[Air-l] re: abstraction and community redux

Jonathan Sterne jsterne+ at pitt.edu
Sun Dec 23 09:57:24 PST 2001

First, a big thank you to Nancy for a great response, and now a response to 
her response --

At 12:01 PM 12/21/01 -0500, you wrote:
>Message: 1
>Date: Thu, 20 Dec 2001 10:57:34 -0600
>To: air-l at aoir.org
>From: Nancy Baym <nbaym at ku.edu>
>Subject: Re: [Air-l] abstraction and community
>Reply-To: air-l at aoir.org
>It's not a term imposed by academicians, it's one we co-opted from
>popular discourse. It's certainly worth asking critically why online
>activity is so often characterized in terms of community, but the
>question needs to be broadened beyond scholars. [as a total aside,
>i'm reminded of the creationist student in my nonverbal class who
>argued that the reason primates have some facial expressions similar
>to humans is that they learned them from hanging out with Darwin --
>the reason people describe their online groups as communities is that
>they learned to use the term from scholarship about them?] Invoking
>the term "community" with all of its attendant baggage and nuance is
>a way that many internet users have made and continue to make sense
>of this technology.

Agreed that users didn't get the term from academics.  But with the 
internet, ethnographers aren't so far -- in terms of social distance -- 
from their subjects.  In other words, I'm suggesting that academics have 
some of the same forces that dispose them to use "community" that we find 
among internet users.  I want to interrogate that disposition.

>This side-steps the questions of whether community is good or bad and
>what cultural forces lead late 20th/early 21st century westerners to
>fret so much about community, questions which deserve critical
>inquiry. But until I hear lots of users talking about their online
>experience in terms of 'good will' or 'mutuality', I'll argue that
>'community' is a more meaningful concept with which to start.

This paragraph captures why I'm hung up on the issue.  In the first 
sentence, you acknowledge you've sidestepped the question that I'm 
behind.  But the next sentence reads like you're arguing that we need to 
take our analytical language from our sources.  This combines what I tend 
to think of as two slightly different issues in research.  There's the 
matter of understanding what terms your sources (ethnographic, historical, 
I'm not sure it matters so long at its people) use to describe their own 
participation in an event or experience -- obviously, this is essential for 
any kind of social analysis.  It's altogether another thing when, at the 
moment of analytic abstraction or object construction, the researcher 
chooses to use the term in a homologous manner to his or her subjects to 
describe what they're doing.  Our guy Bourdieu has a lot to say about this 
in his schtick on "objectifying objectification" in _the Logic of Practice_ 
and elsewhere.  What is *our* investment in community, and how might that 
affect our understanding of the ways in which people online use the 
term?  That's part of what I'm trying to get at.

The whole company/listserv/community thing strikes me as a similar 
thing.  I can imagine good arguments for and against the claim that this 
listserv fits some definition of community.  But my prior question is why 
are we worried about that question in particular?  What do we get when we 
find out if something fits the definition of community?  Nancy says we get 
to systematize, and this is true, but is community our only or best road to 
systematic thinking?

Anyway, I've made my point (at great length), so I'll quit before I'm dug 
in too deep.

Hope you all get a break you can enjoy!


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