Imagined, online communities

One of the key elements of social media is “the community.” Without a community, there wouldn’t be a social in social media. But what exactly is this community?

In my post on a fictional online community manager position on the Orchestra Revolution blog, Jean Shirk, public relations manager at the San Francisco Symphony, posed some important questions:

Do people actually want to meet and interact with one another online or in person, or do they want to read, watch, and listen online? Do they want to meet new people in person, or are they content with going with friends they already know to the concert hall?

Regardless of these questions, we still tend to define classical music goers in Chicago or San Francisco as a community within the respective cities, and we still define classical music fans gathering on various social networks as communities.

Benedict Anderson, author of Imagined Communities, a seminal theory on nationalism, argues that a nation is just that: imagined. It is imagined because “the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion.”

Classical music communities and online communities in today’s social media environment are not so different. At any given concert, how many patrons know each other? In any online community, how many participants have met other participants face-to-face? Yet a patron feels a bond with his fellow concertgoers, and a Facebook fan of the London Symphony Orchestra feels a bond, however small, with other fans.

When I was in my late teens, I was a member on an R.E.M. fan Web site. This was before the term social media was ever even coined, yet the site was more social than most sites today. While members never really knew most of their fellow-members, let alone met their fellow-members, in the minds of each lived an image of a community, centered on a common interest in the music of a particular band.

Anderson argues that imagining the idea of a nation arose historically after social and scientific discoveries—most notably the emergence of the printing press under a system of capitalism—reduced privileged access to knowledge and paved the way to the vernacularizing of religious communication, which led to democratization, liberalization, and the increasing difficulty of justifying divine and dynastic power. In short, a history-altering change in information dissemination and communication fueled the Reformation and Enlightenment, which “made it possible for rapidly growing numbers of people to think about themselves, and to relate to others, in profoundly new ways.”

The origins of online communities have a similar, although less profound, story. And that’s to be expected; we cannot start to compare the imagining of nations with online communities in terms of impact and stakes. And whereas imagining the nation forever changed worldly, political power, perhaps our current story of online communities is best showcased by the impact it has on business; the increasing difficulty of justifying modern day divine and dynastic power: corporations and institutions.

The discoveries of the computer age paved the way. The Internet greatly reduced privileged access to knowledge and social media vernacularized our communication. Where local languages replaced Latin in religious communication in Anderson’s outlook; authentic conversations, text speak and colloquialism replaces corporate and institutional language in the social media age. The Cluetrain Manifesto speaks of the current homogenized “voice” of business that will “seem as contrived and artificial as the language of the 18th century French court.”

This change in communication liberalized the masses and democratized the playing field. In Anderson’s outlook, kings and emperors were replaced by republics and democracies; in today’s world we see, as the Cluetrain Manifesto once again puts it, networked markets that “are beginning to self-organize faster than the companies that have traditionally served them.”

This self-organization is described in Beth Kanter and Allison Fine’s new book The Networked Nonprofit. The authors talk about the rise of Millennials, or digital natives, those who have grown up in today’s vernacularized, social media world. These Millennials no longer owe allegiance to any particular company or organization; they self-organize as “free agents.”

The R.E.M. fan Web site mentioned earlier was just such as thing. It wasn’t started by the band or the record label. It was started by a devoted, free agent fan. The site and particularly the community weren’t built overnight. It took many people in this imagined community.

And to answer Jean Shirk’s question: did people actually want to meet and interact? Yes! Despite the virtual nature and the scattered geography of its member base, among the very active participants there were meet ups at concerts, offline friendships, and if I remember correctly, even a marriage or two. Not so different from the non-virtual world that also sees varying degrees of involvement in the community.

And through social media, these online imagined communities have real power and they know it. “If [companies] don’t quite see the light,” warn the authors of the Cluetrain Manifesto, “some other outfit will come along that’s more attentive, more interesting, more fun to play with.” Kanter and Fine urge the modern, networked organization to engage these free agents and leverage their social networks.

R.E.M. saw the light and engaged with its free agents and fans online. It is perhaps not entirely coincidentally that the guy who started up the fan site now heads up the emerging technology department at the record label.

So perhaps this is a warning to the big dynastic powers in classical music: the big orchestras and the major opera houses. Extraordinary changes in communication brought down kings and emperors in the past. Another noted historian, Eric Hobsbawm, paraphrases Pierre Vilar in his book Nations and Nationalism since 1780: “what characterized the nation-people as seen from below was precisely that it represented the common interest against particular interests, the common good against privilege.”

You want to be a part of the common interest, the common good and not be defined as a particular interest or a privilege. Does anything indicate more clearly the need to engage with your people, rather than dictating to your people?

Ignore at your own peril. We all know what happened to Marie Antoinette after she uttered the words “Let them eat cake.” *

* Words she in fact never uttered. But she was executed nonetheless.

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