Incidental Versus Personal Communities

(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.

This is Sparta Meme - Not my best friend

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.

9 comments on “Incidental Versus Personal Communities

  1. That’s a pretty interesting topic. I’ve experienced this myself (most have, I’d guess), where an online community originally formed around a shared topic slowly evolved over the years until most of what you’d call the core community members (including admins / moderators) weren’t even remotely interested in the original topic anymore.
    And then when new users entered the picture and tried to take part in the “offtopic” community, things got pretty toxic.

    • Guy says:

      Once something becomes a social scene, it’s much easier for it to become emotionally charged. And once you spend enough time around people, it’s always a social scene. Even the “posturing” aspect can come in in otherwise “Non-social” communities, because the interactions are always social.

  2. arbitrary_greay says:

    This article is great, and I look forward to the following ones.

    It’s always interesting when the lines get blurred due to the constructed identities that come with fandom. What about the person who has a hard time acting social except when talking about their fandom subjects? They’re effectively screwed, because they desire Personal, but will be annoying in one because they can only interact in ways appropriate for Incidental. “Geez, can’t this guy talk about anything other than ____? We’re not here for that right now.”

    In the other direction, at convention voice actor panels, there are always Those People who act a little too familiarly with the actors because of the connection the fan has with a character they voice, while the rest of us groan in the back as they approach the questions mic again and again. “Geez, they’re not your personal soundboard or character-puppet, ask actual useful questions so we can learn from their unique insight and experience into the industry!” Some act like they’re Personal with the actor, when it’s really more of an Incidental situation.

    And finally, I find myself in an interesting situation where I no longer desire Personal when it comes to fandom, and only seek Incidental communities. The section here about how some otaku social interaction is simply a desire to exchange information, participation in Incidental communities only, resonated with me. While the post posits that this is due to emotional needs being satisfied by fandom source materials, I found that another aspect might come from the modern definitions of introversion. If I have to personally generate the energy to spend on social interaction, then why waste it talking about things I don’t care about? And since I do spend social energy every day on obligatory small talk chit-chat with co-workers, then I want my me-time energy to be laser-guided to my current interests, which is always a crapshoot with Personal Communities.
    This was different during student life, when “work” times were in class or studying, and did not require the expenditure of social energy, so I had a nearly full tank for Personal Communities every day.

    • Guy says:

      Some of the talk of fandom had me going, “Hey, I meant to write about some of it in this post, where is it?!” but then I realized it didn’t fit anywhere. It was from a different tack as well, how when we make our fandom our personality, we can’t separate attacks on said topics from attacks on ourselves, which makes things acrimonious and personal when they shouldn’t be, but that’s neither here nor there.

      Honestly, a lot of what you mention is about people “taking it personally”, which is related, but isn’t entirely the same thing as the nature of communities, and why we participate in them. Even the fans at the convention talk about incidental things – but I noticed since the topics aren’t clearly defined, their incidental isn’t the same as others’ – incidental here is “Everything related to the guest of honour.” I find when it comes time in convention panels or such for someone to ask a question, it’s almost always going to make someone groan, heh.

      As for your final bit, I’ve seen some people who truly are “All for Incidental Communities”, but they are the vast minority. No, when you join a community, you quite often are, but to maintain said desire after 6 or more months of frequenting, and not just reading, but actually contributing in such a place? Very rare. The shift is natural.

  3. 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?

    I honestly see no difference between the two.

    –You have the people.
    –They share the interest.
    –The community is based on those people and their shared interest.

    This can be said in both of the ways that you used without altering the meaning. Or at least that is my way of reading it since regardless of how I try to interpret those 2 versions, the 3 sentences from above stay true.
    So what is it that you mean by that question?

    There is also another question to ask. Although one may start sharing a bond with people he got used to/became familiar with in a community. Once the shared interest is no longer there, the incentive to communicate with the people that you made a bond with might be gone. As long as you didn’t get to share anything else but things that are relevant to that interest, the other person is a complete stranger from all the other aspects and people truly act differently in different contexts(I was surprised by this too, but I have to accept it), up to a point where they seem to be different persons than those we knew.

