Saturday 18 February 2012

The myth of the online community

The subject that has dominated discussion in the e-learning world in the last few years is the idea of an 'online community': the e-learning world has fashioned itself as such a community, where messages are shared on Twitter and Facebook amongst a group of people who meet each other at conferences. However, when we think of the broader sense of the word 'community', the sharing of messages through text is only a tiny subset of its constituent aspects.

The communities studied by anthropologists are much richer in their means of communication and collective action. From the Inuit Indians who shared the 'potlatch' gifts studied by Mauss, to the Eastern Samoan tribes of Mead, to the communit√© de l'arche established by the catholic priest Jean Vanier.. there is much more to their 'communitas' than what appears online.

But for the online community, online-ness is the validation of an ideal around which they themselves have organised. To deny the 'community-ness' of the online community is to deny the ideal around which so many have established their personal identities. And yet, the deficiencies of the online community as a community in an anthropological sense are obvious. 

The conflation of the word 'community' to create equivalence between the online community and the 'face-to-face community' is particularly suspect. So much more happens when people are together: the life-and-death realities of existence are encountered in direct and practically ineffable ways. Online, and the nature of 'community' is reduced to text messages made in a strategic way by individuals seeking to maintain their position within the 'online' (and face-to-face) community. 

I think it's a mistake to think of such a thing as an online 'community'. What happens online is strictly 'strategic'. My tweeting of this blog entry is a classic example: I seek to gain the attention of those I know, and I wouldn't be so bothered unless I could see some strategic advantage in it for me. I don't believe I am alone in this egomania! 

But that strategic drive for recognition and feeding the ego is not (or at least only partly) what happens in real-life communities. There, issues of recognition, empathy, care and concern for each other are paramount. There, the radical dependence of one individual on everyone else is directly confronted through gestures and glances which have profound meaning for all. 

We would like to think of technology as providing a 'virtual community', but I think this is mistaken not just because what is created online is not strictly a 'community', but it is also mistaken because the picture that is adopted of technology is one which always assumes that individual experience of face-to-face can be replaced by online experience. It can't. They are fundamentally different entities. 

But this is not to say that technology doesn't have something to offer real communities. But it is not in replacing the 'community-ness' of the communities, but rather in enhancing community-ness by addressing directly the problem of 'fractured meanings' in the lives of individuals. Clearly the making of strategic communications online has become part of daily life. But equally, people still live in families, go to school, sit in lectures, etc. Those are convivial situations within which real communities might develop. The challenge however, is always to find a link between the meaningfulness of the 'real' communities and the meaning of strategic exchanges of text messages online.


Paul Hollins said...


Unusually I find myself disagreeing with you ,all be it with some caveats:

On line communities are merely different to /distinct from . what I'll term here as "physical communities" .

The on line community interactions mediated through technology do differ from physical interactions which are equally mediated by other factors such as social convention. The term equivalence is problematic surely all "communities" are characteristically distinct in the anthropological sense and I'm thinking the more interesting and relevant question here should be ..

"What do we mean by the term online community?".

As in the physical world I struggle with concept of defining or generalising as to what "community" is the concept is not one of homogeneity.

Whilst not scientific , extended observation of my ten year old son participating in his "online virtual community supports this view. He is a a player of little big planet " his interactions are not merely restricted to text there is voice , there is gesture and there is physical movement and arguably his participation is not strategic in any sense The encounters are chance (although I accept players may have similar gaming interests ) but isn't that replicated in the physical world.

He has developed very "real" friendships" on line and does feel a strong sense of "community" .

Players of MMPORPG such as world of Warcraft would argue theirs is a community in the anthropological sense and studies (Steinkeular 2005) would seem to support this view.

The technology does not "provide" the virtual community in this sense it is merely the mediating factor which is not dissimilar to the physical communities I think you are referring to.

Mark Johnson said...

Thanks Paul,

I think the fact that we talk of 'virtual communities' is interesting... that suggests to me that they're not real! I think I disagree that the question you raise "what do we mean by an online community?" is the right one. Mauss, Bataille, Caillois, Levi-Strauss and many others have concerned with the nature of community.. it is one of the fundamental questions in anthropology. And the question of community is distinct from the question of individual behaviour.

