[Air-l] Re: Company vs. Community

danah boyd danah at media.mit.edu
Fri Dec 21 04:10:09 PST 2001

I'm fascinated by this conversation, partially because a professor of mine
& i can't agree on the definition of 'community' for the life of us; since
then, i've been grappling with an appropriate way to talk about the term
since i throw it around so easily.

As far as i can tell, 'community' surfaced (pre-14th century) to define a
geographically bound set of people who depended on one another for
physical & social needs; as travel was difficult, this meant intense
inter-dependence.  My guess is that, as mobility became an option, the
term became colloquially amorphous.  Individuals started making external
connections, allowed 'others' to be brought into an individual's social
network.  People started having clusters of people that they valued for
different purposes, no longer requiring the physical collective for all
needs.  Colloquially, i would argue that, instead of 'community' sticking
with the geographical boundary, it became associated with one's social
clusters emphasizing the physical/emotional dependence aspect of the
original definition.

I think that's where we get into trouble.  As researchers, we want to give
boundaries to a 'community' (regardless of how it's defined).  I certainly
think that's the problem when we talk about the end of community (i.e.
Putman);  i think that the boundaries evolve and we don't know how to
measure that.  Frankly, i'm not sure that we can define or bound
'community.' I think that when we try to measure or articulate it, we end
up measuring attributes and articulating the output.  I also think it's
problematic if we define 'community' drastically different from the
contemporary colloquial usage.

In addition to researchers, i believe that individuals are incapable of
creating 'community' boundaries.  For example, an individual can tell you
who is in hir social network, and s/he may place hirself within a
"goa/raver community" but s/he can't tell you everyone who is in that
community. I would argue that goa/ravers are a 'community' because not
only do members share values, committment and cohesion, but they provide
support, even to community members whom they've never met.  [Personally, i
find support purely based on a perceived shared community fascinating.]
[This also raises an important question - who defines community membership
when it stops being geographical?]

I'd suggest that the collective defines but does not regulate the
'community' boundaries, invoking the term to mean a group of people with
shared values, intimate and dense social connections.  [Personally, i like
Nisbet's definition: "all forms of relationship which are characterized by
a high degree of personal intimacy, emotional depth, moral commitment,
social cohesion, and continuity in time."  I think it captures 20th
century ideas of 'community.']

When we go digital, things are once again bound to change.  For example,
how does time & space affect one's sense of 'community'?  I also think
that people today don't feel as though they belong to just one community,
making it easier for folks to feel as though they are part of the "Mac"
community as well as the "eBay" community - each reflects a facet of the

I also think that companies play a fascinating role in defining community,
not only by creating boundaries for particular collectives to converge,
but also by seeing themselves as a community.  One of the things that
amazed me about the dotcom boom was startups inviting prospectives to be
part of their corporate community, a use of the term that i feel almost
invoked the 14th century version: live, eat, breathe, support -
exclusively together.

Also, as Bram mentionned, by trying to bound community, companies are also
trying to regulate identity (the Passport phenomenon).  Through things
like Passport, they can define _who_ belongs to what communities.  I have
a rant on how this fails to recognize that 1) people belong to multiple
communities; 2) people share different facets with different communities;
3) aggregation fails the individual and the community.. but i'll save that
one for later.

::sigh:: procrastination over.  oops.. this is a really long response to a
slew of posts (but i'd love feedback 'cause this truly gets into my


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