    So what is the measure of creating a bond with people who share an interest? You may be able to know that person almost intimately in one aspect, but not at all from all the other aspects, and someone is a different person each time he enters a new place. He will be a different person when he is playing COD 4, a different one when he plays LoL, a different one when he reads a cheesy romance, a different one when he reads a philosophy book, a different one when he plays football and a different one when he watches anime, yet he is the same entity in all those scenarios.

    I know this because I have friends that are extremely nice in real life but show a really dark side when they play video games or a vastly different side when they work. I once read that each time a person enters a room his personality adapts based on whom he finds in the room. It’s because man is supposedly a social creature and is defined by that as well. There is a psychology branch which studies exactly this phenomena(social psychology). What is your opinion on this?

    • Guy says:

      A community of people, or a community with people?

      The question is where the focus lies. Naturally, all communities are made of people, but is the people the focal point of the community? That is, is it a community of people who sprung up around a shared interest, but now are a community going to picnics and such together, or is it a shared interest group that happens to be made of people?

      In practice, these things are very different. In one, the interest is the origin, but the people are what we’re here for, and in the other case we’re only here for the shared topic, and we have to deal with other people who happen to have personalities, because that’s just how life works.

      Man’s Masks.

      I broke that question into multiple paragraphs, just to make it easier to read. I hope you don’t mind. I am also not sure this falls under Social Psychology per se, though it is discussed in Sociology proper in some places.

      Yes, people definitely act differently in different social contexts, but there are no “masks”. The people we are, and the people you talk to aren’t “either” of those, they’re all of them. Your “nice friends” who turn into “real jerks” when they’re playing video games are being jerks, like it or not. That’s like saying this dude who’s always nice to you cusses everyone else and kicks stray dogs – they probably aren’t “Nice People™”, or at least aren’t only nice people.

      Part of calling someone your friend is making the decision that you like them, as people. Yes, you don’t know “all of them”, but you probably never will, and even if you find out you don’t actually like them, or you change into not liking them, you can break it off.

      You can also find out when you lose your shared interest that you indeed don’t actually care for them as much as you did, and gradually stop talking to them. That’s life.

      But I stressed the “decision” part because that’s what it is, and no, they’re not “different people” in different situations. They’re the same people, the people you decide whether to be friends with or not. Even people who marry can’t see their spouse in all situations. That’s life, and that’s why we make decisions, and can then make new ones later on.

  4. […] Communities rule the day in Reddit (see this piece on Incidental versus Personal communities), and that is certainly the case for larger sub-reddits. I moderate /r/anime, a community with […]

  5. Ron says:

    This is pretty useful that you brought this up as a concept I can now grasp. I was pondering it a bit, so I’m grateful that you’ve actually laid it out. The thought just mostly came from me looking through a forum thread about Mahouka and noticing how heated the arguments for its quality and world-building details could get – getting down to condescension of the opponent’s intelligence at its worst. Stuff like “I’ll grind this into a paste so it’s easier for you to chew”, but I’m paraphrasing. They weren’t afraid to make risky statements.

    In contrast, I made my own thread a few months back discussing a personal project with those who happened to be interested. Quite a few chipped in with their opinions, but by the end of it it was the same 3-4 guys who came back consistently, and I felt we had more of a friendly bond there. We were more laid-back and pleasant. It felt more comfortable to deviate from the topic (it DID help that it was my own thread though, I admit), and I actually took the effort to PM those guys about things.

  6. Carol says:

    Very interesting article. In my case, I entered a community for a shared interest, but then it shifted to something I was not interested in, let´s say you join a community of artists and they all start posting about sports, which you find boring. You won´t enter it any more, or at least you will do least often. I go back every now and then, and look at personal posts (such as photos of their birth-days, etc.), but I was really interested in the original topic. I am the kind who’d rather have a few REAL friends face to face, I find it consuming to deal with 100 people I actually don’t know.

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