What we mean by an online community is precisely what it does... I think it's the strategic exchange of messages to gain position and enhance reputation. It is fundamentally teleological, and we know that when people don't 'see the point' in engaging online, they don't. It's basically, I suspect, very selfish.

Communities (and yes, there are many kinds of them), by definition, are 'togetherish' - and that's what the online community isn't. However, what the online world might have in common with the face-to-face world is being a 'domain of meaning' (that's what your son experiences), and the domains of meaning interact as we move between different kinds of activities...

...but that's another blog post!

Scott Leslie said...

There are all sorts of valid and important differences between what we conventionally understood as communities and what we call online communities, no doubt, but I think you grossly overplay the "strategic" aspect of online communication and downplay the potential for connections even deeper than what happen face to face. Sure, the term "community" gets thrown around far too easily and gets applied to almost any online group or network interaction, disregarding all sorts of important relations and exchanges that go into communities arising, but to then simply dismiss all of these as simply myths and inferior in every way is wrong too.

Scott Leslie said...

I had a much longer more thoughtful comment that blogger ate. The recaptcha capthcha's are the single most user-unfriendly creations ever. In any case, was just introduced to your blog via David Kernohan, and am enjoying it very much so far. Cheers, Scott

Mark Johnson said...

Hi Scott,

I think what I'm trying to say (and I must admit sometimes it helps me in writing it to be more provocative than I perhaps might mean!) is that the c-word isn't helpful. In fact, it may be deeply unhelpful because it leads us to ways of thinking which aren't grounded in real experience.

But I certainly don't want to say that online experience isn't meaningful or important - clearly it is. But I'm interested in the experience, and want to know more about it, how it works, etc... and just calling it 'a community' doesn't explain anything to me.

That's why I'm wanting to explore other ways of thinking about this experience, and thinking about 'meaningfulness' is what I'm currently pursuing to see whether it generates a more powerful explanation.

Does that make any sense?



Rachel Happe said...

Hi Mark -
I get where you are coming from and I too think the word community is over-used which degrades its meaning. However I would say a few things.
1) It really depends on the online community
2) Online communities don't exist in isolation from offline communities... but they help provide a space for more regular interaction
3) There are robust and weak offline communities too
I'm in the business of helping organizations understand what online community means for them and I think the majority of organizations may not really get it but many do and are working to make communities meaningful as it is really, in many ways, just another word for a market.
Maybe we should call these networks something else - semantics have not kept up - but dismissing them out of hand seems lacking in perspective of what is going on in some corners of the web.

Mark Johnson said...

Hi Rachel,

I think as I replied to others earlier, I am not saying that online engagement isn't meaningful. Clearly it is (my blog is meaningful to me, as is your comment).

But just because something is meaningful doesn't mean it's a community. I think we've used the 'community' label because physical communities are meaningful to us, and perhaps we didn't want to go as far as calling the online world a 'family'.

But the problem has emerged with the use of the word because 'equivalence' between different types of communities has been claimed, and then we get into a crazy exercise of closing real communities 'because online communities are just as good'. (If we had called the online world a 'family', the absurdities of this would have been more obvious)

My point is that it is the meaningfulness of experience we need to get a grip of, how meanings exist between different aspects of experience (face-to-face and online), what technology can do to help connect the meanings of different aspects of experience (online and face-to-face), and how that might help us to lead more meaningful lives.

But this is much more difficult than simply labelling something an online 'community'. But I think that label is doing real damage and that necessitates some rethinking.

Allan Quartly said...

Hi Mark

How do you account for people feeling less lonely because of their online activities? I think some people find more than just meaning with online experiences, they also find connection with others. Isn't this sense of connection with others the cornerstone of community?

Mark Johnson said...

I think it depends on what you think is meaningful. I would say that people feel less lonely because they find online engagement meaningful. (Some people - particularly the elderly - find TV a comfort in a similar way)

But just because we find something meaningful doesn't mean that it is a community. The acid test is "what happens when there is real need?".. and "what are my responsibilities in the case of the needs of others?"

The meaningfulness of the actions of those around you who help (get the shopping, pick up the kids from school, lend you money, console you for a loss, etc) is of a different order than what happens online. Real communities are comprised of such acts.

With meaning only conveyed through text messages, there may well be some consolation from loneliness - and that can be a springboard for engaging in the real world in a more active way. But it is not equivalent to, or a replacement for, engaging in the real world.

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