It’s no secret that information and network technology is a pivotal aspect of our daily lives and we have become dependent on interactions with computer-based systems for better or worse. They affect how we think, how we work, how we play and how we interact with each other. This has given people a plethora of efficient, new ways to communicate, organize, educate and mobilize on a personal and collective level. Removing the need for face-to-face contact or time needed for transportation to contact like-minded individuals, it’s no secret that the internet we have learned to rely on has been a game-changer for community building in both online and offline spheres. This allows people, despite geographical separations, to act on their shared ideological, social and/or recreational interests. Offline organization is not abandoned through the evolution of online communication, but the lines are blurred between the internet and the physical world in interpersonal interaction. In this paper I will explore how community-building through social media and web forums unite people with common interests and mobilize people online and offline in pursuit of these interests.
A big reason why online communities can act on their shared values is the fact that online and offline spheres have become hard to extract from each other. Nowadays almost everyone in the western world below the age of 50 carries an internet-connected device in their pocket at all times, and most systems in our society are now computer-oriented: From stores to libraries to public schools. John Brown refers to such a phenomenon as “ubiquitous computing”, in which we are so accustomed to the use of computers throughout our society that these devices seem to vanish into the background in our perception of the computerized, interconnected, world around us. Brown cites Mark Weiser in a comparison of how the universality of reading and writing has a similar effect: “Such a disappearance is a fundamental consequence not of technology but of human psychology. Whenever people learn something sufficiently well, they cease to be aware of it. When you look at a street sign, for example, you absorb its information without consciously performing the act of reading...” (17) When we look at a photograph online, we are in reality looking at a computerized image of the photograph through the screen of our monitor or smartphone, although nowadays we are trained to think of it merely as viewing the photograph itself as if it were physically in front of us. The same goes for communicating online, we have learned to interpret communication over instant messages the same way we interpret communication by writing or talking. A conversation started over a private message can continue in person if the two participants run into each other offline. Donna Marletta attributes this to a deconstruction of the online/offline binary, in which online communities can organize in person to form offline communities based off of shared ideological, social and/or recreational interests:
“Computer networks allow people to create a whole range of new social spaces in which they meet and interact with one another. Through the use of interaction media people have formed thousands of groups to discuss different topics, build collaborations, create knowledge, share mutual interests, play games and entertain one another.
Virtual community represents what can be understood as a form of post-modem community, characterized by the liberation of the individual from social constraints, such as identity, ethnicity, social status and geographical space. Online relationships are based more on shared interests and less on shared social characteristics, and as a result online communities are reasonably homogeneous in their attitude and shared interests, and relatively heterogeneous in the social characteristics of its participants.” (83)
Communities in the past were typically built within the limitations of the geographical range they occupy. Now with the internet, we no longer have to travel our bodies or written messages outside of would-be geographical or temporal limits or physical transportation. People all around the world can now virtually congregate through web forums and social media to discuss almost any topic of interest: from hobbies and socialization, to group projects and think tanks, to religious and political ideology. As such, people on the internet are indeed more prone to form communities based on shared interest despite differing social characteristics. Citing Howard Rheingold, Martella defines such online groupings as “social aggregations that emerge from the Net when enough people carry on ...public discussions long enough, with sufﬁcient human feeling, to form webs of personal relationships in cyberspace” (85). I would argue however that similar geographical, social and cultural characteristics can be the motivation for creating online community as well. These commonalities easily intersect with shared interest to form more specific communities. For example, people can make a web forum for black physicists, a group instant message for WMU’s LBGTQ student organization or a social media group page for Pokemon Go players in Grand Rapids. One possible setback to this is the likely possibility of cultivating online and offline communities too homogeneously, promoting groupthink and decreasing interaction with people of different interests and identities. Brown poses the question: “How will this affect social evolution? A child surrounded by adults must learn to interact with adults in order to feel included. A child who is never out of contact with her own social circle may not feel the need to learn how to socialize with adults. That may not seem like a big problem at ﬁrst glance, but that kind of learned socialization is one of the roots of how we learn socially-acceptable behavior, and of how we learn to adapt to new situations. It will be interesting to see how this turns out. ...Most ﬁnd that reassurance in the company of like-minded peers, and build passionately guarded thought compounds, in which their shared ideas can remain unchallenged, protected from doubt and unbelievers. I believe that an open-ended mental model of attainable knowledge makes it less likely that people will build walls around their opinions and refuse to look further, but I am forced to admit that it seems to be much more comfortable for many people to accept and embrace a strong limit on what they could learn, and to project hostility and ignorance on those who disagree.” (11, 42-43) Either way, online communities effectively bring different people together based on their similarities rather than their differences, which makes a comfortable formation of a community. Whether they are formed through commonalities, personal identity or shared interest, such online groupings themselves are indeed more communal rather than societal.
