I’ve thought a lot about “community” in online spaces over the course of my (still-short) academic career. Early drafts of my dissertation had a lengthy discussion about the benefits and disadvantages of Étienne Wenger’s community of practice framework (which emerged from Wenger’s work with Jean Lave) as compared to James Paul Gee’s affinity space framework. From a research perspective, I tend to prefer Gee’s space-focused perspective and agree with many of his arguments for why it makes more sense to use that language in an online setting.
However, I still think there’s value in talking about online communities—including in research. My co-author Dan Krutka is skeptical about any use of the term community in online settings, arguing that in the vast majority of online settings, social ties aren’t anywhere as strong as social ties in face-to-face settings, and that using community language is a kind of technological optimism that overstates what happens on online platforms and overlooks the superficiality of some of these social interactions. This is a solid critique—it’s why I prefer space language over community language—but the reason I believe that we can continue to talk about online communities is because there are many examples of offline communities that are characterized by weak social ties but strong imagined connections.
I think that Gruzd, Wellman, and Takhteyev’s (2011) Imagining Twitter as an Imagined Community makes the best argument for this that I’ve seen—this piece played a large role in that early dissertation draft writing that I mentioned earlier. The piece starts with an anecdote that I think is worth repeating here, because I can’t possibly do it justice with a summary:
Barry and Beverly Wellman moved to Toronto more than 40 years ago. Not being able to get a public school job at first, Beverly went to teach English-language subjects at a Jewish day school. She lived downtown and commuted to the suburbs. One day the principal asked her,
“When are you moving to be among your own kind?”
“Where do the academics live?” Beverly replied.
The principal imagined Beverly to be part of the “Jewish community of Toronto,” a set of all the Jews living in the city, not realizing that Beverly has multiple social identities and networks (Wellman [1971, 1979, 2001] discusses multiple social identi- ties and networks). The principal’s usage was similar to the imagined community that politicians use when talking about “the Italian community,” “the gay community,” and so on. In Toronto, in efforts to make their imaginations concrete, they often post street signs telling people that they are in “Little Italy” or “Chinatown” even though few Italian and Chinese Canadians live there—they are relics of past concentrations. But people seem to need to imagine that they—or others—belong to a community: a set of people who share sociability, support, and a sense of identity. Indeed, even when people are in loosely bounded networks, they will often identify themselves as part of a more defined group or community (Freeman, Freeman, & Michaelson, 1989).
For all of this defense of community, though, I think that Dan’s critiques (and my own) still ring true: There are times when the word is used to evoke more than what is warranted. If weak social ties don’t (necessarily) disqualify digital social interactions as a community, we ought to be more skeptical about the ways that digital platforms describe themselves as fostering or providing community. As José van Dijck writes in The Culture of Connectivity,
Besides the term “social,” concepts like “participation” and “collaboration” get imputed a peculiar new meaning in the context of social media. Users of content are supposedly “collaborators” who “co-develop” creative products and thus enrich communities. Notions of community and group- think abound in the rhetoric of platforms, and their echoes resounded particularly during the years 2004 to 2007. Indeed, many platforms, such as YouTube and Flickr, started out as community initiatives; they were carried by a group of video buffs and photo fans, respectively, eager to share their creative products online. After their takeover by Google and, in the latter case, Yahoo, the sites’ corporate owners kept nurturing the image of collectivity and user-centered operation long after their strategies had trans- mogrified to the commercial realm. Photographic and video content became instrumental to the automated collection of data about meaningful social relationships, propelled by such questions as, Who shares which images with whom? What images or videos are popular among which groups? Who are the leading tastemakers in these communities?
In short, platforms are happy to co-opt community and transform it into something different—something that serves their purposes more than our own. This, then, is where I dig up the lede I’ve been burying: All this discussion of “community” is really just a set up for my latest complaint about ClassDojo as I continue to encounter it through my kid’s school.
I got an email late last night from Class Dojo proclaiming:
Congratulations — you’re now a part of your child’s school community! See all of your child’s amazing classroom moments, and stay in the loop on any important announcements from school.
Besides a requisite pitch for ClassDojo Plus later in the email (which is annoying me even more than when I began writing about it), the thing that bothered me the most about this email is the way that ClassDojo has positioned itself as the arbiter of community in my kid’s school. Apparently, it’s only now that I’ve joined ClassDojo that I’m a part of that community! I get that this is regular platform speak—and not limited to ClassDojo—but it stands out to me in particular here. For my frustrations with how my kid’s school is handling certain tech/data issues, I do believe that there is a real (and largely successful) effort to create community in individual classes and the school as a whole. Why should ClassDojo get to take credit for and claim to intermediate that?
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