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Week 7 – Digital Community?

I sincerely apologise for the heavy delay in getting this material live. I will do everything I can to ensure that next week’s material is posted on Friday evening.

Learning objectives

This week the aims are:

  • Explore how ‘community’ gets theorised and how that relates to digital media
  • Investigate what kinds of communality are performed online
  • Think about the ‘work’ that ‘communities’ social media are contingent upon

Introduction

In this week’s tasks we will think through the ways in which experiences of community are created and reconfigured with and through digital media and we will focus on the particular sites of social media. You may be familiar with the kinds of definition of community that feature in social and cultural geography that more or less stem from the influential work of the anthropologist Benedict Anderson. This is an understanding of communities as ‘imagined’. Rather than thinking about community as stemming from being physically close to one another, this way of thinking about community suggests social intimacy comes from feelings of togetherness that are tied to collective acts, beliefs and subjective feelings of belonging. This belonging-ness comes from shared frames of reference. These may be shared values, or value systems. They may also be shared forms of communication. Benedict Anderson examined this in relation to printed media and the ways in which the distribution of religious texts and early newspapers afforded geographically disparate communities maintaining cohesion.

Community consciousness may be symbolic. In this sense the term community does not only speak to a particular entity or group. It also talks about shared or associated social attitudes, norms and collective forms of understanding. Even so, there is no widespread agreement on the extent to which these share frames of reference may constitute communality. There are claims made for both ‘more’ and ‘less’ communality in contemporary social contexts. This especially holds true in relation to social media. On the one hand, commentators such as Robert Putnam discuss the rise of ‘bowling alone’ and wider arguments around individualism. There are many ways in which that rhetoric is used in terms of the smart phone. We are all staring at our phone screens not talking with one another. On the other hand there are suggestions that new techniques of communality, fostered by social media, forge new understandings of that communality.

The ‘virtual community’ of Howard Rheingold’s 1993 book of the same name is an influential account of the early internet. Rheingold discusses his experiences of the Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link bulletin board, a pre-world wide web system known as the WELL. In laying out the ways in which people who are geographically distant but communally close, Rheingold shows how webs of personal connections using telecommunications technologies may transcend time and distance. These forms of social connection are not synchronous but rather asynchronous. We need not be geographically close, nor in the same time zone, to perform particular kinds of closeness or belonging, collectively online.

A notable characteristic of accounts of early internet communities and community formation is that the belonging and communality experienced are not necessarily tied to the ways in which we perform ourselves. Whereas we might be rather used to using our ‘real’ names on social media, it was considered fairly ‘normal’ to use a pseudonym on bulletin boards such as the WELL. Members of those communities did not necessarily assume they would or could know anything about the person you were in the rest of your life. There was a significant amount of discussion of this in the late 1990s and early 2000s as a liberatory mechanism. It affords different, alternative, forms of communality and connectivity. We can think of this in terms of Peter Steiner’s 1993 New Yorker cartoon. As the dog says, in the 1990s: “on the internet nobody knows you’re a dog”.

This might, today, be thought of ambivalently, given the rise of ‘catfishing’ and identity theft. So, in contrast, the ways in which we might understand the norms of today’s use of social media are perhaps closer to Kaamran Hafeez’s 2015 New Yorker cartoon. This also speaks to the ways in which community is often romanticised. In this case, in relation to an apparently ‘better’ historical past.

This week we consider how communities are formed, maintained and presented with and through social media. ‘Community’ is an ambivalent term, especially in relation to the digital. It is both a way to share identity and feel we belong and a way in which we are identified and potentially othered.

Podcast of all of the text

Sam Kinsley · Digital Geographies – Digital Community?

1. Community directions

In this instalment of Digital Geographies we are thinking about how we experience community and how community is produced and performed. Community may mean different things to each of us. We think differently about where we think we belong depending upon context. In some respects, especially in digital media, we may feel we belong in multiple places or we may feel that our belonging is transitory. The ways in which we negotiate belonging and what that means for ourselves and those we share a community with can appear contradictory. We may feel freed from the constraints of physical location through digital communities and yet we may also feel constrained by the very same digital communal activities.