Martella cites the German sociologist Ferdinand Tonnies; characterizing community by organic natural will, and society by individualism and rational will, rather than communal interest. (84) She also cites Victor Turner’s description of the structural formation of society as hierarchical, and community as “an unstructured and undifferentiated group of equal individuals, however soon it develops a structure”. (84) Almost any online community is made up of undifferentiated individuals with enough in common to interact with each other through the organic will of companionship and pursuing interest. These communities generally have minimal structure and hierarchy: every member is equally a user of the communal platform and has just as much freedom and power as any other user. This is especially in anonymous web forums and blogging networks where one’s true identity is concealed behind a tag or username, likely preventing inequality based on aspects of a user’s personal identity that can be optionally disclosed. The main exception to this absence of hierarchy is the necessity for moderators and administrators assigned to watch over many of these communities to circumvent irrelevant, illicit and/or aggressive behavior of a given user. While moderators and administrators are given the power and responsibility to keep these communities running smoothly and peacefully (such as deleting harmful comments and closing redundant threads) these users are granted roughly the same amount of social platform and respect. The need for moderators and admins rose in a similar way many communities require leadership: to uphold order, safety and respect within their communities. With a minimal hierarchy, a stable community and enough common interest, these communities can easily and peacefully come together and collaborate in pursuit of their shared interests.
Nils Gustafsson uses the example of online political discourse and mobilization to highlight the internet’s effective collaboration toward common goals. Political discourse online and ‘social media soapboxing’ is often characterized as lazy or narcissistic; building social capital and a public identity based off of expressed worldviews and concerns, rather than not taking a more active role in supporting action towards such political goals. These were the beliefs of the Swedish Facebook users who were participants in Gustafsson’s study of online political networking, but most of these participants actually have participated in offline political mobilization as a direct result of political discussions on Facebook. (15, 16) This phenomenon Gustafsson describes as “viral politics” casts internet and social media activists as “temporal elites” who use viral politics to gain much larger political influence than they would have without their online platform. The weak ties formed online through relations on web forums and social media increase the social capital of the participants, as well as the amount of weak ties that are formed; sustaining the motivation of the temporal elites. With the knowledge, skills and sustained motivation of the temporal elites, they can inform unsuspecting online readers of a story that the mainstream media might neglect to hand to their audience and become competitive participants in a wider democracy. In a similar fashion, I argue that a similar model can be used to promote other interests as well. Using the example of recreational activities, one could use their internet presence to promote a favorite band, Netflix show, or indie video game. Whatever type of interest is promoted and spread by these users, they can in turn come together to form online communities where they can bond based on mutually promoted or newly discovered passions.
The forming of online communities has proven time and time again to be highly effective in bringing people with similar qualities together despite their differences and helping them collaborate on equal grounds both online and in person towards these interests. It is true that the consolidation of such communities can lead to divisions as well, but I believe that formation of online communities creates more good than it does harm. I am excited to see where the evolution of such communities takes our society next.
Brown, John N. A. "Applying Anthropology-Based Computing." Human–Computer Interaction Series Anthropology-Based Computing, Basel: Springer International Publishing AG, 2016.
A book on how we have adapted to the rapidly evolving field of technology, how this adaptation affects us, and how to make it less likely to harm certain aspects of your life.
Gustafsson, Nils. “This Time It’s Personal: Social Networks, Viral Politics and Identity Management” in Emerging Practices in Cyberculture and Social Networking, eds. Riha, Daniel and Maj, Anna. New York: Rodopi B.V. Amsterdam - New York, 2010
This article examines a new field of political movement-building by spreading information in viral public and social networks; cultivating a new elite political power. Gustafsson argues this cultivates a more inclusive, democratic, and egalitarian policies, but can increase inequality of political participation.
Marletta, Donata. “Hybrid Communities to Digital Arts Festivals: From Online Discussions to Offline Gatherings” in Emerging Practices in Cyberculture and Social Networking, eds. Riha, Daniel and Maj, Anna. New York: Rodopi B.V. Amsterdam - New York, 2010
This article aims to deconstruct the offline/online binary by assessing the interconnections of online and in-person communities and the effect of such gatherings.