söndag 28 november 2010

Online networks vs online communities

I have previously written about the seminar series on "Digtal media and collective action" that the Dept. of Political Science at Stockholm University organizes. It so happened that I gave a seminar in this seminar series this past week on the topic of "Online networks vs online communities". The seminar invitation below is followed by some post-seminar comments of mine.


Online networks vs online communities
Some researchers have made the connection between social media (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube) and a modern (western), personalized, fast-paced, hypermobile, multiple-affiliation, rich-networked, ”friendster” society (Bennett and Segerberg 2010). In tems of Tönnies’ (1887) well-know dichotomy "Gemeinschaft" - community - and "Gesellschaft" - (modern) society - (Asplund 1991), this seems to represent a continuation that goes “beyond” his ideas about fluid, modern late-19th century Gesellschaft; a “Gesellschaft-plus” society?

In a previous text in this seminar series (“Small change”, 2010), Malcolm Gladwell conflated all kinds of social media and point out how networks (social media) and hierarchies (for example high-risk social activism or even terrorism) in many ways are opposites. His point is that social media does not really entail social change, as summarized by the subtitle of his text; “
why the revolution will not be tweeted”. To him, the strong ties between people engaged in high-risk endeavors (for example political activism for unpopular causes) are the opposite of the large networks of weak ties that are typical of social media "armchair activism" which to him represents “all talk and no action”.

Despite the 130 year that separate them, both Tönnies and Gladwell both paint a picture of society moving in a direction away from strong hierarchies and small groups of people united by strong personal ties (i.e. communities) and towards loose networks and large groups of people connected by weak personal ties (i.e. networks).

I have personally on the other hand seen social media been used in quite different ways in order to satisfy our needs for connection and community (Pargman 2005). This would seem to represent a movement in the “other” direction; towards rather than away from "Gemeinschaft". The best example of how people subsume their individual autonomy to become part of, and for the greater good of the collective, are so-called "guilds"; instrumental, goal- and action-oriented groups inside massively multiplayer games such as World of Warcraft (Lin et. al. 2003).

This leads us to the following questions:
- How can our understanding of these phenomena progress beyond simple causal relationships between individual, media and society?

- How can we further our understanding about different characteristics / uses / "affordances" of different digital media in terms of communities/ hierarchies and networks?

- What does a model that can account for the existence of both tight online communities and loose online networks look like?

- For what purposes and under what conditions do these different forms of organization emerge and thrive on the Internet?

Literature. There are no less than nine texts recommended for this seminar.

- Two texts are repeated references to texts from previous seminars in the seminar series (Bennett and Segerberg, Gladwell)
- One text is a short newspaper article (Thente)
- One text is optional (Granovetter)
- The three scanned texts on Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft are all relatively short

On Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft
- Asplund (1991), “Essay about Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft”, pp. 37-53 [in Swedish].
- Bauman (2001), "Community: Seeking safety in an insecure world", pp. 1-5
- Nisbet (1953), "The quest for community", pp. 69-77

On "Geselschaft-plus" society (repeat use of literature from previous seminars)
- Bennett and Segerberg (to be published), "Digital media and the organization of collective action".
- Gladwell (2010), "
Small change". The New Yorker.

On strong and weak ties
- Granovetter (1973), "The strength of weak ties".

On communities and online games:
- Pargman (2005). "
Virtual community management as socialization and learning". In P. van der Desselaar, G. De Michelis, J. Preece and C. Simone (eds.). Proceedings of the Second International Conference on Communities and Technologies, Milano, Italy, June 2005, pp. 95-110. Dordrecht: Springer.
- Lin, Holin et. al. (2003) "
Exploring clan culture: social enclaves and cooperation in online games". Digra 2003: Level up Conf. Proceedings.
- Thente, Jonas (2010) "
Wow! I låtsasvärlden finns riktiga affärsnäsor". Dagens Nyheter, Aug 30.


I talked about online community for one hour at the seminar. I suggested it was the task of me and the other seminar participants to together discuss or suggest how my musings about "online community" relates to and can be connected to "online networks" (the topic of previous seminars in the seminar series). The work of connecting these two concepts was not an instant success story, but we did ok and some new thoughts were born. What I personally gained was the overall need for a change of perspective on my behalf.

I got some (justified) critique. It was polite, but broken down to the essentials it to me sounded a lot like "so what?" or "what now?", i.e. "how can this be taken further?", or, "in what direction do you want to take this?". I thus realized that I might have become a little too cozy with theorizing about (online) community almost for it's own sake. It is intellectually fulfilling to dig down really really deep and then live in a world of your own intellectual ideas. You can spend pleasurable time there, having small imaginary conversations or battles with intellectual friends (who have formulated ideas you draw on or "cooperate" with) and enemies (who just don't "get it" and have formulated (to you) obviously flawed ideas or theories).

