What Makes a Community?

Facebook wants to build community. Ditto media. Me, too.

But I fear we are all defining and measuring community too shallowly and transiently. Community is not conversation — though that is a key metric Facebook will use to measure its success. Neither is community built on content: gathering around it, paying attention to it, linking to it, or talking about it — that is how media brands are measuring engagement. Conversation and content are tools or byproducts of real community.

Community means connecting people intimately and over time to share interests, worldviews, concerns, needs, values, empathy, and action. Facebook now says it wants to “prioritize posts that spark conversations and meaningful interactions between people.” I think that should be meaningful, lasting, and trusting interactions among people, plural. Think of community not as a cocktail party (or drunken online brawl) where friends and strangers idly chat. Instead, think of community a club one chooses to join, the sorts of clubs that society has been losing since my parents’ generation grew old. Meetup has been trying to rebuild them. So should we all.

What if instead of just enabling people to share and talk about something — content — Facebook created the means for people to organize a modern, digital Rotary Club of concerned citizens who want to improve their circumstances for neighbors, geographic or virtual? Or it provides pews and pulpits where people can flock as congregations of shared belief. Or it opens the basement in that house of worship where addicts come to share their stories and needs. Or it creates the tools for a community of mutual support to reach out and lift each other up. Or it makes a classroom where people come to share knowledge and skills. Or it creates the means to build a craft union or guild for professionals to share and negotiate standards for quality. Or it builds the tools for citizens to join together in a positive social movement…. And what if journalism served these communities by informing their conversations and actions, by reflecting their desires, by answering their information needs, by convening them into dialogue, by helping to resolve instead of inflame conflict?

That is community. That is belonging. That is what Facebook and media should be enabling. I’ll reprise my definition of journalism from the other day as the imperative Facebook and news share:

Convening communities into civil, informed, and productive conversation, reducing polarization and building trust through helping citizens find common ground in facts and understanding.

How can we convene communities if we don’t really know what they are, if we are satisfied with mere conversation — yada, yada, yada — as a weak proxy for community?

While doing research for another project on the state of the mass, I recently read the 1959 book by sociologist William Kornhauser, The Politics of Mass Society, and reread Raymond Williams’ 1958 book, Culture & Society. I found lessons for both Facebook and media in their definitions of connected community vs. anonymous mass.

Kornhauser worries that “there is a paucity of independent groups” [read: communities] to protect people “from manipulation and mobilization.” In a proper pluralist and diverse society, he argues, “the population is unavailable [for such manipulation] in that people possess multiple commitments to diverse and autonomous groups.” To communities. “When people are divorced from their communites and work, they are free to reunite in new ways.” They are feed for trolls and totalitarians.

Thus we find ourselves working under a false definition of community — accepting any connection, any conversation, any link as qualification — and we end up with something that looks like a mob or a mass: singular, thin, and gross. “The mass man substitutes an undifferentiated image of himself for an individualized one,” Kornhauser says; “he answers the perennial question of ‘Who am I?’ with the formula ‘I am like everyone else.’” He continues:

The autonomous man respects himself as an individual, experiencing himself as the bearer of his own power and having the capacity to determine his life and to affect the lives of his fellows…. Non-pluralist society lacks the diversity of social worlds to nurture and sustain independent persons…. [I]n pluralist society there are alternative loyalties (sanctuaries) which do not place the noncomformist outside the social pale.

In other words, when you cannot find a community to identify with, you are anonymously lumped in with — or lump yourself in with — the mob or the mass. But when you find and join with other people with whom you share affinity, you have the opportunity to express your individuality. That is the lovely paradox of community: real community supports the individual through joining while the mass robs of us of our individuality by default. The internet, I still believe, is built so we can both express our individuality and join with other individuals in communities. That is why I value sharing and connection.

And that is why I have urged Facebook — and media — to find the means to introduce us to each other, to make strangers less strange, to rob the trolls and totalitarians of the power of the Other. How? By creating safe spaces where people can reveal themselves and find fellows; by creating homes for true communities; and by connecting them.

That is what might get us out of this mess of Trumpian, Putinistic, fascistic, racist, misogynistic, exclusionary hate and fear and rule by the mob. There’s nothing easy in that task for platforms or for journalists. But for God’s sake, we must try.

Now you might say that what is good for the goose is good for the nazi: that the same tools that are used to build my hip, digital Rotary Club can be used by the white supremicists to organize their riot in Charlottesville or advertise their noxious views to the vulnerable. Technology is neutral, eh? Perhaps, but society is not. Society judges by negotiating and setting standards and norms. A healthy society or platform or media or brand should never tolerate, distribute, or pay for the nazi and his hate. This means that Facebook — like Google and like the media — will need to give up the pretense of neutrality in the face of manipulation and hate. They must work to bring communities together and respect the diverse individuals in them.

“An atomized society invites the totalitarian movement,” Kornhauser warns. In mass society, the individual who does not conform to the group is the cuck; in totalitarian society, he is a criminal. In pluralist, open, and tolerant society, the individual who does not conform to someone else’s definition of the whole is free to find his or her community and self. That is the connected net society we must help build. Or as Kornhauser puts it, in terms we can understand today: “A pluralist society supports a liberal democracy, whereas a mass society supports a populist democracy.” Trump and his one-third base are built on populism, while the two-thirds majority (not “the mass”) of the nation disapproves. But our platforms and our media are not built to support that majority. They pay attention to Trump’s base because mass media is built for the mass and conflict and platforms are built as if all connections are the same.

In the end, Kornhauser is optimistic, as am I. “[T]hese conditions of modern life carry with them both the heightened possibility of social alienation and enhanced opportunities for the creation of new forms of association.” We can use Facebook, Twitter, et al to snap and snark at each other or to find ourselves in others and join together. The platforms and media can and should help us — but the choice, once offered, is ours to take.

I’ll end with these words of sociologist Raymond Williams:

If our purpose is art, education, the giving of information or opinion, our interpretation will be in terms of the rational and interested being. If, on the other hand, our purpose is manipulation — the persuasion of a large number of people to act, feel, think, know, in certain ways — the convenient formula will be that of the masses….
To rid oneself of the illusion of the objective existence of ‘the masses’, and to move towards a more actual and more active conception of human beings and relationships, is in fact to realize a new freedom.
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