The Shape of Online Communities: History and Promise

Online communities used to be analogous to cities and towns. Our first notion of virtual community was based on real-world, geographically-based interests. Technology then supported this notion by creating tools that mimicked cities and villages. This idea was wildly popular, but ultimately failed because we hadn’t yet figured out how unimportant geography was when it comes to online community:

Yahoo bought GeoCities — a collection of homepages organized by neighborhood. AOL and Tribune launched Digital City. Corporations from Citigroup to SAP moved into virtual terrain.

These city metaphors all failed. Why? Because they proved utterly unnecessary. The older generation, who might have used them as a crutch, found them unwieldy. And digital natives moved directly into new neighborhoods that they built from scratch — forums, message boards, blogs, and ultimately social networks. via Mashable

Here’s another evolutionary tale. When Twitter first launched, people used it to tell real friends where they were and what they were doing. It was mostly about their physical orientation to the world. Nowadays, while we do continue to post about these things, we’re spending much more time talking about intellectual matters. And we’ve expanded beyond our real world friends to ones with the same interests or values, whether they be in Utah or Uganda. Physical proximity has been displaced by cultural-value proximity.

So Where is Community headed?

Because technology now provides a platform to mass-broadcast our ideas, opinions, and preferences, social networks have become a virtual soapbox for many of us. We are attempting to globalize our own cultural identities and broadcast our own opinions for social gain. We now have all the tools to create our own mass media. However, at the same time, and with new technologies like Path, GroupMe, and Blockboard, we are beginning to straddle the other side of the fence, where online communities are becoming smaller, more private, and potentially hyper-local.

It’s clear to me that technology is changing the ways in which we perceive and think of community. Whereas community used to be people with common geographical or ethnic characteristics, through and with technology we are now becoming more complexly fractured as a culture. Not only are their communities like their used to be, organized by socio-economic status, geography, or the color of skin, but now millions of people have grouped themselves into diverse and numerous subcultures, splintering themselves into an organized chaos that might look something like the image at the top of this post: No beginning, no ending, just endless nodes and connections interweaving themselves into eternity.  The old version of community and the way it communicated was linear and top-down. (for more on this notion read this article, or this one). The new one is top-down, bottom-up, and sideways-around.

That we are making these connections mostly through the written word is not inconsequential. Our cultural mode of communication has steered away from spoken narratives passed down from generation to generation, and transitioned almost completely to written ones. As long as one can read and write, we as community members can participate in shaping our cultural narratives. So this knowledge swirling around us has become more equitable and more representative of our true culture. This is good. Because historically, the ones creating the cultural narratives have been the ones in power: those who control the press, the church, the government. With new web-based technologies, virtually every one now has a voice.

But is the written narrative the ultimate mode of expression? No, but perhaps the penultimate. Multimedia messages are becoming easier and easier to accomplish. YouTube, Vlogs, video conferencing are all becoming more salient to our communication processes as technologies continue to evolve. In fact, YouTube, the largest community of video bloggers on the planet, is now the second most visited search engine in the world, next to Google.

The Promise of Online Communities

Where we are headed with the ways of community and the modes we transfer our messages is something I’m not sure of. While Facebook  now has  over 845,000,000 members and is well-positioned to be the next new-wave mass-media behemoth, there continues to be desire for hyper-local, private, and niche communities. These two types of communities will very likely co-exist for some time.

Either way, this technology-driven notion of community is better for a couple reasons. One, as long as we can read and write, we all have an equal voice and can help shape our cultural narrative. Hundreds of years from now, historians will have a much more vivid and truthful picture of how our society has evolved. Two, online communities dramatically increase our ability to gain social capital. They allow us to more efficiently and effectively maintain our secondary and tertiary relationships: people you graduated from high-school with, old bosses, or family members on the other side of the continent. (Resources that support this notion of online communities enhancing social capital can be found here, and here.)

So with this blog post I’m painting a bit of me onto our collective canvas. In some ways I’m impelled to post this article. I have a certain responsibility to share ideas with the community, to be a good virtual citizen. For better or for worse, and in big and small ways, our individual ideas shape our cultural story.


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