Perhaps because of too much inward-looking navel-gazing (or just the fact that I haven't spent that much time thinking about issues of community in some years), I was however stumped and couldn't really provide good answers on the fly to really good questions such as:
- What sorts of collective action do communities make possible in our modern society?
- What is the role of modern (social) media technologies in relation to (online) communities?
- What is the role of direct (face to face) communication vs mediated communication in relation to (online) communities?
- How do "old" groups and social movements use and incorporate new (social) media? How do "new" groups and social movements incorporate and are in fact predicated upon the use of new (social) media? Two examples of new groups are the Transition Town movement and the right-now launching Swedish liberal democrats political party.

I did however realize that it might be the case that the more something can be called a community, the less relevant it might be to social movements, societal large-scale action and online networks (that can successfully mobilize hundreds of thousands or millions of people). Or, could it (depending on your definition of community) be argued that such online networks build or draw upon online and offline communities? How then would these "communities" need to be defined?

Ending this section of the text, what do you think about community and what do you think community is in the 21st century?

I have a draft of an (unfinished) article about "community and online community" with the aim set for the online peer-reveiwed journal First Monday. It's been sitting in a drawer (or rather in an unopened folder in my computer) for several years. The text starts out really strong, but I have had problems finishing it. I now realize that part of the reason the article never got finished was because of a lack of answers to the same questions that were posed at the seminar, i.e. "so where is this going, how is this important, how can it be applied to other examples or phenomena?".

After the seminar I now realize that my problems finishing and creating closure in the text is not a matter of finding a good example for which to apply the theories presented in the text, but rather has more to do with the more fundamental lack of direction of where to take the theories presented in the text. The theories might be useful to others in their present form, but they do take on an air of theorizing for its own sake. With a clearer and better formulated goal for what to do with these theories, it might also be a lot easier to finally end and create closure in the article and for the article (by submitting it to First Monday).

Some more practical ideas, leads, tips and questions that I took with me from the seminar (and that might admittedly be of little interest to the casual reader of this blog (who did not attend the seminar)) are:
  • On talking about fuzzy membership of categories (i.e. community), I might want to have a look at Wittgenstein's writings on the same issue (about "games"). Me and Wittgenstein, we go waay back you know...
  • On the cynical corporation's use of feel-good terms and concepts (such as community) for the sake of salesmanship ("our family of products" - how can a bunch of products be regarded as a family?).
  • How anonymity/pseudonymity affects relationships and community.
  • One participant wanted to talk about community in terms of "feelings of belongingness". Such feelings might correlate with community but in my mind has little to do with the way I (analytically) conceive of community. There might be feelings of belonging even in a radically dysfunctional family (especially if it is the only family you have). But those feelings might by an outsider (for example a psychologist) be regarded as severely misplaces. The fact that some members have feelings of belongingness does not make this into a loving family - much as feelings of belonging has little weight in how I define and perceive "community".
  • The suggested "community of Södermalm" makes almost as little sense to me as an America Online (AOL) ex-CEO's statement about the "tens of millions of members" who belonged to the "AOL community". Further explanation: If a long-time Södermalm resident meets me on stroll in Södermalm, he/she would not know if I am a "fellow member" of the Södermalm community. The fact that you habitually can't even recognize members of the "community" you "belong to" would in my book be a strong argument for this not being a community in the first place!
  • I regard the medieval village as the "prototypical" community. But what is the relationship between modern and medieval community and between "feelings of belonging" and belonging (plain and simple). What is the relationship between the fact that you to a very small extent freely could chose membership of communities in former days, while we nowadays have large possibilities to choose membership of communities and can jump ship with little regard to consequences and costs (barriers to entry/exit are low).
  • To what extent is (or isn't) community equal to Tönnies' concept of Gemeinschaft?
  • What exactly is "anti-community"? Is it equal to Gesellschaft, (modern) society, the city/metropolis or what? What is the core nature/characteristics of anti-community?
  • To what extend are rich "communities" within large cities, and rich "communities" (guilds) within online games to be regarded as (real) communities (or not)? What are the salient characteristics that make them part of (or disqualifies them from) my analytical concept of community?
  • What is the relationship between rich "communities" within big cities and collective action (in matters that matter to these communities)? According to Granovetter, communities in cities need weak ties to mobilize and defend themselves against oppressive change from the outside. Are the terms/dimensions strong-weak and robust-brittle perhaps of use in such a discussion?
  • Online communication can foster both tighter (Gemeinschaft) connections and looser (Gesellschaft) connections. But it does seem though that it (in a McLuhanesque sense) is in the nature of the medium (Internet - social media) to on the whole make possible/encourage looser ties (Facebook, Twitter). It seems reasonable that the Internet on the whole nurtures loose ties and fluid Gesellschaft rather than the opposite.

- post-Gladwell text on networks, hierarchies, strong & weak ties etc.

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