[Air-l] abstraction and community

Jonathan Sterne jsterne+ at pitt.edu
Wed Dec 19 10:16:42 PST 2001

Hi Folks,

I've only read enough Luhmann to have the opinion that he's interesting, 
and I'm not an online ethnographer, so let me just offer a general comment 
linking the two discussions:

It seems to me that "community" is exactly the same kind of abstraction as 
"society" -- a kind of abstraction Christian is querying.  Now, I'm all for 
abstractions in scholarship, and I think abstractions are real and exert 
real effects in human activity.  So I'm not bothered by talking about 
society or community as a thing (perhaps Christian and I will argue about 
this, but that's for another time).  But we're also circling around the old 
"is"/"ought" distinction (almost wrote is/ouch, which would be a 
*different* distinction) that has plagued philsophy and social theory for a 
long time.

Why should we be so concerned with characterizing online activity in terms 
of community?  This has boggled my mind for some time.  I know there's a 
long intellectual history, starting with the Chicago School and the 
pragmatists, of looking for community or indexing its loss.  You see the 
same thing with social theorists writing about mass society and the suburbs 
in the 1950s.  You see it with television scholars in the 1970s and 1980s 
(and hell, how about all those subculture studies?)  And again, you see it 
with academics writing about the internet today.  Of course, people online 
also talk about their activities in terms of "community" so there may be an 
empirical basis for choosing that term, but I also think there's an 
underside to the community discourse that's rarely commented upon -- and 
I'd be interested to hear impressions from people outside the US, where the 
class politics may be different.  In my opinion, academics and other 
members of the professional-managerial class in the US have an afflication 
whereby they find their own lives lacking in some abstract quality named 
community.  They then go out and find it everywhere *else* in the 
society.  There are two problems with this behavior:

1.      Though I'm sure it has its relatively unique modes of sociability, 
I don't think PMC life carries any more or less of that elusive "community" 
quality than other forms of life in the US.

2.      Community isn't automatically a good thing, and I find its 
normative value highly questionable, even if we're talking "good" 
communities, whatever those might be.

Now, this isn't meant as an individualist rant (though I suppose insofar as 
I believe people ought to be able to live lives not determined by their 
circumstances of birth, that might be somewhat individualistic), but rather 
a query as to why on Earth we'd want to elevate "community" as our 
preferred model of social association?  Why not, for instance, friendship 
(or friendship networks), association, kindness, organization, some 
metaphor of urbanity, good will, consideration, mutuality, etc.?  None of 
those terms are without their problems, but none of them have been written 
about with the same veracity as "community."  In short, I don't pose a 
simple solution, so don't hold me to one, but I've yet to read an argument 
for why scholars ought to use the term community to describe online 
interaction -- why we should want "community" as our index of online 
sociability.  I've just seen lots of arguments about how online 
interactions either fit, don't fit, or transform some conception of 
community (all of which presume we ought to be out there looking for 
community) -- all of which assume a prior "should" that I haven't 
seen.  What am I missing?

Besides, it's a lot harder to characterize ebay -- or the people who run it 
-- as your friends than it is to characterize them as a community.

--Jonathan, enjoying break

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