The Community as Network

The term “community” is one of those of those words that appears so commonly (perhaps even ubiquitously) across so many varied cultural contexts that any particular etymological or historical significance it may have held seems to have been effectively abstracted into that obscure realm of language cultural theorist Raymond Williams classified as “keywords”. Keywords, for Williams, are noteworthy due to their abundant usage in myriad (often incompatible) areas of thought. Other examples of this lexicological species include “culture,” “popularity” and even “freedom”. On one hand, such words seem unusually powerful in their capacity to transcend culturally specific situations. Let’s face it, the term “community” seems appropriate to almost any discussion on social integrity or unity, or, in fact, all references to human association when the rights of one individual can be abstracted to include a larger class or aggregate. Yet, at the same time, it is precisely this malleability in keyword terminology that requires more exact etymologies to be drawn and analyzed.

In the case of community, the term usually inspires positive connotations. To be part of a community is to identify affirmatively with a larger social group or broader social interests. The word is used most often to identify commonality or widely held views and values regarding an issue or topic. Yet how helpful is this term when trying to understand the use of media technologies as conduit for social interaction? For the most part, identifying or equating communication over a network with communal interaction still seems somehow problematic, implying that the concept of a community remains reserved for human relations. Dogs may run together in packs, but will never form communities. One can have friends and one can have Facebook friends, implying that the two tiers rarely have much to do with each other.

If we look more closely at the word community, however, focusing on its true root word “munity”, we may actually discover a few etymological points of interest that help us connect the concept of communication network with community more easily than we might have imagined. We almost never use the word “munity” – attaching it instead to prefixes in order to build completely different terms – Immunity, Community, etc. If we look at the former, we see that the term negates the underlying concept of “munity” quite efficiently.  Munity is a word denoting a state or body that is ready to serve, ready to be accountable. Where the term “immunity” suggests the failure or rupture of accountability, the term community, suggests its success. Thus we have the philosopher Ferdinand Tönnies’s distinction between Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft nearly two centuries ago, where Gemeinschaft or community signifies a kind of fully rationalised Gesellschaft or society. The community, writes Tönnies, demands that the individual act in accordance with the demands or needs of the many. Society, by contrast, makes no such request. Individuals do not need to be accountable to the larger demands of society unless it offers the objective unity of a community.

It’s my observation here that networks by definition seek accountability and service in the form of a community as opposed to a society. Hence, we might call Facebook, as a form of network, more of a community than we might have first realised.


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