(This post is a required piece for some of the following pieces, as I intend to write a few pieces on various online communities, modes of discussion, and my experiences with them. It’s not related to “geeky” societies alone, and is more universal. This piece does however hold special significance for “geeky” pursuits, which I will define as a focus on a niche topic, whichever it might be.)
Imagine you pick up a new hobby or interest. It could be anime, surfing, knitting, or even Manchester United. We are excited about our new interest, and this being the internet we find a site, a community, of like-minded individuals. Actually, it doesn’t have to be online either, but the internet makes it easier, and becomes more relevant later on. We find people who share an interest with us, and other than that, they may be nothing like us at all – but it doesn’t matter, we’re here to discuss something.
Incidental Versus Personal Communities:
I call such communities “Incidental Communities”, or “Small C-communities”. It’s not that they’re “less” of a community than other communities, but they are defined by “Weak Relations Between Members”, that is to say, that the relationships between the members isn’t what makes the community into one, what the focus of the community is about. We came here to discuss “X”, and everyone’s discussing X, so what could go wrong?
And then someone makes a joke, or talks of which party they are going to vote for in the upcoming elections, or someone shares something that happened to them that day at work, and all hell breaks loose. You see, over time, people form relations, it’s inevitable. We keep talking to the same people over time, we keep exchanging ideas and pick up small details that make up others’ lives, and we grow closer. At some point we’re not merely a group of people who share the same topic of interest, where who we are talking to is incidental, but a group of individuals with ties to one another that also happens to share a joint topic, especially as the original seed of friendship.
I call that sort of community “Personal Community” or “Capital C-Communities” – these are communities with “Strong Relations Between Members”. This isn’t to say the “Incidental Communities” don’t have that, but it’s not the reason for the community. In one case the purpose of the gathering is the issue at hand, and whatever relations arise, and in another, we have relations and the shared interest grows from them.
We often pick up new friends from “Incidental Communities”, out of the hundreds of people we interact with, we click with several, and form deeper bonds, where the original topic is but one, and talk about everything. We may not agree, but we respect one another as individuals, rather than only as people with whom we discuss “X”. But we may yet resent the community shifting into a Community, and clashes in communities can often be traced back to this difference in agendas.
What We’re Here For:
You see, we come to a community to get something out of it, which can be discussing its named topic, to make friends, to talk to our friends about the named topic, etc. and these things shift as time goes by. Many people who find an online group slowly integrate into its community, at which point they come to it to get something different, and in so doing may not only alienate those who aren’t part of the “in-crowd”, which is merely another way to say “Those who both want and already did form personal relations with other members”, but also those who couldn’t care less about such topics.
You can often see it after one transitions from an incidental community to a personal community, and their personal friends leave, they can leave as well. Yes, all that they came to the group for in the first place is still there – they still discuss Manchester United’s new goalkeeper, their statistics, but to them it’s no longer the community they seek to be a part of. This is where as one online friend of mine had said in a discussion about this topic:
For me, I’ve just had to learn more and more that this is not a forum of my friends, and every time I treat it as one it goes badly. And when I treat it as a forum of strangers, I’m fine.
You see, in a Personal Community, you pick people, and you trust them. Even if you and they do not agree on something, you accept one another as a whole, you’ve made the decision to accept the other side, and even if you disagree, you try to be empathetic to the other side, and try to understand where disagreements come from. When you are in a group of strangers, a disagreement on something “political” can easily erupt into flames, and much vitriol. Thing is, it’s not just what we come to the community for that matters, but what we perceive it as being right now.
If we think a community is a safe place for us, we’ll share, and then when we find out the other people not only don’t share our opinions, but aren’t our friends, and thus we can get hurt, that hurts, and has us reacting violently to protect ourselves, after being betrayed by the image we’ve held. It’s related to the topic of “Social Contract” – we assume many things are done in a certain way, or are “proper” – such as “You don’t spit on someone’s face”, and these are mostly negotiated, and shown to either be the case or to not be the case when someone “crosses the boundary”, showing that the line we thought was at one place is elsewhere for other people (a question such as “Can one yawn in public, and if so how?” is slightly more vague and thus easier to use as an example).
Most people don’t hold onto a binary stance on this, just as asking whether a narrative is moved by its characters or its plot is almost meaningless, it’s almost always a combination of both. But what we seek out of a community, what we share in said community, and our interactions and thus disagreements with other people in a community can often be traced to this basic question – “Do we see it as a community of people who share an interest, or do we see it as a community built around a shared interest, that is comprised of people?” and it’d be wise to keep in mind that other people in the community might not hold onto the same view of it as you do. We all also change our stances as time goes by, and in different communities.
Next up: Reddit’s Monopoly of Attention.