October 26 Readings Watson, etc. Community

Nessim Watson kicks off our journey into the dynamics of Community. Watson was an adjunct professor in the Communication Department of Westfield State College. His research interests are in modern communication, cultural studies, and the democratizing potentials of CMC (computer-mediated-communication). Unfortunately after 2006 he falls off the earth (or at least the community of the Internet) and is no longer at Westfield. At some point he was an adjunct at Western New England University and presumably still resides in South Deerfield.

The title of the article is Why We Argue About Virtual Community: A Case Study Analysis of the Phish.net Fan Community. The basic argument is whether or not the term 'community' is applicable in virtual spaces and what analytical value there is in making that distinction. Generally definitions of community require shared proximity and a degree of shared interests or experiences. Watson asserts the role of communication in the definition of community, drawing upon Carey's ritual view of communication which challenges the nominal transmission model of communication. Communication and community are then integrated concepts; inextricably intertwined. "Communication creates, re-creates, and maintains community on Phish.net and other online discussion forums through the continued interaction of participating members." (p. 104) This definition of community is linked with Rheingold's notion of 'communion' as the standard for what constitutes community shifts towards the ambiguity of the phrase "with sufficient human feeling. Communication is integral for a community to function and online sites like Phish.net revolve around communication about a shared interest."

In Baym's use of Bakhtin, Watson finds community practices where internal and external distinctions are made through the creative expressions of the group. These kind of community practices can include inside jokes, abbreviations, and emoticons. This kind of communion on Phish.net is made possible in the absence of body markers (such as race, gender, etc.) because of cues or Bacon-Smith's "codes" that mark importance. "Displayed knowledge, repeated presence, and large lists of collected tapes provide the shared markers of community belonging, as do closeness to the band, extensive fan experience, and Internet experience." (p. 108) In the face of rapidly growing online populations these markers are constantly being negotiated. These online sites are potent examples for the evaluation of behavioral norms and the maintaining of intimacy or closeness within communities. Watson points out that the communities have a three-pronged approach to this maintenance by declaring internal values, firming up the borders of their community against outsiders (this includes a kind of initiation and teaching of newbies—a consciousness about the community and fellow posters norms and attitudes), and legislating behavior outside the community through the internal norms and values established within the online community.

Watson wants us to follow Benedict Anderson's ideas about imagined communities and not be overly concerned with the need for shared physical space when defining community but of shared relationships. Community is better understood in the "subjective experience and imagination of it's participants" (p. 122) There is a common consciousness and when online participants understand their existence under the 'community' metaphor there is the possibility to address "common situations of under-representation in the larger social democracy." (p. 125) For Phish.net this means winning a role in cultural production processes and having a say as a unified voice-piece of a community. Watson suggests that rethinking community "permits people to recognize the pathways to social change" (p. 130) and that online collectivities may be the new form of representative democracy. Changing the nation and changing culture may be possible through thinking about community differently, a possibility afforded through online community.

Lysloff. Musical Life in Softcity: An Internet Ethnography.

Lysloff explores the idea of communities existing online with his ethnography of the mod music creators and shares online. In this study he works to answer the question: "Can the Internet's illusion of presence support contemporaneous social collectivity [community]?" Online music scenes have no physical presence or place, but exist entirely online, without any face-to-face contact. Yet, Lysloff believes they are still communities because they exhibit other traits of community. For example, this is a group of people with similar interests who communicate and share their work in a collective fashion.

"How do the technical realities of online communications (that is, presence based on electronic access, texts, and mediation rather than physical proximity, context, and situation) affect individual and group identity?"

The experience of reality through "mediation, electronic access, and texts" I think has affected the lay person's thinking. It seems that there was a time when academics/scholarly minded people perceived things as dissectible composites, a spectrum of frequencies and amplitudes (to put it in more musical terms). The average Joe's perception was of the Gestalt, the entire object indivisible, as it interacted with Himself, one object indivisible. This is an extended version of the question Lysloff asks. I would answer that fewer and fewer people statistically perceive a Gestalt, that they interact (in any mode) with some kind of basis in adjusting individual elements of a composite.

So I would say that as people perceive similar components in one another, they form identity. Nationalism in the 19th century springs to mind, as a non-computerized example, the mass of ordinary Gestalt-perceiving people are suddenly given one attribute, at least, in common, which is this flag or that anthem. Especially in music composition, I would say people identify not only one another but also the music objects created by perceived shared traits. If I walk into a room and say Minimalism, music students would more than likely point out to me composers they see as Minimalist. Where disagreement occurs, they might discuss and synthesize a new trait common to both, or create a dichotomy for a-Minimalism and b-Minimalism.

This same process, I would say, occurs in Softcities, with the components of time and spatial relation either removed or convoluted into a functionally new element.

Carroli. Virtual Encounters: Community or Collaboration on the Internet?

Things must have looked pretty good for cultural researchers investigating the internet in the mid-90s. In the face of problems associated with self or ascribed identity (e.g. racism, oppression, exclusion), the internet seemed a cultural panacea. After all, you can be whomever you want on the internet (Turkle 2005). Carroli follows Donna Haraway (1992) in her optimism that this new collaborative technology will remedy some of our face-to-face (FtF) social communities because “collaboration undermines normative and unitary social formations in today’s virtual environments” (359).