Whether liberatory or restrictive, the various ways we might understand where we ‘belong’ online and how we share communal experience are about the ways we perform community. The creation and maintenance of communality online requires effort. The physical habitual cues for communal life, meeting in local shops, in the office or on the street are not easily emulated. From Howard Rheingold’s experiences of the early 1990s virtual community of the WELL to contemporary experiences of fandom on social media the performances of community are communicative acts. For communal communications to work online they need to be demonstrative.

Experiences of digital community are, arguably, intimately bound up with representation. To be communal online is to show and share. A significant example of 21st Century negotiations of digitally-mediated community is the fandom of the band One Direction. Styled as the biggest band in the world in the 2010s, it has been argued that One Direction continues to have one of the biggest fandoms worldwide. In 2013 Channel 4 released the documentary ‘Crazy about One Direction’ all about the fanatical lengths ‘Directioners’ went to in order to demonstrate their commitment to the band. And Social media was at the heart of their actions.

2. Dialogical Communities

There is a significant richness to the ways in which the Directioner fandom functions. There are whole sub- communities within which the fandom functions. There are ways in which fans can take on forms of microcelebrity themselves, by virtue of accruing social capital through familiarity with the band. There are all sorts of complex performances of community. For example there are sub-communities forged around what are referred to as ‘ships’. Make believe relationships, platonic or otherwise, between members of One Direction. There is a wealth of communicative actions used by Directioners through which they constitute themselves as forms of community. In some respects this reflects something of the ways in which we can understand the idea of community through the work of German sociologist Jürgen Habermas. Habermas talks about the ways in which individuals are bound together and secure a cohesive relationship with society through communicative actions. For Habermas, these webs of communicative actions, the means of communicating with one another, are the glue that holds together society. In his words: “the lifeworld that members construct from common cultural conditions is coextensive with society”. Our ways of creating communities thrive in and draw upon wider cultural conditions. The norms we create and the ways we intercommunicate and share values come about through our communality. 

Society is not solely a utilitarian apparatus that comes about through governance and share economic concerns. Society, and community, comes about through shared beliefs, common values and various nuanced ways in which we understand our collectivity. Importantly, this is about communication. Community is forged through language. For Habermas, and a number of others, the ways in which community comes about is not primarily the ‘non-representational’ or affective forms of being together. The communicative acts of community are based in words. The primacy of language and communicative acts founded within language is a very important way of understanding how community is constructed, maintained and evolved. There is a cultivation of communal culture and an adherence to norms produced and performed through linguistic communication.

There are then particular forms of communicative performance through which community is created and maintained. We can think about three particular ways of understanding this. First, there are ‘speech acts’ or ‘communicative functions’ that open out shared spaces. On social media we are familiar with these in the guise of the hashtag, the subreddit or the group chat. Second, there are all sorts of ideas and ideals of intimacy. The ways we share a common understanding of one another and the values we share. In the trailer for ‘Crazy about One Direction’, one young woman says that she ‘just wants to be more than a fan’. There are ways in which we might interpret that in terms of fairly conventional understandings of what constitutes a ‘full’ relationship. These might not be limited to senses of physical intimacy but also understood in terms of ideals of emotional intimacy. There are quite nuanced understandings of how we share experience. Third, and importantly, despite the apparent contrast between the so-called ‘real’ and what is ‘online’  – these forms of community are always coextensive with how we perform our lives. Online communities are not separate to ‘physical’ spaces. Community is expressed across and between media.

To develop our understanding of how communicative acts online can foster and maintain communities I want to use a clip from a former student’s video produced for the module. In this video clip we explore the ways in which YouTube is performed by its users to construct a sense of community.

