[Air-l] abstraction and community

Nancy Baym nbaym at ku.edu
Thu Dec 20 08:57:34 PST 2001

Jonathon Sterne asks:

>Why should we be so concerned with characterizing online activity in 
>terms of community?  This has boggled my mind for some time.

Though probably not an answer that will satisfy you, here's mine:

 From the get-go "community" has been a term that many 'ordinary' 
users have used to describe at least a subset of their online 
experience (including me before i ever thought of using the term in 
scholarship). That in and of itself makes it worthy of investigation. 
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.

 From an academic perspective, far more than the alternative concepts 
Jonathan poses (particularly friendship, association, kindness, good 
will, consideration, mutuality), "community" and the history of 
scholarship examining this concept, allows us to explore underlying 
logics that make all of these concepts *fit together into a system* 
that enables people to know how to act and to perpetuate those 
systems. (See practice theorists like Bourdieu, Lave & Wenger...). I 
talk about all of those notions in my work, and the term community 
works quite nicely as an overarching concept to examine how these 
values, relationships, and ways of treating people fit together. And 
more importantly, community is an overarching concept not because 
it's a nice scholarly trope, but because when  real people are in 
online contexts their understandings of others' actions and decisions 
about how to act themselves are shaped in part through this concept. 
It's an abstraction with force.

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.

David Silver asks whether the dotcom rise and fall has tweaked 
perspectives of people who've been researching online community for 
some time. Personally, I have a big 'ha ha I coulda told you that' 
reaction (along with a 'wish i'd divested some stocks two years ago' 
reaction :) ), because the main thing that people really really like 
about the internet is the intangible and literally priceless ability 
to connect with other people, and most dotcom companies could not 
have cared less about interpersonal elements of the internet. 
remember WAY back when in the early 1990s when Prodigy had to revamp 
its whole price structure because it had never occurred to them that 
people would use their service for INTERACTION rather than buying! 
Which gets us right back to the company vs. community subject line ...

Thanks everyone for such a stimulating discussion! We should have 
more of these!



Nancy Baym
nbaym at ku.edu
Communication Studies, University of Kansas
102 Bailey, 1440 Jayhawk Blvd., Lawrence, KS 66045, USA
Association of Internet Researchers: http://aoir.org

More information about the Air-L mailing list