Social media and community building

This blog is a response to the questions Seriously Sassy podcast host, Earvin Cabalquinto sent me in preparation for discussion about the role of social media channels in mediating communities. Now one of my research stomping grounds is community theory and practice, but I have never had to think about how to translate these insights for students who are making social media. I found out that I had something to say.

The questions kicked off with a bit of a historical rear view, asking what the definition of a community was before the advent of social media channels. I pondered this, as one does, and then just went totally old-school based upon my disciplinary roots in the Chicago school of urban studies.

Originally a community was defined by physical proximity and in person relationships. Think a neighbourhood or local sports organisation. Communities offered a sense of shared identity, a buffer or safety net for its members (social support) and a unique culture which informed who were thought insiders and outsiders.

The boundaries of a community at its very fundamental level are expressed through its coordinates in time and place, as much as by its geographic or social materiality. They also were the first formations of complex sociality, beyond direct kinship ties for example. Anthropologist, Jolynna Sinanan, describes this as ‘the village’.

To help us translate from place-based communities to online communities, Barry Wellman coined the idea that computer networks were social networks, early on. 

Online communities were then first defined by sociability articulated through co-presence on a platform. The platform became the site of co-location and co-presence could be synchronous or asynchronous. The big difference here was that people didn’t need to be in the same geographic location and have known each other through in person contexts prior to being a part of an online community. Community forums were, and still are, a common way to think about communities online.  

Digital communities are a bit more location-gregarious when it comes to online interaction and exchange. Instead of defining them by a specific platform, I draw on work that refers to them as foci of activity groups. Foci of activity groups are where the interlocking relationships and overlapping values of a community begin from a mutual interest in a topic or activity. This interest is what draws people initially into a community, however the complexity of these relationships builds into a critical mass and density of interconnections that holds a sense of continuity over time. This is what makes communities different to social movements online.

When we think of online communities, we think of sticky networks over time that support the development of a group identity, roles and norms (Cohesion & Belonging). In these instances, the people participating may change but the collective persists.

The next question lined up was about whether the advent of social media channels shaped the formation and maintenance of a community. I would suggest that it has shaped the re-formation and maintenance of online communities, given that communities can occur within one platform such as Tumblr or across multiple platforms. Again, I begin with a basic definition to outline how the configuration of social media reforms the basic shape of an online community.

Social media is a relational technology defined by user generated profiles affiliated with social networks of friends and followers. Communities emerge through practices of peer-support and connection that are organised through hashtags or other social media organising principles and collectivising practices such as shared memes and the development of a common language or digital argot. Social media also foregrounds visual cultures and animated content.

Often communities expressed through social media are trans-modal in that they engage with each other across multiple modes of interaction (trans media).

They are also generally self-organising however are usually subject to and shaped by content moderation by platforms. In response to these curating and surveillance practices, social media communities can patch together permissive spaces where their common interests and connection can occur. They are always shifting and responding to environmental constraints and emerging social media spaces.

Now that the basic premise of the role of social media in mediating communities has been covered off (ha ha), we turn to the classic question of why a soul would engage in a community online in the first place. Generally, it starts from a place of seeking.

The benefits of being a part of an online community include acceptance, a sense of belonging and being able to engage with people that you share a common interest with. They get you and you get them. 

It’s also a space for creating your own identity narrative in ways that respond to the culture of the community. If the community is online only, you can safely experiment with new ideas and expressions of yourself in a supportive environment. 

If the community spans place based and online interactions, you can keep in touch and continue the conversation even when you can’t be together. This is about being able to maintain relationships and connection to the community experience.

Communities hold forms of social capital and tend to support social mobility that means you may have greater access to targeted and community vetted information, experience social support and get exposure to people and places you may not have access to within your own local and geographical context. The increase of both strong and weak social ties may mean more opportunities become available for you. This premise was first introduced by Mark Granovetter through the strength of weak ties hypothesis. You may have heard of the six degrees of separation principle? Or the Kevin Bacon index? Same idea. 

Now the inter-connectivity of digital communities is not always an awesome feature and can lead to challenges. Just because an idea, sentiment or act can flow along social networks does not mean it’s a good one.

The challenges occur when a community culture is not inclusive, where practices including hazing of newbies turn toxic. The increasing polarisation of views that we find online mean that collaboration, compromise and understanding the other’s point of view become a rare experience. Filter bubbles are argued to reinforce narrow perspectives into a situation or event or other people’s lives. Consequently, sometimes people think that just because they say it online, it doesn’t matter in “the real world”. Hate speech and ranty combatative behaviour is rife and at times unchecked. It can have devastating consequences.

Engaging within a community takes time and it can swallow up a lot of your available time. FOMO is a killer.

Everything you do in an online community may be a product of the synergy of your creativity with the community culture and people, but the platforms you do this through claim ownership of your content. 

Privacy challenges, platform surveillance, and social surveillance and regulation occurs, while hacks and scams abound, making it difficult to know who or what to trust or what will be done with your personal data.

So what next? If this is it, is this all we’re ever going to have? Earvin asks what the future of communities online is, especially in an era wherein online platforms harvest personal data. Well, the data ownership and personal data awareness rant is strong in me, particularly as I attempt to help my students critically think about what they are doing online. However, I got a bit vague here. No idea why.

It’s difficult to say, I go, but there is a data sovereignty movement which raises awareness and advocates for personal data ownership. In the data justice area, the idea that communities can create platforms that mean they own their own data and can decide collectively what to do with it is an interesting idea.

Government and corporate surveillance is rife on the clear web. I study communities who reject this and move to the anonymous spaces of Dark Web. While the site admin still gets access to all the digital traces of users in their platform and social surveillance occurs, people’s identities and practices are not being on-sold to advertisers and third-party data brokers.

So finally, Earvin goes out on a flourish with the questions and asks whether we can do this thing differently. He asks in what ways we can re-imagine and produce an equitable and progressive online community. Now that one had me momentarily stumped… until I just went back to basics and thought about all that I’ve seen and read. For me, it comes down to the following.

A community can liberate or suffocate a person, and usually does a bit of both. Foundational principles of tolerance and diversity need to be at play in both the way people engage with each other and what the platforms of interaction afford. We must re-imagine online communities from the code up. That way we can embed shared and overlapping values into the digital architectures and social practices. We must ask of the features a platform makes possible, how does this afford, for whom and under what circumstances (Thank you Jenny Davis). We must ask of ourselves, what do we want our communities to be, for whom and under what circumstances. I argue that social inclusion creates richer, more enduring and innovative communities that will lead us out of a self-destructive future.