Student video clip – not for distribution

2. Norms

A significant amount of how the forms of mediated community, such as those on YouTube, are about shared understandings and expectations of how to communicate and behave. We can think about those expectations and understandings as ‘norms’. Norms of how to ‘do’ community are displayed within the community. They are demonstrated. Norms become sedimented by their repetition. They become reinforced as they get ‘re-done’. We negotiate forms of shared behaviour and teach one another what is ‘acceptable’. A very quick illustration of how we might understand the development of a norm is the conventions for greeting an audience in YouTube vlog-style ‘sit down’ videos. There is a direct form of address down the lens of the camera to individual audience members.

Conventions or norms are done. They are reproduced and reinforced. What is ‘acceptable’ and expected in the ‘doing’ of a community, especially when mediated, become sedimented in its re-doing. In the case of digital media this is frequently about dialogical repetition. We literally repeat back to one another phrases and idioms. It is in that repetition that we signal belonging.

Of course, these forms of ‘doing’ community are not universally accepted. Nor are the ‘norms’ and expectations of digital community uncontested or unequivocally welcome. We may feel pressured into abiding by norms. We even may feel subjugated by the expectations to act. This is illustrated in the following clips from an episode of South Park.

3. Moderation

Collective expectations can lead to forms of social pressure. They can lead to the sorts of social coercion or constraint that we may be familiar with in our everyday lives. Dialogical forms of community and the norms they embody can be coercive as much as they may be liberatory. The other side to the story of how these digital media platforms function and how they produce these safe spaces of communicative practice is that there is labour behind them. All of our social media platforms significantly rely upon work by an army of people. This work not only by us as users but also by others who may be both geographically and socially distant, which is often hidden, such as the moderators who sanitise and attempt to control those things that might be deemed undesirable.

When we think about the performance of shared norms and the collective responsibility they seem to imply we often do not think about the hidden labour that enables them. What might be considered the ‘dirty secret’ of the digital media platforms on which we are apparently forging these new forms of digital media is that not everyone is actually buying into the norms. There are many posts made that may be not be considered desirable by other and they are sanitised through countless acts of hidden moderation by others. We do not, therefore, know what is being moderated out. 

There is an opacity to the policies of moderation. Several of the companies that employ these armies of moderators for their platforms have only comparatively recently admitted that they exist. We had been assured that the work was done by algorithms. By and large much of this work continues to be done by human labour. We might therefore ask: are those people members of the ‘community’? This is a difficult question to try to answer. Not least because, as the video clip highlights, the ‘moderators’ apparently outnumber the ‘conventional’ employees of the companies by approximately ten to one. They are employed in certain parts of the world, where labour laws and conditions of employment might be different. The apparent utopian ideals of the global community might therefore be suggested to come a distant second to the fairly established forms of international outsourcing that has been prevalent in the global economy for the last fifty years.

Please now watch the following video clip

4. ‘Friends’ & ‘Edges’

An important facet of how these kinds of dialogical community are enabled online is the ways in which the relationships are encoded. It relies on making all of those things we consider to be nuanced or hard to describe qualities of communality discrete in data. They must be translated into something that a computer programme can process. The relationships that exist between individuals, between people and things, and between people and places are translated into a programmatically defined data structure. In our daily lives we might talk about being ‘friends’, whereas in Facebook, for example, the developers talk about ‘edges’ between ‘nodes’. An ‘edge’ is the relationship we characterise as ‘friendship’. The ‘node’ is a person. Edges and nodes are the data-based representations of complex social phenomena distilled for processing in code. For platforms like Facebook, these relationships variously ‘count’ in different ways according to how a particular context has been defined in software. Rather than longevity or an abstract sense of ‘closeness’ or ‘intimacy’, it might simply be frequency of contact that gains primacy.

The ideas and ideals of ‘community’ and ‘network’ have become blurred, in at least some respects, not least with the rise of social media. Even so, we might draw a distinction between the logics of ‘community’ and ‘network’ in relation to the digital. In her book ‘Technically Together’ Michele Willson offers a clear comparison between these ‘ways of being together’. The differences might be characterised according to their temporality, how relations are performed, what kinds of rules there may be to membership and what the requirements for membership might be. For example, while networks are ‘fluid’, ‘dynamic’ and to an extent temporary, communities have a coherence, stability and longevity. Where communities are negotiated through ‘norms’ and ‘culture’, networks are programmatically defined by ‘protocols’ and ‘code’.

