In chapter 8 of Understanding Digital Culture, Vincent Miller explores the evolution of the word “community” and how in today’s digital culture it has been redefined to something different than the “community” we have learned about growing up. Community is often referred to as some sort of ideal state of belonging. Miller makes it know at the beginning of his chapter that there have been several different definitions for what “community is since the beginning of organized societies. Miller focus on detradionalization, and how our tradition of community is changing and essentially going against everything we think we know about community. The resources we have and more importantly the technology viable has changed the ways that we join into communities. Using the four eras, we can come to a better understanding of our development of community and the changes to the idea of what community is.
In the earliest time periods of organized society, known as the oral and scribal eras, are the first ever communities we observed. Both the oral and scribal era can be described as relatively small societies that did not travel outside of their own village or territory. The oral community was based strictly on the location that one resided in. In this community, everyone knew everyone. Villages were the primary form of community. Miller uses the term Gemeinschaft to describe the community. Gemeinschaft translates roughly to a natural and emotional community. Communication occurred in a face-to-face sort of spatial proximity. Miller outlined three ways that community flourished in the oral and scribal eras. The first was that community members were tied together through kinship and blood. Each person in the community was born into a role and had their own job to do. The second way was that each community member had multi-dimensional relationships which means that your neighbor might also be your butcher. The final way is historical ties to the land or area are characteristic of the communities during the oral and scribal eras. Community in the early two eras was limited to location with little to know individualism present.
With the start of the modern era, the term community began to change and with it the way people associate with one another. Miller explains that communities in this era were no longer built around the concept of Gemeinschaft but rather Gessellschaft. Gessellschaft is a concept in which people participate in individualized action, and join communities based on choice, convenience, and contracts rather than through natural encounters like location and kinship. With the rise of mass media, a sense of nationalism became one of the more popular communities to be a part of. Broadcast radio and television along with this new sense of nationalism created the idea of an imagined community which is a community in which people can participate in without ever meeting or being around the other members of that community. Miller sees this as a comparison to the idea of globalization that occurs in the 21st century or the late modern era (postmodern). At this point, Miller notes that that this is the beginning of the de-emphasis of “place”. There is a crisis involved with this idea of imagined communities because there is a fear that traditional communities are slowly slipping away. In this era with nationalism and in the late-modern era with globalization, we see that people strive to be a part of communities but don’t need to be in the physical presence of the other members to enjoy the benefits of that community.
In today’s society, whether or not most people think we are in the late-modern era or not, the internet has given us ability to communicate with others all across the globe. We are able to join in virtual communities and have an unlimited amount of communities that we can choose to participate in. Individualism has risen to new heights and really stressed our ideas of what community is these days. With all the virtual communities to choose from, we see a development of “communities of interest” in which people become part of any community that relates to their lives or interest them in the slightest. The Internet and digital technologies allows this freedom because physical place is no longer a limitation. According to Miller, time and space no longer relate to each other and people no longer have to be in each other’s presence to enjoy things with these people. Membership in multiple communities has become more manageable and allows people to enter and leave communities whenever they feel like it. These communities are very flexible and there is no penalty to leaving communities as your life progresses on.
It is at this point that Miller separates from the idea of the community and starts to argue that the term “community” is no longer appropriate in describing the social relationships that we hold in this late-modern era. He argues that society has made a shift towards networks and social networks to describe our social relationships instead of community. He discusses what makes up a network uses five major features. He describes networks as those with relationships that do not depend on physical location and for that reason connectivity is valued over geographical proximity. Social networks are based on choice and the interest of the individual. There is no limit to the size of a network or the number that one can join. According to Miller, networks are also considered specialize; designed to serve a particular function in the life of that member.
With Miller’s idea of social networks, he uses the term networked individualism. Individuals use networking to meet people and improve their lives on a social point of view. The Internet makes it much easier to create and improve these social relations. Sherry Turkle does not see the online world as the same thing as a community. Our social lives on the Internet are motivated by self-interest and therefore we have lost our sense of traditional community. According to Turkle, a true community involves people who choose to give first before taking. Online people take care of their interest first and will often ignore others if it affects their self-interests. This world has become one that offers an easy way to say anything you want anonymously with almost no repercussions. As Turkle says “the Internet has given us a new way not to think” (Pg. 240), this however does not means it has given us a better way to think. The benefits of the networked individualism might be increasing by the day with a new addition coming out one after the other, but the negative impacts on society are too extreme to ignore. So maybe we have moved on to networks to better ourselves, but we cannot forget the good that came from living in a good, quality community.