I have been giving some thought to the following question over the last few days:
As the Internet becomes a more social media do the communities that are being created simply reflect normal face-to-face communities or are we seeing something different?
The first thing that got me thinking was the reaction to the Archbishop of Canterbury’s statements in a speech at Lambeth Palace. The Observer had an interesting commentary on it, and received some interesting comment.
The second thing that got me thinking was the Blog ranking game that technorati and others get into. Feeding on from that I wondered why these sites were popular, but why does it matter that they are popular?
And then third, I was reading Robert X. Cringley’s article about ‘predicting the future’ where he goes on to talk about the likes of Bill Gates trying to influence the market.
There are some really good articles around on the sociology of virtual communities. Even today Steve publishes an article on Microsoft Published Research. Although we talk regularly we hadn’t talked about this, so it’s interesting that we are both thinking the same way (is it just the market influencing us). I considered not even posting this because there is obviously a load of good material in there that I wasn’t even aware of until just now.
Having done a bit of searching around I came across an article by Nancy White who starts “Search the web and you will find dozens and dozens of discussions on the definition and existence of online communities” too right Nancy. She ten goes on to bring together a whole load of definitions of community.
So community is a big deal on the internet.
But here is my problem, each of the definitions that people are working towards, or seem to be working towards, regard the internet as a group of individuals with little or not hierarchy; in a sense completely egalitarian. But my experience is that it isn’t like that at all. As in real life, we are all equal, it’s just that some people are more equal than others.
Install any blog aggregator and you will get a list of popular blogs already completed for you. You are immediately drawn to these entities. It’s a bit like having the most popular choices in the supermarket at eye level so you notice it.
We (yes me included) read the blog of people like Robert Scoble because of the access he has in Microsoft. We don’t read it just because he’s a ‘good bloke’. A huge part of why we read is because he is the mouth piece of one of the most powerful organisations on the planet, and a very rich man. Jonathan Schwartz, the same, if he wasn’t some important guy in Sun would we care what he says. This is exactly the same as in the real world, where we listen to the words of people like Bill Gates because they have a position and the extent of that position is far broader than the position they have got to on merit alone.
Why does Technorati’s Top 100 Blogs list, even matter? And why do I care that I’m 343,593? This is exactly the same as in the real world where we are constantly checking league tables for one thing or another.
I think that Virtual Communities do indeed reflect Real Communities and where Virtual communities are influenced by the Real Community in which they operate.
There are, of course, individuals and communities which do operate according to merit, but even they are influenced by the communities around them and in turn by real communities. And likewise they will try to use their position in the virtual community to influence the real community. David Winer has a huge influence on the virtual community which he has gained through his own merits; so why did that give him any credibility to influence people’s voting decisions in the Presidential election.
For that matter, why should anyone listen to me in any community, against any other community I am a member of.
I suppose what I am saying is that the split between Virtual Communities and Real Communities is a completely false one. We all exist within a number of different communities. Each of these communities utilises different media to build the relationship which is required to make that community work. Sometimes the media will impact on who are the influencers within that community. Sometimes the media will impact on the reach of a community. But the media doesn’t create a different community model
Within my immediate family community we spend time together and communicate by talking, mainly over a meal. It’s a close community which would be much poorer if all we did was communicate via email.
My extended family all live away so we communicate and build relationship utilising the phone (mainly) and the occasional visit. We speak regularly because it’s an important community.
My church family meets together every Sunday, but the mail place where we build community is in our small groups. For us we need to understand community in a Christian context.
My flickr community is made up of people who I know from my work community, my friend community and people who have seen my stuff and like it. And because flickr understands the importance of social interaction they give me the ability to make and receive comments as well as to build contacts. While there is no immediately apparent pecking-order there is certainly a lot of pride in having a picture noticed by others.
I contribute to www.geograph.co.uk and become part of another community. Geograph is another place where the community has a hierarchy; this time it’s based on how many pictures you contribute.
The blog gets a few comments (very few) but actually get a reasonable number of comments via other media. I try to increase the coverage by making comments on other people’s blog, I try and be noticed. I try to make my mark within a large community. I try and link my flickr community with my blog community by using the pictures from flickr in my blog and by linking to my blog in flickr.
I add myself to feedmap.net, someone notices and I become part of another community.
The media is different, the communication is at different levels, but they are all community. As such they are all interlinked, via me. They all have hierarchies, and my place in each of them is different (normally near the bottom). None of these communities is completely isolated from the influence of other communities and none of these communities is a true meritocracy.
Sounds just like real life and real community, really.