What Is An Online Community?
TLDR: They Don't Exist
Travelling out of town this week, so this will the only installment this week. Until mid-July, my writing pace will probably stay this way. But stay til the end for some subscriber-only goodies coming up.—The Management
For a number of years now, I’ve been puzzling over the question of “community”, and specifically, what makes a community a community. It was during the pandemic, when many of the functions of churches began to be shoved online in a fairly seamless way that something of an answer began to appear in the form of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s early work: communities are bodies of persons bound together by willing-toward-others. The consequences for this, both for how most of our churches are explicitly not communities, and what this means going forward—check out the book.
One of the throwaway portions of the book deals with the question of digitally-mediated communities, and it’s a question that has stayed with me: are online communities communities? Until further notice, I’m staying with no, for a few reasons:
What binds Internet commonplaces together is not the others present, but the common commerce. I have an essay coming out soon in the print edition of Mere Orthodoxy (which I highly recommend you subscribe to), arguing that, even in non-digital form, an increasing number of our relationships are mediated by commercial concerns. I’ll lay out there some of the issues with these, but when it comes to the Internet, there’s barely a space that isn’t tied into commercial concerns. One can still go to a public park, join a rec league, get together with people for kickball in the park: these are all commercial-adjacent, in that someone’s financing the park (public taxes), but the relationships which take place persist regardless of whether or not someone playing in the park is a taxpayer. They’re public goods, financed by public money, which means high tax and low tax people both get to use them.
But this non-commercialized gathering isn’t the case on the Internet: everything passes through some kind of commericalized medium, including Substack.1 This is a roundabout way of saying that what draws Internet communities together is that we are shared consumers, even if that consumption is a consumption of ideas. It can be the gateway to a community, but it’s not a community, in that the gathering isn’t about the others present, but about the idea.
2. What binds Internet spaces together, thus, is not a “being-for” others, but a “being alongside” others. In the same way that members of a concert are bound together by a common spectacle, so Internet gatherings are bound together by common interactions with a common object. There’s a way in which, following Augustine, we can describe these as “common objects of love”, that these ideas, events, experiences, etc. which bind strangers together are the means by which we learn to care about fellow-spectacle-engagers, and there’s something very true here! But again, the gateway to caring about others is not the thing itself: I can have deep affection for other people who really got into Frightened Rabbit, long after the band has dissolved, or people who had kids around the same age as mine, long after our kids have grown. But the sheer fact that we both have kids or that we both loved Frightened Rabbit itself doesn’t do much. We were co-spectators, and that’s a long way from being friends.
What has begun to interest me about this is not only the way in which this phenomenon of confusing online spaces for physical ones matters in terms of how we conceive of the good of bodies, or the nature of church, but what it means in terms of being able to care for other persons.
If our way of knowing others is mediated by commercialized concerns, then what and how we are able to communicate with others follows the logic of whether or not something can be turned toward commercialization, not knowledge of others for its own sake. The story of how the “like” button on Facebook came up is a perfect case in point: the way in which this feature emerged changes the way that people—people who had pre-existing relationships with one another!—engage with one another. Likes equal affirmation and reinforcement of the relationships, whereas before, any number of subtle or informal cues might have done this. But now, the “like” button colonizes the way in which we care, subbing all of the subtleties of a relationships into one of six different emojis.
Likewise, our care for others becomes mediated by what we can see of others, which is itself mediated by algorithms which intend—above all—to keep you interacting with the site. Whether I am able to trace subtle changes in a dear friends words or postings over time requires me to seek them out, and to forget that what I am being presented in feeds is in no way indicative of what I might care about: it is what the medium needs me to care about.
The care generated in Internet life, in other words, becomes a simulation of care, mediated by the overall architecture of the medium. As Justin E.H. Smith has put it (see my review here), real life becomes gamified, precisely because it takes its cues from Internet protocols for interaction. Does this mean that real life is somehow sacrosanct, unable to be corrupted in its care?
Dear reader, have you been alive for ten minutes? The point here is not to glorify bodily life, but to help us to see what Internet community does and doesn’t do, or rather what it cannot do because of what it is meant to do. What I do here, I think, is not truly create a community as the first step, in that a community is first built out of people aggregated, and only then, people who see and care for one another. It’s a great relief to be able to say that: what I do here is to hopefully turn on some lights, scatter some seeds which take root in your actual lives.
But above all, I want us to see in this piece today that nothing less than the way we care for others is at stake in how we think of the Internet gatherings we find ourselves in. They may be a stepping stone to community, but be wary of anyone telling you that the Internet gatherings you frequent are themselves communities first and foremost: they’re probably selling you something.
Reading: Finished The Green Ember, which I’ve recommended earlier, and it was delightful. Highly recommended for middle-grade readers. Lots of fun: somewhere between Watership Down and The Hobbit. Started in on Norman McLean’s A River Runs Through It, and reader, it is pure delight.
Now, as a piece out today by Erik Hoel argues, a lot of writing is being centralized on this medium, but in a way which truly generates more reading and ideas. In other commercialized spaces, the idea is specifically that you shouldn’t go elsewhere: play in the Facebook ecosystem, and nowhere else! But Substack, though commercialized, lends itself to being more curious about more writing and reading.