the community paradox

(This is another excerpt from my dissertation. Click on the link to read the first, “the end of audience segregation,”

Traditionally speaking, communities were framed by geography. Individuals who lived in near enough of a proximately to one another could come together based on common interests, beliefs, or values. As technologies advanced communities expanded. Originally this was done via physical advances in transportation and subsequently also through advances in communication. Technological advances in communication have allowed us to “eliminate time and space factors in human association” (McLuhan, 2003, p. 55) thus calling into question the need for geographical proximity as a requirement for individuals to come together and form a community. Now with the social web it is common for communities to exist comfortably crossing between online and offline interactions with individuals located anywhere in the world. And just as it does for identity, the social web impacts the norms, behaviors, and practices of communities.

Communities are built around and share a common culture where we are able to “communicate, perpetuate, and develop knowledge about and attitudes toward life” (Geertz, 1973, p. 89). In practice communities are sub-groupings within a larger culture that have a culture all their own. While we do not participate in as many different communities as our different selves we do tend to participate in communities where a particular facet of our self is important to us.

The social web has made it possible for communities to form around both online and offline relationships in effect enabling individuals to “personalize their own communities” thus fundamentally transforming the nature of community (Wellman, et al., 2002). Rather than geography or setting communities it may now be best to define communities by their meaning to the individual. This means the boundaries that distinguish a community from the rest of the world may exist “symbolically” in the minds of its members (Cohen as cited in Bruce & Bishop, 2008, p. 709).

Boundaries between communities are more permeable because of the social web and its placement of the individual at the center of their networks. These networks overlap and are visible to everyone we are connected to making it possible for members of one community to connect with members of other communities. (boyd & Ellison, 2008)

Thus we have a second paradox. This one concerning how communities function in the era of the social web. If our relationships to and within these communities are visible to everyone in our network what impact does this have on how we behave and interact? What if the values and norms of one community conflict with the values and norms of another? How do we navigate this in an open-networked world? How do we learn and grow if it is done in the larger public sphere?

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