David Gratton (found via Thomas) argues that all communities are communities of interest. He argues – I think correctly – that what appear to be, for example, professional, demographic or geographic ‘communities’ are created and maintained through shared interests and shared activity around those interests. Where those interests and that activity are lacking, what’s left isn’t a community but a statistical abstraction masquerading as reality. What’s particularly interesting about this is that it destroys the notion of a ‘virtual community’ as something new and interesting; insofar as it’s a community, a ‘virtual community’ is a community of interest, like all the others. Technology may facilitate the creation of communities which wouldn’t have been created before, but the community itself is nothing new.
Here are a few further thoughts (initially written as a comment on David’s site).
You could take it a bit further by saying that a community (of whatever flavour) is a process rather than an object or an achieved state – community is something that people produce and reproduce by doing stuff together (including talking). Once you’ve said that community only exists as the continuing aggregate of its members’ interactions, you can start asking questions about those interactions – how frequent are they? how are they structured: does everyone talk to a single central ‘hub’, does everyone talk to everyone, are there ‘daisy-chains’? do they produce or redistribute anything identifiable – the physical necessities of life, or money, or information, or social status – or is it all about sociality and shooting the breeze? The answers to questions like those would say a lot about the shape of the community, which in turn would enable us to ask some interesting questions about the impact of ‘virtuality’, and the conditions under which ‘virtual communities’ are more or less viable than their face-to-face counterparts.
An interesting aspect of this model of community is the significance of talk: conversation is the bedrock, the basis on which everything else happens. (I’m reluctant to call it a medium: partly because of the concerns Dave highlighted back here; partly, relatedly, because that suggests that conversation is always a carrier for a signal, that there is always something else going on. This, I think, is profoundly misleading. We’re social beings: a large part of what we do, how we live, is social interaction, more or less as an end in itself.) What the technologies we associate with ‘virtual community’ do is, essentially, to make it easier to spend more of the time talking to more people, albeit in some oddly formalised ways. Some of the interesting questions about ‘virtuality’ are questions about this strange pairing of talk overload and talk formalisation.
What does this have to do with clouds? One idea I’ve been playing with is that the natural state of knowledge is to be ‘cloudy’, because it’s produced within continuing interactions within groups: knowledge is an emergent property of conversation, you could say. What the argument about ‘community’ suggests is that every community has its own knowledge-cloud – that the production and maintenance of a knowledge-cloud is one way that a community defines itself. The question then is whether existing technologies enable communities to do anything useful with their ‘clouds’, or if the services are still too attenuated – or too overloaded.
(I’ll get back to the Long Tail soon, hopefully. It doesn’t exist, you know.)