How our Sense of ‘Community’ has Changed Over Time

Throughout time, the social construct of community has shifted, and continues to change. Each era outlined by Meyrowitz has seen it’s own change in how community is organized and perceived. However, as mentioned by Vincent Miller in chapter 8 of Understanding Digital Culture, the concept ‘community’ may not be relevant in describing the types of relationships that exist through digital technology in the post-modern era. Rather, we should see them as ‘networks’.

In the oral era, when the spoken word was the dominant, there was a reliance upon memory to store and spread information and knowledge. Oral societies were small, stable, close-knit groups, relying heavily on the village as their form of community. This is similar to the concept of ‘gemeinschaft’, which was described in Vincent Miller’s chapter as face-to-face interactions within a spatial vicinity, connected through family ties, historical links to place, or mutual interdependence and association in which individuals have various, multi-dimensional relationships with one another. There was mutual dependency among members, and they felt deeply, personally responsible for everyone in their community; there was a high amount of social capital. The extent of social roles ranged between children and elders, due to the fact that elders had fuller memories. Regardless, it was a mostly egalitarian society where members had overlapping roles and viewed community as more important than the individual, and tradition was highly valued.

In the scribal era, the spoken word remained the dominant form of communication, but we start to see the introduction of the written word. The structural organization of communities began to change, where the extent of a person’s literacy created separation. The church acquired an authoritative presence given that Scribes were part of the few who could read and write. Information could now be spread further, which led to connections with those outside of locale. This change wasn’t too drastic; communities still relatively functioned as a ‘gemeinschaft’. It wasn’t until the development of the printing press when greater changes in community occurred. At this point, many people became literate, and through this began developing their own thoughts and opinions about the world, creating a sense of individualism. Standardization and reproducibility emerged, which led to The Enlightenment, and the first rise in nationalism where they could identify with those not in locality through the commonality of their printed language.

In the modern era is where we see a decline in community. Many people moved from rural areas to cities, due to a proliferation of jobs created by the Industrial Revolution. This is similar to the concept of ‘gesellschaft’, which was described in Miller’s chapter as individual social action in which connections are thought-out and predetermined, and relationships are based on choice, convenience, and formal contracts. Society became too big to have relationships with everyone, and was unstable due the coming and going of members. Many felt isolated — detached from their close-knit, rural communities, and turned toward mass communication for guidance. Institutions were developed to maintain stability in mass society, and mass communication projected mass culture onto the public. With a combination of physical location, master narratives, and mass culture, the nation was born — an “imagined community” based upon symbolic resources and national media which created a belief among citizens in common ground, history, and experience. Other than a sense of responsibility to their role in an institution and the nation, members felt little responsibility toward others with the exception of immediate family; social capital was low, individuals were in competition with each other, and people developed formal relationships. As stated in Miller’s chapter, “People had been freed, to a certain extent, from the tyranny of place and were able to gain more physical and social mobility, as well as expanded social circles and increased choice over relationships both commercially and personally. The negative consequences (for many sociologists, at least) of this was a loss of interdependency and a rooted fact-to-face social world. In its place rose a more calculated and instrumental individualism.” (p. 187)

According to Miller, ‘community’ may not be accurate in describing relationships in the post-modern era. In a traditional sense, community can be defined as face-to face relationships with those who share common values and are relative to your physical location, who you feel personal responsibility for, exchange social capital, and have concern for future interactions with. In today’s age, argues Miller, there are three aspects of social life: disembedding of social relations, in that the linkage between social relationships, institutions and place that was standard in modernity, is now broken; time has been separated from space, meaning that digital communication has allowed for real-time communication across geographical bounds; and reflexive ordering, in that due to a decrease in control of institutions, we rely on various feedback mechanisms as a new form of trust, allowing us to gauge interactions with those we do not know. Detraditionalization is also an important characteristic of post-modernity — a decrease in the belief of traditional ways of living one’s life. These aspects have lead to networks as the new form of social life, away from a previous sense of community. This is expressed through a new type of social organization, explained in Miller’s chapter as ‘networked individualism’, where there’s more physical mobility and developments in digital communication have cause more choice and specialization in regards to relationships. ‘Networked individualism’ is characterized by several features: weak ties — loose relationships outside of a social group, fluidity — ability for ties to become close to weak, or weak to close, disembedding — which was explained previously, phatic — communicative symbols which carry no information, but serve to maintain relationships and show sociability, tenuous — proving worth through participation, and open-ended — being that there are no limits to networks or members you can connect with. For example, I’m a member of an online network on Facebook where we share a common interest in hair, make-up and nails. It is a group where girls ask for constructive criticism regarding their make-up and hair, advice on products, or just show how proud they are of their make-up looks. I only participate in the group when I need advice on something, but when I am less active, I maintain my membership by liking pictures and posts. I do not know any of the girls personally, however there are one or two acquaintances on my friends list that have joined the group. I come and go as I please, and use it for my own self-interest.

Screenshot taken of the my makeup group

Through this new type of social organization, we do have more freedom to pursue and maintain relationships in the digital age, as opposed to forming relationships that were out of obligation due to physical relation to others. Instead of relying upon a community for mutual dependence, we have become interested only in oneself. We have gained a lack of responsibility toward others in our social ‘networks’, no concern for future interactions with others, and rarely perform acts of social capital. As stated by Miller, “it is perhaps more appropriate in contemporary times to talk about ‘my community’, as in an ego-centric network of relationships centered around oneself and one’s interests, than to talk about ‘the community’, as a set of people who all have things in common, a mutual interdependence and who share a common fate. In this respect, Wellman is right to suggest that the internet is one part of a larger shift away from place-based ‘groups’ or ‘communities’ to person-centered social ‘networks’” (p. 197).