These new faceless networks of collaboration can be very powerful politically. Carroli claims that they provide an “alternative political technology for individuals to exercise power or escape domination by the political rationality of the state and its institutions” (359). While Carroli is not too concrete in terms of examples here, she seems to mean that geography is not the sole determinant of communities. Networks of communication are indifferent to geography and, according to Carroli, allow participants to create a virtual location with which to share common ideas, beliefs, and interests.

Identity—that dangerous social construct that pins down each of us in the real world (white, graduate student, teacher, cyclist, etc.)—is more fluid on the internet. We don’t have to “fit” our identities with those others in our local geographic community. While FtF identity stems from the Latin term idem, meaning the same, the experience of internet identity “contradicts notions of community insofar as they rely on commonality and sameness” (360). This new technology allows us to break free from the chains of the FtF world.

And it would be even more beneficial if users still interacted this way in 2011. But as Kibby’s study of John Prine’s “virtual community” demonstrates, anonymous or undefined identities are typically censored from community involvement.

Kibby. Home on the Page: A Virtual Place of Music Community

On the surface, Kibby’s claim agrees with Carroli’s optimism: “In the absence of a communal physical space, the Oh Boy home page became the site of a ‘local’ Prine community” (91). Yet only three years after Carroli’s article, Kibby assumes that interaction on the internet has changed in a subtle yet important way. Rather than being the open space for expression of free thoughts and an even more free identity, Kibby assumes that “an online community is subject to the personal dynamics of any face-to-face community, as well as the communicative and social effects of possible anonymity” (91). This last point, the “social effects of anonymity,” is important to the development of the internet over the past fifteen years.

When you focus only on how fans take part in the process of creating a community, especially a virtual community, you lost sight of the base that makes that community possible. In the FtF world, both Carroli and Kibby are right to recognize that geographic location is often the foundation of a community. Yet in the online world, especially since 2000 and the widespread adoption of social networks, the foundations for internet communities rely on commercial companies which require participants to identify themselves with their real-world FtF identity, through a credit card, e-mail address, or even physical home address. This trade-off—free communication for you, free information and knowledge of your internet activities for the commercial companies—has become the new foundation for internet communities.

By focusing on the interaction of anonymous users, Kibby’s article is an historical snapshot of the shifting internet: from an open, free-form “location” of interaction to one that is not friendly to anonymous users who can’t be held accountable for their actions or comments. You can imagine that Kibby began with a hypothesis like Carroli’s, but soon revised her assumptions: “Connection does not necessarily lead to the development of community, and gathering in an online place is not automatically followed by the formation of social bonds” (95). As Kibby points out, some chat room members found ways to differentiate themselves from others. For example, those who identified as regulars set up divisions between themselves and newcomers (97).

While Carroli, Turkle, and Haraway praise the sorts of anonymity provided by computer-mediated communication, Kibby claims that these can break down social ties and even encourage mischievous and disparaging comments: “people are more insulting when using anonymous computer-mediated communication” (97). It would seem that Kibby is not so sure about the loss of “social inhibition” created by anonymous forms of communication. Moreover, “ambiguities or misunderstandings” take much more time to resolve over computer-mediated communication because the response time is much slower than a FtF interaction. Professor Harvey admitted as much when he explained how it is much easier to invite a student to his office to discuss grades, behavior, or performance in a course as opposed to discussions over e-mail.

In the end, Kibby notes that Prine’s internet chat room was closed down because “those who were seen to have hijacked the Chat Room” could not be censored without an active chat room moderator (98). In other high-profile artist chat rooms, such as James Taylor’s, “the webmaster monitors their chat page closely and boots off people like no name” (Chat Room ‘Vet1’, quoted in Kibby: 99). After a filtered message board was created for Prine, and the negative exchanges still continued, it was decided that the chat room should be taken down entirely. The decision demonstrates that, as in a real FtF community, some members’ contributions are valued, while others are marginalized. This goes against Carroli’s “collaboration” thesis. Because the foundations of interaction on the internet are often created and maintained by larger commercial entities, there is not exactly a level democratic playing field in these virtual communities.

This puts us into the research territory outlined by Patrick Burkart. In the mid-90s Carroli could claim that, “Despite its masculine and militaristic origins, the matrix of computer communications is unconfinable and ungovernable” (360). Yet even three years later, as Kibby shows, interaction on the internet began to change. Today this is even more apparent. Nearly every interaction in which we engage—Facebook, e-mail, discussion boards, purchases, and listening to music—are monitored and monetized by commercial entities. Instead of participating in the free-form communities lauded by Carroli, we must make due with the confines set up by these commercial entities. Sure, we can form our own communities within these commercial platforms, but as Burkart, Rip: A Remix Manifesto (2008), and Kibby’s study of online chat rooms remind us, there is a big price to pay for using music or making “inappropriate comments in a way that falls outside of the confines delineated by commerce.

All four authors this week believe that communication is an important aspect of community, online or off.
Do you think that communities may exist without communication?
Do you buy their arguments that a group of people communicating with each other online constitutes a community?
Do we need to update our definition of 'community' so that these kinds of groups are included? What would this new definition look like?


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