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Community Issue 3

Virtuous virtual!

Words By: Josie Thaddeus-Johns, Journalist
@josiet_j

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Digital communities can give security to the lonely and hope to the isolated. but they are not always a force for good. Journalist Josie Thaddeus-Johns explores the good, the bad and the ugly of online communities.

In his February 2017 manifesto, Mark Zuckerberg chose to focus his goals for Facebook on just one aspect of humanity: community. “There has been a striking decline in the important social infrastructure of local communities over the past few decades,” he explained, referencing the dwindling numbers at church congregations, volunteering organisations and support groups. “A healthy society needs these communities to support our personal, emotional and spiritual needs… Online communities are a bright spot, and we can strengthen existing physical communities by helping people come together online as well as offline.”

“Online communities are a bright spot, and we can strengthen existing physical communities by helping people come together online as well as offline”.

Zuck has a point – groups of people chatting online are everywhere. There are the WhatsApp groups we use to communicate with distant family members. There are the big, diverse, cross-platform communities that form around cult TV shows, such as Game of Thrones. And there are websites like Tumblr, where niche groups such as bronies (men who like My Little Pony), otherkins (who believe they have been born into the wrong species), and furries (whose proclivities include dressing up as animals) thrive.

There is seemingly no end to what people can bond over: for example, the tight-knit community solely dedicated to the bizarre results of auto-translating captions on a specific Russian cat blog, (“I am wave” and “Unrestrained summer fun” being just a few of these relationship-forming instances.)

Connections no longer have to rely on physical space, and thus our sense of belonging no longer resides in the people who are closest to us geographically. We can seek out people who share our precise problems, desires, identities, and interests, wherever they may live.

We can seek out people who share our precise problems, desires, identities, and interests, wherever they may live.

‘Uber-fandoms’ can create lifelong connections, changing lives in the process. Take the devoted followers of the prolific and iconoclastic rapper Lil B for example, whose “based” lifestyle mantra, denoting a positive and tolerant lifestyle, is perpetuated through a sprawling web of interconnecting Facebook groups. Lil B’s commercial success is relatively limited – Spotify’s top-streamed song for the rapper sits at a meagre 85,000 total plays. Yet his online community is extraordinarily strong. “A lot of people I’ve known for six months through BasedWorld are closer to me than friends I’ve had my whole life,” one Lil B fan told US online magazine Pitchfork.

Online communities’ freedom from physical constraints also allows people to exist without unwanted judgment from others. In avatar-based platforms, such as SecondLife or World of Warcraft, users can create an identity that may not be possible for them in real life. The flattening effect of online identifiers offers the opportunity to live behind masks in a way that is unmatched in the physical world.

However, it’s not only dedicated fans who are benefitting from the proliferation of online communities. Researchers at Barcelona’s Universitat Autònoma have shown that participants in even spontaneous and casual fandoms find a sense of belonging in online platforms: a study of 2,500 women in online communities centred on TV shows found that 44% reported a sense of belonging.

A study of 2,500 women in online communities centred on TV shows found that 44% reported a sense of belonging.

“Now that [TV show] has finished, I’m going to miss the forum. I’ve met such lovely people who, episode by episode, have forged an everlasting friendship,” one woman commented to researchers from the academic journal Critical Studies in Media Communication. Whether there is a wholesale or more informal attachment to these networks, they still meet the human need for belonging.

Not all communities however, promote the positive vibes espoused by Lil B’s tribe of followers. The way in which ISIS attracts people to extremism using social media has become increasingly clear. Chillingly, the terrorist organisation uses the support of online communities to offer violent answers to vulnerable and predisposed people. And, while anonymity allows some the freedom to be themselves, it offers others the freedom to incite hatred with impunity. As sociologist and Islamic terrorism expert Charles Kurzman told the magazine WIRED: “There are people who, for whatever reason, have some sort of personal difficulty or experience, some sort of break in their lives, and are attuned to engaging in violence, and so they will glom on to whatever the biggest, baddest revolutionary ideology of the moment is.”

The alt-right is also facilitated by the draw of a like-minded community to troubling ends and its disturbing agenda has been taken up by a variety of sub-communities. One of these is ‘Beta males’, who see themselves as righteous, avenging geek-victims of the modern world, and flock to the /r9k/ channel on the notoriously rebellious forum 4chan. Named for their opposition to ‘Alpha’ males, Beta males are preoccupied with taking revenge upon macho men, attractive women who they deem to have rejected them, and mainstream or “normie” modes of thought. “The first of our kind has struck fear into the hearts of America,” said one poster, after Chris Harper-Mercer’s shooting of nine classmates and himself in Roseburg, Oregon. Like Elliot Rodgers’ fraternity massacre in 2014, perceived sexual rejection was Harper-Mercer’s stated motive in the letter he left behind. The Beta community came together to praise this senseless violence.

Doubtless, communities such as /r9k/, and particularly concepts such as a “Beta uprising”, linking acts of violence to a wider goal, had an influence on both these shooters. But they clearly foster the same sense of belonging as communities all over the web, from fashion reselling website Depop to the message board for a local allotment.

This poses difficult questions. Should we really call those who threaten hatred and violence against other groups of people, behind the mask of anonymity, a ‘community’? And whose responsibility is it to deal with the hatred and violence that is inculcated there? For all of Mark Zuckerberg’s talk of fostering community, Facebook has been lax in acting against communities espousing racist and misogynistic views. As Nancy Baym puts it in her book Personal Connections in the Digital Age: “These technological definitions of ‘community’ appeal to developers [who]… hope to reap the benefits of the term’s warm connotations without having to deal with questions of what actually happens on site.”

Should we really call those who threaten hatred and violence against other groups of people, behind the mask of anonymity, a ‘community’?

Concerns such as these make it tempting to ask whether online communities really are connecting people in the ways that Zuckerberg would so like us to believe. Perhaps online communities are just an extension of the ‘filter bubble’ syndrome, in which websites serve to reinforce and replicate our own biased views in their distribution of information – Google, for example, will present results that support the world views of a Brexiteer in their searches, while a Remainer might see news with an entirely different emphasis. The online world has a tendency to show us only what we want to see. With this in mind, can the online communities we seek out do anything more than preach to the choir? Can we truly be connected across the boundaries that divide us?

Perhaps the deeper question here is: what is it that decisively separates IRL (in real life) and online communities? More importantly, are we asking virtual communities to live up to a homogeneously blameless standard that physical communities have never attained? For surely, while some IRL community groups can facilitate the best in humans, others provide a platform for hatred and violence. It may be a blow to see groups such as terrorists and misogynists using the internet to find ways to connect but these problems exist because of the people who make up the groups. No community, IRL or URL has ever been immune to hatred. While anonymity offers haters the cover to promulgate hateful views, these opinions still existed before people could express them under nameless masks. Just like the networks that exist in the physical world, online communities are neither utopian not dystopian, they are simply human.

This article appeared in Issue 3 - Community

Download issue 3