The Ambiguous Community
Community is something I’m willing to say that everyone feels they can relate to. Maybe you experience community in your school or job, or perhaps community is larger for you in your nationalism or religion, but what really is a community? Vincent Miller asks this question in his book, Understanding Digital Culture, and breaks the term down. If a community can be as small as a club or group but also as large as an entire nation and we add in virtual communities that use the internet to connect then how can we really use the term productively? It means so much that it almost means nothing.
Miller approaches this problem by attempting to understand the ‘community’ as an evolution over time. What are the similarities and differences in how we define and value community now versus previously?
If we consider time before the internet Miller describes two periods of community, the gemeinschaft and gesellschaft periods. For the sake of simplicity it helps to understand these terms by comparing the gemeinschaft period tp the lifestyle of the present day Amish communities of the United States and gesellschaft to how the baby boomer generation probably was raised.
In Amish or gemeinschaft communities there is a massive mutual dependence places on one another and the structure of the community itself. All individuals play a role in the wellbeing of the others in the community. Farmers provide food, the intelligent teach children, elderly share wisdom, neighbors happily perform favors and so on the cycle of giving and taking becomes more closely intertwined. Being that this type of community was typical in a pre-modern era the structure is completely free from institution. No police, lawyers, church, high school, or contracts exist in this community, only responsibility and dependency. Each individual is responsible for the community at large and therefore there is little individualism. Conformity may be encouraged in this type of community but not with much force because the idea of the individual as something completely separate from the greater group is not entertained.
Comparing a gemeinschaft community to ones that the baby boomer generation grew up in shows a move towards a more modern society. This gesellschaft community shows a rise in an ‘imagined community’. People are surrounded by people in their communities, like their soccer team, book group, or entire nation, and they feel connected to them through shared interest and common knowledge but don’t actually know them on a personal level. At least not as intimately as an Amish neighbor must know his entire town. Communities in this era, the modern era, are controlled and structured by the master narratives that take root in society. These are ideas like one must go to university to acquire a sufficient job, or marriage must be for a lifetime. Communities that function with master narratives work and hold structure relying on the master narratives to guide each individual. This means that every individual’s responsibility is placed on their role is society. Everyone must complete their role, whether it’s law enforcement, teacher, store clerk, or surgeon, because when all roles are filled the community flows.
Miller talks about community today, in the late-modern or post-modern world, as a ‘virtual community’. This is the community we feel due to the internet, social media platforms, and online forums. In some ways this new sense of community brings us back to a type of gemeinschaft community because it uproots our institution and place based social relationships in favor of online time and interest based ones. Miller discusses a reflexive ordering that describes how we reproduce social capital, or trust, in these new communities. Online communities that work due to their high levels of social capital are places like eBay, Airbnb, and Uber that use user ratings to encourage good performance. If you have a negative experience with you Uber driver and write that in their ratings their social capital plummets and other users probably will hesitate to use that driver. Miller talks about this as a reflexive process because users are very aware of this and use it to foster a share-economy where items, services, and time is shared among regular people. We no longer look to an institution for every ride, room, or purchase because we can use our internet connections to find them.
As the master narratives that governed the modern gesellschaft communities are deconstructed by this virtual community a detraditionalization has occurred as well. This means that participants in the virtual community have incredible choice. Do you want to join a Star Trek fandom, or is eBay commerce totally your alley? Without master narratives demanding all of our responsibility, individuals in the virtual community can focus their responsibility on their own self interest.
With the new post or late-modern interpretation of the community, Miller talks about a new networked individualism as well. This is the idea that we are all individual nodes that connect through many platforms and spaces to create a network but this is unlike past communities. The relationships are often based off of only very weak ties, like that Facebook friend you haven’t seen or talked to in years but just received a poke from. Although you have almost no relationship with this person you are still tied to one another through the internet, but why? Miller talks about the ‘shadow of the future’ being a large factor in our decisions and responsibility in this new community. We do things in consideration of the way they might affect the future. Maybe that old Facebook friend will live in a city you’re moving to and can offer advice. So you may keep that Facebook friend, or even poke them back, because what if they have something you may need in the future? This is the shadow of the future encouraging you to phatically communicate with those old friends. We offer likes, shares, pokes, follows, and requests as little ways to create and maintain weak ties, but this is no consistent pattern, it ebbs and flows as our needs and interests change. So can we say that this web of weak, moderate, and some strong ties is a community? There seems to be no interdependence on one another or responsibility for the group, just one’s self interest.