spiked-seminars: What’s real about the virtual community?

spiked has been organising a series of seminars in the run-up to its London conference, Don't blow IT. Frank Furedi and Mike Weber led the discussion on IT and community.

Various Authors

Topics Politics

spiked organised a series of seminars in the run-up to its London conference, Don’t Blow IT. Sociologist Frank Furedi and ebusiness writer Mike Weber led the discussion on IT and community.

Frank Furedi: Seeking communities where none exists

IT is commonly ascribed with the powers to create community. The problem is, nobody seems to know what a community is.

We know we have lost a sense of community, and think IT could be the solution to our loss. But the word ‘community’ is used so promiscuously as to be meaningless – to the point where, for example, people talk about the ‘paedophile community’. It is hard to believe that paedophiles identify as a group or organise social events – they are a community only in the sense that they have a particular sordid activity in common.

There are two types of IT communities, both of which contradict what was traditionally meant by community.

The first type is a networking community, which ultimately is a community for the pursuit of self-interest. People join the community because they want to get something out of it – such as business contacts, or deals. Their relationship to others in the community is based on the short-term and narrow basis of who can be useful at the time.

The second type is a community of therapy – for example, people who come together in online chatrooms for support or advice. These communities are born of a longing for intimacy, to be close to and rely upon others.

But traditionally, community was based in common experience. It was the sharing of particular life experiences – going to the same school, working at the same factory – that provided individuals with a common point of identification, in spite of their differences. Without this shared web of meaning to join individuals, they cease to form a community. This element of shared life experience is absent from online networking and therapeutic communities – people leave their everyday lives, their family, work and friends, when they log on to their virtual community.

Traditional communities were also based on commitment: a sense of commitment to taking responsibility for both yourself and for others. The online networking community, by contrast, is founded on a narrow self-interest – there is no obligation to care for other people, or to help them out. Your only interest in other people is in terms of how they can help you get what you want, right now.

Online therapy communities, while they satisfy a need for intimacy, are actually about intimacy without commitment. At any point online, you can choose to log off – there is always the exit strategy. The same is not the case with face-to-face relationships. You cannot just get up and walk away if you feel like it – you have to account for yourself.

So in many ways we should just forget about IT communities, and the claims they make. Looking for community online only distracts us from finding solutions to the decline in solidarity and commitment offline.

Also, investing IT with the power to create communities can only set the technology up for a fall. When the narrow, superficial and unfulfilling nature of online communities stands revealed, this failure will implicate the technology itself. This is a shame, because IT does have real potential – for the sharing of knowledge, and for developing human cooperation.

We should concentrate on using IT for what it is good for, and leave the problems of community to people in the real world.

Dr Frank Furedi is reader in sociology at the University of Kent at Canterbury, UK, and author of Paranoid Parenting, published by Penguin. Buy this book from Amazon (UK).

Mike Weber: Community: the new black, or last year’s pashmina?

As every fashion forward company knows, communities are in vogue. CEO’s ask first: ‘How do I get one?’, and second, ‘What exactly are they?’.

What comprises a community? The debate revolves around the way the word gets used to describe demographic groups, or loosely held common interests. Community is actually about a shared sense of social relationships.

Because your kid plays with Lego this does not qualify her for membership in the world Lego community, nor into the world community of 4-year-olds. There is nothing to hold the blocks together. But a far-flung group of antique car enthusiasts may be a well-established community, even without the benefit of internet communication. Why? It turns out that antique car enthusiasts tend to be better connected than the average 4-year-old, and view the world as a much smaller place.

Community is created by the ‘connectedness’ of the membership – connectedness being comprised of the number of other communities members belong to, and the strength of their connection or participation in any of those other communities. It is this network that binds it together. Communities are the sum of the current membership and the strength of its respective networks. Communities are just ideas – they exist at a variety of scales, often nested, overlapping, and members move in and out of them.

As members of any group, we are finely tuned to the subtleties of the context of our communications. Shared interest may be what attracts you to a community, but what keeps you there is a shared worldview. The ideas, content and core values of a community shift with time (as in the Labour Party, for example). But the network binds.

Many companies are now convinced there is a profit to be made. Early dotcom successes had much to do with developing the online aspect of existing communities. This is easily seen in the 16-year-old millionaire founder of, but it also applies to E Bay and Amazon, albeit with much weaker connections to many more communities. The mistake we make is assuming that technology created new communities, rather than tapping into existing ones. In this context, the corporate urge towards community is only about ownership, purchasing loyalty.

Communication technology is reshaping communities, but the ability to have a conversation with somebody across the globe is not new. The internet just makes it inexpensive. That is what has caused a shift.

People now have a chance to re-evaluate the communities they belong to, and can reshuffle the number and strength of their connections. Better management technologies allow us to juggle more people and conversations without being overwhelmed. We each can choose to be fuller participants. So there is upheaval. We are forced to determine what we are going to do with our expanded capability to communicate. Even if this expansion contributes to making our communities richer, almost all of the real work of community is still mostly done between people.

For business, the application of ‘community’ comes in several forms. Sometimes it is a mislabelled attempt to create corporate loyalty, or to do demographic-based marketing. Other times, it is a purely online view of community, which waits for that critical mass at which community will supposedly appear.

At its worst it gets presented as a new business paradigm – community: the only way to care for people. If companies want to care about people they need to understand that communities are only important as a way of understanding what it is people care about. Communities are not commodities to be acquired and traded. Nor are communities like a giant tamagotchi toy, whereby efficiently caring for any single community fulfils all your responsibilities to the people inside.

My fear is that ‘community-enabled businesses’ becomes the new fad, like TQM or reengineering. Understanding community is an invaluable strategic tool for companies. It is a way of looking at both the application of technology and business processes in terms of the conversations they enable, streamline or enhance. It is a great way to map and visualise processes. It only works because the communities, and the relationships between them, already exist. As an overarching business model, however, it presumes that the communities are created for the purpose of generating loyal customers.

It is unlikely that I will ever walk into a cocktail party and declare my loyalty as an Amazonian, just because I bought some books there. That sort of tribalism is a myth. Companies who choose to learn from their existing communities, will learn to engage and earn the trust lesser companies simply seek to purchase. The latter will not work. We can recognise what people will not do. We will not willingly sort ourselves neatly into corporate community bins that can be commoditised and traded.

So the best dressed CEO’s this season will toss any ideas of creating new communities in the bin with last year’s pashminas. The opportunity is to learn from the communities you already have and encourage people to build better networks.

Mike Weber is currently writing a book about integrating online and offline communities, which will be published by later in 2001. Until recently, he was business development director for the Ecademy, a leading ebusiness education network with 10,000 members in 95 countries.

Don’t Blow IT was a one-day conference produced by spiked, in partnership with the
Internet Society of England and GAP21 and sponsored by cScape Strategic Internet Services, held on Thursday 27 September 2001 at the Bloomberg Auditorium in London.

Read on:

Don’t Blow IT by Sandy Starr

spiked-issue: Don’t blow IT

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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