising, in which all members of the community contribute to the rapid construction of a barn. In practice, since all of this effort is put into a structure that will ultimately serve a single family, it is not really a contribution to the commons, but a form of communal gift. There is an ideology, central to the libertarian perspective, that suggests that markets are a natural occurrence — that the equivalent of Rousseau’s noble savage, when he encountered a new source of water, would capitalize on this by selling or exchanging it with those he knew. In fact, he would likely give it away.

As Marcel Mauss suggests in The Gift, the act of giving something away always entails its return. That is, the greatest core value of giving or receiving a gift is the reciprocity of that gift. I suspect I am not alone in feeling a bit uneasy about this; it is usually the tradition to think of a gift precisely as lacking any expectation of getting something in return. But while the immediate exchange of goods is barter, the gift leaves an obligation between the groups that must someday be fulfilled. That debt creates connection.

Mauss, drawing on the fieldwork of others, sees the giving and receiving of gifts between groups as the most salient cultural process any group can have, and sees these material and symbolic exchanges (the kula exchange has no real utilitarian value, for example) as being the cement that binds us together. Gifts are not, in this case, just a nice indicator of friendship or friendliness, but the material exchange that drives sociability, culture, and power.

Can that gift be one of “non-alienable” intellectual labor? I think that it can. I think that is what holds together many online communities. When someone joins and people spend the time welcoming them and instructing them in the ways of the community, this is their obligation thanks to having been “paid forward” by those who came before. The idea is that contributing to these systems produced a karmic debt (it is no accident that collaborative moderation on one of the first community blogs, Slashdot, led to “karma points”). If you ask a Wikipedian or a redditor why they spend time contributing their work to the site, most will indicate that they just felt like they should “give back” to a site that they had benefitted from.

There has always been an uneasy tension between the shared internet and the endless effort to “monetize” sociality. Today, Twitter seems to be challenged by a range of issues — no clear mechanism to police abuse large among them — but the question of how it is to turn a profit is paramount. Maybe in spite of the lack of commercial intent on the early internet, todays social media platforms have generated thousands of new millionaires and several billionaires as well. In many cases the economic models are seen as an afterthought, or related directly to the aggregation of attention.

When I was much younger, a friend took me out hunting for a Porsche to buy — I had a little experience with Porsches, which was a little more than he did. We ended up out on the Balboa Peninsula in southern California looking at an early 1980s 911 that had been beautifully updates. (Well, on the exterior; the interior was gutted. As the frosted owner explained, he had gotten started on it, but then just said “Fuck it, let’s go surfing.”) As we drove around the peninsula, we came to a four-way stop, with 911s on two other corners. The owner reached across and tootled the horn, waiving to the other drivers: “The best thing about driving a Porsche is you get to wave at all the other Porsche drivers.”

Identifying with a brand has always been important, and often that means identifying with the others who are “fellow travelers.” This is how a working man’s beer — Pabst — suddenly becomes a hipster standard — the PBR. It wasn’t enough to simply claim the new identity. To do so would be laughable. Instead, you have to cultivate a group of people others will want to know and be like. Apple makes some very good products and some fairly mediocre ones, and the same could be said of Google. But their number one product is a kind of brand loyalty.

Even more than this, though, the community is now becoming central to the success of any business, even those that produce physical objects for purchase. The truth is that while certain elements of capital intensive production are fading, it will be some time before we are making our own phones and cars. But we increasingly expect to have our businesses treat us like we are in this together. Certainly that is part of the success of Kickstarter as a business model. Early contributors see themselves as more than just consumers — they are partners in the process.

That shift has become abundantly clear in social media. Over the last year, the number of jobs open for Search Engine Optimization has finally plateaued, and with it the salaries that can be demanded. The number of openings for online community managers, on the other hand, continue to grow slowly and steadily. I suspect that this is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future, because while I wouldn’t expect any popular web technology to still be in high demand in a decade’s time, our need to foster and manage communities will remain. That work often is closely related to what otherwise would be considered social media management, with the emphasis shifted away from marketing and toward listening and developing relationships. But at a different level, the ability to develop and run a community is becoming more important for the internal interactions of businesses. Agile approaches to project and program management are increasingly taking hold, including more radical examples like the holacracy approach at Zappos, where they are trying to make the business “more like a city, and less like a bureaucratic corporation.”

Is This a Community?

None of which gets us closer to what a community is and is not. The best way to do this is likely to collect a group of examples to extrapolate “community-ness.” In fact, that is a good exercise for the reader. Stop reading for a moment and imagine a number of communities and think about what attributes they share and that differentiate them from other types of groupings. I suspect you will likely all come up with a fairly similar list.

First, the turn to peer production is key. Lurkers (or “legitimate peripheral participants”) are still members of a community, but there must be more than simply a speaker and a large number of listeners. Communities are marked by participation. If there is no significant participation, no matter what they are calling themselves, it is likely not (yet) a community. That participation can take many forms, though chiefly it is represented by interaction between members and contribution of other materials to the group.

Second, there needs to be the structure to support that interaction. Although online and offline communities tend to be “emergent” in some way, there needs to be structures and patterns of support conversation, welcoming new members, and reducing conflict. This might just be a calendar and someone’s basement to meet in. Or it might be a “community platform” designed to support the work of the group. These structures need to be flexible enough as to allow a diversity of contributions and allow individuals to shape who they are talking to and when. This is a prerequisite to community building rather than an identifying feature, but without the appropriate structures there is no community.

Third, there needs to be some sort of stable membership in which the community memory (incidentally, the name of one of the very first community computing projects) can reside. We will be talking about cases that skate to the outside of this — what James Paul Gee calls “affinity spaces,” which do not require continuing identity with, or interaction with, the group. While communities can certainly grow out of such fertile spaces, some form of self-recognized, continuing membership is needed.

Fourth, communities must learn and must foster learning among their members. This departs from many of the definitions out there, which might conclude that certain communities are “learning communities” but there are others that are not. Here I am taking a rather broad view of what constitutes learning, but if you observe members of a community they should not remain static: they should adopt new practices based on the interactions within the community, and the community itself should adapt to new internal and external pressures. Learning is essential to being alive, and a community must learn to thrive; when it stops learning it is no longer a community.

There are also things that probably do not matter as much. Although there remain those who will disagree, I do not believe face-to-face encounters (co-location) are essential. Communities are not defined by the place or platform of interaction — communities can move. I think that communities can be built around both commercial and noncommercial affinities, and often a mix of both; while gift exchanges are essential, they do not exclude monetary exchanges also taking place. In fact, they often make such exchanges easier. And although the word “community” often carries positive connotations, there are certainly communities that are harmful to society (criminal gangs) or the members of the group (pro-ana communities or, well, gangs). There are no special limitations on a community’s objective or shared interest.

As we move on to look at particular classes of community, and at particular communities, it is worth updating this map. Think about what it takes to be a community and whether that label actually helps you to do something important. Part of the reason that we want to recognize a class of assemblages as “communities” is that this allows for the transfer of skills and of knowledge. I attended a talk by a leading web developer in the UK. She got her start doing MySpace themes and working with others to build their pages. She noted that while only some of the technical elements transferred into designing in websites HTML, many of the skills around design and working with teams were directly transferrable. By understanding the subclass of group behavior called the community, we are able to transfer prior knowledge and skills into new communities and help them to succeed.