In preparation for the lifestream assessment, I have renamed this post from the original “Communities” to the summary for this block as I felt it more appropriate. While I have left the original text as is, I have added some additional text to the end of the post (in blue).
I have been thinking a lot about what it means to be a part of a community, and in fact what a community is. I asked the question at the beginning of my ethnography in relation to the Cayman New Service forums and whether or not posting responses online was enough to be a member. Does the act of caring enough about the topic to post something give you higher status or more of a connection than someone who simply reads the website?
I was reading the Bell (2001) chapter on community and cyberculture, and what really struck me in his references to Gemeinschaft like communities in which everyone knows everyone and everyone helps everyone, etc, was that I would hate to live there! I understand how it can be appealing for some, to feel like you belong, to be able to go anywhere and see someone you know, to be a fully appreciated member of the group. Maybe its just me, but I rebel against that. I don’t want people to know my business. I don’t share personal information easily, and often I don’t share important things with those closest to me. For example, I did not tell anyone aside from my wife that I had applied to join the MSc program. I’m not sure if it was because I wanted to keep it to myself or if I feared I would disappoint them if I had not been accepted.
So if I rebel against a real life community, do I take part in any online communities? If as Bell and Rheingold state that “community arises from shared interests” (Bell, p 100), I could loosely accept that I might belong to several. I participate in the discussion boards that make up the community of students within the various MSc courses; I post to this blog, and the Holyrood Park Hub, but beyond that?
Do members of a community need to be willing participants? If they are members because they are being forced to be, or in order to reach some objective, should they be given the same status as those who seek membership for the sake of it? I am participating in the places I listed before because I need to as part of my courses… does that devalue my membership status? Should prisoners be considered part of a prison community if they really don’t want to be there? Or do we need to look at the smaller groups which form inside the prison as the true micro-communities of shared interests? When and how do we make the distinction?
I read a lot of websites for my own personal interest, mostly tech related such as Engadget, Gizmodo, LifeHacker, Tom’s Hardware, etc, but am I a member of a specific community because I share that interest with many others who read the sites? Kozinet (2010) might call me a Newbie or a Lurker because I maintain only a superficial interest. I reject his idea however that a Newbie may be limited due to having weak abilities or skills, because I would argue that my superficiality is because of my lack of strong feelings for the content, not my ability to contribute.
Do I need to move beyond the Newbie stage, and become a Mingler, Devotee, or Insider in order to validate my membership in the community? Or is being a Newbie enough? As Bell referring to Sardar states: these online groups might not be communities because they aren’t social enough, but are in fact as Wilbur calls them, “a culture of compatible consumption.” I read these sites for the content, not to interact with other people that also read them…I’m not reading to build social ties… I am happy with my status as a lurker, as I would assume are most readers of the websites. So then, can the sites be considered a community at all, if the majority of ‘members’ have no strong social connections to it, or to others within it? Are they even trying to be? Are the readers who post comments regularly trying to find an attachment to the site, or to others through it, or are they just passionate about the subjects?
If the sites I listed are the ones I visit the most, and have the most interaction with, and they aren’t in fact ‘real’ communities… are there any online communities that I can truly say that I belong to? It seems my feelings on this keep going back and forth. No man is an island as they say… I sometimes feel like I want to completely remove myself from the outside world, to “bunker in” as the Krokers say. But I interact with my family and friends, my students, my colleagues on a daily basis… I don’t think I could live in a completely digital bubble… But if real communities don’t really exist online, and real-life communities are dying… what’s left?
(To continue, and to touch on the some of the comments made by Jeremy)
“Haven’t we always been connected anyway – in a posthuman sense of interdependence?”
But what of these connections in respect to the virtual community? If I am a lurker on a website, do I feel any connection to the other lurkers? Am I dependent on them in any way, or am I simply reliant on the content? If the content is removed, will any connection I may have felt to the others disappear?
Many years ago I participated in a MOO for a short while. I would log in and spend time creating text environments with objects that the user could interact with. I met a lot of people in the common rooms, and through various activities. It was touted as a virtual community but for me it was only a game and I did not make any “real” (valid?) connections with the other participants until I met some of them in real life. It may have been a running joke at the time, but I met people through the MOO who later became close friends, roommates, and even a girlfriend. The initial meetings may have been in the virtual, but for me the true connection was not made until the experiences began to involve the physical world.
But what of those other connections I made on the MOO, those that I did not meet later in real life? When my real life commitments forced me to begin to limit my use of the MOO, and then to stop visiting it completely, those connections disappeared. I can say that anyone that I may have had contact with in the virtual world simply vanished from my life. I would be hard pressed to even remember them, they weren’t “real” to me… there was no “real” connection. As Geraldine also says in her blog,the lack of social costs for leaving make these more associations than communities.
Surely looking at communities (simply people that we interact with) is rather superficial way of understanding the broader processes and flows in which we operate? It is perhaps the less obvious, invisible, connections between people, systems and non-humans that may be more important in understanding knowledge production.”
So how then can a virtual community equate to a “real” community if virtual connections can be severed so quickly and easily? If the only connection you have to the community is through your mouse a keyboard, is it possible to truly feel like you belong to it? I can’t imagine trying to build the same types of friendships I built playing team sports or being part of my fraternity while exploring Second Life. There is still so much of a disconnect that I can just turn off the virtual, and it no longer exists. So while many different sites and games may tout their virtual communities, for me they wont be real until I can feel truly immersed in them, perhaps develop an emotional connection, and the virtual becomes more real.