Social Software

Who’s afraid of community participation?

The most interesting aspect about discussing “UK weblogging culture” is how uncomfortable people seem to be with the concept of being part of a “community” at all. Perhaps more fascinating still are the assumptions of what participating in a community involves…

There’s a fascinating post about the emergence of the UK Weblogging Community at at the moment. One of the tools that has strengthened relationships between UK-based webloggers (of which there are several – pubs being a significant one of them) has ceased to function – the GBlogs Update Tracker has shut down so that its creator can concern herself with (considerably) more important creative work. But does the removal of a tool signal the end of a community project? And was UK Weblogging’s emergence as an active and vibrant interconnected community ever a project?

The most interesting aspect about some of the debate that has ensued in the responses to Meg’s post is how uncomfortable people seem to be with the concept of being part of a “community” at all. Also fascinating is the assumptions of what participating in a community involves. The assumption seems to be that being a member of a community is something chosen, something that involves heavy participation, and something that requires each of its participants to be friends with one another and socialise.

These aspects of participation are almost held up as spectres – huge achievements that one would have to wish to overcome in order to participate. I can’t tell whether it’s because we’re English or because we’re bedroom-bound webloggers that being part of such a community seems to terrify so many people. It could be just the reification of individuality that has brought us to this place. But I think it’s unfounded. And I think it’s unfounded because this sense of community is artificial and overblown…

Let’s look at a couple of examples – when people talk about the local community of people in a village do they mean that (1) they all go drinking with each other all the time, or (2) that they are familiar with each other’s existence, may know each other (sometimes only by several degrees of separation) and share a vague vested interest in their local environment? I would contend it’s the latter. And when people talk about the ‘gay community’ or the ‘Jewish community’, they’re not referring to individual social groups of friends, but instead to a roughly shared set of goals, aspirations, interests or cultural principles.

In web circles, community has come to mean different things. Mostly we think of specific sites or services designed to create communities, like Habbo Hotel, Metafilter or Barbelith. If we push ourselves we might extend this to Usenet groups or even Instant Messager communities or e-mail. But fundamentally these are tools for helping communities to germinate, develop and extend themselves – not the communities themselves. Just as the communities themselves are not necessarily defined by drinking with one another, or by believing exactly the same things. Do all members of Metafilter go drinking with one another? Do they all participate to the same extent?

In fact what community represents, what community is is something much looser than a definition surrounding the activities that the members undertake with one another or the tools that they use to communicate with one another. These can be sidelines in fact – at best, they strengthen the bonds – maybe they make possible communities between people who would not be able to form them otherwise. But that’s all…

I do consider myself a member of a community of UK webloggers. And I feel that way because we all have something in common – a shared experience maybe, or a desire to learn from one another, an interest in other people who validate our ‘hobbies’ or maybe it’s just because what matters to one of us is more likely to matter to other ones of us. I don’t share my politics or my sexuality with many of these people. Nor my gender, many of my interests, my ethnicity or my obsession with Buffy.

I also consider myself part of an online community of webloggers in general – an ever-growing group of people who share certain things with me, including the fact that they might be at home writing a huge post at eleven o’clock at night, or that they feel a need or a desire to express themselves.

I also consider myself part of a community of gay webloggers, and gay people on the internet in general, and in fact gay people in general. And then there are the communities surrounding the issues of design that I’m interested in. And the communities of people who are interested in Buffy.

Some are communities which manifest themselves through geographical proximity, closely shared values, friendships, sex even. With other communities there will be none of that at all – simply a shared characteristic, or chromosome, or interest.

We’re all members of hundreds – thousands even – of different overlapping communities all the time. Some are tiny, some are huge. Some are more important to us than others, but all are important to an extent. And it’s nothing to be ashamed of!