(Wilson, 2010: 751)

The question of whether or not Facebook or YouTube are ‘communities’ might be all-too-easily answered in the negative. According to Willson’s typology, they are clearly ‘networks’. For many of their detractors the social media giants are not only not communities, they are also a malign influence on what they imply are ‘authentic’ forms of community. Nevertheless, there are significant numbers of people who derive real meaning and value from their use of social media. Many people get a lot out of participating in YouTube, for example. They get a lot out of the senses of communality they feel from their use. These feelings, and the forms of communality, may not last – in the sense that more longstanding forms of ‘community’ achieve, but that makes them no less significant to people.

We can think, with Nancy Baym, about the ways in which what is being constituted on social media is a form of shared but distributed experience of identity. In this sense, community and network are not mutually exclusive. There is a layer of nuance to how we negotiate them. We might practice community across and between several networks, or we might variously ‘network’ across communities. Even so, there are some caveats. The coherence of that shared but distributed identity can break down when we have to: move across multiple media, negotiate different norms between groups and do not have access to the same collection of media platforms. Conventions change between groupings and change across and between platforms.

Finally, we must return to the unavoidable fact that all of these platforms – the ‘social software’ of our lives – are attempting to calculate, for better or for worse, our nuanced social relationships and forms of community. The things that these platforms afford for us are contingent upon us performing community so that it can be made discrete in data. The relations between people, places, things and so on cannot be ambiguous. Relationships are turned into code – they are the edges between nodes, in the language of network graph theory. We can accordingly characterise a lot of these performances as a form of work. Facebook, and others, derive a lot of financial value from how we ‘do’ community and networking – they sell access to us to advertisers based upon that data. The ways in which we perform community online are therefore contingent upon forms of voluntary conspicuous self-disclosure.

We are valuable as users to the platforms we use as aggregates. The ways in which we perform ourselves and perform community through social media are valuable in the production and refinement of ‘types’. We are collectively contributing to an ongoing categorisation of ourselves and others by virtue of how we use social media. We are modelled both as an individual (the various ‘edges’ we construct with other ‘nodes’ in the network) and as aggregates, or types. It remains the case that all forms of personalisation in advertising, online services and social media require models of us a class, category or ‘type’. This is not dissimilar from traditional forms of market segmentation. What is perhaps different with digital media segmentation is that we are actively contributing to our own categorisation.

Summing Up

In this instalment of Digital Geographies we have explored how community needs to be performed, especially when mediated through digital media. We have seen that there are fairly nuanced and sophisticated ways in which we both conduct and understand these performances of communality. We have considered how these forms of performance are significantly bound up with language and dialogue. Finally, I have argued that digital community is not separate to physical space. Instead, we should understand contemporary experiences of community as spanning online and offline life.

In the live session we discussed a number of the facets of community experience online. I posed a series of questions, loosely based upon Willson’s typology of ‘community/network’ in the Padlet for discussion. We ended up focusing upon the performance of community – the ways in which it needs to be ‘done’ and the ‘norms’ of community, both in terms of ‘belonging’ and in terms of ‘policing’.

Made with Padlet

You can find the Zoom recording of the session online. Please use the password previously shared with you.

Further Reading

To follow on from the week’s tasks you may like to consider reading the following:

Nancy Baym (2010) “Communities and Networks” (chapter) in Baym, N. Personal Connections in the Digital Age, Cambridge, Polity.

Michele Willson (2010) “Technology, networks and communities”, Information, Communication & Society, 13:5, 747-764, DOI: 10.1080/13691180903271572

One reply on “Week 7 – Digital Community?”

Hi Sam,

I was just wondering when we had to submit our essay plan for? And how we submit this?
Thanks

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